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When OCD Is the Carnival Ride That Never Stops Spinning

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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 the International OCD Foundation’s website.

Imagine, if you will, that various mental illnesses form a carnival. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) is your map through each ride, guiding you from one to the next. Every carnival ride comes with a different description and feel, creating a series of sensations, but only driven on terror rather than thrill.

Within the mental illness carnival today, I want to take you on The Spins, a ride that describes what it’s like to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It begins with your mind finding something — an object, a task, a job — and suddenly, it clings to that thing. The ride begins when the mind insists on getting the thing done at all costs. It must be done perfectly, and no other tasks are permitted until it’s done. Not even work or sleep is permitted.

It drives and drives at any hour it wants, and it doesn’t care if you want to stop. Whirling like a devilish tornado, it spins so fast that you can’t get off. You’re stuck until the ride is over. Theoretically, you could do something else, but your mind will still caught in the ride’s spirals. You’re still trapped in The Spins, and you can’t get off until they decide your ride is over.

All the world’s a cyclone, and everything is both blurred yet amplified because The Spins are moving so fast. Vision itself is distorted in its hyperfocus, wherein the world at large is a fuzzy haze, yet one standpoint is so clear, it’s almost razor-like in its sharpness. You try to see a way off, but The Spins are so fast that, even if you see one way out, it disappears and you obsessively try to recreate it. Nothing else captures that perfect exit, and The Spins feel like they’ll trap you forever.

At the worst points, you can’t even say, “Hi, how are you?” Those words are too hard to say because they require a face you can’t fake. The ride will not permit it, and if your job depends on a friendly face, going to work will be quasi-impossible.

The worst part is the spectators from the carnival who see it and think it’s moving at a gentle speed. From afar, The Spins don’t look so bad, merely a normal part of the ups and downs of life. Perhaps even part of what keeps life’s “thrill” or the outcome of someone who is bored. Stuck on the ride, you have to call it “panic attacks” because that’s the only thing they know. The Spins are alien to them, and crying for their help will only result in lost words. Terrified sighs and breaths are limited in space, and must be spared carefully so The Spins don’t take over your lungs. Too much spoken, and your head will become so dark that The Spins will pull you under, no hope of return without serious intervention.

Just when it feels like it’s too late and it seems like things are never going to stop, somehow, someway, you get off the ride. Sometimes, it’s because you find something like a glass of milk or a piece of cheese, and it clears your head enough to see a true escape. Other times, you find a step into a smaller set of Spins, which eventually can reach a stopping point. In the strangest of moments, the ride abruptly stops, and you’ve got a few seconds to escape before it starts back up again. You get off the ride, and you wonder why it felt so bad, yet the lingering hangover of the spinning remains. It’s only now you can fake being well until you escape the carnival. Long after you leave, however, the threat of the ride is still looking over your shoulder.

You wonder what it would take to stop The Spins for good, or if they could be enjoyable, or if there’s some way to make them tolerable enough to ride out without help.

The question though cannot be answered in the aftermath of a ride. All you can do is pick yourself upright and hope you’re not thrust on the ride again anytime soon. One set of spins is enough to leave someone exhausted for a week. Two spins back-to-back feels as tired as ever. You resume your usual routine, but the lights of the carnival flicker overhead, casting their shadow whenever they please. Resuming your routine is all you can do, hoping the lights are merely a reminder and not the start of another ride.

Getty image by AllesSuper21

Originally published: September 11, 2021
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