Yep, that’s me, OCD. A disorder I have struggled with for … well … my whole life. I did not realize what it was early on, but now that I am 48 and look back, obsessive compulsive disorder is and has been a very large challenge personally, emotionally, and physically pretty much all of my 48 years. I try not to let it define me, but some days are harder than others. I’m going to attempt to describe it to you.
Let’s say I’m preparing dinner at my house and we decide to make chicken. Now if I let OCD get the best of me, I would not touch raw chicken with a ten foot pole even if you gave me a million dollars, but as I told you, I’ve been living with this a long time so I make myself do things that are uncomfortable or what a practitioner would call “exposure therapy.” Let’s get back to cutting chicken. Now the chicken I buy comes individually wrapped. Why? Because it is easier for me to process the chicken without physically having to touch it. If I have to touch the chicken or smell the chicken or look at the slime on the chicken too long, I will throw up (not really, but that is what my brain is telling me). I get the chicken out of the fridge, and then I wash my hands. I open up the box of chicken with a knife, and then I wash my hands. Now, with a different knife and fork, I gingerly stab the bag with one utensil, slice it open, stab the chicken with the other utensil, and pull it out of its wrapper all while trying very hard not to touch it. After putting that piece of chicken in bowl or ziploc, yep you guessed it, I wash my hands. Mind you, all the time that I am trying to fumble with the disgusting fowl, I clench my teeth. Sometimes I clench my teeth so hard, my jaw hurts days after the fact. I go through this process for all the pieces of chicken, literally wash, rinse, repeat, and then, wash my hands one more time for good standing. Then my least favorite part, disposing of the bags the chicken was in. I get another bag and quickly balance all of these slimy compartments with my fork and put them in this extra bag and as fast as possible, tie it up and run to the trash can. Then I think about my teeth clenching in my mouth and tell myself to calm down, and then … I wash my hands. This is how it always goes for me and OCD.
I had a bad bout of the disability when my kids were little. A few of the little girls in our neighborhood contracted lice. I swore we had it. I immediately started to itch. I did not eat for three weeks and cleaned my house every other day. I combed through my kids hair twice a day, treated them at least three times with chemicals and the icing on the cake, I shaved my head. I had run up and down our stairs to do laundry so many times that blood pooled in my knees. My husband had to stop me from picking at my head on a regular basis. For two months, I was physically ill. Yes, I was struggling with a mental disability, and it was making me physically ill. See photo below. That’s me, baldy.
Anyone with true OCD will tell you, that’s pretty normal. Mind you, besides a few major hiccups with the disorder, things have gotten better over the years. In the past, I would never touch anything that had been on the floor. Door knobs and elevator buttons were out of the question, using someone else’s pen was hard for me, and going into a hotel room was so incredibly debilitating in my world, I just didn’t do it. I am proud to say, I can actually do all of those things now, I may clench my teeth and some times try to talk myself out of it, but I do them. I’m still here, and none of them killed me.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder comes in different forms for different people. Germs, repetitive actions, and numbers are a few. My number is three. It comforts me. Something about that number makes me feel whole. The number is usually an odd number for people with OCD. I pondered that for some time and talked about it with close friends. Why is it an odd number? One of my good friends said it makes sense with odd numbers (three specifically), because there is a beginning, a middle and an end. That DOES make sense which makes me feel good and somewhat normal. Things in my house need to be in threes, frames, photos, furniture or I will check on things three times. I always try to arrange things kitty corner (making a triangle of space). Three has a wonderful kind of symmetry. There is an actual rule of thirds in art and photography, so the number three makes total sense to me. I guess that is why I am an art dork.
My main struggle with OCD though, has been germs. I wash my hands A LOT! When my children were little, I wouldn’t kiss them because I was afraid I would give them something. How sad is that? Not kissing those sweet cheeks? I wouldn’t let anyone touch my babies, and if I ever did, more clenched teeth until I got them back. If anyone was sick, my whole day was ruined. if anyone around had anything contagious, I would get a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. If anything I used, touched the floor, in the garbage it went. My family could not share anything, not forks, not water, not brushes, not towels, not food, not hats. I had a hard time with my daughters sharing clothes, or taking a drink out of each other’s glass. When we would go out to eat, I would NEVER share my food nor did I like when other people did. I couldn’t control the spread of germs so in my head this was the best way to control it.
I think that is the reason I wash my hands so much. Making my hands clean from germs makes me feel better. I can control that. When my hands are clean, my mind is calm. Crazy, I know. To most people, that doesn’t make sense, but to someone with OCD, it makes perfect sense! Here’s the thing, even as I write this, I know this is not rational behavior, and it has taken me a long time to realize, eating a piece of food off the floor is not going to kill me. Most likely the only thing I will contract is a piece of dog hair, lol! I also know that I will forever be a “work in progress” with the disorder. It never really goes away. Just honed.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can affect you at work as well. Every door I touched, every chair I sat in, every sneeze I heard, the copier screens, the telephones. All of it. My worst struggle was that I had a hard time setting projects down, or waiting for answers to questions. I would sit at my desk for hours, not move, and not look up (some times for ten hours straight) because I would obsess about getting a project done. I have been told to stop working so hard, to only give 90% (not 110%), to let it go, to stop worrying about it, or to not let it bother me. They obviously don’t get it. People with OCD are highly sensitive so even someone saying “let it go,” would ruin my whole day. Because I couldn’t let it go, OCD doesn’t let me. My last corporate job, I actually asked for accommodations, but after two failed attempts and a human resource department that had no idea how to handle mental disabilities, I quit. Essentially OCD is why I quit my job. There is such a misunderstanding in the workforce about mental health, and honestly, they were never going to give me the accommodations because they just don’t get it.
Employers need to get it. People need to get it. I’m hoping more people who struggle with OCD come forward. The more who admit to the disorder and tell their stories, the more understanding there will be. It is a true disability, and many suffer in silence. There is such a negative stigma about mental disabilities, people don’t talk about it. Well, I’m talking. We need to keep this in the forefront because there are many who need help and/or proper accommodations. Listen, we didn’t choose to be this way. I would love for it to not bother me, if I could let it go, I would, I have to work at 110% to feel better. I will wash my hands to stay calm. That is just me … and OCD.