Just the other day, I scrolled by this image on Facebook. This image, shared casually by thousands of people, has it wrong. I wasn’t happy to see it. I wasn’t happy to face the reality that another person didn’t understand the truth behind those three letters.
I sat in AP Psychology during my senior year of high school watching a video of a man wringing his hands every time he saw an El Camino. He lived in constant fear. He couldn’t escape the compulsion to react in this routine way. I didn’t understand how a car could cause such intense anxiety. But he and I weren’t so different, and I understood more than I thought.
It was me who stood at my locker after school, eyes darting from my books to my backpack to my books to my backpack, running through my class schedule period by period 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th lunch ok, 6th, 7th, 8th. Then again. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, skip 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th checking off what I needed to get done that night for each class. Then I’d pull out my trusty planner to check my assignments and recheck that I had loaded my backpack accordingly. Over and over. A friend would stand to my left telling me we’d be late for cross country practice if I didn’t hurry. Well, great. Now, I have to start over. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m almost done.” I tried to ignore their urging so I could do my thing without having to return to my locker after practice. I didn’t enjoy this. The friend would say, “you have it all; let’s go,” and I felt silly. Occasionally, I’d try to just load it all up quick and go to the locker room at the same time as everybody else getting ready for after-school practice, only to find myself back to the locker afterward. And when other students weren’t around, I could really go at it. Checking, rechecking, until something in me clicked, and I left. Brain continuing its mental checks on the way home. I couldn’t escape the endlessness of my thoughts – boomeranging from the back to the forefront of my mind. My alone time was both dreaded and needed. I had to check to feel OK, but ugh, it was so annoying. What would happen if I ignored this compulsion? SUCH anxiety. So much fear. Of what? That I would forget something, that I wouldn’t do an assignment or study for a test, that I would fail said assignment or test, fail the class, disappoint my teachers, let myself down, never be enough. Realistic? No. In hindsight, that is apparent. But in that moment, nothing – no voice of reason – could have pulled me away from my urge to check.
This obsession with perfection and people pleasing manifested itself in other ways, too. The most striking in my memory was a trip to Disney World – one of my most favorite places on this good green earth. I had one of those uber rad pin lanyards and was ALL about it. The pins were $$$, and my parents made sure we knew it. So it was all I could do to make sure it didn’t get lost or stolen. I kept it on me all day, despite its heavy, itching, HOT presence making me rather uncomfortable. Before going on Space Mountain, my mom offered to hold it while my sister and I rode. Reluctant and relieved, I surrendered it. I can still see myself just outside of the Space Mountain gift shop handing it to my mom. Probably because the entire time we were in line, I was replaying this mental video in my head. Just like at my locker, this scene would make its rounds in my mind. I’d check every last detail – scrutinizing my passing it to my mother, our hands touching, the lanyard not falling, her placing it in her bag. I would feel a moment’s peace, and then I would begin to doubt where the lanyard was, so I pulled the image back to the forefront of my mind and let it play out all over again. The relief I felt when the pin lanyard was back around my neck was instantaneous. And yet, my mind was not satisfied. Something was set off in me, and I found myself checking more and more throughout the day. I’d replay attractions in my mind to validate the reality that we did, in fact, ride them. I suppose I didn’t want to forget, even for a moment, that I was experiencing my sweet Disney World on this day. Ironically, all I remember was my mind exhaustively checking my every move. A sad thing, really. It stole from me.
My checking compulsion, fueled by an obsession with perfection and fear of loss, was unpredictable otherwise. Sometimes something would set it off. Other times, it was like my brain needed something to chew on, so it would find some conversation, some situation, some item to fixate on, fact check, overanalyze until something new took its place. I equate this compulsive checking to a skipping CD – stuck on the same track, bouncing back to the beginning of the song only to make it a few seconds in and return to the beginning. Watching a movie or reading a book that had any sort of complexity would cause me to check parts throughout so I knew I was understanding the storyline perfectly. If that took pausing the movie/book, so be it. If pausing wasn’t an option, I’d just do a quick check during another part of the movie/book and be playing catch up throughout the rest. Even my prayer life was affected. Praying would cause me to check that I’d prayed for everything on my mental list. Thus, my time watching movies, reading books, and spending time with Jesus (all things I really enjoy) were being robbed. My compulsions were not as predictable or odd-appearing as Mr. El Camino, but they were just as intrusive and internally disruptive.
Fast forward several years of quiet suffering, and I began realizing my mind wasn’t functioning normally. The fishbowl of college will really let you in on how you compare to others. I would share my thoughts with others, and some would outright tell me, “that’s not normal,” “I’d get that checked out,” “have you considered therapy?” Offended by these responses, and angry at myself for living victim to this for so long, I turned to a time of depression covered up by an excessive focus on making myself funny and pretty. Eventually, I went to a psychiatrist to be diagnosed with GAD. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I always knew I was an anxious person – all throughout my childhood I was called a worry-wart – so this made sense. Finally, an answer. I found many others struggled with this, too, and I worked through ways to cope, including medication. It wasn’t until two years later, I began seeing a new therapist and psychiatrist. In this time of transition, they asked for a thorough backstory and a detailed summary of my present state. After hashing out my life story and sharing with them the previously assigned GAD, they both were shocked with the misdiagnosis. “No, no. You have OCD.” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. An anxiety disorder still but one marked with less, well, generalized anxiety, and more definitive anxious thoughts and habits.
I wasn’t so sure about it at first. After all, I took an advanced placement psychology course in high school. I knew what this OCD thing was. I don’t turn the stove on and off for fear of starting a fire, or turn on/off the faucets for fear of flooding the bathroom, or wring my hands and count out loud when I see an El Camino pass me on the street. My therapist explained that these stories were extreme cases, obvious to onlookers. Truth is, these obsession fueled compulsions happened to me, too. But for me, both were hidden. Nobody ever knew – FOR YEARS. Nobody had reason to suspect either. I was successful, happy, and appeared “normal.” Oh, but that mental turmoil.
Clarifications: we probably all have compulsions, urges, anal tendencies, but unless they 1.) stem from an underlying obsession (if I don’t, then…) and 2.) interfere with daily life functioning, they are fine. Mine got in the way of making it places on time, paying attention to and enjoying present moments and conversations, being able to step away or move on from a task, sleeping, eating, praying, reading, writing, etc. (Even now, as I sit here writing, my husband is waiting for me to go somewhere. I cannot just save and quit. I have to get my thoughts out. Read them. Edit them. Check them. Check them again. I can’t forget. As he continues to rush me, I bite the skin by the side of my thumbnail, my head spins, anxiety rages. I want to just shut my computer and leave, but it is not that simple. So we’re late a lot, and it’s always because of this.)
Three letters and a few years later, I still struggle, but I have found ways to manage the O and the C, and I have learned so much about myself in the process. I know that packing is not good for me. I know that some days leaving work at a normal hour is not a realistic goal. I know that if I’m in an anxious place, watching a detailed movie is not a wise decision. Therapy and medication have helped. I have had to give myself permission to think the things that cross my mind but not allow them to rule over me. I have had to deal with the discomfort of only checking once or twice instead of my usual. And more than anything, I have had to give myself gallons of forgiveness. Some days I win, and other days end in defeat. I still worry more than the next person, but I am much more functional and free than ever before. Thank you, Jesus! And I hope my story of struggle can help another feel some sense of normalcy, or at least a sense of belonging.
I share all of this for two reasons 1.) vulnerability gives me freedom and may help another to not feel so alone and 2.) if I were to simply say, “I have OCD,” and leave it at that, many people would assume I am either as intense as my friend with the El Camino obsession OR just a very organized, anal person. I fall in the middle, so either assumption would be very incorrect. So now it’s time I make a distinction and set a few things straight, because we as society have the three letters O.C.D. terribly mixed up. OCD looks different for each individual – no two obsessions or compulsions may be the same, and the intensity of the symptoms can vary from person to person or may be heightened during a particular season or situation in one’s life. OCD is not an adjective. It is a noun. It is not something you are. It is something you have. OCD is not the same as being hyper-organized or clean. Color-coding is not OCD. A meticulous desk drawer is not OCD. Needing to have things your way is not OCD.
Just as in the image shared above, these three letters are used incorrectly so often. And quite frankly, it makes my skin crawl. It is making light of a disorder that is real and destructive.
In college during a group project, a member of the group wanted things to be her way -straight lines, matching colors, everything spelled correctly. She says, “I am so OCD about that.” No, you’re not. You are particular. You have a preference, but you will be just fine if it doesn’t go your way.
In reference to a keeping neat bathroom, I heard someone say, “I’m OCD about my towels.” Nope, wrong again. You are organized and clean. You have a preference, but you will be just fine if it doesn’t go your way.
In reference to having folders color coded in grade school, I hear, “I used to be so OCD.” Again, no. You, too, were just organized and particular. You had a preference, but you would have been just fine if it hadn’t gone your way.
For me it looks like this, “I have to check my lessons plans at school for a few hours, and I might miss dinner. I have OCD.” It is not a preference, and I will not be fine if it doesn’t go my way.
The adjectives of neat, clean, organized, particular, and the like, cannot be exchanged for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A disorder is not something you are. It is something you have. OCD is an anxiety disorder, a mental illness; it is not a scapegoat you can hide behind to get out of everyone thinking you just want things your way. The few I know who actually struggle with OCD never use it incorrectly. They know it isn’t a character trait or an every day preference. It is not something that can be “made happy” by coloring inside the lines. It is an issue in their mind and with their mind, and it is certainly not something they’d feel comfortable throwing out in a flippant conversation. It is not a condition to be taken lightly. It is serious. More so for many others than for myself. And many of those others may never say a word.
As I so avidly advocate for ending the r-word (“retard”), I also advocate for correct use of the term OCD. It is used far too commonly in the wrong way. Ignorance is a fair claim for now. But hopefully, not for too much longer.