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.
Sometimes, unfortunately things have to get worse before they can get better.
It is currently late Saturday night, 10:45pm to be exact. I’m sitting at the desk in my dorm room, surrounded by posters and phrases encouraging me to “Take Courage!” and “Embrace Uncertainty!” I have been reading my medical entomology textbook for the past hour and a half, all the while with the weight of needing to write this essay pressing for my attention. So with my medical entomology reading now done, English reading done, dinner eaten, emails answered, and no longer a strong excuse of something else I could do first to continue avoiding, here I am at my computer at 10:49pm. I am now trying to force myself to finally start writing this essay I told myself I would absolutely write yesterday. This is after I had told myself I would absolutely write the essay a week ago. Oh to live life with OCD and anxiety.
I can remember having OCD my entire life, but I didn’t always know a name for it. I have one strong memory from Kindergarten of insisting that I needed to redo my painting because it wasn’t “perfect,” even when the other kids in the class moved on to a new activity. I remember in elementary school staying up later than an 8-year-old should having to “knock on wood” repetitively because I worried if I didn’t do this or did it the wrong number of times my family would die.
Though I have always had these symptoms of OCD, I quickly became a master at hiding my compulsions (of course I didn’t know yet they were called compulsions) and keeping my fears to myself. At this point in my life, the obsessions and compulsions were annoying but not debilitating to the level that I felt I needed to share them. So I didn’t. These first few years my OCD would focus on one theme at a time, and the theme would gradually change over the years. My obsessions changed from fearing causing my family member’s deaths to fearing causing fires to fearing suffocating. If a compulsion was particularly annoying I would just figure I could wait about a year and it would change into something else, hopefully something less annoying.
I was recently interviewed for a BBC Horizon documentary on OCD and I was asked if I would get rid of my OCD if I could. I think my answer surprised a few people..
Up until the age of 19 I was a very happy, easygoing, confident individual. On reflection I was possibly a bit selfish and didn’t think about other people as much as I should have done. This all changed suddenly towards the end of my first year at university. I noticed that I became very concerned with making sure my lights were off in my bedroom and sometimes would make excuses from social activities so that I could go home and check they were off.
At the start of the summer holidays I returned home to spend time with my Mum. She went on holiday for two weeks and I would normally have been fine staying in the house on my own and working part time. However, by the time she returned from her holiday I was in the grips of OCD and a couple of days later my diagnosis was confirmed.
In the two weeks that my Mum was away I had become convinced that I was HIV positive. I was showering for hours at a time, constantly washing my hands and arms, frequently changing my clothes throughout the day and was hardly eating. What I did eat I couldn’t make or touch because I was afraid that I would contaminate it. My ultimate fear was that I would infect and thus kill my friends and family.
This was the breakthrough moment. For the first time I felt at ease, a man walking out of prison, wondering what was next.
I spent years suffering in silence. How could something so big be so easy to hide? Was it the guilt, the shame or merely not knowing the true extent of what was going on? Was it the fear of being labeled, or was it thinking that this was a natural part of “growing up”? What ever it was, obsessive-compulsive disorder has had a profound impact on my life, muffling my school grades, discontinuing my social life and even forcing me to drop out of university.
One of the ways in which my OCD manifests itself is through the fear of being contaminated by germs, where actions such as touching an item belonging to someone else, would lead to obsessive thoughts of myself coming to harm.