Every day when I wake up, I drape myself in a blue fuzzy robe, pick up a pile of clothes I preset for the day, and brew exactly one cup of coffee; black with two sugars. This is when I turn the TV to the morning news and put my glasses on; not sooner, not later. Once I’ve taken my first few sips of caffeine, I wake my children, prep them for school, and, whether I feel like it or not, complete an exhaustive series of ritualistic tasks to start my day. Some of those things could probably wait (say, when we’re not in a school time rush), but my brain says otherwise. My brain tells me these things can’t wait–they will be done now.
A few years back, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The Mayo Clinic says OCD is “characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions).” OCD is different than being a perfectionist. It’s a disease that typically centers around a theme such as a fear of dying, abandonment, or even germs. I started to rely on these repetitive behaviors as a coping mechanism, in hopes I’ll feel some sort of peace or safety within my world. Though, because the behaviors don’t actually fix anything outside my immediate thoughts, the relief is minimal and fleeting.
I’m certainly no doctor and it’s different for everyone (and if any of these symptoms sound familiar, please seek professional medical advice), but for me, even when logic says scrubbing the counter for the 50th time won’t change how much I owe on a bill or fix the argument I had with my husband, I will still go through the motions. While some may wash their hands repeatedly or flip the light switch on and off a specific number of times, my tendencies are more general, and geared towards organization and cleanliness. In fact, to an outsider looking in, you might gather I prefer to smell like I just stepped out of the shower at all times, am not a fan of being barefoot or hanging outside too long, and really, really like a clean, organized house.
After all, I’m just taking care of myself and my house by bathing, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, or wiping the counters, right? What you don’t see is how many times I do these things through the course of one day, or that all the cans are faced with the labels out, or the carpet can’t possibly get any cleaner, or that my skin is so dry from all the showers, or that in switching the furniture again, I will still feel no relief.
As far back as elementary school, I had the need to perform certain behaviors or tasks in order to calm my mind. If I didn’t follow through, the repercussions could be anything from a panic attack to stomachaches; migraines to binge eating. When riding in the car, I’d pinch my toes open and shut at the onset of an object (fire hydrant, sidewalk crack, light pole) until my feet cramped. Even at night, I’d wake myself most hours to ensure the mattress cover was still intact or I wouldn’t sleep. TBH, I still do this. The nights I did kind-of sleep, I felt paranoid the doors were never fully locked so I’d get up to check again and again.
I didn’t know then why I did these things, only that I needed to. Ignoring the thoughts meant the rest of my day would be ruined or something bad might happen. Sounds illogical, I know. I still can’t completely explain these feelings and often feel embarrassed and ashamed I have to live in such an isolated, regimented bubble in order to feel like a whole person. And while I don’t have all the answers, I am learning more about myself everyday. So, if you, or someone you know struggles with this, know you’re not alone. And if this is all new territory, here are a few things to understand about those with OCD:
It may take longer to do something so please be patient
I hate being late and yet, there have been many times I spent too long sweeping or scrubbing or organizing until it “felt right.” Yes, I realize I could put most of these things off so not to miss your super important event, but in my experience, skipping or rushing through are anxiety triggers. Not doing these things causes SO much stress, it’s often better to just let me hurry up and finish.
We get frustrated, too
I do realize, from an outsider’s view, my behaviors seem odd, time-consuming, or unnecessary. The continual moving of furniture, the rubbing of knuckles until the skin is raw, the exact same meals at the exact same times every single day? I get it, I do. And believe me – it’s just as exhausting to be inside my head, let alone as a spectator. So while I feel your pain (I’m talking to you, husband), please be compassionate when caught in the eye of my storms.
Change is not easy
Not long ago, my dear husband moved a card table to another part of the house. I wish I could say I took it all in stride but in all honestly, it wrecked me. I think I balled up on the floor and cried for an hour (or more). The thing about OCD is, it’s not about the act itself. It’s about retaining the comfort and stability you feel from the act. So, if I’m used to the card table near the left wall, please don’t move it while I’m away. Surprises are terrifying! Let’s at least discuss first so I can mentally prepare for the weird out-of-body experience I have when things are disrupted.
The truth is, while having OCD might seem confusing or strange, just know, it takes everything in me to appear as though everything is fine even when there’s chaos in my head. So, strangers in line at the coffee shop or passersby at the grocery store, be kind and compassionate to those around you.
The hardest battles fought are the ones you don’t see.
[Image via Shutterstock]