My first exposure to OCD was during seventh grade – my English teacher, who was kind but always very precise about words, interrupted one of my classmates. I don’t remember the context around our discussion but our usually cheerful teacher had become very serious.
“OCD is not a joke: it is not liking your things to be neat, it is not just handwashing, it is not just a fear of germs. It is a serious condition that should not be joked about.”
I remember feeling unsure and easy, like I had been caught doing something terrible. I had most definitely thrown around ‘OCD’ like it was a joke but I wasn’t sure what was wrong with it. What was OCD?
“My brother has OCD,” my teacher continued. “He can’t go into our parents’ basement because of it and it is important that you all know it is not okay to use this word lightly. Let’s brainstorm a list of words that we actually mean when we accidentally say OCD.”
Neat-freak, organized, worried, germaphobe, anal-retentive, type-A, etc.
This lesson has stuck with me through the rest of my schooling and though I never used the phrase, I never truly appreciated what it meant and how debilitating and frustrating it can be until I started having my own symptoms.
My first year at university was difficult – I was on an intensive, long-term antibiotic plan and continued to experience physical limitations and pain as a result of my illness. I still doubted my ability to physically be a student and every ache, every pain signalled to me that I was getting worse and would land in the hospital again and not be able to get out of bed. So I turned to studying to occupy my mind and keep the intrusive thoughts at bay. For a long time I thought this was an excellent solution – I earned good grades and didn’t have to spend any time alone with myself. There was always more studying to be done, more problem sets I could complete, more edits I could make.
This soon turned into an unhealthy obsession, which was accompanied by compulsions. I studied for twenty hours every weekend, I wouldn’t go to meals because I had to rewrite an essay, after every exam I would convince myself I had failed and would make lists of other schools I could attend when I got kicked out. If I studied, I was safe. I wasn’t ill, I was doing everything right. I was flailing and it was something to hold onto.
“It’s so weird, to know you’re crazy and not be able to do anything about it, you know? It’s not like you believe yourself to be normal. You know there is a problem. But you can’t figure a way through to fixing it. Because you can’t be sure, you know?” -John Green, Turtles All the Way Down. When I’m sitting at my desk and my pages are wrinkled from clammy hands and tears, I know my fears are unfounded. When my brain tells me I need to rewrite, recheck, and redo, I know it’s irrational. But there is no release. There is no ‘letting it go’ or ‘relaxing,’ there is only hanging onto that little bit of respite that studying provides. It is a consuming paranoia that eats away at logic and breaks down anything that gets in its way.In short, OCD is not a cute term when you like to colour-code your notes or organize your pencils. It is a serious and debilitating illness that over 2% of the US population will experience during their lifetime. It is also diverse in its expression and varies from person to person. Language is powerful and I am so grateful to my seventh grade English teacher who challenged us and showed us better ways to express our feelings, behaviours, and emotions so that way, when the time comes, we can use the right words to express ourselves.