photo credit: M. Dunn

photo credit: M. Dunn

Over time, you come to realize certain things about yourself that have always made themselves known, but never had a name. I knew there was something wrong with me when, as a child, I had to spit out the food I was chewing and look at it. I was probably around 9 or 10 years old. My older sister’s boyfriend noticed it, and mentioned it out loud one day at dinner. Somehow, the topic was just dropped and never came up again. I dropped the habit sometime after that.

But then, when I was around the age of 13, I picked up a new ritual: picking through garbage. It started with the small plastic bin in my room, which my dad would ordinarily dump into the kitchen garbage and then haul out to the curb once a week. I needed to know what sorts of shapes and sizes of objects were sitting in there: a crumpled sticky note with a phone number, a broken pencil, a week-old tissue. I needed to scan the digits of that phone number as if I would be asked to recall it at a later date, with dire consequences if I was unable to. My logical self told me that this was not only ridiculous, but probably close to impossible; I would not need that number for anything (it wasn’t even my sticky note!), and I was going to forget the sequence of digits as soon as the note went back in the trash. But my emotional self told me that it was not only important, but necessary, that I read that number. My emotional self wanted me to pick up the broken pencil too, and count how many items were in the wastebasket at the time the trash was consolidated and moved out to the bin on the street. I tried to reconcile the two sides of myself: the normal, rational side, who told me I was being crazy, and the fear-struck, paranoid self who told me to do these strange rituals and obsess over things that just needed to be done … just in case.

And that’s when I started hoarding garbage.

Contrary to popular belief, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder isn’t usually about being a “neat freak,” or having personal preferences in terms of the way you arrange your furniture. If you can’t stand pens with blue ink, or need to move the mouse to get rid of your screensaver while you take a break from your computer, but these habits don’t otherwise impact your quality of life, then you probably don’t have OCD.

If, however, you can’t shake the feeling that someone is going to die if you don’t save a piece of trash—or alternatively, if you flip the light switch on, then off, then on again, because this strange ritual is the only way you can empty your brain of the vision of your best friend getting in a car crash—then you may be obsessive-compulsive. The hallmark of the disorder is that you know what you are doing is a silly ritual that has no actual impact on yourself or others, beyond making you feel ridiculous—and that feeling causes quite a bit of shame and upset. But you can’t stop doing the behavior or ritual, because it brings you comfort. You know it’s irrational, and you’re not delusional, but the rituals can be the only way to feel “right” and at ease about the world.

I didn’t understand that I had OCD until sometime in college, when I first heard the symptoms described by another person and the lightbulb went off. It was a watershed moment. My parents had long found out about my garbage hoarding, because they had caught me going through the trash in the middle of the night out on the curb when I was around 14. I remember walking into the house and being questioned about my behavior. I remember how incredibly relieved I was, because now someone else could see that I wasn’t normal. I wanted to get help, wanted the bizarre rituals and obsession with holding on to useless stuff to be over. But until I was caught, I didn’t feel like I could stop the behavior on my own, as ridiculous as that sounds now. Until I learned that I was acting abnormally, I thought the hoarding and its impact on my life was my burden alone to bear.

Any psychologist or doctor reading this will now give me a tsk tsk, because here is where I tell you that I never sought treatment or even a formal diagnosis for my behavior. In a way, I’m one of the lucky ones, because I sort of outgrew the worst of the symptoms. This must have been a relief to my parents, because we didn’t have health insurance for most of my childhood, and they never did take me to a doctor, even after catching me in the trash. When I was older, and realized that my bizarre behavior was something that others could see me do and question, I learned to stifle the urge to flick the lights and hold onto scratch pieces of paper and other meaningless items. I would tell myself how ridiculous it was to believe that someone was going to die if I tossed a bent paper clip into the wastebasket. I started to ask myself whether I honestly believed that little old me held that much power over the universe. I began to trust that good and bad things sometimes just happened, and that the weight of the world was not on my shoulders.

I later learned that by asking what was really the worst that could happen, I was doing something similar to what is known as cognitive behavioral therapy: learning to use logical thinking to overcome emotional irrationality, by thinking through to what would actually happen if I did or did not do something, and how bad would it actually be (not that bad). I wouldn’t cause a car accident by throwing out those plastic rings that go on top of soda six-packs. I might, however, cause seagulls to get their heads caught inside of them. I snipped apart the plastic rings with scissors. I felt better.

I am a lot better these days, and I function beautifully in the normal adult world of work and socializing and everything else. But I’m not sure OCD is ever cured or gone, forever. When I had a newborn baby, I remember the surges of fear rising up again. Every so often, I would imagine some kind of disaster befalling my baby. I remember reading that these disturbing, protruding thoughts are common, and can be linked with post partum depression and anxiety. In a way, I found that comforting. I’m not the only one, and now, I have an excuse other than just being a weirdo, I thought. I realized that the scary images of bad things happening were a byproduct of my intense desire to protect my baby. Slowly, the images faded away, and I could celebrate and enjoy being a new mom.

I have a new fear now, and I’m not certain how rational or irrational it may be: I am afraid of my daughters inheriting my tendencies toward OCD and suffering in silence, like I did. Or alternatively, maybe I’m so worried they will have it that I will “see” it when it doesn’t actually exist in them. The other day, my older daughter started freaking out about the way her skin felt. My mind went to that place and thought, oh no. But then, she’s three. A three-year-old’s world is full of all kinds of bothersome things that make them act irrationally and sensitively, from an adult perspective. I need to give her time. With any luck, she will be absolutely ok. And if she needs help, I now know where to turn.

Looking over this post, I can’t say I feel better for having written it. I talk about this part of my history so infrequently, and I realize now that there is probably good reason for it: as accepted and common as it is now to talk more openly about mental health and anxiety disorders, it remains a shameful and stigmatizing issue. I’m writing this out because I hope that others out there, particularly mothers whose OCD tendencies may run to their feelings toward their children, can learn that they are not alone if they suffer from this or other anxiety disorders, and that they can overcome the worst of its limitations. It is always going to feel weird, but it doesn’t have to be so hard.