This Is What OCD Looks Like for Me
If I could sum up what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is for me, it would be control. Controlling the chaos in my brain, and my surroundings. A way to bring a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic world around me. It is a never-ending loop of intrusive thoughts, rituals and coping mechanisms. It’s perfectionism with a twist.
When I was preparing to write this piece, I thought back over the years to my first memory of an intrusive thought. I was 6 years old, and I had received one of the most sought-after toys of the early 80’s — a Cabbage Patch doll. My symptoms may have begun before that time, (memories from childhood are fuzzy at best, non-existent at worst), but this was my first true memory of an intrusive thought.
When you adopt a Cabbage Patch doll, it comes with an “application” for a birth certificate that you send in through the mail. On this birth certificate, there is a place for you (the parent), and a “witness” to sign. My mom was in the room with me when I signed it, and I asked her to be my “witness.” She must have been busy because I wrote in the witness space, “I saw you sign it.”
I understand now this wasn’t a legally binding contract, or birth certificate, but in my 6-year-old brain it was. It was vitally important to me that my mom sign this document saying I signed it. The intrusive thought that followed was, “mom has to sign this.”
I can’t say for sure what prompted this intrusive thought and fear. Maybe I was afraid the Cabbage Patch social workers would come take my doll away from me if I didn’t have a witness signature. Or, maybe it was something I needed because that’s what the document was asking for. I don’t know. All I know is, it was important to me.
Evolution of Symptoms
My symptoms have evolved over the years. When I was living at home, I needed order. The top of my dresser was always neatly organized. My clothes were folded and put away. My possessions were always well kept, and in order. A never-ending process when you share a room with a messy sibling.
It was my way of controlling the inner chaos within me. If my outer surroundings were in order, my mind was calm. When my outer surroundings were a mess, as was a regular with my sister, my symptoms increased. I couldn’t stand having things strewn about the floor, and I would clean our bedroom on a regular basis, much to the irritation of my sister. (I would throw her things away sometimes, only because I couldn’t stand the mess anymore.)
Today, living on my own, the need to have my outside surroundings clean isn’t a priority. I have clean clothes on top of my dresser and in a laundry basket because I haven’t had time to fold them. This would have been intolerable for me growing up. However, intrusive thoughts and rituals replaced tidiness and perfectionism.
Rituals and Intrusive Thoughts
About five years ago, I began learning about OCD. I knew in my heart that I had this disorder, but there was still that nagging dread in the back of my mind. Something telling me I was making it up, that I did not have OCD. But the more I read, the clearer it became that I did. The only thing holding me back was, did I have intrusive thoughts? I would read stories here on The Mighty about people who struggled with OCD and they would talk about having intrusive thoughts, but they never explained what that meant.
Therefore, I feel it is so important to share my intrusive thoughts and rituals behind them, so that others can learn and heal as well. Some of my intrusive thoughts are:
- My house will burn down if I leave, or when I go to bed. I have two rituals I do before I leave the house that help me ward off these thoughts. I tell each of my two cats goodbye, that I’m leaving for work or going out, and I’ll be back soon. On the way out the door I say, “I love you kiddos. Be good and have a sleepy kitty day. I’ll see you later.” This last part I repeat several times until the knot in my stomach un-clenches.
- When I go to bed, I tell each of my kitties “goodnight,” and “I love you.” When I lay down in bed, I say it again and add, “Sleep good kiddos. I’ll see you in the morning.” I must say this before I turn off the light because my intrusive thought tells me I will die in my sleep if I don’t say it.
- If I don’t clearly remember locking my front door before I go to bed, my intrusive thought will tell me I need to check for sure. If I don’t check, this thought will tell me someone will come in and rob my house or hurt me while I sleep.
- I have the intrusive thought of getting into an accident if I don’t say a protection prayer when I travel out of town. My ritual for coping with this thought is to say, “Please allow me to arrive with no accidents and no flat tires. Please let me live.” One of my greatest fears is having a flat tire or accident as I’m barreling down the interstate. This prayer becomes a mantra as I’m driving and calms my nerves.
Coping With My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Clinically speaking, my OCD is mild, but personally it is anything but. I can still leave the house, but some days it is a struggle. There have been many days when my leaving-the-house ritual takes so long that I’m within minutes of being late for work. On my days off from work, I stay home because my anxiety keeps me from leaving. I can’t fall asleep easily some nights because my anxiety is high, even after doing my bedtime ritual.
But I have found ways to cope with these daily challenges. I stay mindful of my anxiety level, and the feelings associated with that anxiety. When my anxiety is high at night, I try to go to bed a little earlier so my mind has time to unwind. During the day, before work, I will try to leave the house a few minutes early to allow myself time to do my ritual on the way out the door.
I haven’t found a way to suppress my OCD symptoms; only ways to cope with them. It’s a never-ending loop of reinforcement. Intrusive thought — ritual to cope — nothing bad happens — repeat. However, that doesn’t mean I must let my disorder rule my life. Constant vigilance and mindfulness help me get through one day at a time.
Follow this journey on My Sober Ashes.
Getty image via Elena Shikova.