In college, I told my roommate I live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and she laughed. I assured her I was serious, but she was convinced I must have been severely misdiagnosed. I was the “least OCD person” she knew. I mean, had I seen my room? It was a mess.
It’s true. I’m not an organized person. I lose all important documents, create endless clutter, forget every appointment I make and have missed more flights than I care to admit. I’m also far from a germaphobe: I eat things that fall on the floor, sit on toilet seats without a seat cover, open doors in public restrooms without a paper towel, shake hands, hug strangers, share straws with others and even let my friends use my toothbrush.
I don’t blame her for not believing I have OCD. “Being so OCD” has become a common, cutesy term for having amazing organizational skills, being neat and clean, particular about order and generally on top of things. And when you think of OCD in those terms, it sounds like a wonderful blessing.
In fact, I have become accustomed to people congratulating me on having this amazing gift, instead of an illness I am battling with. That’s why I understand their confusion when I tell someone I ended up in a psych ward because my OCD got so bad.
“Wait you ended up in a psych ward because you were so clean and organized?”
Clinical OCD has nothing to do with being clean and organized. Although symptoms for those with OCD sometimes revolve around excessive cleaning and arranging, I can assure you there is something much bigger behind it.
Having OCD is like having a broken fire alarm in your head that only you can hear. It constantly points out emergencies and danger that others just don’t seem to see. All my life, I’ve seen dangers where even my extremely protective mother hasn’t. I’ve seen ways in which people and animals could suffer harm or die that no one else seems to notice or worry about.
To relieve the constant overwhelming anxiety, I would create and perform rituals—these included going to the furthest extremes to prevent all harm, excessively trying to “wash away” bad luck and uncomfortable thoughts, praying, confessing and a whole lot of avoidance.
Once, when I was a kid, I wrote a to do list on a post-it note before I went to bed and things were great the next day. So, for years afterwards, I would write the same to do list on that same post-it note. I truly believed it would keep myself and others safe.
My compulsive behaviors only increased as I became an adult, and I had more control over my surroundings. When at its worst, OCD meant spending all my days and nights sweeping the sidewalks, picking up and removing any object that could possibly cause harm (so, every single object). I noticed danger in everything, and I felt irresponsible if I didn’t make everything “harm-proof.”
Eventually, I was unable to leave my house. I felt that I alone held the burden to protect all species from every possible harm that could fall upon them. OCD meant not being able to open my eyes because there was too much danger to see. I would ask others to hold my hand and guide me from place to place with my eyes closed. It was just all too much. This is when I was hospitalized.
Treatment tested me like nothing ever had before; I was forced to face my worst fears. Since my hospitalization and the months of intensive treatment that followed, I’ve needed to give up excessive responsibility and embrace uncertainty. Letting myself get better has been the most challenging thing for me because it makes me feel selfish and reckless. It’s taken all I’ve got, but the reward has been worth it.
My reward is my life. OCD is clever—it is the most persuasive force I’ve ever come across. I was a prisoner to my OCD, and by freeing myself from its chains, I’ve been able to explore myself, my values and my interests. I now can live a fulfilling and meaningful life and make a real difference in this world. It’s true what so many said to me at my worst times: “I can’t tell you it will be easy, but I can tell you it will be worth it.”
Hanna Gudrun is a mental health advocate, writer, actress and journalist. She writes about mental illness, recovery, healing and self-love on her website www.heartfullyhanna.com.
This week is OCD Awareness Week
Join the International OCD Foundation in raising awareness about this misunderstood mental health condition.