Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
Excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
People often joke, in passing, about “their OCD,” citing it as their reason for doing something a certain way, a certain number of times, or completing a series of steps in a particular order. For me, it’s a real thing, and it began when I was like four.
Age 4: OCD first manifests itself as a verbal ritual.
Each night, as everyone was climbing into bed, slipping under covers, and adjusting their heads on pillow tops, my infamous spiel would start:
“Goodnight mom, I love you.. we’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, Rose,” she’d whisper above the sounds of my brother, Bobby, settling into bed beside me and the noises of our dad slipping off his work shoes, coughing (he was an avid smoker at the time and coughed incessantly), and settling into bed beside her.
I listened to her as she answered. And then I’d ask again:
“Goodnight mom, I love you — we’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, Rose.. you know we’re going to have fun tomorrow, sweetie. We always do.” I could hear the disappointed strain in her voice; it sounded like ‘here we go; how many times will I have to answer this question tonight?’
It was usually somewhere in the dozens, and my mother was more patient with me than my father was. I don’t fault him for it.
I remember him abruptly getting out of bed one evening, after I’d posed the question to my mother (and, incidentally, our whole group) 12, 18, 24 times. He walked over to Bobby and I’s bedside, placed a hand on either one of my shoulders, and then used their weight to press my body down into the bed as he commanded “STOP. IT.” While he was doing so, and as I was sinking uncomfortably into the mattress, I very quickly asked my mother the same question. Again. I could not stop. It was driving him crazy. It was driving ALL of us crazy, INCLUDING me. No one ever took me to a doctor, though; not in our homeopathic, “Jesus and vegetables are the answer to everything” household. Anyone could have told you that it was clearly OCD, or some kind of mental compulsion, and that there were tons of ways of treating it (both medicinal AND therapeutic). But it took me years to begin the process of managing my OCD, and it was after I’d diagnosed myself.
OCD continued its strange reign all throughout my childhood, toying with my mind, manifesting in different forms (some repetitive and recognizable; others entirely new) and processes (some logical, some senseless) and enduring for varying lengths of time.
At age 5, I noticed that every room in Grammy’s house had blinds.
And each set of blinds had a long, white, stringy cord attached to it. Always happy to help, I took it upon myself to tie each long, white string into a perfect knot. I can’t tell you why; I just intuitively knew that this needed to happen. Grammy would then follow in my footsteps, walking from room to room and “inspecting” my work; untying the knots and, depending on how well my toddler hands had done at securing them, it could take her a while.
Same year, same house: It suddenly occurred to me how many kittens there were, stalking through the tall grass in the backyard and expertly patrolling the neighborhood.
It made sense to me that it would be best if they were all in (1) central location, so – to achieve this – I spent my early mornings setting about the amusing task of collecting each cat, bringing it into the house, gently placing it into the dryer, and then closing the dryer door — dutifully returning outdoors to retrieve the next full-grown cat or kitten. I didn’t know what the dryer WAS, of course; that it was a very dangerous and potentially lethal heating element, and I certainly didn’t know how to turn it on (thank. goodness.), but it still concerned Grammy when she’d come along behind me, minutes or hours later.. following the sound trail of muted “meows” and discovering a sad pile of kittens trapped within the walls of one of her ancient appliances.
Fast forward to age.. 11. Grammy’s living in another house now. Mom, dad, Bob and I are in another house that’s just 10 minutes down the road. We’re all residing in Central Florida.
I want to go spend the weekends at Grammy’s house — she has kids my age running about wildly in her neighborhood AND the backyard boasts an above ground swimming pool. But I can’t. My mom would let me spend the weekends there, no doubt, and Grammy would love to have me there. So why can’t I?
“Why don’t you want to go with Bob this weekend, Rose?” Sierra asked from the front seat, seeming puzzled as she reversed the car out of Grammy’s driveway. I inched my face closer to the backseat window and watched Grammy waving at us. Bobby was standing there beside her, looking both happy and vacant.. absentmindedly holding onto a duffle bag and peering off into the distance.
“Because, mom,” I answered her sadly, returning to a reclined position in my seat and sighing as both of them passed out of sight, “if I leave the house, you’re going to make it messy. I just know it.”
And that was the “great cleaning plague” of 2002-2004. 2 years of insane preoccupation with the state of the house. Was it clean? If so, how clean was it? Are we talking clean on the surface, or deep DOWN clean? And if the room itself appeared to be clean, what was the status of the closet? Were there unfiled papers in there, lining the shelves with rebates, warranties, and policies? Was there an incident of clothes slipping off of hangers? A calamity of boxes lying haphazardly on their sides? A subtle, disconcerting situation where powdery piles of dust were secretly collecting and banding themselves together in small yet militant messy forces in the hidden corners of the small room? I shuddered. There was no way I could leave the task of maintaining the true cleanliness of the home in Sierra’s care. She would forget about most or all of these things, and then everything would fall to pieces.
“Cleaning the house” went far beyond simply washing dishes, tidying my room, and sweeping the hallway once or twice a week. For example, on “trash night” — the evening before the trash man or woman would come barreling down the road in their massively-sized truck — if a *single* paper towel, empty box, or food item had been tossed into the trash can in the kitchen (and believe me; I checked), I had to remove the entire bag, tie it off, place it outside (where it could get carried away as quickly as possible) and then replace it with a clean, new, fully barren trash bag. This was law.
Another compulsive activity during this time period: I felt the persistent need to lay clothes out for my dad on the night before his next work shift. Why? Who fucking knows. It began to drive him just as crazy as the verbal ritual of ’95, so after spending several months openly displaying this new behavior (waltzing into his room, picking out items, folding them neatly and then placing them carefully on his dresser), I had to begin sneaking into his room and completing my mission as quickly as possible while he was engrossed in a game of online chess. Sometimes, I’d casually bring up some random topic or make up and ask a question (under the guise of entering his room to hold a conversation), but the true intent was to distract him while I satiated the feverish state of my mind: “If his work clothes aren’t lying in a neat pile on top of his dresser, then that means they’re stuffed messily into a drawer, and knowing that they’re there – in that crazy, unorganized state — well how the hell could ANYONE sleep, knowing that?”
It was a miserable time. For everyone.
My mother, Sierra (who initially, of course, ENJOYED this particular “tic”; who WOULDN’T love a house as sterile and clean as a cancer patient’s hospital room?), began to worry. “You should try fasting and praying about it, Rosebud,” Grammy suggested in front of Sierra and I one Sabbath afternoon. “Ask the Lord to take these thoughts and compulsions away. He can help you.”
“Okay,” I agreed hopefully, feeling just as troubled as they felt sympathetic. So I “fasted” for one day — as long as a 12-year old could possibly stand to fast; I skipped breakfast, felt like I was dying to death at lunch time, and then broke my fast with a heaping bowl of spaghetti around approximately 1 PM.
“God knows your heart,” Grammy consoled me, nodding encouragingly. “You did the best you could.”
And guess what? That tic went away. Crazy, huh? Present day, you know my thoughts on religion and the portrayal of the christian god. I’m not subscribing to anything or committing to anyone right now, and my professional opinion is that it was more of a mental victory than it was a magical deity benevolently granting me freedom from my diseased mind.. but, the experience was a testament to how having faith in something (whether that something is intrinsic or outside of yourself) can empower you and assist you in getting through some things. Before I become offensive, I’m going to stop right there.
Now, as a 12-year-old who was finally free from the household-cleaning-burden, I COULD go to Grammy’s house on the weekends. I was, long at last, able to enjoy the above ground pool.. sort of.
When obsessive cleaning walked out the door, mathematical pool patterns snuck right on in and took its place. Playing in the pool became, more or less, just another chore.. an activity riddled with numbers, patterns, and processes of its own.
Long after Bobby had exited the pool, gone into the house and dried off (so he could lounge in front of the television and play Mario on the Super Nintendo), I remained in the pool, conscientiously marking “activities” off on my mental checklist.
- Dunk into the pool – completely submerging your head – 12 times.
- Swim in circles around the pool ten times EXACTLY. Start at the front of the ladder, stop at the back of the ladder.
- Hold your breath for 45 seconds. I don’t care if it hurts. If you don’t do it right the first time, you’ll have to do it again and again and again until you get it right.
- Do an interesting sideways dip into the pool 4 times left, 4 times right, and then 4 times straight (up and down).
- Crouch in the middle of the pool and turn around slowly, a full 360 degrees, ending softly in your starting position. If you end too quickly or end up rotating too far, dunk and do it all again until you get it right.
It was like a strange, fucked up ballet routine.
Let’s move on to age 14.
At this juncture, my family moved to Alabama. It was precisely then that I realized – with a tingly sense of excitement – that there was something new that I had been dependent on all of my life – that I’d been interacting with on a daily basis – that I could really enjoy controlling. My food intake. And not just volume intake; I could also strictly regulate what types of food I accepted into my body. Yes; this would be a fantastic venture.
My diet quickly began to consist of just as many fasting days as eating days.. and the fasting days took place, of course, under the pretense of me “clearing my mind spiritually.” My family deeply admired my religious fervor. Meanwhile, I monitored the scale daily, feeling elated when another pound would drop off and it would read a slightly smaller number than the day before and then, conversely, feeling terrified when it tipped ever so slightly in the other direction.
On the days when I did eat, my carefully regimented and vegan diet looked exactly like this:
- Breakfast: (1) 1-inch cube of vegan cheese and a sliced kiwi.
- Lunch: an 8-ounce fruit punch-flavored carton of Juicy Juice.
- Dinner: a freshly prepared salad and 1/4 cup of soy ice cream.
Combine that with a developing body, hours of enthusiastic skateboarding, and countless laps around the block and you have yourself a perfectly anorexic teenager. This thing has lasted for years. Looking at history and case studies, the “overlap” of OCD coupled with an eating disorder can be absolutely lethal; I am fortunate that it wasn’t.
I only threw up once, and I’ll never forget it. I pushed myself off of the bathroom floor that afternoon, flushed the toilet, looked into the mirror — watching the tears streaming down my face because I hate vomiting more than anything else in the world — and I told myself: If you’re going to EAT the food, you’re going to deal with the consequences, dammit. So I resolved that I just wouldn’t eat.
Presently – on good days – I forget all about my eating disorder. On bad days, it’s like it never left (and FYI, an eating disorder never really does). There’s a certain victory — this sense of accomplishment — in denying food. I can’t deny it. And it’s alluring. I just have to rationalize my way out of and past it, constantly.
But before we wrap all of this up with a full present-day summary, let’s visit 3 years ago.
Three years ago, I was in the middle of obtaining my Associate’s Degree at Jeff State Community College. One professor tasked the class with writing a research paper on any topic we wanted. OCD immediately came to my mind. I read a few books and, in the process of conducting my research and writing my paper, I was reminded of how HUGE of an impact OCD had made on my life.. as a toddler, a child, a teenager and, even, an adult. In one of the books, I read a person’s account of how their OCD had gotten SO severe that they had started worrying that they were running people over anytime they drove their car over speed bumps. I finished the sentence and had to stop reading; why? Because my heart had stopped.
Only a week before, I, myself, had driven over a speed bump on the way to work. The exact same speed bump I drove over every day on the way to work. But on that particular morning, as I did so, I thought to myself: “Hmmm. What if that was a person? Isn’t that what it would feel and sound like to run over something.. like a person? And how HORRIBLE would it be if you ACCIDENTALLY ran over someone and didn’t REALIZE it and then they ended up dying because you didn’t STOP to check on and help them?”
Utterly horrified, I remember making a U-turn, driving back down the same stretch of concrete, seeing no one lying there, and hating myself. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Rose?” I knew, intuitively, that I’d just crossed the line and moved into a terrible other level of this disease.
And reading that another person had let theirs get to that point, too, was a wake up call for me.
ENOUGH, I decided, audibly slamming the book shut and making up my mind. “I’m done checking the stove burners every single morning WHEN I HAVEN’T EVEN USED the stove in days, unplugging the lamp every time I leave the house, and ensuring that the refrigerator door is completely, 100% closed. OF COURSE IT IS! AND OH WELL IF IT ISN’T. And I’m also done wondering if I’ve just driven into someone and accidentally run them over when that’s INSANE and you’d CLEARLY KNOW if that happened.”
For a while, with that strong “surge” of determined resolve, things got better. I was making a consistent, concerted effort to deny my compulsions and to resist my urges, and it made a difference. But the thing about OCD is, if you aren’t actively resisting it, you’re, by default, allowing it, and that makes relapsing as easy and effortless as agreeably floating with the current, down the river.
Let’s talk about present day.
I fell in love with a woman last year and realized I was gay. Yeah; that’s the story I haven’t told to you all and the one that I likely never will.
I divorced my very best friend.
Anticipating uncertain living arrangements, I preemptively re-homed my precious and adored rabbits.
I entered into another relationship immediately after my divorce — far too quickly, much too soon.
And now here I am; 24, divorced, single.. in the process of refinancing a home and living in and out of coffee shops. Still half-assedly trying to manage my OCD but, when I’m feeling stressed and exhausted, letting it manage me.
In recent months, I’ve added on a few new tics; one of these is running my hand underneath each faucet in the house 1, 2, 3 times before leaving the house. Just to make sure the water isn’t running at all. Because if it is.. well, it’s SUPPOSED to go down the drain – that’s how it’s designed to work – but if it doesn’t for some reason, it could fill up the sink, overflow, begin to flood the house with copious amounts of water and then drown my German Shepherd. I don’t really give a shit about a ruined home, but I am in love with that stupid dog. This tic is so famously commonplace that my roommate even wrote a little jingle about it:
“Is the water off? Is the water off? Is the water off? Swipe swipe swipe!”
Another one: Whenever I stop and park my car somewhere, I close the door, duck my head and, using the driver’s seat window, peer inside to ensure that the interior light is completely off. My car battery died once when I was parked at a Cracker Barrel 5 years ago — presumably because I hadn’t closed my door well enough — so I’ve been “checking” ever since.
A third: No dish or cup is ever clean enough. It could have just come out of the dishwasher — with the surface of the dish still scalding hot; the top, bottom and sides of it sparkling clean — but I have to run it under the faucet and rinse it at least ONCE before using it. Just in case.
And then there’s food. My favorite. I’m really trying to stay in control of this one. I forgot about being anorexic for a few years there.. until – in the course of one month – 5 different people asked me “when” I was expecting (oh yes; they sure did. It happened back in 2013 and you can read about it in one of my older blog posts: All The Chubby Ladies!). As a result of this obscene questioning, my anorexia returned with a vengeance and I quickly dropped from 140 pounds to 110 (typing out the number 110 just now actually made me cringe, because it looks like too much; I know that’s not normal).
On the days where I feel slightly out of control and want to, in an effort to regain this control, remove food from the equation, I still make myself eat a salad, or a banana, or a simple bowl of soup as some kind of rational, kind gesture towards my future self. We can’t have you keeling over while you’re trying to teach class next week, idiot, I mutter to myself affectionately over all of the negative, internal mind chatter.. draining my bowl of soup and kind of hating myself at the same time because I know that I’m not going to lose weight this way – I always want to – and that I might even gain a fucking pound because of the damn soup.
So it’s a struggle. A constant struggle. I joke about my OCD, like many other people do (and fun fact, many of these people don’t actually have it), but for those who do, it’s a serious inconvenience. It can dominate your life, direct your most minute movements, and drive you absolutely insane if you let it. I’m not going to take “medicine” for mine. I honestly don’t need to. I could stop it if I wanted to.. but sometimes, I don’t want to, because in a busy life and chaotic world, it’s nice to have something you can do, count, control, or say over and over and over again.. even if it seems like a stupidly meaningless tradition or sounds like a terrible, discordant lullaby. It’s familiar. It’s routine. It’s stable; unchanging. It makes you feel safe.
And sometimes, it’s simply nostalgic and sentimental. At night, just before we both begin to fall asleep, my roommate will wrap his arms around me, kiss the top of my head and whisper: “Don’t worry, Jace; we’re going to have fun tomorrow.”
Goodnight Jace, I love you; you’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?