This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
For me, OCD started before I knew it had a name. As a child, I sorted and organized things constantly. I was adamant that things had feelings and couldn’t bear to even part with my mother’s junk mail. I told her I used it to play office which was true to an extent, but it wasn’t the whole truth.
I was obsessed with how my socks fit, and that everything, and I mean everything, in my life went perfectly smooth and according to plan. Realistic, right?
You can probably guess that this was a daily struggle and a constant source of stress, because nothing in life goes perfectly. Sadly, it didn’t occur to me until much later that my perception of perfect was the problem. Instead, for a long time, I thought things weren’t perfect enough – that I wasn’t perfect enough.
As I got older my OCD manifested in different ways. I had an obsession with even numbers except for the number six. I hated the number six and favored seven. I attributed this to my insomnia as I had to get up at 6 a.m. every day for school even though I had just fallen asleep somewhere around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. I had to touch things an even amount of times with two hands. I was terrified of germs and constantly washed my hands. I feared public bathrooms, even having nightmares about them on most nights. I would even avoid social situations that I knew would involve having to use public restrooms. The only time I had to use them was during our annual family trip to Minnesota. I cringed and shook using the facilities. I had disinfectant spray with me. I would try to make a joke, saying: “Who can say they leave a bathroom cleaner than when they entered?”
Cleaning was still part of my OCD tendencies as I entered my teen years. I vacuumed, dusted, and organized every day. I washed the walls and baseboards. I moved my bed to clean behind it. I had to go through every drawer, every box, and every cabinet every day to see if I could make it more functional than the day before. And you know what? I had no idea this was a strange routine until my friends started making fun of me in subtle ways, like jumping on my bed and running away because they knew I would instantly have to fix all the wrinkles. My dad and brother would move my belongings or put something in my room to see how long it would take for me to notice. The sad part was, the moment I entered my room I could feel that something was wrong and found the source straight away. It was like my super power.
The subtle teasing opened my eyes. I realized I was embarrassed, so I started to command myself to let things go. I first started with the even number thing and the touching thing. By not doing these things it felt like I was literally going to die, but I told myself that it wasn’t true and kept fighting it. I can’t explain how uncomfortable not doing my routine made me, but I was adamant that if I didn’t do something I could put myself in danger.
One day I asked myself: “If the house was burning down could you run out of it and save yourself?” The answer wasn’t a definite “yes.” So, I persisted. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life.
I dwindled down the tendencies, but I still couldn’t do the dishes without gloves, still was terrified of toilets, and I was deeply ashamed of myself. Looking back, I was an attractive child and teen, but nothing could make me see it. I had perfect skin back then and was a size zero without even trying. But from the second my eyelids opened in the morning I had to immediately brush my teeth, take a shower, sneak back into my room without being seen, do my hair and makeup, and put on jeans before I could be seen by my family.
If a visitor came to our house that I wanted to see, could I pop in and say hello before going through my morning routine? Absolutely not. I would rush and stress the whole time, and 9 times out of 10 I would miss that person altogether.
I wish I could say I braved these tendencies as I did the others, but I didn’t. That came later when I became very sick. I was bedridden for months at a time and weaker than I ever thought a teenager could be when those things fell away. After all, I couldn’t obsessively clean or fear germs if I wasn’t conscious. I also didn’t care about my looks when I looked dead anyway.
I am mindful of germs, but I don’t fear them. I worry about my appearance, but I can leave the house without wearing makeup. Certain tendencies flare a bit during stressful periods. The difference is: now I know that my unhappiness and insecurities made my OCD tendencies worse, and it caused more stress than it ever relieved. I can’t say that I’m thankful for getting very sick, because it has done more harm than good, but I am thankful that it taught me many lessons about how my mind works and what’s real.
A bigger illness helped me to manage my OCD. I count myself lucky for that in some ways.
Sage Marie Stith is twenty-seven and lives in Arkansas. Her aspiration is to become a novelist of all things fiction, and fantasy in particular. She has published a book called Devotion.