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Why Even Making a Cup of Tea Is Exhausting With OCD

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

People seem to understand that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder, but it is still a very much misunderstood. My daughter calls me “anal” because I want — I need — things done a certain way. People think it just means you clean a lot, but it is so much more than that. For me, OCD even has physical symptoms. OCD has a life of its own that I want nothing to do with, like an annoying roommate who will not move out. It takes up so much time that it creates a mental strain just thinking about doing physical things. I have been accused of being “controlling,” and I guess I am in a way. But, it is not to be in charge. I would give anything to not care about the shoes not being lined up just so. But, these are things I am compelled to do, or my skin crawls. It is like having electricity running through my body, but instead of being energy, it is taking energy. It is exhausting to have OCD because it is way more than a cleaning issue.

OCD is agonizing at times. I am physically uncomfortable when things are not “just so.” I get muscle tension, headaches and stomach upset. While I used to like cleaning, it has become harder since I developed fibromyalgia from a car accident injury. Now, my body does not want to co-operate with my mind when it is compelled to do the things I do. Things that are out of place make me so anxious I would rather clean someone’s entire kitchen than sit there with a sink full of dirty dishes. But, with fibromyalgia, giving in to my compulsions can end up with me being in so much pain because I have to finish doing whatever I start. I will not be able to do anything for several days after. However, the mental anguish often wins over the promise of physical pain, and I push myself in order to quiet my brain.

OCD will torture me about the stupidest things. My grandmother used to say, “a place for everything and everything in its place.” OCD takes it a step further. Everything has a place, a position, and a “right” way to be placed in said position. So, not only do the green beans go in the pantry — they go in the pantry, on the second shelf with all the other vegetables, next to the corn, lined up into rows with the other green beans, starting at the edge of the shelf with the labels facing out. Everything is categorized with like items, stacked a certain way and facing a certain way. My pantry resembles a store front, neatly stocked. If something is out of place, I feel out of place. Clothes must be folded a certain way, food goes on a specific shelf in the fridge, knick-knacks must sit at a certain angle when they are displayed; even this article has to be gone over several times. It ultimately took me three hours to write this, but I still won’t be satisfied. I will end up finishing it because I am tired. And, I’m a double Psychology college student, so this is a problem I have often, taking up hours and sometimes days of my time.

Everything has to be done in a systematic way, or it is just not right. There is an order to everything. Vacuum the floor in a pattern, walk my dog on the same route each day, shop in the store by starting in the back. Shampoo, condition, wash my body, then my face in the shower — in that order. If I step away from the pattern in which I do things, I feel as though I will miss a step. I will forget something at the store, even if I have a list. I will not be walking the dog long enough, or I will forget a step in getting ready. While it feels as though I have figured out the best way to do things, it also feels like I will screw up if I do it differently. There is a certain satisfaction in opening a door or a drawer and seeing things looking… perfect. Having my house freshly cleaned is almost better than sex. It is the best I feel, physically and mentally.

And, there are rituals. The way my OCD works, there is a reason behind the way I do everything.

Take the way I make my tea, for instance.

I make my tea in the same cup every time, even though I usually do not finish 2/3 of it. I use a Starbucks cup with a lid, because it keeps the tea hot for several hours. It must be made the way I do it, because it is the most time efficient way. It takes three minutes (yes, I have timed it) for the water to boil — exactly the amount of time it takes to put the creamer, sugar and tea bags into the cup.

First, I put the water on to boil, using the same small pot every time. I get out the cup and everything that will go in it. The creamer goes in first (powdered, never liquid, because that would affect the temperature of the tea which needs to be hot enough to scald), then the sugar, then the bags. The tea bag strings need to be tied together, so they stay together. The water needs to be poured over the tea bags to get the maximum amount of flavor from them. The tea bags need to be placed with the ends of the tied-together strings as close as possible to the edge of the cup, so they hang down into the cup as far as possible, staying in contact with the water as long as possible (also to get the maximum flavor available). And, the lid needs to be screwed onto the cup, so the strings are not hanging near the opening of the lid, where I drink from.

By the time I finish making it, I am too mentally and physically exhausted to drink it, so it sits a while before I drink any of it. If someone offers to make it for me I panic, knowing they cannot make it the way I would and explaining how takes as much energy as simply doing it myself. Therefore, it would not be made correctly. That thought is so unsettling for me that I have to make it myself, or not have any at all.

While OCD is defined as a mental illness, it comes with physical symptoms, too. Doing everything a certain way is time-consuming and drains your energy, especially doing it day after day. But it is not something I can control. If you know someone who has OCD, try to be compassionate. Try to understand it really is something they cannot control, and they would probably get rid of it if they could. Because no matter how organized or together someone seems to be, OCD is exhausting. It will drain everything from you, so try not to take what little energy your loved one has left. Instead, simply ask them what you can do to help and how to do it. Do not laugh at them or argue that you have a better way, because their brain will not allow them to agree with you, no matter how badly they want to.

Imagine someone living in your brain, like an Army commanding officer, who is telling you how to do things. If you do not get it done, there will be a penalty. That is what OCD is like.

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Originally published: August 23, 2017
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