“I have to, like, organize everything on my desk, otherwise I’ll go completely crazy! I’m so OCD!”
“Really? Because I, like, have to make sure my stove is off before I go out. I’m TOTALLY OCD.”
I’m not into correcting people who aren’t my immediate friends or family. It generally doesn’t have any impact on my life in one way or another, so I look the other way. I have a hard time telling people they are wrong about something when I am wrong about so many things. But every once in awhile, someone is so wrong about something that I can’t help myself. It’s an itch at the tip of my nose when my hands are full. Majority of the time, I get worked up because it’s something that has an impact on someone else’s everyday life.
First, to clarify, no one can be OCD. You cannot be a disorder or disease. You can have a disorder or disease. You cannot be cancer. You can have cancer. This is not grammar policing. This is a slap in the face to those who suffer from the disorder. It shows that you truly don’t know anything about obsessive-compulsive disorder, don’t care to know anything about it, and think it’s a harmless, eccentric quirk. It’s not. I assure you, it’s not.
When I was in third grade, my mom slipped a pack of N’ICE cough drops into my backpack. During class, I took them out, popped one out of the packaging, and threw it into my mouth. It was blue, I remember. A minute later I was choking – on my spit, not on the cough drop. I don’t think I realized the difference (or was too dramatic to care). I jumped up and ran out of the classroom, coughing. My tiny Filipino teacher chased me into the hallway, slamming me on the back with her hand as I screamed, “I’M CHOKIN’!” the entire time.
The panic attack subsided. I saw the nurse and was sent home. I think. I don’t really remember.
Later that night, as I was eating dinner, I started to choke again. Yet, I was speaking and breathing just fine, albeit a bit rapid from the panic again coursing through my little body.
A few days later, there was the sesame seed from the bagel I’d eaten earlier in the day. A solitary sesame seed. And I was goddamned sure I was choking on it. It was in there, magically, hours later, adhered to the back of my throat. I sat on the edge of the bathtub while my mother sat on the closed toilet bowl, trying to talk some sense into my nine-year-old head. It was useless.
Right around the same time, slightly after the choking incidents, my mother started dating again (after losing my father some years prior). When I say dating, I mean going out for an hour or two a few nights a month with a guy she knew from work. She would leave me with very close friends or family. This is the woman who didn’t allow me to take the training wheels off of my bicycle until right around the same time. She made sure I was in good hands. But it didn’t matter.
“SHE’S NEVER COMIN’ BACK!” I surmised.
Every date was a meltdown. But not a temper tantrum. And I wasn’t angry. I was hurt. I was convinced that she wasn’t going to come home to me. Maybe she would run away with him. Maybe she would be hurt in an accident. Maybe he would steal her. I was fixated on it. I would throw up and run a fever until she came home. I feared it even when they weren’t on the date. I feared it when she was sitting right next to me.
People suggested it was the result of the loss of my father, and I was petrified of losing my mom too. That might’ve been true. But that’s not where the obsessive behavior came from.
A few years later, we moved to a different part of NJ. A rural area, with lots of trees and dirt bikes and fishing and people unlike I’d ever met in Jersey City. I changed the way I acted. The music I listened to. The way I dressed. I grew my hair long and started wearing a chain wallet and JNCO jeans (once my mother caved and bought me a pair after I cut up my perfectly good jeans in order to get them to flare in the front). But I needed… needed… them to flair perfectly in the front. They needed to cover the front of my shoes at precisely the right length. My hair needed to be parted directly down the middle. Not a hair out of place, or I’d have to start over again. Not because I couldn’t move that hair without screwing up the rest of my mushroom, but because… well, I didn’t know why. I just knew that I needed to start over again.
Wet my hair, comb it back until there was a straight line in the exact center of my head, and then part it. Sometimes it took three tries. Sometimes four. Sometimes twenty. I would cry, frustrated. Only to myself, though. Why would I tell my mother? What would I tell my mother?
“I CAN’T PART MY FUCKIN’ HAIR!”
She’d yell at me from the other side of the door. “What the hell are you doin’ in there? You’re gonna’ be late for school! You are late for school!
“I’ll be right out! I’m almost done!”
But I didn’t know if I was almost done. I still had a few more attempts at a part before I would throw the comb and shake with rage – but never make a sound. Couldn’t let anyone know what the problem was. Pick that comb back up. Find the part again.
After school wasn’t much easier. I spent a lot of time in my room. My mother must’ve thought I was playing video games or watching TV (Christ only knows, I didn’t do much homework without her breathing down my neck… which was hard to do with the mushroom haircut in the way). I wasn’t. I was likely, quietly, pulling the door shut, opening it, pulling it shut, opening it, pulling it shut until I could get it to click just right. Then I was letting go of the doorknob precisely the right way. Or trying to. Grab the doorknob, pull my hand off. Grab the doorknob, pull my hand off. Grab the doorknob, pull my hand off. Clench my fists, squeeze out a tear, focus on the doorknob. Never, ever, did it enter into my preteen brain that I didn’t need to do any of this. That came later. And it still didn’t stop me. It only made it that much more frustrating.
I went to Catholic school. Aside from the Catholic school agenda, I have some pretty fond memories of my elementary school years. But, nonetheless, religion was drilled into my oh-so-impressionable noggin. Church, daily class, prayers in the morning and evening, God-guilt, as I like to call it.
“You should love God more than your mother or father!” professed my third grade teacher. Oh, hell no. No one comes before my mom!
“You are lying to me. You will burn in eternal hell for your mortal sins if you do not repent and attend church every Sunday!” exclaimed our monsignor as I sat in an (open) confessional with him.
An individual with a fairly normal functioning brain would either stick with their religion or they wouldn’t. Instead, religion became an obsession for me. It wasn’t in the same way a devout Catholic would obsess. I didn’t care about going to church. I didn’t care to preach or sit through sermons. But I needed to pray. First it was before bed. Then it was upon waking up. Before eating. Before going to the bathroom. It was the same routine. The prayer changed for each task. All in my head. And if I messed it up while thinking it? Well, I’d just have to start over again. And again. And again. I might not fall asleep for an hour some nights. It really sucked struggling to sleep and then waking up extra early to part my hair down the middle.
As I got older – into my mid teens – guilt and embarrassment started to seep in. Guilt for thoughts I was having. Embarrassment for the resulting compulsions that would result. I’d gone through puberty. Girls were pretty. But admiring a girl was a sin. Thinking about them in certain lights was a sin. And sex? God, no. Sex before marriage was another mortal sin. So I’d beg for forgiveness in my head for even thinking about it.
“Stop looking. Stop staring. Stop thinking.”
But the more I tried, the more I’d think. The more I’d think, the more I’d beg. The more I’d beg, the more frustrated I would get. Then the embarrassment would flood in.
The apologies evolved into saying sorry for everything.
“I’m sorry for walking on that crack (how stereotypical could I be!). I’m sorry for thinking of that word. I’m sorry for thinking of the word sorry the wrong way.”
The strength of the thoughts was appalling. I’d tried to suppress them. Block them out completely. That led to them wrestling their way out and materializing in other ways. Physical ways. How can I acknowledge God without thinking? To give my brain a break? So every time I’d say sorry, I’d blink at the sky, where I had imagined God would be. It was my way of acknowledging him. The blink became a compulsion, along with many other physical impulses. I smiled. I nodded. Anything signifying an acknowledgement.
I would rearrange my fingers so that my middle finger wasn’t raised higher than the rest. I couldn’t give the sky the middle finger. I couldn’t give God the middle finger.
Then my mother came into the mix. The only other person I loved as much. In what direction was my mother? Okay, blink that way. Smile that way. Turning over in my bed? I’d have to turn my entire body in that direction. If that meant rotating the complete opposite way, so be it.
I did all this without anyone noticing, initially. I would sneak a blink or a smile or any other compulsion while someone turned their head and be back to normal by the time they looked back. Shit, it must’ve been quite comical/unnerving to look at.
But compulsions quickly become habits, as anyone with OCD will tell you. I started doing it without even realizing. The compulsions lost all meaning (as ridiculous as that meaning was). They were simply ticks at that point. Self-regulating ticks. The same way one cracks their knuckles or fixes their shirt. Only, for me, self-regulating looked a lot like Tourette’s Syndrome.
When it started to rear its head in front of people, the horrifying reality of my situation hit me like a locomotive.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You got Tourette’s?”
“Oh, no. I wear contacts and they dry out. I have to blink really fast to re-wet them.” I would laugh nervously.
“Dude, you spazzing out on me?”
“My neck’s just hurting. That’s all.”
Sometimes I’d think I was alone, and I’d let all my ticks hang loose. It wasn’t bad when I’d be noticed by a stranger. I’d drive away from the red light or out of the parking lot and never have to face them again. But when friends or my ex-girlfriend would catch me out of the corner of their eye or from a line of sight I’d thought I’d avoided the next room over, I’d feel sick. It was akin to being caught without clothes on. I was naked – exposing myself for everyone to see. The humiliation was equal.
“What is wrong with me? Why am I this way? Am I fucking crazy? I am fucking crazy.”
Self-realization. It’s a scary thought when recognizing that you’re not “right.” Further, as I matured, the simple thought that my religious obsession might be a part of it made me want to throw up. All this torment for nothing? I might not end up in an OCD heaven, with angels and cherubs nodding and smiling and blinking and twitching?
When I was twelve, I snuck into my mom’s boyfriend’s office and secretly read Howard Stern’s Private Parts. It was the first time I came across the words obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even at such a young age, it made sense. Perfect sense. But it didn’t absorb. It came up in my record-skipping-like brain once in awhile, but exited just as the next compulsion to blink came around the corner.
At 18, I got on the computer and finally did some research, admitting to myself that I needed help. It didn’t take long to rediscover OCD. I ticked off every symptom. I remembered back through the years and found a for-instance for every item on every list on every website. I accepted that there was something wrong with me. I approached my mother and told her about it. She didn’t buy it.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” Typical and understandable response from the tough-it-out upbringing of her youth. Except that when your own brain turns on you, toughing it out can have some dire consequences.
I internalized it. I fought it tooth and nail. And, as with anything in my life, I obsessed about it. I obsessed about getting rid of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. Counter-productive? Probably. Effective? Seemed like it. Eventually.
At first, I gritted my teeth and battled it. Literally. I have chips on all of my front teeth. Some of them are from biting down really hard for no good reason, which was another compulsion, but many of them are from fighting the urge to tick. If I’d tense all the muscles, it would help me remember not to do it. As long as I was aware, I could control it. Same way I could control it when around other people.
It was hard. Damn near impossible at times. I developed other habits in relation to it. I’d catch myself clicking my teeth together – sometimes hard – as I’d developed a habit from the compulsion to control my other habits. A vicious cycle. I’d bite my tongue or my lip by accident – sometimes clean through a chunk of skin. They’d bleed and turn into canker sores. I’d have four or five at a time.
I still cried out of frustration. I’d all but renounced my faith at that point, come to terms with my mental issues, and tried to take control of it all. At times it felt damn near impossible. At times it was damn near impossible. But, slowly, it started to taper off. It wasn’t fast. It wasn’t pretty. I’d still have my many, many setbacks, like when I had my lip pierced and I chewed so hard on the post (had to bite it just right) that I cracked my tooth straight up to the gum. But a normal life was in sight, and that was enough to relieve the tension a bit.
Maybe it was age. In fact, that’s quite likely. But I’d like to think that my realization that I did not have to succumb to my compulsions and my fortitude to turn breaking my habits into a habit played a small role in it all. Maybe I tricked my OCD into working for me, instead of against me.
I still bite my lip every once in awhile because I chew, nervously, a bit too hard. I still catch myself taking a blink every once in awhile, even if it is just a comfort at this point. An homage to the person I used to be, and the shell of him remaining. And that’s a good thing. I still have OCD. I’ll always have OCD. It still controls so very many aspects of my existence, from my personality to my occupation. My obsessions and compulsions are different these days, sure. Some of them might even be similar to a “normal” mind. Feeling the need to teach my daughter to read or feeling the need to keep the house clean and in order. But there will always be that smidgen of difference between me and my wife. Or between me and my best friends. That one step further that I tend to take everything. I look back at the picture of me at six or seven, with my Play-Doh accessories lined up neatly, in perfect size order, and I’ll remind myself that I’ve got it good right now. And that there are many other who aren’t so lucky. My curse was religion and my family. Someone else’s might be washing their hands and showering. It doesn’t matter what the bait is – the hook is always the same.
So before you pronounce to anyone within ear or eye-shot how totally OCD you are, take a moment to remember that for some, obsessive-compulsive disorder is hell. And for others, it’s a major life inconvenience that can alter every single day. It’s in jest when I say not to ever say it again. But maybe now you’ll understand that it isn’t just counting how many bites of food you’ve eaten.