It’s easy to joke about. "Oh I'm so OCD! I just have to have everything perfect all the time!" I get it. I really do. There is a media stereotype that people with OCD are freakishly clean and organized. They are the people who straighten all of their pencils and have a label maker at the ready. I think of Delores Umbridge in Order of the Pheonix sitting in her perfectly symmetrical office and straightening that last pencil. But in real life, that isn't always the case. That's why I never thought that label would apply to me.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is defined by the National Institute for Mental Health as a "chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over." While there can be clear signs that someone has OCD, such as the compulsive need to have everything in perfect order, other signs are less obvious and not widely known.
(Now would also be a good time to note that my OCD is medically diagnosed and if you think that you may be struggling with it too, I highly encourage that you talk to your doctor, therapist, or other medical professional about it.)
I had the opportunity to work with a really great therapist in high school when I was struggling through some serious depression. When we were trying to get to the root of what was causing it, she found OCD and ADHD. Knowing very little at the time about what OCD really was I thought she was crazy. I am honestly the least organized and messy person I know. You should see my car. And my closet. And most of my life really. So how could someone as disorganized as me possibly fall into that category? Surely this lady had no clue what she was talking about. But then we started to discuss things that I did repetitively or multiple times daily that weren't completely necessary.
The first thing that came up was the stairs. I have to count the stairs as I am using them, up or down it does not matter. If I get distracted when walking them, I have to stop at the top or bottom and count them again to make sure my numbers are right. It is a totally useless habit that I started sometime when I was in middle school that has become a compulsion. I didn't think of it that way. I just assumed everyone counted things like that in some capacity, like ceiling tiles or coins.
While the stairs were the first indication, the kicker was honestly so embarrassing for me. It's my biggest repetitive habit and nobody ever sees. I cross my first two toes. Yes you read that right. I cross my big toe over my second toe almost any time that I am not walking. If I can't cross them, like if my shoes or socks are too constricting, I start to get anxious. Once I start getting anxious about it I start to get angry. The anger is almost an instant response that flares up like a shotgun blast. But somehow, crossing my toes gives me a reprieve from the anxiety. And that is one of the major signs of OCD that I never knew about until then. The act of preforming the behavior gives relief from the anxiety that is caused by not doing the behavior.
The seemingly simple act of me crossing my toes started to link into all of my little OCD ticks that I had developed. I wash my hands almost hourly even if I haven't done anything that warrants a hand washing. Leaving the house without taking a shower is an absolute panic inducing activity for me even if I have taken a shower the night before. Just the thought of it makes me freak out. If there are too many people talking at once, I often start to panic from the lack of organization in the conversation. When I am given a time to be somewhere, I have to arrive at the exact time given. Not early or fashionably late but exactly at 8:00 if that is the time you gave me. Not preforming these actions or preforming them out of order gives me extreme anxiety, panic, or mood swings.
These are just a few of my personal compulsions. The big ones that get to me the most. You might be able to tell by my little list why I had never thought of OCD being something that would affect me. They don't seem to fall into the categories that most associate with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But my therapist thought that this wasn't all. Maybe it was my constant leg jiggling or nail picking that gave it away but she paired my OCD with mild ADHD.
Why ADHD? Shouldn't the OCD diagnosis be the answer to all my weird habits? Not quite. As it turns out, my lack of impulse control and the ease in which I dissociate (In this case the psychological definition: dissociation is mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience) and general lack of emotions were compounding onto my OCD. Big apology to all my teachers that I have ever had here for not paying attention in class. Dissociating is something that I had done so regularly, and still do, that I completely thought it was normal until I discussed it with my therapist.
Pairing the ADHD with OCD made sense. It helped to explain why impulsively buying a pair of shoes made me mentally berate myself for a week after. But while this diagnosis brought a sense of hope, it also tugged a little cloud over my head. I was so overjoyed to know that there was a reason for these thoughts and actions but now I knew. I knew that it was all literally in my head and most of it was completely irrational. A newfound terror was mixed in with that relief of knowing. I started to sift through my life. What parts of me are compulsions? Obsessions? Irrational decisions? How much have I missed from dissociating? Suddenly I was adrift feeling like I didn't know who I really was any more. I’ve spent the past 6 years working that out.
Some days are harder than others. Trying to compartmentalize actions and sudden emotions that burst through can be incredibly draining. As you can imagine, OCD creates a lot of anxiety and working through that makes for the harder days. I have had to learn ways to mentally adjust to some of my compulsions and a few I have even managed to wean out (I only chew my nails now when I am under extreme stress so I consider that a win). It's not easy knowing that your mind is full of irrational thoughts and habits but being able to help myself through the knowledge of my OCD and ADHD has been absolutely priceless. I have learned that every day will give me something to work through. That it is a wonderful idea to celebrate the small victories because some days it takes all my strength to overcome the obsessive thoughts in my head.
While this is just a small corner of my OCD/ADHD life, I find that hearing other people discuss things that aren't usually talked about help us figure out ourselves. Everyone experiences OCD and ADHD in different ways and no two stories are alike. But if you think that you may be struggling with one, the other, or both, please don't be afraid to reach out and seek help.
Also, Mom if you are reading this, my therapist in high school diagnosed me with OCD and ADHD and I never formally told you. Now you know why I'm a little weird.
OCD info here.
ADHD info here.
Rhett and Link's fun song about OCD here.