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What Writing Lists Means to Me as Someone With OCD

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The first notebook I remember writing in wasn’t technically a notebook, but a pink Barbie diary where I listed the names of my family and friends and doodled crime-fighting dog superhero comics. I kept it long after the pages were filled and the dog had acquired a swan sidekick. Even then, however, it was about the lists. I read over the list of names almost daily, crossing out some and adding others where necessary, as though the pen was mighty enough to sever and create the relationships that existed in real life.

The love of notebooks evolved into a collection. There’s the black wide-ruled composition book that keeps track of the monthly budget, including everything from Hulu to the mortgage to the dog’s subscription box. There are the empty ones like the one with the smooth leather elephant cover that has no lined pages and the impulsive buy with the golden dragon artwork on the cover. There’s the well-loved writing prompt notebook with a picture of my mother’s favorite crystals formed into the word “Kindness” on her back porch, though its back cover has been torn away. There are the countless generic Five Star notebooks that hold many semesters worth of notes, and there is the brown notebook with the vines and pink flowers that is filled with novel notes.

There’s also the purple, thin-lined magnetic Rekonect that handles all of my college notes and writing prompts. My husband, Tanner, bought it for my 26th birthday, the one item I actually requested. It is my constant companion. Every page can be removed and placed where I believe it belongs. The order is erratic to those who have seen it, but it makes perfect sense to me. My lists and writing prompts safely cling to the magnetic spine, and I rearrange them at will.

The notebooks are also arranged according to my own erratic style. The budget book rests below the Xbox One in the TV stand, so I can turn on a show while I work out expenses. The “Kindness” and Rekonect notebooks go with me everywhere I go, stuffed into a bag or purse in case inspiration strikes. The full brown notebook rests on wooden shelves in my small library, as though the failed novel ideas somehow have a place among my collection of books. The empty notebooks rest on my desk’s shelves, waiting for a purpose.

Like the Barbie diary, all of my used notebooks contain lists. The lists spread out of the notebooks, bleeding into the real world in the form of magnetic fridge lists, chalkboards, whiteboards, planners, calendars or just the random scrap of paper. Most of these, Tanner has purchased for me, knowing I must have the order in my life. The fridge list deals with errands and chores. The chalkboard with a painted-on checklist that occupies my office also deals with chores, and typically these are in red to emphasize their urgency. The whiteboard rests in my library to keep up with assignments, and my library is often filled with the smell of dry-erase markers. The wolf calendar occupies my kitchen and holds dates for meetings and appointments. The planners are kept all around the house to keep up with assignments, meetings, birthdays and doctor appointments. My desk is piled high with scraps of papers that have yet to be sorted onto their various lists.

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Today, the fridge list is empty. A quick glance at the chalkboard shows the same thing. I pace the house for half an hour or so. My guinea pigs cry out for food behind their closed door. Snicket, my dog, walks with me. Her paws make soft, padding sounds against our hardwood floors. Her orange and white fur flashes around me as she circles me. Soft, brown eyes gaze up at me. She is anxious, sensing my distress. She is not formally trained, but it doesn’t take weeks of schooling for Snicket to notice my level of anxiety. She has fallen into her role as an emotional support animal, but her efforts are wasted.

I do not eat as I normally do. My medications lay untouched. Tanner rises from bed and is promptly ignored. He knows better than to disturb me in the first moments of my frozen state. I rest briefly in the large, plush blue recliner that normally relaxes me upon contact. My muscles are tense, my heart is racing just a bit too fast. I stare at the dirty dishes in the sink, the empty dog food bowl and the unfolded laundry in baskets. My guinea pigs’ cries fill my ears, a chorus of hunger and desperation. Snicket nudges and stares up at me. Tanner calls for her, knowing I may overcome my frozen state if Snicket would just give me a moment, but she will not be moved. She jumps into the chair, though she is 30 pounds too large to be a lap dog, and the gesture meant to soothe me only frustrates me.

I am unsure of what task to do first. I finally stand and approach the fridge with a pen. My hand hovers over the blank sheet of list paper. I scribble items on it, such as “dishes,” “trash,” “fold clothes” and “medicate Athena.” My entire body relaxes. The world is in order once more.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is more than dry, cracked hands from multiple washings. It’s certainly more than alphabetizing a bookshelf or liking a clean house. Many people have the obsession, and some have the compulsion, but the disorder is where the chaos lies. The disorder is where school, work and relationships are affected. It’s what leads me to take a mix of medications, including an antipsychotic, antidepressant and anti-anxiety pill each morning. It’s where my body will freeze if confronted with a compulsion I can’t satisfy. It’s what compels me to make my lists.

One classic obsession is germs and dirt. When I shake hands, my mind will lock onto the feeling of another person’s skin on mine. Their sweat, their oils, their bacteria. My hand will dangle by my side, and I will remain hypervigilant about its movements. It will not touch anywhere else on my body. The compulsion is handwashing. The moment I am near any soap again, the compulsion will make me forget that my skin is sensitive to artificial fragrance and dyes. My hands are often dry and cracked, sometimes bleeding from the constant contact with harsh soaps and sanitizers. My house is filled with soaps Tanner makes for me to combat this compulsion, though there’s little he can do when we are out in public where the world is filled with harsh soaps.

Another obsession of mine is checking the locks on doors. When I find a door upon leaving the house, the compulsion is to lock the door and then test the knob to make sure it’s really locked. The disorder lies in the fact that if I do not perform this ritual, my skin crawls, and I can’t leave the house until I am certain each door is locked. If I forget if I’ve checked a door, I will repeat the ritual until I am satisfied. Most days, Tanner waits patiently at the door as I perform my ritual, but some days, he intervenes and tells me he has locked every door. His word breaks through my ritual, and I rarely need to check the doors after he has spoken.

The most prominent obsession is with organizing my day. That is where the lists come in. The compulsion is to make a list, and only then is my anxiety relieved. Even my husband knows better than to simply suggest that I do something when he catches me sitting in my favorite recliner. If it is not on a list, it will not get done. He will walk by, stop and say,
“Honey, make a list.”

His words always manage to send a burst of energy through me, a heat that melts my frozen state and allows me to move once more. He is the lighthouse in the fog of chaos that fills my world.

So there are lists for everything: homework, meetings, the budget, chores, hangouts with friends, time with family, animal care, things I like, things I don’t like, books to read, books I’ve read, medications I take, favorite songs, favorite bands.

If it is a part of my life, it exists somewhere in list form. These lists translate my inner chaos into order. My obsessions meet paper through a pen, and then they are nothing more than lists. The effect is healthier than my previous methods of self-harm. The pen bleeds onto paper, and no one is hurt. Life is organized, and not a drop of actual blood has been shed.

My sister reads the first attempt of this essay. It’s not quite a draft, so I will not call it that. It’s two pages, and I need to know if the transitions are working well or if the part on notebooks is too boring. That ‘70s Show is on in the background, and the rest of our family watches it. I pretend to watch it, though the obsession is on my sister’s quiet reading. The compulsion leads me to glance over at her periodically, but she pays no attention to me. There is no disorder here, for I am easily able to pay a great deal of attention to Jackie Burkhart discovering that Michael Kelso has been cheating on her. Finally, my sister speaks.

“It sounds crazy.”

The words are worse than if she’d slapped me. I brush it off with a smile and try to defend it, but they are seeping into my brain, my new obsession. The compulsion doesn’t exist. There’s no way to let go of the words circling around in my brain. There’s no Tanner to defend me, to tell me that this essay that digs deep into my psyche is not crazy, or that I’m not crazy. No number of lists can save me, so they become bottled up inside.

“Crazy” is a stigma that hovers over the mentally ill. The word freezes me in a way that my own mental illnesses probably envy. It takes power away from me and slaps a label of “chaos” onto my efforts of order. “Crazy” is pure chaos. It is a denial that there’s any part of me that wishes to be better, or that I spend all of my time on lists so my animals are fed and family and friends know they are important. It is a way of trying to enforce the belief that I’d be better off in a mental institution than caring for my household and studying, so I can provide a second income so Tanner doesn’t have to work his job at a chemical production plant forever. It’s a way to tell me I’m unhealthy, selfish and a general nuisance. It takes my lists and burns them before my eyes, forcing me to believe it is nothing but ink and paper that prevents me from full-scale breakdowns.

The stigma of “crazy” is far worse than when people joke around that they’re “so OCD” or “like OCD.” At least in those instances, I can merely roll my eyes and know for certain that those people don’t have the first clue as to what chaos and order truly are. They wouldn’t trade their alphabetizing bookshelves and clean houses for cracked, bleeding hands and hours sitting frozen with nothing but their obsessive thoughts to keep them company.

“Crazy,” however, implies that I am imposing my will upon and harming someone. It implies that I do not take extreme measures to make sure my illness affects no one else, that it remains a silent threat only I can perceive. “Crazy” implies that I do not ask for help, and I do not receive it. It implies that I don’t have a “Tanner,” a person who balances my chaos with patience, firmness and gentleness.

It implies that I do not wake up each morning and make my list.

Getty image by marzacz

Originally published: October 27, 2020
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