How Gardening Helps Me Redefine Perfection as Someone With OCD
I cannot overstate how alienating and distressing obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can be. By definition, OCD is an anxiety disorder that produces intrusive thoughts that lead to excessive feelings of uneasiness and apprehension. These feelings are so intolerable, sufferers are compelled to act on certain behaviors or rituals to help mitigate their torturous thoughts.
To make matters worse, the majority of us can recognize our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are irrational and often inappropriate, but we feel powerless to stop them. We know it’s illogical, but can’t seem to help ourselves. I know I certainly can’t.
Like any black and white thinker, I’m notorious for struggling with completing projects because I fear my work will be interpreted as less than perfect. My intense fear of making the “wrong decision” has often rendered me paralyzed. Everything I do needs to be “done right” or “perfect” to my standards, and I always set the bar too high for myself. Thus, I set myself up for failure.
I’m in the half of adults with OCD who had a childhood-onset of the disorder. Around the age of 6 years old, I recall becoming unnaturally concerned with symmetry. Objects in my childhood home had to be lined up perfectly straight, facing the same direction or equidistant from each other. I became especially meticulous with the state of my bedroom. Any deviation from the “perfect placement” of objects caused me extreme distress.
In middle school, I would often avoid having friends over because they would “mess up” the perfect organization in my room. I was appalled at their carelessness; how they would casually pick up an object and then put it down in a different location or condition. They would sit on my perfectly made bed and rumple the covers. I couldn’t cope. To avoid the torture of seeing my perfect organization torn asunder, I would usually arrange playdates or sleepovers to take place at my friends’ houses, rather than my own. Frequently, I wouldn’t even allow myself to sleep in my bed in order to avoid the anxiety of having to go through the bed-making process the next morning.
In high school, things got progressively worse. My clothes closet held garments which I had painstakingly arranged in order of color and category. Each hanger faced the same direction and was evenly spaced. Visiting girlfriends would naturally be inclined to browse through the closet, wanting to see if there was anything they might like to borrow. As an insecure teenager, I was concerned with appearing “normal,” so I endured the destruction and disruptions, telling myself it would be OK; I would “fix” everything when they left.
Around this time, my desperate need for perfection turned inward, and the focus became having a perfect body at any cost. Anorexia nervosa and then later, bulimia nervosa took over, and I still battle the urges at varying degrees on any given day.
Besides the daily battle with eating disordered behaviors, my obsessive compulsive nature dictates that my schedule must be rigidly followed, my workouts must be executed without deviation, my bed must be made perfectly, my refrigerator must be stocked with labels facing out, and that I meet plenty of other time-consuming, irrational and humiliating “requirements”.
My gardening has been the one area of my life that exists outside the perfectionistic bubble. There’s so much work to be done and tending to do, I simply don’t have the time or energy to fuss over whether rows of crops are symmetrical. Nature positively defies me by growing my plants to varying heights and widths. I have no control over it, and there’s a sense of peace and freedom in knowing and accepting that. Yesterday, while chatting on the phone with my mom and somewhat distractedly pulling weeds from my front yard garden, I came face to face with perfection:
Perfection! The tallest sunflower’s bloom had finally opened, revealing the most perfect sunflower I have yet encountered. But even though the bloom is perfect, it’s a different height from all the other sunflowers. It doesn’t match with the others and the row is uneven. Right now, the pouring rain is most likely causing some petals to fall to the ground. The perfect sunflower is, in fact, imperfect. Nothing is perfect in my garden. Not one thing in the whole of my front, side or back yards is perfect.
And I’ve learned that is perfection.
Follow this journey on Salt and Pepper the Earth.
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