I’m Not OCD (and Neither Are You)
The article below is an anonymous submission.
What sort of thing crosses your mind when you wake up, or when you fall asleep? Do you think about your crush or the long work day ahead of you? Maybe you think about what outfit you’ll wear, or maybe you think about something embarrassing you said.
What I think about when I wake up usually isn’t something I can control. Sometimes, I turn on the cold water in the sink to wash my face when I meant to turn on the hot water, and a thought pops into my head, “Because you did the wrong thing, today is the day you die in a horrific car accident.” And that feels so real to me, so I turn the hot water on, and I wash my hands in it, making sure to ring them and rinse them five times. Then I feel somewhat okay, but driving to work is extremely difficult and scary. Sometimes, when I’m trying to fall asleep my brain tells me that my mom and my little brother died on their way back from church that evening. I text both of them and I get upset and scared if they don’t reply. And then, I worry that if they didn’t die before, they definitely will now that I’ve thought about it so much. My mind tells me that my thoughts will affect my reality, which I know is not true. And I know how it sounds to you, reader.
Let me just give you a brief background on myself. I’ve had anxiety since I was young. It stemmed from bullying, but it really got worse around my early teens like it does for so many of us. My social anxiety became so crippling at that age that I was dealing with something called selective mutism—I would not and could not speak to strangers. I couldn’t even remember what a conversation sounded like or what to say to a statement or question I wasn’t expecting. I still struggle with that, but my mom has been my biggest helper. She always told me, “Say at least three words to the next person who says something to you.” I was homeschooled during this time because I wasn’t really doing well in public school anymore, despite being a “gifted and talented” student before my depression hit. I skipped a grade, and finished high school at home. Just as that ended, I entered what would become a five year long abusive relationship. It’s difficult to speak about the details of that time, but what I will say is that the relationship made me a hypervigilant, overly apologetic, anxious, and broken person.
OCD and anxiety are often tied to trauma. “Checking” is a common compulsion, you may have heard about it. Checking locks several times, checking the oven, etc. At some level, this is normal! We all do it. But when it starts to control you, that’s when it gets really hard to live with. It’s hard for you and the people around you. I check with my family and friends about how they feel about me, if there’s something they aren’t telling me, and if they’re mad at me but not telling me. I pay close attention to facial micro-expressions in real life, or changes in punctuation or emojis over text. It’s not something I’m happy about or that I’m proud of. Truthfully, what I want is to be a person who can control her thoughts and choose how to react to them. I want to be able to drive past a random billboard without an intrusive thought telling me to read everything on it or I’m going to be hit head-on by a semi-truck. I want to ignore that thought instead of getting off the highway and turning around so that I can start over. Living with anxiety and OCD behaviors means that I’m at the mercy of my own irrational mind. And the worst part about it is that I’m aware of how unlikely it is for me to die in an elevator, but my mind tells me “27 people die in them annually, and you’re probably one of them.” That’s not fair. I know it’s irrational. But I can’t ignore it—I don’t have a choice.
What I want people to know is that this is what it feels like to have anxiety and OCD. It’s hard, it’s embarrassing, and it’s scary. It’s not a fun quirk. I enjoy cleaning and organizing, but that’s not what OCD means. I clean and organize and count to relieve anxiety from the constant intrusive thoughts that I have about dying. My little brother and I both share this anxiety, and he deals with Tourette’s syndrome on top of that. Neither of us feel in control a lot of the time and as a result we often feel anxiety or intense emotions. When we do feel in control, it’s such a huge relief. So I just want to urge anyone reading this to choose empathetic words when describing yourself. If you’re particular about your belongings, say that you’re particular, not that you are “OCD”. If you swear a lot, you swear a lot. You don’t have Tourette’s. Unless you do, and that’s why you swear.
I’m definitely not the first person to bring this up, but it’s hard to hear people say these things without thinking. I want to ask you to please be mindful and compassionate when you want to share a quirk about yourself. I love hearing about other people who organize things a certain way or about innovative cleaning hacks. But it hurts a little bit to hear “I’m so OCD” from somebody who maybe doesn’t know the suffering that comes with that label. I also want to ask my friends out there who live with this disorder to be patient with those people who don’t mean to cause harm. Use your voices to gently educate your community. We have OCD, but we aren’t OCD.