Why I'm No Longer Mad at the Girl From High School Who Misused 'OCD'


We all took our seats just as the bell rang for class to begin. Mr. Harris began passing out the tests and I immediately began to feel my heart start to race. The feeling of crippling anxiety took total hold of me. Sure, high school history wasn’t my favorite subject, but I was prepared for this test, and I knew it. However, that wasn’t the reason for this rising anxiety.

My heart sank as I looked down at the test. It wasn’t multiple choice this time; I wouldn’t simply be able to fill in the circles and move on to the next question. Now, with the knowledge each test question would have to be answered in multiple sentences, I began to panic as I realized how many shapes I would have to perfect as I crafted each letter to complete each answer.

I made it through the first couple of words before I had to write the letter P. I started from the bottom up, first drawing the line and then circling around to form the oval. As I finished drawing, I realized the end of the oval extended past the straight line. Knowing the letter wasn’t perfect, I needed to fix it, and began to erase and rewrite. I rewrote that letter and had a perfect second P. However, at that time, three was my “lucky” number. So, I erased and rewrote: however, the third P wasn’t perfect. So, logically to me, I now had to successfully erase and rewrite the letter P nine times (that would be three P’s, three times). There was a lot of pressure to get that final ninth P perfect or else I would have to multiply those nine P’s times three and do it again.

I messed up the ninth P. Finally, after erasing and rewriting the letter P 27 times, I was able to move on to the next letter, an A. 27 more times. The letter after the A was a T and once again, I had to erase and rewrite that letter 27 times as well — to complete the cycle of writing three consecutive letters 27 times. As I got to the fourth letter I realized if I messed that letter up, I’d have to begin erasing that one, too (thus messing up my pattern of three) I began to really panic, knowing that, should that happen I would then have to erase and rewrite the next five letters 27 times each (that would equal erasing and rewriting nine consecutive letters 27 times). 25 minutes had already passed and I had only written a couple of words in this very long test. I began to shake. As I felt the tears begin to well up, I decided to step outside for a minute.

There were two girls in front of me at the water fountain. One had a sip of water and began walking away before quickly turning back.

“Let me fill up my water bottle real quick,” she said. “I’m so OCD.”

As I began walking back to the classroom, I knew I couldn’t let myself begin to write. I decided I would sit through the test and talk to my teacher afterward. He’d understand.

So I sat there for the rest of the class with pencil in hand pretending to be engaged in the test. As I sat there, I could feel my mind was about to punish me for not being strong enough to continue with the erasing and rewriting. It told me to count. I counted to 80. “Again,” it said. I counted to 80 again. “Again.” “Again.” “Again.” “Again.” By the time the bell rang I was noticeably in tears and had counted to 80 — 55 times.

***

The other day, almost 12 years later, I was reminded of the ironic scene at my high school’s water fountain while lounging in New York’s Washington Square Park.

“Hold on one sec,” I heard a guy yell to his friends. “I need to tie my shoes, ” he said, before adding: “I’m so OCD.” He tied them in less then five seconds and then ran off. 

I smiled to myself. 

When I got home that night I was inspired to revisit the journal I kept during high school.

April 2004

It now takes me over four hours to get in bed. I am able to get in bed only after four hours of fixing, touching, balancing, rearranging, hoarding things next to my bed, hiding all the scissors, perfectly placing my cell phone into the charger many times, turning the lights on and off many times, looking over and over at one picture of my grandparents, looking at the same picture many more times — these times, while blinking — touching every corner in every room, combing my hair excessive times, washing my hands, looking behind every piece of furniture, behind every corner in every room many times, smiling into the mirror many times, opening and closing doors, fixing “wrong” steps, entering and exiting rooms a certain amount of times. Sometimes, I get in bed after the four hours of compulsions, and my dog comes into the room adjacent to mine. My mind tells me I have to get up to pet her or else I don’t love her. Of course I get up and pet her, and then it takes me four more hours to get back in bed.

***

I used to get angry whenever I’d hear someone refer to what usually was nothing more than a minor delay as having obsessive compulsive disorder, but now I don’t. 

I didn’t realize back then that, most likely, the word OCD became part of these people’s vocabularies because of the frequent, casual usage of the term in TV and movies; these people almost certainly did not pick up the word from those who were actually suffering. 

Back then, and struggling at the time with a severe form of the disorder, hearing these references made me feel, in a way, possessive of the term, which only made me feel angry. 

I sure do wish TV, books and movies wouldn’t so casually throw around the term OCD, but in the meantime, I’m not bothered by people wrongly using the term. Here’s why:

There comes a point on nearly every second or third date I go on when the lady I’m out with opens up and tells me her “stuff.” Back in high school, when the pretty girls were running around, smiling and casually saying that they had OCD, it seemed impossible to me that maybe they were suffering from something, too. How wrong I was. 

Everyone has their stuff. OCD is a term that’s part of pop culture vocabulary, and even though some people may be misusing it, it’s possible that by hearing it, some will be inspired to find out what it actually is. I think it’s a very good thing — with great potential — that most people, in the very least, are familiar with the term OCD.

I’m a pianist, and music was a big help for me during that difficult period. Towards the end of those dark days, I reached out to legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollings via the guestbook on his website to tell him how much his music helped me during a rough period in my life dealing with OCD. I was shocked when he responded. “Dear Joe,” he wrote. “Your comments were appreciated. We all have to use adversity as an opportunity to find a way. So keep a strong mind throughout this short existence. Your examples give us all hope, as all of us here in this life have to struggle.”

Now, quite a few years after cognitive behavior therapy helped put those rough days behind me, I see how right Mr. Rollins was: OCD was nothing more than the greatest opportunity in the world to strengthen my mind and myself.

I know it’s hard to see it during the darkest of days, but I am truly thankful for that experience and know I would be nowhere near as successful and happy as I am today had it not been for OCD. That’s why now, when I hear the term used wrongly with no desire to explore what it truly means, this is what I have to say to them: your loss! 

Everything about me that makes me happy about who I am today is thanks to having dealt with OCD. 

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


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