True Tales from the Land of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Courtney Barnett

It’s taken me nearly two months to properly get all of this off my chest to share with you guys. One, the subject matter simply makes me far too depressed every time I reflect upon it, and two, for lack of better words, I’ve literally been OCD about the way in which I discuss my OCD. However, I felt my story is something that needs to be shared, mainly for me but hopefully for some of you, as well.

Let’s jump right into it. I’ve always been the neat-freak perfectionist type, a trait I had just assumed came with being my mother’s daughter. I’d grown up under the influence of the woman who would run in a panic if guests rang the doorbell and the entry way hadn’t been swept and who saw a single crumb on the counter as a German hand grenade in her American war trench. Although I loathed most of these ticks, longing for her to, ya know, just like chill out and be a cool mom and drop me off a block away from school, gosh!, I couldn’t help but pick up her tendencies. I’d been nurtured in this environment of cleanliness and organization as much as I was soaked in the chemical makeup of dear ol’ ma. From an early age it was obvious she and I were just wired the same. I was the soapy sponge to her mop bucket.

Growing up, I lived with my dad post-divorce, sharing a home with my new stepmom, two older brothers, two older stepbrothers, a new baby half sister and upwards of three animals at one time. There was always commotion, always something being broken, always something being peed upon. (Brother or dog? You decide!) Not only did I find myself starved for attention in a busy household, but a tumultuous and physically abusive relationship with my stepmom created a constant fear in me so severe that I developed a stuttering problem from the stress. My only breaks came from the alternating weekends I shared with my mom in her dust-free, single lady apartment, where my toys were safely far away from the hands of my toddler sister and my face out of slap range from wife #2. It’s easy to deduce that mess became associated with havoc and stress, clean with individualism, safety and the ability to control my surroundings.

By the end of elementary school, I went to live with my mom permanently. One would think all would be fine now, but my tendencies for order and organization only strengthened. I was relieved that I was now safe from my former life, but I couldn’t get past the feeling of being an unwanted, messed-up kid. I’d always been a good student, so my energies were thrown into being an absolute perfectionist in school. Straight A’s, student activities and praise from teachers were my personal validations. Once middle school rolled around, I was neurotic about the tidiness of my room, the order of the notebooks in my backpack, the condition of my books (seriously, dog-earring pages?! why don’t you just rip it in half!), but I also knew I was just a little pre-pubescent square peg who liked to keep my things in nice condition because now I actually could.

But as school became more important and puberty started the long awkward road to young adulthood, my relationship with my stepdad began to go south. I’d never been any sort of a troublemaker, but his three grown children had been the epitome of the word. As I got older, he began to completely resent me, expecting it wouldn’t be long until I began the same shenanigans that they got into. In reality, I was a quiet nerd with hardly the social life, hanging out with other socially awkward kids and some anime enthusiasts at lunch and spent every night doing homework or playing The Sims. In his concern of a sudden turn from bookish girl to some midnight Lolita, my freedoms became smothered. The only friends he completely approved of me hanging out with were either from church or neighborhood families we knew well. Seeing how I excelled in school, he then put the pressure on me to keep it up and began to only expect the best. I was so unhappy with my home life and the feeling of confinement that all I thought about was school, and if things didn’t go perfectly, I began to stress and have panic attacks.

And that’s when the flood gates flew wide open. It felt like literally overnight I started to develop rituals. If I had a good day, I was to repeat everything I did in the same order the next morning or it would all be ruined. I would roll over to go to sleep at EXACTLY 10:35, and roll out exactly at 6:35 and immediately make my bed. The channel had to be the same every morning, I bathed myself in the exact same order, had my clothes already laid out the night before and the binders in my bag were arranged based upon my class schedule that day. My shoes were never dirty, a shirt never had any sort of tear, jeans were never allowed to drag the floor for risk of ripping into frays. If there was some particular thing different that happened, say, a new song that I heard, and that was a particularly good day, I was to now work that into my routine. Keeping everything absolutely perfect and in its place made me feel like a good person and a good daughter. To me, succeeding at everything I tried validated my existence, yet I didn’t completely understand why. It rapidly grew completely out of my control and overwhelmed how I did everything.

My parents really had no idea. I would coop myself up in my room after watching an hour of TV after school to do homework and was able to hide any rituals from their view, and once the weekend came I didn’t really need to do them to feel happy. It felt like I was hiding a dirty secret that I wasn’t even that aware of. The only recollection I have of them even catching on to how bad it was getting came after a parent-teacher night my freshman year of high school. I’d had a biology test that I obviously overstudied for, but math and science had always been my weaker subjects. I began to have a panic attack mid-test, angry at myself for not being to grasp or remember things about cells, and kept going up and asking my teacher about various questions while completely in tears. Anything that made me feel stupid caused unreasonable levels of crying, like I was fire hydrant that had been hit by a car and was now flowing all down your neighborhood street and overtaking your perfectly groomed yard. I would turn in so many tests and pop quizzes from algebra and physics with handfuls of tear drops smudging my penciled-in answers, hoping my teachers would assume I’d had a bottle of water in class and that I hadn’t been hiding my red face  throughout the whole exam. For the most part, they did see, especially this biology teacher. He was a really great guy who had admired my dedication and persistence in class, which is why I assume he spoke up to my parents about how much I had been stressing, because honestly, it was scary.

My mom told me what he’d said and consoled me, explaining that she knew I worked hard and, of course, loved me regardless of my grades, but this affected me even more. Now it was apparent to other people how tightly wound I was and I was literally afraid of myself. Why did I have to think this way and do these things? I was constructing my own personal and self-inflicted prison.

Thankfully, I was able to break out. By the time I was 16 or 17, the rituals had all but disappeared, but they went the same way they came, unnoticed and without much explanation. For some reason, I’d just stopped. Looking back at that time in my life now, I know exactly why. At 17, the domineering relationship with my military veteran stepfather came to a head and my mother realized what an unstable person he was. We’d realized when all was said and done that he’d gone his whole life undiagnosed with bipolar disorder. They divorced and, for the first time in my life, I was living just exclusively with my mom, the way it should have been since I was two years old when she was given the promise of custody that my dad went back on to hurt her for leaving him. It was just the two of us in a happier home and I found a great group of a friends that I knew I could be myself around. A giant weight had been lifted from my mind as I no longer felt watched, judged and ridiculed for just being an adolescent trying to figure out who the hell she is.

I never knew it was Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I knew what Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was, but it was one of those things that doesn’t happen to you, like a tornado or a kidnapping or winning the lottery. I strived for things, and people who want to succeed don’t have problems, right? If anything, they’re the furthest away from it. The moment I realized that was in fact a former sufferer of OCD came in the form of a lazy day watching MTV. To anyone who was addicted to the True Life marathons, you’ve probably seen the “I Have OCD” episode and one of its three subjects, a young woman named Morgan. Watching her story gave me chills because I knew instantly that I was looking at myself. The rituals, the stress, the lack of control and the justification you give yourself as to why you do it. For Morgan, it was the fear of losing her mother; for me, it was school, but our rituals and repetitions were our way of keeping the world at peace. There was so much relief that I wasn’t the only one. I thought for so long that I was crazy, that no one else in their right mind would subject themselves to the kind of lifestyle I forced upon myself.

With this epiphany, I researched Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to further find out what exactly caused this in myself, as well as the people featured in True Life. Are we wired this way or was it something traumatic in our lives? I can now look back at that moment in my life and know for certain that is was the stressful living environment I was experiencing, but I also know that I’m the type of person stress impacts that way. If my childhood had been different, would I have still developed these tendencies? To be completely honest, I know I might’ve, just perhaps in a different form or brought out by something else.

So what causes it? Both biological and environmental factors. Now that we’re getting into fancypants science, I’ll allow WebMD to explain it better:

“Certain areas of the brain appear to be affected by the serotonin imbalance that leads to OCD. This problem seems to involve the pathways of the brain that link the area of the brain that deals with judgment and planning, and the area of the brain that filters messages involving body movements.”

Throw in a traumatic event such as moving, the death of a loved one or, in my personal case, abuse, and the potential of OCD turns into a full-blown reality.

I know that I’m still living with OCD. I’ve never been treated for it, never talked to a psychologist or asked for medication. A selfish part of me doesn’t want to because I know that I can tackle it myself. I’ve seen myself fall into its deepest of abysses and climb back up, and I feel, for the most part, I know how to mentally guard myself. When I fall into my stressful periods, the symptoms come back but I’m at least aware of their presence. I start stuttering more, I pick the skin on my fingers, and I never leave for work in the morning without tidying my room in hopes it sets a tone for a positive day. These habits I can’t control and most likely will always be a part of me, but as long as I don’t let them hinder my quality of life I trust myself to be able to deal.

I firmly believe that my mom is a sufferer, as well. After reading up on OCD, I know that that I didn’t just develop my habits from watching her be a perfectionist, but that they were inherited. We share the same bone structure, soft voice and anxieties. But do I talk to her about it? At 60 years old, she’s absolutely stuck in her ways. Nothing about the way she does things will change. As weird as it may seem, I feel that we can at least relate to each other’s high-strungness when others can’t understand. It connects us, even though she’s unaware of just how connected we are.

Writing this is my own personal treatment. Hardly any of my friends know this part of my past, nor anyone in my family, unless they were keen enough to pick up on it while it was happening. I’ve never talked about my experiences with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder because I try as much as I can to ignore it. I feel that most of us who suffer from it ignore it or don’t even know we have it. It’s such a lonely and isolating condition, yet over 3 million of us in the US deal are fighting the battle everyday, forgetting that we have extremely clean shoulders to lean on. I realized I need to talk about it, because one of you reading this could be me on a lazy day watching True Life. 

Of course, my case isn’t the only form of OCD. For more information on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and treatments, visit the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation. I’m also totally available to anyone who needs their room organized.

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  1. wow, very well written. My mom has OCD and they figured it out when she was pregnant with me. It’s a very difficult subject to grasp because it is different for everybody who has it. Because it is difficult, people make judgements. My mom’s OCD is at a level where she cannot work because of the high stress she has. When ever my friends would ask me what my mom does, I was always afraid to tell them she had OCD and affraid of beeing judged. Today, my mom is much better! And I’ve come to realise that there are much more awareness than there used to be. I now feel confortable explaining what OCD is.
    OCD is not easy to live with for the person and the people that live with that person. The key is to have patience and accept that it is that way. :)

  2. I just want to say thank you for sharing. As a sufferer of anxiety and OCD I know how hard it is to acknowledge let alone talk about. You’re lucky that the strong symptoms decreased or disappeared when your living situation changed. I actually just started seeing a psychologist because it seems senior year of college is not the most welcoming of environments for those of us suffering from extreme perfectionist mentality when it comes to school work.
    Our stories are actually quite similar, in the mother’s inheritance aspect. I’ve talked to my mom about my disorder, and she surprised me by sharing the struggles she had at my age. Your mom might be set in her ways, but she may be aware of her OCD and she may have some advice for you.
    But again, thank you. I joke about my OCD to explain things that friends or professors may point out. But to talk about it with your candor, that’s not something I’ve been able to do yet — and definitely not on the Internet.

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