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.