On the train headed to work, half-zoned out and looking at my phone, I overhear, “… I’m a little OCD, but I hate having dirty dishes in the sink.”
Self-diagnosis is a controversial subject, but I feel fairly confident that I have OCD. Not because I’m a perfectionist (which I am) or because I’m extremely tidy (which I’m definitely not). There are so many misconceptions about OCD in part because most people just see the end results, and it’s so hard to explain the logic behind the actions. OCD isn’t just washing your hands a lot.
Obsessions: Not Just for TV Shows Anymore
Have you ever driven across state lines listening to FM radio? The channel you’re listening to starts to get static, and every so often you hear bursts of other stations, without warning and out of context. Intrusive thoughts feel sort of like that, only instead of radio talk shows, you get,
what would it feel like to have your lips sewn shut?
That’s a mild example. When the radio gets loud, when the thoughts are overwhelming, I have to go through very specific rituals to turn the volume down.
To use a particularly gross example, I worked in food service off and on for five years. I’m no stranger to maggots, and I’m also intimately familiar with the visceral horror that bubbles up whenever I see them, every damn time maggots have invaded my kitchen, I’ve been convinced that they were lurking everywhere, including on my person. I need to check every corner to make sure the maggots are gone, need to bleach every surface, need to scrub myself raw, and I can’t really function until I’ve completed the list. Is it rational? Not really. But try explaining that to my brain.
Compulsions: Not Unlike The Imperius Curse
It annoys the hell out of me when people use the word “struggle” to refer to mental illness, but I struggle with dermatillomania, or compulsive skin picking. I’ve done it for as long as I can remember; picking at my cuticles, the skin around my nails, my lips, and my scalp. That last one was the kicker, what finally clued me in that my behavior wasn’t just a bad habit.
My compulsions and obsessions tend to wax and wane, and in the winter of my junior year of college, I was picking at my scalp like it was my job. Suddenly it was all I could think about doing, and at first it didn’t occur to me to stop. I picked in class, while watching movies, while studying and eating meals and before falling asleep. Before too long, I could barely shower without crying in pain.
I can’t remember when exactly I decided it was time to quit, or why. What I do remember is the immediate aftermath of the decision. OCD is like the Imperius Curse, and when you resist, it gets mean.
Pick. Do it. You have to. You’re useless. If you don’t pick, everything will fall apart. You know you want to, now do it. Can’t you do anything right?
I spent at least an hour sobbing and shaking in my partner’s arms, clawing at the carpet and hyperventilating. All I wanted to do was give in.
I didn’t give in. I hand-stitched an entire quilt to keep my hands busy, shaved half my head to hold myself accountable, memorized poetry to force the intrusive thoughts out of my head. After months of telling myself, “Just five minutes, go five more minutes without picking,” those five minutes added up to one full year. It’s disheartening to realize that one year without picking doesn’t mean I’m cured forever. I still want to pick as I type these words.
Please Avoid Casual Ableism
Bear in mind, my experiences aren’t universal. Mental illness affects individuals in very different ways, and generalizations are extremely damaging. I’m hardly the poster child for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; I’d even go so far as to say I have a relatively mild case. But next time you think, “I’m a little OCD,” take a second and imagine what that really means.