OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I have it. For over 40 years, I’ve been afflicted with an underlying problem that I didn’t fully realize I had until I was recently diagnosed. And it’s all new to me. Sure, I remember the “even number counting”, the rigid routines designed to calm my anxiety as a child and young adult. I made jokes about it, after I thought I had banished some outward symptoms in my early 20’s. What I didn’t know was just how deep it runs, how debilitating it can be, and how it has had an out-sized influence on my life. You see, it’s not just those outward physical manifestations (which I still have) that you associate with quirky TV show characters, it’s also very much internalized and that was not something I was aware of until now. It makes sense of a lot of things that have gone on in my life. In the case for me, and most other sufferers, your life is peppered with pathological doubt, inflexible anxiety, rumination, confrontation avoidance, and an overpowering inability to make small and most certainly, larger decisions. Oh, and let’s throw in “intrusive thoughts/obsessions” to…obsess over. Furthermore, OCD is merely a component of overall anxiety and they are both linked.
Let’s be clear – this is not an abdication of any responsibility, it’s merely an honest acknowledgment of a chronic condition I have, it’s influence on me and in turn, my taking responsibility in getting assistance. I cannot and will not understate that on various occasions the results of having this have been very painful and, at times, depressing. That being said, for the first time in my 40+ years, I finally have a face to place onto this constant dull, obsessive and lurking anxiety-laden presence that is in me, and that face is – OCD.
Sufferers of OCD are generally very anxious and emotional. They display many non-OCD symptoms, such as signs of depression, excessive worry, extreme tension, and the constant feeling that nothing is ever right.” – Psychguides.com
This goes back some ways but perhaps you remember seeing that day-dreaming school boy Ralph Phillips from the old WB cartoon? Yeah, that was me. I was an anxious kid with an over-active imagination and I excelled in day dreaming at elementary school. My grades were awful and parent teacher’s conferences filled me with absolute dread and anxiety. Math tests put me downstairs in the nurse’s office with a nauseous stomach many, many times. I wasn’t the best student to be sure. One thing, however, was I usually spent a couple times a year, for a few days at a time, at home sick with bad allergies and asthma but I actually loved it and if it was during the school year that made it even better. Being an introvert, I would spend the time inventing things, playing in far away imaginary lands, drawing, playing with legos for hours and hours on end, hung out with imaginary friends (one who oddly enough looked like Art Garfunkel…weird) and, naturally, watching The Price is Right. You know, stuff kids might do when staying home. But, holy shit, I was wound tight (still am).
That wonderfully creative and thoughtful mind is, aside from some of the very good stuff it provides for me personally, relationship-wise, and certainly professionally, also helps create a more fertile playground for a high level of over-thinking and over-imagining. Like a lot of kids I had my share of overactive fears and that’s where, I believe, the OCD first appears. I don’t remember exactly but…I was…maybe…7, 8…9? I do, however, remember some of the compulsive routines I did, methodically, for years to quell my fears and generalized Anxiety. Below are some examples.
Side note – I can’t speak for all kids and how they developed their symptoms, I’m not a mental health professional and needless to say OCD behaviors run far and wide from person-to-person, so I’m just going to mention my experiences and how the OCD might have presented itself in my situation. It’s not nearly as bad as many other sufferers suffer with day in and day out but I still have to deal with it’s effects.
First one that stands out is, as a kid I would perform an exacting ritual to check for spiders, compulsively, even though it made no sense, every night before bed. Here is just part of that routine – having to check the top of the door by jumping up and down on the bed 4 times, leading with the left leg and then repeat 4 times with the right, scanning the room 4 times, checking behind the headboard 4 times then alternating hands for another 4, flipping the light on 4 times also alternating between hands, etc…yeah, there’s a theme here I’ll address later. Then, I had a prayer ritual because, hell, after seeing The Exorcist, and Beyond the Door, when I was a little kid, I started to be obsessively mortified about possession (The Exorcist is laughable today but…wow…did it scare me back then). These two, among other patterns, were very specific and minutely exacting rituals I carried around for years, even after the original fears subsided. However, as a kid/teenager I still felt compelled to do them, still checking for spiders well past when they held any real concern for me or that I needed to worry about succumbing to soup spewing demonic possession. But why did I continue them? Because a compulsive ritual was established, and thus tying these 2 things into either – 1. what is clinically known as “Magical Thinking” (the spider checking merely morphed into a vague need to do it to make things “right” so nothing bad would happen) and 2. the praying, called – “Scrupulosity” (compulsive religious acts). These compulsions offer the sufferer a reprieve from whatever underlying stress they are having and the original intent might not even be relevant. But it soothes you, only briefly, because the more you indulge the compulsion the more you need to do it.
Note – I’m not saying praying is bad at all, but for me it was less about religiosity and more about an exacting ritualized pattern to calm my nerves. Big difference.
So, for me, what I experienced was a lot of generic – “do this, then good things will happen”. Like avoiding walking on sidewalk seams, or placing my footsteps inside the lines on rectangular-patterned carpet segments (these still come up, although almost subconsciously and difficult for me to notice and address). I really don’t think anything bad will truly happen but the compulsion is there that something, vague and nebulous, forces me to do it to “make things right” and I get anxious if I don’t comply. And another good example of that is having to frantically finish a task before a commercial break is over, before a plane lands, a song ends etc. etc….for…I dunno…some impending sense of good luck if I finish it, you know?
The biggest one for me then, and to an extent even today, is even numbers and symmetry. I felt/feel a need to touch, or visually inspect objects an even number of times. So, let’s say I brush my elbow on a doorknob. I’ll feel the need to touch it a second time, with the same elbow to establish an even number, and then repeat with the other elbow in the same amount of numbers. To “balance it out”, because if I don’t? Something vaguely bad will happen. At my age I obviously know it’s not really a superstition but merely a compulsion and I’m much better at outward manifestations than I used to be, however, that particular compulsion is still there. It presents itself quite a bit but more so when I’m out in public and having to talk about myself or personal stuff (I am an introvert, after all and until recently not really good at talking about what makes me tick). I’ll compile a list later and while I don’t do all of them anymore, for some, I still feel the draw and they seem to subconsciously start occurring. But the sneaky thing with OCD? If you put a stop to one compulsion, it’ll show up somewhere else…which is what has happened to me…and into my decision making process (which I’ll definitely address further down)…So, with that in mind, think of it a lot like Whack-A-Mole…it’ll pop up somewhere else…