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.

“Awareness” and “empathy” have become this decade’s Catch-22 words, full of traps and mind games, yet serving a purpose if only a future moment when we say, “Remember our obsession with that.” Of course, we think we want to become more aware, but do we? Likewise, we think we wish to become more empathetic, but do we actually seek more empathy towards ourselves? How often do we extend awareness and empathy only to find that none will be returned?

Experiment: Take a look at the photos above. If you already know the identity of those depicted, skip ahead. If not, answer the following question sets, then proceed.

Question Set 1: What does Photo #1 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

Question Set 2: What does Photo #2 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

So who are they? Photo #1 depicts Adolf Hitler as a baby. Photo #2 depicts Pope Benedict XVI during his membership in the Hitler Youth. Adolf Hitler never made excuses for himself; Pope Benedict has made plenty. In any event, there you have it. For those unable to identify the subjects in the photos, do you feel more aware? Does that awareness make you more or less empathetic and in which case(s)?

The point here is not to attack awareness and empathy but to explore their limits. For instance, can empathy, especially when offered but not returned, become a subtle form of surrender? At what point does empathy become a form of accepting the unacceptable?

The psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, explained the extent to which he embraced his concept of “universal other-acceptance,” that being wholly rejecting the view that anyone is or ever has been 100 percent evil. How far did he take this view of acceptance? Ellis proposed that even Hitler was not 100 percent evil. Difficult to accept? Take another look at baby Hitler. For some unknown period of time, Hitler was innocent.  Since it must now always be added that Stalin proves to have been “no better,” consider that Stalin was an obvious paranoid. In the American judicial system, excepting Texas, Stalin might have received a reprieve from the death penalty based upon insanity.

On the other hand, empathy depends upon the person extending it. Any victim of Hitler or Stalin able to profess empathy towards one or the other might be considered (a) pathologically forgivers or (b) saints. During the war, those fighting “Hitler” might have found their determination weakened by allowing themselves to feel any empathy towards him. Ellis claims, “As a result of my philosophy, I wasn’t even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn’t hate him.” How did all this work out for Ellis in real life? There shall be no easy answers. Ellis did not fight in World War II. Ellis was a Jew.

And so we become more aware. Does increased awareness intensify empathy? Or does it decrease empathy? Of course, that depends upon the perspectives of those potentially offering empathy. Are we aiming for empathy by seeing through the eyes of the innocent Hitler or Stalin? Or do we aim for empathy through the eyes of the absolutely amoral Hitler or Stalin? Or do we somehow try to keep both perspectives in mind, creating a semi-mathematical mean of perspectives?

Whom do we forgive and why? Whom do we forgive last in almost all cases? Ourselves. Everyone has fascist moments; if not, fascism would never have become possible. In such moments, we perpetuate our worst acts and usually without much conscience involved. Obviously, we absorb our degree of conscience through parents or guardians but also later by the media, which perpetuates an ethical system lacking any ethics at all…for the media. We, however, are constantly reminded of our responsibilities while simultaneously being told the self comes first and above all else. What a strange society, with vertical and horizontal fields of ethics and power that cannot be mapped or otherwise depicted. We the Narcissistic Puritans endlessly chastise ourselves and everyone else, except, of course, when we’re not providing fodder to others chastising us. Empathy becomes a wicked thicket.

None of these points can be squared to easy solutions, but this much can be stated with uncertain certainty: Empathy is conditioned and conditional until awareness exposes the extent to which we’re willing to extend our empathy beyond its previous limits. What we do with this awareness, and how we spend our empathy, cannot be proven as beneficial in every case. Putting aside historical figures and considering only those we encounter in daily life, how much empathy can we afford to spend on those so self-convinced that they don’t even convince themselves and so never stop trying to do so? Only when forced to repetitively encounter such people (such as the workplace) do we benefit from extending empathy towards them. We can remain neutral in judgment; to go beyond that point is to deplete the natural resource of empathy.

Awareness may lead to increased empathy, but empathy, when it proves a fool’s errand, does so only after the fact and too late for retraction. We may aim for universal other-awareness, as Ellis proposes, but everyday life opposes the infinite, constantly pushing us back towards our finite lives that can never become wholly rational. We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.

The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made have all stemmed from the fact that, at the time, I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.

That and a lack of adequate sex education in high school.

Was just one class on how a bra strap works really so much to ask?