by SAMANTHA MAWDSLEY
Do you feel the urge to straighten pencils on a desk? Do you have to eat your Froot Loops in multiples of three? Do you have to have your stereo or television volume on a multiple of five? Yes? Because you have OCD, right? It’s no big deal. Everyone is a little bit OCD, aren’t they?
Well actually, no. You’re not. You’re “a little bit OCD” like I’m “a little bit pregnant”. And I’m not pregnant. But I do have OCD.
There is a pervasive misconception that preferring things to be alphabetical equals suffering from OCD. This drives me to desperation because, like I said, I do have OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, if you’re out of the mental health loop. Both a psychologist and a psychiatrist have diagnosed me. And it’s hard. It’s a lot harder than many people would believe.
Everyone who knows me in real life knows that I need to have volumes on an even number. I mean, I have to. I nearly killed my whole family leaping from the back seat to the front seat because my brother (who was driving) decided to test out just how badly I wanted the car stereo volume on an even number. I will ask complete strangers to please change the volume.
I politely ask them to change the volume to an even number because I have OCD. To date, people have been nothing but accommodating and slightly bemused. But the level of anxiety I feel knowing that a volume is on an odd number is quite simply unbearable.
But I have to have my cruise control and my alarm set for a number that ends in a three or a seven. If I have to wake up at 8.30am I set the alarm for 8.27am. If the speed limit is 100km/kr I set my cruise control for 103km/hr. Because those numbers are my dad and myself. And doing this somehow keeps us both safe. I associate other numbers with people too. Four is my mother, five is my brother and six is my best friend.
If I am stressed or worried about something that may happen, I make complicated bargains with reality to prevent bad things from happening. When I was younger and my dad was late coming home, I would hold a locket with his picture in it and make the deal that if I didn’t let go of the locket for a whole hour, he would be safe. So I would hold up my end of the agreement that I had made and inevitably, Dad would come home.
Or if I was worried about an exam result, I would tell myself that if I counted every stop sign on the way home and didn’t miss one, I would pass my exam.
Logically, I know this doesn’t help. But for me, not doing these rituals feels like driving towards an intersection with your eyes closed. It’s stupid and dangerous. Yes, there’s a chance the light may be green and you’ll sail through unharmed but you should check if the light is red anyway, right? And then check it again.
As far as compulsions go, I am extremely thankful that I have got off lightly. I do not have the debilitating need to wash my hands over and again or to open and close doors a set number of times. I do worry if I have left my hair straightener on but I’ve only gone back home to check a normal number of times, as most girls do (I hope?). But once I know it’s off, it’s off.
For some OCD sufferers, checking is not enough. I am lucky that I just need the stereo to be on an even number and my compulsion is appeased. But even still, this bizarre way of thinking about numbers and the illogical deals I make with nobody are not my OCD. These compulsions are simply the symptoms that manifest on the outside and that people around me can see.
No, OCD is much more than this and not many people understand. Some of my closest friends may not even understand.
For myself personally, I have thanatophobia (the fear of death). But having OCD as well means I am thinking about death constantly. I am not exaggerating when I say the only relief I get from thinking about my own mortality and the inevitable deaths of my loved ones is while on a football field. That’s 90 minutes in the space of a week (a total of 10,080 minutes) that I don’t think about death.
And yes, I even think about death in my sleep. I will wake up screaming because I do not have the compulsions to appease me while I am asleep. OCD is exhausting. It is so exhausting that last year I decided I couldn’t take this life of constant fear and thinking about death anymore. I decided to kill myself. That is OCD. It is persistent, invasive, relentless. It is continuous thoughts that disturb the sufferer and ruins their life. It is not lining your pencils up on your desk.
Some sufferers think about disturbing things like rape, incest or murder. And they think about it all the time. They are disgusted with themselves and frightened by these thoughts that are so at odds and out of character for who they truly are. But despite every fibre of their being wishing they would stop thinking about it, their mind simply won’t allow them a moment’s peace.
Completing rituals like washing hands or dishes, touching door knobs or straightening and restraightening book shelves provides small moments of relief and a sense of control. It’s illogical but when the thoughts are so ceaseless, the smallest feeling of relief is sought so desperately.”
I am not trying to elicit your sympathy, I promise. Especially when, by my own admission, I know my OCD is relatively easy to manage compared to others. My reason for writing this is because when I (or anyone else who is legitimately diagnosed) admit to having OCD, it is not as trivial as the general public believes it to be. While many people get funny about stereo volumes or like to have their pegs matching when hanging out clothes and they do genuinely have this in common with some OCD sufferers, I assure you, these people don’t understand the half of what living with OCD is like.
And somebody saying “I am a little bit OCD about my pegs” is just insulting. You are finicky. You are a perfectionist. You are a control-freak. But you are not OCD. You are not even “a little bit OCD”. We all have our problems, I know, but please don’t presume to know the hell that an OCD sufferer lives in on a daily basis because you like your CD’s to be in alphabetical order. Oh, and when I ask for the volume to be put on an even number, just do it!
The gallery below might make you squirm but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD- see more images at Buzzfeed.
Samantha was first published at age 13 and has been a freelance contributor to Queensland’s The Courier-Mail and Reader’s Digest. Her first book, ‘The 100+ Club presents Reminiscing’ has just been released and a number of both fiction and non-fiction books are in the works. You can follow Samantha on Twitter or check out her blog.
Do you have any OCD habits?