Others may not be quick to understand but have hope.
I’ve probably suffered from OCD since I was around 8 years old. My earliest memories of feeling self-conscious and hyper-aware of things that just didn’t matter to other children stem from that time. When I was 13, I asked my parents if I could speak to someone, maybe see a therapist, because I felt different and disconnected from my peers. But they didn’t see a problem until I was 16, when I was misdiagnosed with depression. At 17, I began obsessing over my school papers, and that was the first sign anyone picked up on. I was always a straight-A student, but I began having difficulty turning in assignments on time. I pulled all-nighters perfecting essays, reading and re-reading the same paragraph, the same sentence, until it sounded and looked “right.” My English teacher warned me that my perfectionism might become a real problem in college. He was right.
Freshman year of college: I had gotten into my “dream school,” a small liberal arts college over 500 miles away from home, where I knew I wanted to study art history. Well, as an Art History major, you spend most of your time memorizing names and dates and writing papers. I was spending twice as much time as other students on each assignment, constantly making up excuses and asking for extensions from my professors, and staying up all night to reach some level of perfection that existed only in my head and that I couldn’t define. My professors were impressed with the quality of my writing and I had no trouble taking exams, so they granted me an extra few days to submit papers—that is, until I became incapable of finishing a paper; until I couldn’t get past the introduction for re-writing the thesis over and over, obsessing over how a single comma changed the meaning of an entire sentence, over how synonyms are a myth since each word has a unique meaning and there is always one perfect word for what you are trying to convey.
In addition to struggling academically because of my perfectionism, other compulsions affected me socially. I felt the need to shower three times a day, and would organize my day around showering. I actually missed social activities, excused myself from social situations, either to go back to my dorm and shower or to work on essays long after others had completed their assignments and were free to engage in campus life.
And so I failed for the first time. It wasn’t just the one class; I had alienated myself from my friends just like in high school. I took a personal leave of absence from school, and was finally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was 19.
I took a semester off, transferred to another school closer to home. Most universities today have some kind of support services for students with psychological and learning disabilities, and offer accommodations like extra time on tests for those who suffer from ADHD. While I received excellent advising support, there wasn’t really an accommodation that “fit” my particular obsession. At the beginning of each semester, I would have to talk to my professors and try to explain why I would most likely hand in late papers. Most were understanding and “put up” with me, recognizing that my essays – once submitted – were deserving of good grades, and because I scored highly on exams and participated in class discussions. And then I started handing in partially completed papers. I’d spend so long on one assignment that assignments began piling up. And the perfectionism magnified: Beyond writing, I couldn’t complete studio art projects, throwing out canvas after canvas; and then it was Calculus II homework, which I would rewrite until all the problems were aligned and all the numbers were perfectly scrawled in ink. I would even rewrite my class notes. I was still showering several times a day. I couldn’t touch used or antique items like vintage clothing or old books. I started counting in my head—I’d count to three or multiples of three to “start over,” and from that point on I would be “perfect.” (Cue Built to Spill’s “Randy Described Eternity”) I picked at the skin beneath my clothes, sometimes for an hour. I am extremely visual, which is great for analyzing artworks, but I obsessed over aspects of my appearance and with keeping my dorm room in the right state of disorder. I was losing hours of my day, and I hated myself for all of it.
Since age 17, I had been prescribed different antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, but they never really “did the trick.” I knew there wasn’t a one-pill-fix for my disorder, and then I finally tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was 21. In CBT, I learned how to trick my brain into writing papers by writing in bullet points and then erasing the bullet points to form a traditional, introduction-body-conclusion essay. In CBT, I realized that being aware of my obsessions/compulsions – recognizing them – was the key to living with them. However, this realization came a little too late; I had already hurt myself academically.
I remember watching MTV’s “True Life: I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” with my older brother when I was 15 (before I was diagnosed). The individuals featured in the episode were debilitated by their obsessions and their compulsions seemed to have almost a superstitious quality. They would perform rituals to prevent bad things from happening. I’m not sure my particular “brand” of the disorder is quite the same, though I did have irrational superstitions and would often blame a bad day or a bad encounter on an item of clothing I wore or some other behavior. I knew these feelings were irrational, and I was embarrassed to talk about them. While such thoughts distressed me, the OCD manifested most obviously in my schoolwork and debilitated me academically. I failed again.
Coinciding with my second academic spiral, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I took another semester off, and transferred to a school with a well-respected Art History program just 15 minutes away from home. I look back and realize that OCD can “flare up” during times of change or discomfort. This may be why my perfectionism got worse when I started college far from home and every time I changed environments after that, even when I was in a bad relationship; and why, despite CBT, I had trouble writing as my mother battled (and beat) her illness.
I managed to finish college; it only took me 6 years. Once I graduated, I felt really behind others my age. I no longer had difficulty writing and actually found myself in a career as a tech writer for a startup, yet I was living at home in the suburbs while people I grew up with had been living in city apartments for a few years already or were completing graduate school. Now add a miserable breakup into the mix. My obsessions and compulsions evolved again.
Issues with sound weren’t new to me; I had always been severely agitated by snoring, loud chewing and the static of AM radio, but it just came off as quirky or “bitchy” to my friends and family. It’s only when these obsessions become debilitating – when they prevent you from living your life – that we are able to identify them as the disorder and not ourselves. The sound thing got worse: I couldn’t eat at the dinner table with my mother, so I ate in my room or by myself after my family had finished eating. I had to listen to white noise through headphones to block out my brother’s breathing and to fall asleep at night because even if my father wasn’t snoring I imagined I could hear him upstairs. Next, I couldn’t even look at my mother while she was eating. I started to notice strangers’ chewing, lip smacking, guttural language, and loud speaking at restaurants and other public places. I experienced dread and extreme anxiety whenever I had to go out to eat or use public transportation. I felt like I was crawling in my skin, even became angry when I heard these unpleasant sounds that didn’t bother anyone else. Beyond sound, I couldn’t function in fluorescent lighting. All my senses were acting up; they were too intense. Friends and family didn’t understand; they were offended and annoyed by my behavior. I decided to go back to CBT, for a new obsession required new coping mechanisms.
I’m now 26. OCD is a daily struggle and it takes great self-awareness and determination to keep my obsessions and compulsions under control. Sometimes I fear that I am only a few steps away from becoming a recluse, from shutting out the people who care about me (or scaring them away) and hiding out in my apartment. I fear I cannot trust my own senses, my experiences and interpretations of the world; and worry that I may be out of touch with reality. It’s hard to like myself, to forgive myself for the ways this disorder manifests itself in my relationships, at my job, when I’m alone with myself and my thoughts.
OCD is in your head, but that’s also where you can begin to fight it. The “aha” moment for me came when I accepted that I have this disorder and that I would always have it. I could, however, use it to my advantage. My current career is built upon my OCD: I am a great writer because of my disorder. Knowledge really is power. I know that my current obsessions and compulsions will most likely lessen or get worse over time, and that new ones may develop. I have to brace myself for that and “roll with the punches.” Face your obsessions; recognize them in your everyday actions (and inactions.) Others may not be quick to understand but have hope. You will find a treatment that works for you. Use your own brain to fight back.