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The One Part of Living With Mental Illness as a Child I Don't Talk About

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There’s a part of my childhood I don’t talk about much, but I always wonder about it.

My major diagnosis is borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a lifetime of misdiagnosis, I can accept that and work to mitigate what it does to me. I also have concurrent diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder. But at the age of 11, I went through a period of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that lasted around 18 months. It started with an infestation of flying ants in my bedroom which freaked me out.

When I would hear the telltale buzz, if I couldn’t find the critter, I would reach for the can of Raid and douse my bedroom. When my parents would peek in on me at night they gagged from all the bug spray. I was literally sleeping while waves of insecticide wafted over me.

I started methodically looking in the heat registers, the baseboards, in the closet and under my bed for these ants. It became a habit and then it became a ritual. And then, for reasons I still don’t understand, the counting compulsions started.

The nightly ritual started with checking, double-checking and triple-checking my bedroom. Then I would hide under the covers and begin to count in series of eights — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 — and repeat that eight times. And then repeat the series of numbers four times, and then two, and then I could try to fall asleep. The numbers always had to be even — 4, 8, 12,16 were the key numbers.

Then the tapping rituals started. I had to tap the inside of my door a certain (even) number of times before I could leave the bedroom. Slowly, this tapping to even numbers compulsion took over everything. If I inadvertently touched something, I had to touch it again.

In addition, I became a compulsive hand washer.

I believed, as many people with OCD do, that somehow these rituals would protect me — not just from the ants, but from all bad things. I figured I spent roughly two hours a day doing nothing but OCD behaviors. Being in school was a nightmare — I had to silently tap the underside of my desk to perform my rituals.

My parents never knew. My mom was very happy that I had learned to wash my hands before dinner though. She didn’t seem to see that I washed my hands about 20 to 30 times a day.

I gradually, very gradually, stopped doing all the rituals. I don’t know why. I knew the rituals made no sense, but for this period of time I couldn’t stop doing them. This episode came and went before I saw my first psychologist at the age of 14. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized what I did even had a name. By the way, thank you Howie Mandel.

The effects linger to this day. I still have an even numbers compulsion. I still catch myself tapping twice on a wall I brushed against. But the condition does not radically slow down my life as it did when I was 11 and 12.

I’m left wondering if my early battle with OCD was a harbinger of things to come? My childhood was stressful, but it was fairly constant stress. Other than the ants, I can’t think of any other triggers for it.

Studies show that OCD is sometimes accompanied by depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or other anxiety disorders. This may have been the case, but I can’t say for sure. The whole episode still confuses me to this day. I know “mild” OCD can go away on its own – but will it come back? It’s been 40 years — I hope not.

Or maybe I’m still performing rituals and I don’t realize it.

Every counselor I have had has no explanation for what happened to me – why my OCD started, why it went away, what it meant and if it had anything to do with my current conditions.

As it happens with mental illness, sometimes we are left with mysteries that are unsolvable.

But as I wrote this story, I was almost overcome by anxiety. I wonder what it means?

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Originally published: May 25, 2018
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