In an age where everybody seems to be diagnosed with something, it still surprises me that very few people are educated on the vast array of mental illnesses from which one can suffer.  It happens like clockwork – about once in the span of every six months I inevitably hear someone say, “Oh, [s]he’s extremely OCD.” I’d like to believe that some higher force is pushing these people towards me so that I can be faced with the opportunity to educate them on what actually constitutes OCD; but, I know that in reality, this “test” is merely further evidence of the lack of awareness and education regarding this debilitating disorder.

The DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) primarily characterizes OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) as being comprised of either obsessions or compulsions (or, in some cases, both). The DSM IV defines obsessions as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress” and compulsions as “repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.”

Now that we have the definition out of the way, I would like to take some steps to humanize this disorder. The “efforts” by mainstream media to demystify OCD and bring it into the eyes of the general public (e.g., A&E’s Obsessed, As Good as it Gets, The Aviator) have forced the majority of our population to even further stigmatize OCD. The disorder is something that is either viewed as terribly funny and eccentric or otherwise something that should be shoved underneath a bed to rest amongst the dust bunnies. People don’t want to see other human beings repeatedly checking their locks or washing their hands – although intriguing, this behavior becomes boring and redundant; and, those who do want to see this type of behavior seem to be at least slightly entertained by the strange, all-consuming, mechanical nature of the disease.

Personally, I grew up watching my father exhibit these behaviors on a daily basis. At eight years old I would watch him repeatedly lock and unlock the doors to our house. We would drive away to our destination and then return a few seconds later to check, once again, that the doors were locked. In my still-developing brain, I came to equate the checking of one’s locks with security. Once in college, I was checking the locks to my apartment door 45 times. I would recite a phrase that had fifteen syllables (“The door – it is locked. It is locked now. The door is locked right now”) and I would have to repeat the phrase at least three times for various reasons (e.g., I didn’t lock it right, a siren was going off nearby, someone was watching me, something interrupted me, etc.). All of this occurred only after I was able to make it outside of the house.

While still inside my house I would begin my checking process. First, I would have to check inside my bedroom closet to make sure that I didn’t light a match and throw it on the floor of my closet to start a fire. I would go through this routine knowing full well that 1) I had not, in fact, lit a match that day and 2) I had no matches in the house to light and 3) I would never do such a thing. Still, like a child who checks nervously for monsters under the bed, I would have to open that door and stare (not peek, stare) onto the carpeted floor. After that I would check the bathroom and make sure that I didn’t leave my hot iron on (as you might be able to guess, I would check this even if I hadn’t used the hot iron that day). I would check the wall sockets and repeat, “Off off. Off off. Off off. Off off. Off off.” Sometimes, if I was feeling extra anxious that day, I would add another “Off off off off” for good measure. I would then grab the hot iron and press it onto my hand several times so that I could feel that it was cold (and thus not plugged in). Then I would continue to the kitchen of my apartment and make sure the oven and stove were off. I would check all four dials (and burners) in the same manner as I checked the two sockets upstairs (“Off off / Off off” recitation) and I would, once again, do this knowing full well that I hadn’t touched the oven that day. Still, oftentimes after locking my door, I would have to return to verify that the oven was, in fact, off. You get the point.

Now, I did all of this knowing that it was all completely irrational. I was a smart girl. I made As all throughout college. I knew, that if I simply turned the key in the lock and heard the click, the door was locked. Yet, I still had to check. I felt stupid and frustrated. My OCD continued to progress from fears of burning my apartment down (a surprisingly common OCD fear) to fears that I had killed someone. When I was driving I would suddenly have the feeling that I ran over someone, even if the drive had been smooth throughout. I would circle parking lots and go back to street corners to make sure a body wasn’t lying in the middle of the pavement. This behavior was taking over my life.

Furthermore, I could not stand being alone. I would constantly try to surround myself with people who could verify that I did not, in fact, light a candle in our friend’s house and leave it in their closet or that I had not run someone over. These are questions I would ask people! On a regular basis! And, like the good friends that they were, they would reassure me and calm me down every time. The problems came when there was no one around to verify any action (or lack thereof) and the only mind I could trust was my own shaky head. I sought out a therapist at 18 knowing I needed help. I went to her and opened my first therapy session by confessing that I thought I was losing my mind. She introduced me to a book called Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive Compulsive Behavior, which I think may have saved my life. The people in it were just like me! They had thoughts just like mine! I was not alone! Most importantly, I was not insane.

I still struggle with OCD (and with bouts of panic and depression). Some days, I have to fight just to get up in the morning and face the absurd barrage of fears that surface from within my very own mind (e.g., Did I write “Fuck you” on a bathroom wall? Do I have a tumor growing inside my brain that would explain my constant headaches?, etc.). I still wrestle with face-picking (a former nightly ritual that I would call “Fixing my Face”) and hair-pulling. I’m still anxious. I still blame my father. I am not, however, silent. I am not ashamed of this disorder; however, I wish that others knew more about it and could help those who suffer from it.

In writing this piece, I am, for the first time, exposing my own shortcomings to the world. I am doing this in the hopes that others will come to recognize that there is nothing funny about this disorder. OCD is not a term that can be correctly used as an adjective. Unless a person is actually diagnosed with OCD, that person cannot have varying degrees of OCD-ness. A person cannot judge someone else to be a “little OCD” in the same way that someone cannot describe another as being “just a little post-partem.”  People need to understand this disorder instead of ostracizing others who already go through their days feeling ostracized. And with that, I will step off my soapbox and return to my more-than-tolerable life.

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CLARISSA OLIVAREZ holds a Master's degree in Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master's degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives with her husband and two dogs in the Washington, DC area. Her writing has been published in Haggard & Halloo, Blood Lotus, Fogged Clarity, Midwest Literary Magazine, and an anthology entitled Winter Canons. She has taught at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.

16 responses to “Matches in the Closet”

  1. It’s odd how much Hollywood has used various disorders as the fulcrums for film plots; especially the ‘sexier’ ones – dissociative personality disorder, psychopathy, etc – basically, anything that can be used to get a gun or a knife in the hands of the villain or antihero. Now that I think about it, my only real exposure to OCD was a woman working at a grocery store counter who advised me on oven cleaner. She, apparently, was obsessive about cleanliness, and her advice on which brand to buy was based on intensive experience.

    I’m glad your life was saved, Clarissa, although sorry to hear about the need for its saving in the first place. And I congratulate you on your bravery in writing and posting this piece. Who wants to be anything less than perfect? Not me, I can tell you. And, for what it’s worth, this feels anything but soapbox-y.

    • I’m slowly preparing an essay on wheelchairs in films; they’re almost invariably used as a plot device or character shorthand. The good news is I get to watch Dr. Strangelove and Boyz ‘N The Hood and call it research. On the downside – Alien:Resurrection and Avatar.

      • Will you be taking TV shows into account as well? I’m thinking primarily of _The Sopranos_ (the mother).

        • Hello! Sorry, didn’t see your question. No, I’ll be sticking to films, because the short format means (a) the reason for (and consequences of) the wheelchair’s presence must be established quickly, and (b) I can get everything in a 90-minute viewing. I don’t have a TV, so I haven’t seen much of The Sopranos, Glee or Family Guy; I’d have to commit to hours of box set viewing.

          The inspiration for writing a Proper Article, with research and stuff, was a small indie film called Beeswax.

  2. Gregory Messina says:

    Dear Clarissa,

    Thank you so much for writing this, an essay I can absolutely relate to. I have the fear you had before leaving your home about starting a fire. I check that things are off when I know for a fact they were never turned on. It can sometimes take me up to 10 minutes to leave my apartment in the morning triple checking everything. I’m so glad you mentioned this book BRAIN LOCK…I will definitely buy it the next time I’m back in the states. Thank you.

  3. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    Thank you, Simon.
    Gregory – I’m so glad this article helped you out a bit (so it seems). The book is excellent, but therapy and medication have brought me a long way as well. OCD is so hard to deal with, but with time, and therapy, you realize that you can overcome it.

  4. Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. And as with any other illness, people dealing with mental illness deserve our empathy, not scorn or mockery. It breaks my heart to think that someone might have ever made you feel ostracized. You are so brave to share something so personal with us, and I congratulate you for finding the strength to overcome such a powerful disorder, Clarissa.

  5. When so many words and phrases are used casually and thoughtlessly and get watered down (eg. depression, rape, the word abuse itself) it becomes even harder for actual sufferers/victims to get the attention and help they need. Recounting all those things you have to do just to leave the house is a pretty effective retort to people who say “I’m a bit OCD!” when they’re really just a bit fussy.

    David Sedaris’ account of his childhood OCD is, of course, written in his wry, deadpan style, but it was obviously horrific and debilitating. He doesn’t say how he overcame it – I’m glad to hear you’re working your way out.

  6. Gloria says:

    One thing I love about TNB is that we seem to have a lot of people who very bravely call disability on the carpet. Is OCD a disability? Well, it’s mental illness. It sounds, though, like you have it under amazing control. I think you’ve done a great job with this piece – both defining Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and putting a human face on it.

    I had a car fold onto my head when I was 17 seconds after a fiery, multi-fatality, high-impact crash. My scalp was split from my temple to my crown and would fall away from my skull when I bent forward. Luckily, my skull itself wasn’t cracked, but my brain was injured. I was in a coma for three days. I have to take medication to control the rage and impulsivity associated with head injuries. While mentioning this may be comparing apples to oranges, at least we’re all still fruit! (that was an attempt at levity 🙂 ) Seriously though, I do get the stigmatization and ignorance associated with differently-abled mental ability. I love that you wrote this. And while you’re clearly a great writer no matter what subject you take on, please don’t completely abandon your music posts. Because you’re the only woman representing here on TNB and I think you’re great.

    Cheers,
    Gloria

    • Gloria – I don’t think OCD is officially classified as a “disability,” but it can definitely be very disabling at times. Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s a piece that I feel is long overdue.
      I’m so sorry to hear about your head injury. That’s tragic – but, hey, you’re alive and well! Hooray! I’m sure you’ll overcome the stigma and ignorance associated that comes along with any injury/mental [dis]ability. You didn’t survive for nothing, right? You will ovecome.
      And thanks for the music review shout-out. It means a lot. Except that I have Joe Daly to compete with on that – and he’s totally winning, lol! Take care!

      • Gloria says:

        Oh, it’s all good. I don’t really worry about what other people think and I’ve found that most people don’t give a rip one way or another (except my ex-husband – ahahahaha). It seems that as long as you’re managing your own shit, no one bats an eye. And when you’re not managing your own shit – – well, that’s when you learn who your friends are. 🙂

        And yes! More music posts! I’ve thought about taking music reviews on, but even though I’m about as dedicated a music fan as you’ll ever find, I can’t talk about it with this depth of knowledge that you, Daly, Beaudoin, Edwards, Cox (and the other dudes) can.

    • Whoa, Gloria! First, thank you for linking to my piece. Second – ouch, damn, that doesn’t sound like a fun experience. Keep taking the pills, keep on keepin’ on, er…keep it real…

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