A long, but important bit of self-reflection…
While 2013 marks ten years since I became a legal adult and ten years since I graduated from high school, it also marks the tenth year of my continuous struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’d practically forgotten until just a few days ago that the first eighteen years of my life were OCD-free. The last ten have seen me bounce from one extreme of the disorder to the other and I thought I’d take a quick look back…
The first small changes became noticeable around my birthday. I found myself checking door locks multiple times before bed. I chalked it up to being cautious. Then came the household appliances. Is the oven off? Check. How about the burners? Check. Light switches? Dryer? Is the fridge door shut tight? Check. Check. Check. Wait, is the oven off? Maybe I’d better check it again. Check. I still chalked it up to being cautious. After all, it is a gas stove and carbon monoxide poisoning kills people all the time. Within a couple of months, however, my worries evolved and my routine soon included constantly checking some of the most random of household things. The garage door. My curling iron. Every window in the house. My hair dryer. The old desk lamp mounted over the laundry area of the garage. Then things got ridiculous. The hall closet. Behind the television. The kitchen pantry. Behind the shower curtain. Under the kitchen table. The toaster oven had to be unplugged every night. Nothing could be near a wall outlet, excepting cords. I even found myself checking the fireplace insert faceplate every night before bed to make sure it wasn’t hot and, therefore, not a potential combustion source. It didn’t matter that it was late spring and that the pilot light was no longer lit. What the feck was going on? Then came the germaphobia…
My hand-washing became so frequent that I could easily burn through half a roll of paper towels (or more) in a single day. It seemed like I was constantly refilling soap bottles. My skin was red and raw from hot water and constant scrubbing with antibacterial soap. Remotes had to be disinfected and then wrapped in paper towels. If I washed my hands and then accidentally touched anything other then my bed linens before turning in for the night, I had to wash my hands again.
I’d go through these checks not once, not twice, but often four to seven times a night, every night. Sometimes they’d take as long as 45 minutes. Often I’d get in bed, determined to fall asleep…and the anxiety would begin to creep in. Are you sure you checked the deadbolt on the front door? Yes. Four times. But are you sure? Yes. Really? I think I’m sure. Hadn’t you better get up and check it again? But I’ve already checked it. But what if you’re wrong. I really don’t think I am. But, what if? You get the idea. Eventually, I would have to get up and check it again because my mind was unable to focus on anything else and my anxiety level would continue to rise.
What do you call it when such tasks need to be performed three, four, five, even eight times and you’re still uneasy? You call it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And it’s a bitch.
OCD is part of the English lexicon. It’s often used informally or jokingly to describe meticulousness and perfectionism. There probably is a smidgeon of OCD in nearly everyone. But it’s a very real nightmare that wastes away our hours. It robs us of sleep. It frustrates us to no end. And it makes no sense.
“Obesessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterised by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry; by repetitive behaviours aimed at reducing the associated anxiety; or by a combination of such obsessions and compulsions.” ~ Wikipedia.org
I soon learned that my nightly checks and frequent hand-washings were compulsions, known as rituals. They’re constantly performed in an attempt to keep obsessive thoughts (worries) at bay. Perhaps the most frustrating (and commonly misunderstood) aspect of them is that I knew them to be excessive and irrational. I knew that I wouldn’t go to bed if a door was unlocked or an appliance was turned on so why couldn’t I trust myself? These thoughts hadn’t bothered me for the first eighteen years of my life. Nothing traumatic had happened. Nothing had changed. Why should these worries consume my life now? I had no answers. So I dealt with it as best I could, which quite often, wasn’t very well at all.
I broke a burner knob on the old stove after turning it too aggressively to ensure that it actually was off. I would sing while I checked things, inserting “the door is locked” or “the stove is off” during parts of the song so that when the anxiety began to creep in later, I could prove that I checked things with that specific song. Four years on, and my OCD was still going strong at UC Santa Cruz. My housemate would find me staring at our stove, making sure that all the burner lights were off (it made no difference that it was an electric stove). I’d wander about the flat in the dark, triple and quadruple checking our front door and our living room and bathroom windows. It didn’t matter that we lived on the fourth floor with sheer outside walls and no balconies. I’d go to lectures and sections on three or four hours of sleep because I’d stay up until I was too tired to go through my rituals more than twice, hoping that I’d drop off before the anxious thoughts could creep in. Graduation came and went.
Six years on, I drove up to Washington for some dog-grieving solitude after some friends graciously offered to let me use their beach house. In the ten days I spent there, I didn’t eat a single thing that needed to be prepared on the stove or in the oven. I knew that if I did, the doubt about whether or not I turned it off would follow me all the way down I-5. I still checked it every night, though, along with every window, door, closet and outlet. I also looked under every bed. I ended up driving home two days early because my relaxing solitude had morphed into constant anxiousness.
Ten years on and my OCD is the mildest it’s been since it began. I’m not sure what caused it to mellow, but most nights, I can get by with checking things once, sometimes twice. If I’ve been baking, the oven will take up more time than it ought, but it no longer takes 45 minutes to go to bed. Ten minutes is probably too long for most people, but it’s ten minutes I’m grateful to spend when I think of the hours lost to my OCD over the years. I don’t expect my OCD to ever completely go away. It’s been with me for so long that I think I’ve forgotten how to live without compulsions and rituals. I still don’t know what triggered it to begin and doubt I ever will. However, I’d like to think that I’ve lived through the worst of it, even if some aspects haven’t changed. The remote continues to be wrapped in a clean paper towel every day, my hands are almost always too dry from frequent washing, and I knock on wood all the time (in sets of three, repeated four times). And while the frequent burning of BBW Fresh Balsam candles fills my house with months of Christmasness and my olfactory receptor cells with joy, worrying if they’re extinguished fills me with anxiety. But these are quirks I can live with. I have to. I still have OCD, but I’d like to think that it no longer has me.