I was a recovering perfectionist by the time I drafted into the army. I had chased perfection in high school, but in college I learned to slow down and enjoy the ride. I asked for extensions when I needed them and (gasp!) even submitted an assignment late, taking the penalty on my grade and all, when I just didn’t get it done on time.
The army demanded sheer perfection and “good enough” was no longer good enough. Everything — from the angle of my (our) water bottles at our feet, to our formation, our attendance lists, and how we kept our barracks — everything was subject to scrutiny. And it all had to be perfect.
I think there’s something about being made to run all over your base, in the dark, knowing full well that your platoon won’t be able to make a perfect formation in the time allotted — something about that experience creeps inside you, and takes up residence. It’s the frustration of knowing that you’re not going to be perfect and the sadness of being told to run, again and again and again, knowing you’re still not going to get there on time. I so badly wanted to make it on time so that we could stop running in the dark and go to bed. But there were miles to go before we would sleep … or at least that’s how it felt.
Everything in the army had to look perfect, from the way you tied your boots to the items carried in your pocket, to making sure the classroom looked perfect before an instructor would start teaching. I cleaned individual bullets for inspection. I took my tent into the shower with me to clean it before inspection. (Fairly certain the tent got cleaner than I did, but that’s another story.) I spent considerable chunks of time trying to get sand out of Velcro patches. My platoon mates and I traded tips for how to get dirt out of the topmost corner of our barracks. Things I would absolutely have let slide before I drafted were suddenly massive priorities. Plus, it felt like making my own standards would have a direct impact on my platoon: if we didn’t make inspection, we would be let out of base later than expected, shortening our leave. Or even more dire consequences: if we didn’t tie down equipment JUST right, we ran the risk of stray ends getting caught in a vehicle (or door, or helicopter, etc.) and potentially killing our buddy. Our commanders made sure to constantly remind us that our actions had consequences and we had to get things right.
I was fastidious as a soldier and as a commander. And in transitioning to civilian life, that professional perfectionism stuck with me. Paperwork had to be absolutely perfect; no wrinkles whatsoever and only one color ink (black or blue, but never both on the same paper). I wanted my professional life to look the same as my army life: perfectly organized, always ready for whatever challenge would come next. Things that weren’t perfect made my insides crawl — it was sheer infuriation when something was slightly askew. It bothered me when my coworkers’ shoes weren’t perfectly shined or if they weren’t wearing an outfit that adhered to army code.
My struggle with OCD went a lot deeper than my pursuit of perfection, and when I hit a particularly difficult patch I finally decided to get help. I had been diagnosed with OCD as a teenager but for most of my life it was something I lived with, and something I didn’t want to change. In the army and in my civilian life, it had worked to my advantage: I was often recognized as a “good worker” and I even felt like I benefited from my obsessions and compulsions. But there came a point in time when my obsessions and compulsions were completely overwhelming and I knew that I needed to make a change because it would not be sustainable to continue living in that headspace. I started ERP, or exposure and response prevention therapy. It felt so foreign to me. What do you MEAN we are going to practice sitting with things that are imperfect?! I had spent years of my life learning to set new standards of perfection for myself. What if bad things happened because I let things be imperfect?! The “what if” spiral was often what consumed me. A friend of mine once described it as “circling the drain” and that seemed like the perfect metaphor — I would be totally caught up in the anxiety spiral, entirely consumed by the fear of potential consequences.
I don’t really identify with the concept of “recovery” from OCD because it’s something I encounter every day and there’s no “right” or “wrong,” no neat little checkboxes and no definitive “better.” But when I can walk away from the car when it’s parked at a slight angle; when I can wear an outfit that doesn’t comply with army standards; when I can use white-out instead of scrapping the entire page; when I can let a coworker’s work stand without re-doing it because it was “imperfect” — that’s progress to me. One principle from the army does hold true through this process: the idea that there is no “can’t” — only an “I don’t want to.”