OCD is a very real mental illness that is often downplayed, joked about or stereotyped. My OCD is mild. And I am extremely lucky and thankful for that. But I do still have my own set of rituals that the logical part of my brain says are ridiculous, but the OCD part says that are totally necessary.
I realize in writing this I am leaving myself open to ridicule, there will always be people who aren’t emotionally able to understand mental illness, and will try to use it against you. But I wear my mental illnesses on my sleeve, I’ve learnt over the years that I can’t (and shouldn’t) be ashamed or embarrassed by it: it is part of me, and part of who I am. So, here are some of the things I deal with daily – some are easier to understand than others, and some are totally off the wall crazy (I’m fully aware, but that doesn’t mean I can stop myself doing them).
I prefer things in patterns
I find symmetry very calming, I like things to be perpendicular or parallel if possible. But, if something is completely random, that is also fine. I struggle when there is a clear pattern/organisation and one thing is out of place – often that will be all I can concentrate on to the detriment of whatever else is happening around me. With this type of compulsion, it is normal for people to believe something bad will happen if the pattern is not corrected; for me, that isn’t the case, it just causes me stress like symptoms.
Probably one of the most widely known compulsions and many people joke about being OCD because they like a clean house, but this isn’t OCD, it simply diminishes the struggles that sufferers go through. My cleaning rituals aren’t as bad as many – my teeth cleaning can be excessive, and has damaged the enamel on my teeth, but many sufferers struggle with the obsessive need to continually clean the same thing over and over again in a day. I’m ok with cleaning my teeth twice a day, even if I do tend to brush too hard and have to set timers so I don’t brush for too long!
I have a specific order for cleaning things also; I clean each room in a certain way because otherwise it may as well not have been cleaned at all. And it doesn’t work if anyone else helps me to clean, it doesn’t matter how thorough their job, if I haven’t done it, my brain struggles to compute that it is done. When I travel, this can become more ritualised, simply because I don’t know the initial level of cleanliness.
Issues with sticky and mouldy things
I have a very instant reaction to mould, and it might seem ridiculous, but if I see mould, I am going to vomit. There is no choice in it. I cannot stop it. I don’t know how to deal with mould, I’ve had the same reaction ever since I can remember, and it often means some foods are (for a period of time at least) completely out of my diet.
I don’t have quite the same reaction to sticky things, but I do really struggle when I have to (or accidentally) touch something that feels sticky. When this happens, and it happens more than you can imagine – door handles, tables, chairs, cups, plates, cutlery, other people’s hands… Pretty much any object or surface can feel sticky! In general, I try to avoid touching ‘unknowns’ but in case I have to, I carry anti-bacterial alcohol gel, and always know where the nearest bathroom is to wash my hands.
This, even I will admit makes no sense. It is a pattern thing (I think). When I go up or down steps, if I know the person in front of me, then I will step the same foot on the same step as the other person. I will also breathe in the entire staircase. If I don’t know the person in front of me, then I will step the opposite foot on each step and breathe out for the entire staircase. I know. I really do. This is verging on bat-sh*t crazy. I don’t know why I do it, I don’t know when it started, but it happens and now it happens subconsciously. (I would like to blame my inability to walk up and down stairs without falling and getting out of breath on it, but I think that is just clumsiness and being unfit).
Moving number drawing
And heading even further into the realms of utterly insane…. Moving numbers, you know like countdown clocks or when your DVD player counts up the seconds into your movie, these things where the digital numbers are continually changing? I can’t ignore them. I mean, I literally can’t tear my eyes from them. And worse, as they change, I have to draw each new number with my index finger on my leg. I’m pretty certain it looks like I have twitchy fingers – after all, I didn’t even realize I was doing it for years – but in reality, I am drawing numbers. And this is why my DVD player is always slightly out of my eye line. Because if I am watching a film and I can see those numbers changing, I’m not really watching the screen. I am solely watching, and drawing, those numbers.
Probably the weirdest, but also the most persistent, of all my compulsions. Whenever I drive somewhere, I tap my molar teeth in line with street signs. If there is a street sign on the left side of the road with two legs, I click my left molars twice. One on the right with one leg, that’s one click on the right. One of those giant motorway signs with 6 legs? That’s 6 clicks for whichever side of the road it is on. I’ve improved on this, I used to have to tap for lampposts, mile markers and fence posts too, now it is purely to do with street signs. This happens on every journey, EXCEPT if I am talking (or singing), then I don’t have to click. But any other time, the clicks are happening. Unlike others, I have no obsessive thoughts that this ritual keeps me safe, or something bad will happen if I don’t do it, it is simply an act that I cannot stop doing. Again, I think it is to do with patterns and finding comfort from symmetry. But I don’t honestly know. It doesn’t affect my ability to drive, no one I have ever been in a car with has even noticed (I told Sam about it last year and he had no clue it was happening and we have travelled thousands of miles together by road), so I don’t worry about it. I just know it happens – and have to get my teeth checked to ensure that I’m not grinding my molars down!
There are others, they have less of an impact on me, such as a need to touch textiles as I walk past them (seriously, try going shopping with me, I will touch every clothing item I walk past). I can’t concentrate on a programme or radio show if I know the volume isn’t on a multiple of 5 – not like others where I prefer an even number. It causes me physical stress; my heart rate increases, I sweat, I lose the ability to concentrate on anything except that number. I have a blinking/winking thing where if I notice my blinking – you know that moment where you suddenly notice your blinking and then you can’t work out how to not notice your blinking? If I notice my blinking, I have to do a quick wink pattern. Right, left, left, right, blink, pause blink. This helps to clear my head and I can continue on with doing whatever else I was already doing.
I know, I absolutely know, that all these things are completely illogical. I know that they make me seem crazy. I know they give haters ammunition that they can try and hurt me with, but honestly, these rituals are all part of who I am and that isn’t going to change. And I know that when you meet me, these quirks aren’t overtly displayed, so it is easy for me to pretend that they aren’t there, but this isn’t the case for many. So, next time you joke or over-exaggerate about how OCD you are, please remember that this illness is real and not simply about cleaning or having things perfectly arranged. It isn’t easy to live with, and it isn’t a joke. It is tough. It is really tough trying to hide your quirks or explain away odd behaviours. And for many people, their obsessions and compulsions affect their daily life to the point that they struggle to leave their safe environments or try new things.
And here is the thing: I have OCD, but I am lucky. My OCD affects some of the things I do and how I go about them, but my OCD doesn’t affect me living my life to its full.
Do you have OCD? What are your more unusual compulsions?
*If you think you have OCD, or are struggling with any of your symptoms, please seek trained medical help. And remember, you are not alone.*