I think I’m a glutton for punishment in terms of what I watch on TV. First Bojack Horseman and now a documentary that spotlights several stories in a British pediatric psych ward. Barring the years I dealt with extreme childhood anxiety, I wasn’t officially diagnosed with OCD until the age of seventeen, so I technically spent just one year as a pediatric psychiatric patient. I was also never institutionalized (came pretty close last year though, but it wasn’t for OCD).
Since I now have few ritualized compulsions left (save hand washing and showering), I tend to forget how OCD wreaked havoc on my life for a long time before I actually realized I had a mental illness and wasn’t just annoying. I still have some, I guess, precautionary compulsions like disposable utensils, “safe” foods, and not using public restrooms, but as far as compulsions like getting in the shower at exactly 9:24 pm, shampooing for three minutes, washing my body for two minutes, washing out conditioner and soap for four minutes, and exiting at exactly 9:33 pm every single night, I’m thankful to be free of those. They’re utterly exhausting.
Watching a fifteen-year-old girl struggle with OCD, however, dredged up a lot of my suppressed memories of OCD. As she sat on the edge of her bed tapping her feet on the floor for however many times, I suddenly recalled all the nights I couldn’t sleep because I refused to lie on my sheets. Even the clean ones felt “contaminated.” I would sit in one spot on the floor all night long, too scared to touch anything I didn’t have to touch. When I could lie in my bed, I didn’t use a blanket, and my mom would come into my room and cover me up as I shivered in my sleep. My bedtime ritual itself was two hours long. My morning ritual took less time, but each aspect of it was under a strict time constraint. I forget how debilitating that was.
I wouldn’t eat. I either thought my food was poisoned or contaminated. I lost so much weight that everyone assumed I was anorexic because my behavior around food was much like that of an anorexic patient, but my fear wasn’t weight-gain. It was germs. Once I began losing the weight, however, I was scared to gain it back.
I withdrew from my friends, and even teachers noticed my change in behavior. I would come home from school and go directly to bed. Long story short, my OCD sent me into a depressive spiral, and the high comorbidity rate of OCD and Bipolar Disorder now makes sense.
My panic attacks looked like stupors, and people laughed when I wouldn’t move until it was over. If I had a dime for every time someone said, “just stop” when I showed any OCD symptoms, I’d never have to work a day in my life. To this day, I get, “you use a lot of water,” “you waste too many paper towels,” and “you don’t need to wash your hands,” and I’m just like, “I know. I feel guilty about it. Don’t remind me!”
People who don’t suffer from OCD will never understand the true nature of intrusive thoughts. From seeing my bloodied corpse in the middle of the road to immediately thinking a family member is dead because of something I did when they don’t call back to being convinced I could be possessed by a demon at any minute (on repeat, I might add), they aren’t just unpleasant. They’re violent. They can even be morally reprehensible. They made and make me incredibly uncomfortable in my own mind, which leads me to why people who don’t have obsessions can never understand compulsions either.
I don’t know if there’s anything analogous to them in the mentally healthy world. It’s easy to put obsessions into words – well not emotionally, but literally – but compulsions make less sense. They stem from needing things to be “just right” to ensure that an obsession won’t come true, but extreme tidiness is by no means a prerequisite for obsessive-compulsive people. It’s about counting to the “just right” numbers, wearing the “just right” colors, eating the “just right” foods, taking the “just right” number of steps in each sidewalk block, only doing certain things on “just right” days, showering until a “just right” clean, not moving until the “just right” time, etc. The fear that not doing these things will lead to a scary obsession actually happening is what makes it impossible to just stop.
OCD is basically a horrible, invisible person that whispers my worst fears into my ear constantly and hovers over me as I do my compulsions. The only way to feel safe is to do them. It’s like the safety of holding a gun to my own head. At least I control when I pull the trigger, and then, even that control is an illusion.
After a compulsion is over, the relief is like an extremely amplified version of when you adjust the seat in a car and you feel it click into place a few minutes later. That only lasts until the next obsession. Of course, sometimes it takes a series of compulsions to quell one obsession, and they have to be done every day because the clock is like a reset button on all the horrible things OCD tells me can go wrong.
I say this because sometimes I romanticize the illusion of control OCD gave me. Sometimes, I want to be coddled with that false sense of security, but then I watch things like that documentary and I have flashbacks to the paranoia and the panic. That’s the legacy OCD left: a constant looking over my shoulder and a nagging sense that I have forgotten to do something that will lead to my worst fears becoming reality.