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What Others May Not Understand About My 'Just Right OCD'

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Many of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms you may hear about are often connected to “bad things happening.” I might die of a disease if I don’t wash my hands for hours. My mum might die if I don’t repeat prayers in my head for hours. I might get fat if I don’t walk 10,000 steps a day (that’s one of mine).

Yet for some people struggling with OCD, their compulsions are not aimed at stopping something bad happening, but at doing things so they feel “just right.” This is sometimes referred to as, “just right OCD.”

Some compulsions, such as washing hands, are sometimes acted out to get that “just right feeling.” I’ve heard of people who don’t actually fear diseases, they simply have to wash their hands again and again until it “feels right.” But the main compulsions performed with this type of OCD are often around symmetry and balance.

Lining things up and arranging things are compulsions often used as cliches about OCD. People will say things like “I’m a bit OCD, I have to line up all my papers on the desk,” or “I need to arrange all the items in my cupboard by color.” Yes, these might be actual examples of compulsions experienced by those struggling with OCD, but what people may not understand is that they usually don’t do those compulsions because they “prefer it that way.” They do them because of the unbearable, uncomfortable feelings and anxiety they might experience if they don’t.

One of the first things that made a professional think I might have OCD was when I explained that if I’m going to get a yogurt out of the fridge, I’ll take one, but it will feel wrong and I’ll have to put it back and take another (identical) one until it “feels right.” I still do this, although I make myself eventually just take one and ignore the feelings. I have this same problem with things like cutlery and plates, and I’ve identified that I’m trying to take the one that was used longest ago because I want to balance things out. I think I’m trying to do the same with the yogurts, but I don’t know which one was touched most recently, so instead, I go on the feeling.

Some of the other things my OCD tells me I have to do to get that “just right” feeling include:

1. I have to touch things with both hands/feet. If I turn off a switch, for example, I then have to touch the switch with my other hand. I’ve ran down the road chasing a cat because I stroked it with one hand and then it ran off, but I had to stroke it with the other hand. I once deliberately burnt one of my thumbs because I accidentally burnt the other one with the iron. On a train once, I sat next to a man and accidentally brushed his leg with my hand. I knew I couldn’t touch his leg with my other hand, but resisting it made me feel like I was going “crazy.”

2. Things have to be complete. If someone draws a circle and doesn’t join up the ends, it will make me anxious and I’ll feel like I need to complete the lines. I was once in a meeting at work where a colleague had drawn a lot of arrows for her meeting notes. She had colored in all the arrows except one. I couldn’t stand it, so I had to take the paper from her and color the remaining arrow in.

3. Things have to be equal.  Another time I interrupted a meeting because there was a cursor blinking on the screen. The cursor was between words, but because it was closer to one word than the other, my brain couldn’t handle it. To make it equal, I felt like it had to move so that it was next to the other word. In the end, my boss just closed the whole page down for me. In another meeting, there were three bottles; bottles one and two were apart, and bottle three was touching bottle two. I had to move bottle three so they were all apart from each other, but my brain still wasn’t happy. It needed bottles one and two to then touch to make it all equal, so I had to move them again.

4. Number symmetry. If I see a number ending in nine, I have to see the number ending in one to feel balanced. For example, if I’m reading a book and I look at the page number and it’s 19, I’ll have to go ahead two pages and look at page number 21 — then it “feels right.” If I look at a digital clock and the time is 9:59, I’ll keep looking at it until it says 10:01. I find it hard to have the volume of the TV on a number ending in nine without going up to the number ending in one first, and then back down again. I was once in a restaurant with numbered tables and we were sitting at table nine. It made me so anxious because I couldn’t see table 11 to balance it. I tried to turn the number upside down so it said six instead. On the way out we passed table 11 and then I finally felt OK.

5. Adjusting my monitor at work.  When I arrive at work, I adjust the position of my computer monitor so it looks right. A few minutes later, it usually looks off and I have to move it again. I spend the whole day constantly adjusting the position, but it never seems to feel like it’s in the right place. Resisting moving it makes me feel anxious.

6. When I’m at the gym or on a train, I put my phone down facing one way. After a few minutes I have to move it so it’s facing the other way. A few minutes later I’ll want to move it back again. It needs to feel balanced, otherwise I get anxious.

Some people struggling with OCD will do similar things because their brains might be telling them something bad will happen otherwise. For example, maybe they think someone will die if they don’t touch the wall with both hands.

I don’t experience that, but that doesn’t mean the compulsions are any easier to resist. The nearest analogy for how I feel if I don’t do these compulsions is that it’s like a really bad itch that I’m trying not to scratch. It feels unbearable if I don’t do it. For example, during the incident with the arrows, I felt so anxious at the fact that there was one arrow without color that I considered walking out of the meeting. I just couldn’t sit there and tolerate the anxiety I felt at leaving it alone. I felt like I was “losing my mind.” Many people without OCD have often told me these are just “quirks,” but I hope I have shown how much distress they can cause, even if there are no “bad consequences” per se.

I also have tics that are a result of trying to achieve that “just right” feeling. It feels uncomfortable if I don’t do them. I have read that it’s common for people with “just right” OCD to also have tics. I think they are just another form of compulsion.

My therapist has advised that, even though these compulsions may not seem that important, I really need to acknowledge them in order to help me recover from OCD.

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Unsplash photo via Cristian Newman

Originally published: September 26, 2017
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