How Childhood Poverty Fueled My OCD


For the first decade of my life I was brought up in a middle class family. My father worked at the local bus garage as a foreman while my mother stayed at home, raising my sister and I. Shortly before my 11th birthday, my father had an unexpected blood clot to the brain which ended up changing all of our lives forever.

With my father’s left frontal lobe affected, he lost his ability to use his right arm and walks with a leg brace and cane. His speech, short term memory and motivational skills were heavily impacted, causing him to be unable to return to work in any capacity. My mother had to become a caregiver to my father while trying to raise two daughters, which then became an incredible financial challenge.

While my father was hospitalized for six months, my mother, sister and I developed a closer connection. We were all trying to grasp the tragedy that happened to my father while coping with the aftermath of his brain injury. Knowing I needed to do my part with the shift in our family dynamic, we were told we needed to use our resources sparingly to afford groceries. This is where I believe most of my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) traits originated from.

After having the opportunity to get treatment for my dermatillomania while on “The Doctors,” I’ve had to learn where each urge to pick my skin comes from and how I can simmer down this anxiety to prevent myself from engaging in the behavior. I’ve also had to recognize OCD has had a greater impact on my life than I initially thought. In order to try to break down patterns of problematic thinking, I’ve been confronted with many of my OCD traits — especially those related to poverty.

It started with little “quirks” like hanging up clothes to dry instead of using the coin-operated dryer in our apartment building to save quarters for the wash. While reasonable, I started implementing other rules such as re-wearing shirts a certain number of times to not be wasteful of each laundry load and hoarding certain foods in my room to make sure I was able to satisfy my hunger in case of an emergency.

We started replacing garbage bags with free grocery bags and bought simple foods in order to be able to feed all four mouths. Regular meals included mac n’ cheese, ramen, peanut butter sandwiches or soup. At the end of the month when my father’s money would come in, I would get a bit excited at the prospect of  my mother buying chicken or steak to go with peas or corn and potatoes. Unfortunately, she told me she stopped mashing our potatoes because of the extra costs associated with preparing whipped potatoes, so we ended up eating them lumpy instead.

Many of my childhood traits have bled into adulthood and sometimes, it causes me too much frustration to get the household chores done. In my four and a half year struggle with chronic pain, I am already limited in what I can do so I try to strategize scenarios that use the least amount of resources in my home while maximizing the amount I do (which has included cramming clothes in the washer for a full load).

When I look at dirty dishes in the sink, my mind gets bogged down by the idea of standing on both feet — for starters — and having to use the washcloth to clean them. If I use it a few times, it becomes dirty, as does the water, which would then cause me to refill the sink and use multiple cloths then feel guilty for being wasteful with water, dish soap, laundry soap and electricity. This type of stress has fed into my dermatillomania by causing me to subconsciously pick at my skin while trying to “find a solution” to a seemingly simple task.

I challenge myself by pushing through some of these obsessions despite the level of anxiety it incurs. On top of being on an antidepressant, I try to work through the feeling by combating cognitive distortions and accepting the discomfort of it, just like I learned with my dermatillomania treatment. I try to understand the origin of problem at hand, tell myself the nagging to feed the OCD will subside in time — even if it appears again the next day.

As a child, my method of survival was not only challenged by the trauma of my father’s life-threatening brain injury but also from the repercussions of having to scrape for coins to go to the store for soda or bread. When a child is unable to feel secure, knowing there is no money to pay for three meals a day, every day, it can bring about anxiety and an inability to cope with such a stressful situation.

As someone who has never had a self-sustaining income due to schooling or disability, it’s even more difficult to let go of the worries associated with using what you cannot personally replenish.

I have been lucky to have a husband who supports me in every way possible and encourages me not to be afraid of finances to the level I am. With my cupboards always filled with mac n’ cheese boxes and the panic that sets in when I only see six left, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to overcome all of my frugal traits. However, I am more capable of passing through intense moments of internal conflict thanks to my combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy for dermatillomania applied to my OCD.

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Thinkstock photo via Openeyed11.


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