In primary school, I entered a competition to name a goldfish, but didn’t realise I had to include my own name on the entry. So I entered a fish name on a slip of paper, without including my own. But that was wrong. And so, if I didn't repeatedly relive my process for making this mistake, I was going to die.
Around a similar time, I developed quite an intense bedtime routine that involved flapping a rug, tucking in my curtains, shutting doors and shifting pillows down my bed - all in a specific order. If I didn’t do this routine, I couldn’t sleep because something awful was going to happen.
At secondary school, I was relentlessly tormented by “friends” who thought it was fun to constantly steal my belongings and put pencil sharpenings in my hair. They didn’t know that I constantly checked I had everything I needed for the day, repeatedly counting my possessions and checking for contamination on my person, and that their behaviour only reinforced my fear of looming disaster.
At university, no matter when I started coursework, I had to keep rereading it until the deadline, otherwise I'd definitely accidentally plagiarised and would fail my degree. Also, if I didn’t constantly check that all my friends were okay or constantly re-read what I was messaging them, they were going to die, and it would be my fault.
At work, if I don’t re-check conversations with colleagues in my head, I might forget something I said and something awful will happen. If I don’t repeatedly read emails until it ‘feels right’, I’ll make a mistake and lose my job, starve and die. If I don’t repeatedly check I shut the fridge, everyone will hate me and then I will have to leave.
And imagine what it’s like if I try to date people.
Despite having these kind of symptoms from a young age, I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until 2019, at the age of 22. Even then, I got several “but you don’t seem like you have OCD” kind of comments, which probably partly explains why I didn’t get diagnosed before.
Because people think that OCD is obsessive cleaning, or being hyperorganised.
Wrong. Well, not totally. The disorder can manifest as obsessive cleaning or obsessive organisation, but often the compulsion can be more illogical, and even internal.
OCD, most simply put, is an anxiety disorder that involves obsessions (ie anxiety-inducing thoughts you can’t get rid of) that lead to compulsions (ie actions you absolutely have to do to relieve the anxiety-inducing thought). So, in my above fish example, the obsession was the fact I’d made a mistake and so felt like I would die, and the compulsion was repeatedly running the scenario through my mind to check exactly what I’d done to lead to this mistake.
How it impacts me
Personally, this is the form my OCD takes: obsessive checking. All day, every day. Checking emails, checking doors, checking memories, checking spoken conversations, checking previous social media posts, checking my sent items, checking people are “okay”, checking I’m doing something right, checking I’ve cleaned something enough. Because, in my mind, if I don’t check, if I make a mistake, something awful will happen, and that will be my fault. So I live my life going in circles, both physically and mentally.
Sometimes the “something awful” is a really clear outcome, like someone breaking in and it being my fault, but sometimes it’s a sense of intense unspecified dread. At the same time as being diagnosed with OCD, I was also given diagnoses of sociophobia and generalised anxiety disorder, so there’s a lot of worry fuelling my compulsions, mostly in relation to fear of failure, fear of hurting someone, and fear of being judged.
I’ll have an anxiety attack and hysterically sob if my hot water stops working, or the washing machine breaks, because those things are essential to some of my compulsions. But that doesn’t make me weak, or incapable. My brain is just wired with an overactive flight response.
Naturally, I’m actually highly independent and a great problem solver, but sometimes my OCD has to have its moment of anxiety, running the worst possible scenarios through my brain on loop until it ‘feels right’ to reassure my heightened sense of responsibility. This is particularly challenging at work, as some tasks can really trigger my checking, or make me seek additional reassurance.
Part of the condition can be doubting you even have the condition, which makes it really easy to downplay the issue, and really easy for other people to belittle your experience. Now I’m on medication, for example, it’s particularly challenging to convince myself that it’s ‘my OCD talking’. Everybody gets anxious, that's our fight or flight response and is perfectly healthy. But not everybody experiences an anxiety disorder, where your flight response trips and you're scared of the most illogical of things and unable to shake that feeling.
Language has an impact
Many of us have said 'Oh, I'm so OCD' when we really just mean we like to keep things tidy and organised. But I hope my blog shows why it's important to avoid this language; it trivialises a severe anxiety disorder that can make life pretty difficult.