So, This Is How It Feels To Have OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not, contrary to popular belief, a simple affinity for neatness and tidiness. It runs much deeper.
Publish date:
October 19, 2013
mental health, anxiety, OCD, control issues, obsessive compulsive disorder

It gets more and more difficult to not be discovered -- to continue this disguise of cavalier indifference. The effort I exert in my attempts to make you think I am just like you is astounding and, funnily enough, quite arrogant. To think that you, a virtual stranger, would extend even the slightest care over my compulsions is the height of haughtiness. But subjectivity is deceptive, and, as I am the center of my own universe, it seems right to me that you be deeply consumed with my innermost thoughts as well.

Surely you notice the patterns, the excuses. I do my best to make them appear like afterthoughts that just occurred to me, though I actually rehearse them before I mutter them. "Oh, you know what? I should probably run to the bathroom before class starts." You probably wouldn't even look up from your phone when you heard that one, right? But you might if you heard it Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at exactly 1:55, so I have to mix it up.

Maybe I’ll fake an important phone call –- "yeah, I can talk for a sec, but class is about to start, so hang on." Let me run out into the hallway, and I won’t say anything to you at all; seems plausible enough. I’m desperately hoping you will arrive to class just on time –- say, 1:58 –- so you catch me on the tail end of my compulsion and are none the wiser.

The three minutes (1:55, 1:56, 1:57) that I’m away go by, to you, in a flash. Maybe you have a quick conversation with the person to your left about the homework that's due and whether you actually did it. Maybe you got a text from a friend and had just enough time to read it, write back, and put your phone back in your bag. Hell, maybe you zoned out and just stared at the board. I’m not sure, because I will never be there. Those three minutes, to me, are agony.

I wear a watch every day, but I don’t trust it enough for rituals this severe. I mean, it’s not a digital clock, and it only has the hours labeled, so who am I to say –- barring the use of a magnifying glass -– if the minute is 1:56 or 1:57? These things can’t be left to such outrageous chance. I bring my phone with me for precision and in a pathetically failed attempt at distraction.

You see, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, more commonly referred to as OCD. OCD is not, contrary to popular belief, an affinity for neatness and tidiness, nor is it something you can be “about” something. For example, you are not “OCD about” wanting things alphabetized or organizing your closet according to color. You might have OCD, however, if you sit on the toilet for exactly three minutes exactly 2 minutes before attending class, going into a job interview, watching a movie, eating at a restaurant, going to sleep, or catching a train. You might have OCD if those three minutes are spent attempting to distract your completely drained bladder in an attempt to coax one teaspoon of urine out of yourself and timing it to happen at exactly the turn of the third minute. You probably have OCD if, the moment you sit back down in the classroom, the clock begins ticking, and every second that your professor has not arrived to officially begin class, you imagine your bladder filling up like the hull of a sinking ship, even though you purposefully did not have anything to drink for several hours before embarking on this 50-minute journey. And you definitely have OCD if, when the professor is one minute late to class, you've convinced yourself that you have to urinate so badly, you will pass out at any moment from the dizziness, urinate all over the floor, and ruin your life. But, hey, I’m not a doctor.

Based on these descriptions, I imagine that you picture me as a basket case, which is simply not true. In fact, I have been told by more than one (inebriated and loose-lipped) colleague that I’m “scary” and “intimidating.” Fact is, these compulsions are invisible to everyone but me, and I do a fair job of masking my inner-turmoil with stoicism and indifference. I’m fortunate that these compulsions do not permeate every aspect of my life, and, though it took me years to pinpoint the situations that would exacerbate my OCD, I am now able to anticipate when a crippling wave of anxiety will hit.

It all boils down to control. In situations where I don't have 100 percent control, I am a ball of unsubstantiated fears and wholly fabricated paranoia. I say “unsubstantiated” and “fabricated” because I have never peed my pants, nor have I ever come close to peeing my pants; absolutely convinced that I had a bladder infection, I visited doctors only to be told that physically, everything is fine.

Once I came to terms with the fact that these compulsions went as quickly as they came -– the second I was free to do whatever I wanted again -– I realized the profound, corporeal effect that the brain can have. At the beginning of my class, after I’ve completed my ritual and convinced myself that I will die of full-bladder-syndrome, I cross my legs so tightly and for so long that on a few occasions I've actually injured myself.

At the end of class, the anxiety dissipates, and I bee-bop my way home without even thinking of making a bathroom stop. I have no earthly idea why this compulsion developed or why it manifests in the urge to go to the bathroom, but for some reason, I clearly feel deathly afraid of something. The question that drives me to near tears of frustration during those bladder-coaxing sessions is "what are you so afraid of?" Would it be so awful to have to sneak out of class halfway through, hit the bathroom, and come back in a few minutes? Would I be unable to focus on anything else if I had to -- horror of all horrors -- hold it?

When I go to the movies, I have to go to the bathroom once at the beginning of the previews and once more when I sense the previews are winding down and the feature will start soon. I no longer drink soda or eat snacks in the theater because all I can see in a tub of popcorn is a giant bladder waiting to be filled. I always need an aisle seat -– not because I’m claustrophobic or need the extra space, but because I don’t want to annoy other people when I inevitably need to escape my own anxiety; and therein lies the rub.

These situations -– sitting in a class where I want the professor to know how seriously I take her class, going to a crowded movie theater filled with people I don’t want to annoy, sitting on a train driven by someone who isn’t allowed to just pull over if I need to pee -– are all connected by the fact that I am absolutely terrified to need something from someone, or, more specifically, to make the wrong kind of scene.

I actually adore attention (don’t all people who write?), but clearly some issues with drawing negative attention to myself have compounded. The catalyst could have been anything, really: I was bullied in middle school, which left me with a serious case of “you-don’t-like-me-well-go-to-hell” syndrome, but part of me still secretly suspects that everyone talks about me the second I’m out of sight. I’m also sociologically aware enough to realize that part of this probably boils down to my gender and how much women are socialized to internalize flaws and concern for fear of seeming uncool or shrill.

Typically, essays on mental health or harrowing psychological experiences end on a note of optimism along with a plea to the masses not to trivialize these disorders. But when people joke about “being OCD about” something, I don’t take it to heart. I might roll my eyes so hard that my pupils touch my brain, but I will cut them some slack. I understand that, just as the concepts of relaxation and of flow-going are foreign to me, so, too, is a true case of OCD to them.

To my fellow compulsives, my advice is this: Find the best way to cope with it and have zero shame about it. My closest friends, my supportive family, and my amazing boyfriend all understand that being inconvenienced for a few minutes to indulge me in my compulsions is a small price for them to pay for my peace of mind. Anyone who is incapable of looking beyond your complexities is not worth your free time between compulsions.