OCD-Fuelled Middle-of-the-Night Thoughts about OCD

It’s 3 a.m., and I can’t sleep for reasons related to OCD.

I’m not complaining, just explaining. OK, I’m complaining, but only a little. In any case, I’m taking advantage of this “found time” to write a blog entry—given how late it is, though, it would probably be best to wait and post it tomorrow, after I’ve had a chance to edit it. [Edit: I’m now editing it “tomorrow.” I’m glad that I had the common sense last night not to publish something that meandered out of my brain while I was only half awake.]

I just finished reading a great book, Because We Are Bad, by Lily Bailey, that pushed me to reexamine my own relationship with obsessive-compulsive disorder. My experience of OCD certainly hasn’t been as extreme as Bailey’s was/is. Obsessive-compulsive disorder has nonetheless hung over me like a constant shadow, has sat on my shoulder like an annoying, babbling, dysfunctional parrot that won’t shut the heck up, for almost as long as I can remember.

My OCD has shape-shifted over the years. How it manifests depends on many factors: the professional treatment that I’m receiving for it, my age, my neurological health, what else is going on in my life. Sometimes its guise of the hour seems totally random, impossible to connect to anything at all.

I’m aware that being open and honest about mental-health struggles, as Bailey is in her memoir, can help reduce stigma and aid those who’re in a similar place or who’ve gone through similar things. I try to address mental-health issues in my blog, but I’m not fully there yet when it comes to my OCD—I’m not comfortable enough to provide much detail about its current occupation of my headspace. As a step in that direction, please allow me to share my first OCD memory. (If you’re not interested or feel weird about stuff like this, stop reading. I won’t judge you, mostly because I’ll never know what you did.)

When I was a kid, I spent hours a night arranging my pillows before turning off the light. The two of them, both very thin, were to be perfectly straight: exactly a finger’s-width away from the headboard and even on both sides. I would run my fingers across the headboard hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times, measuring the distance between headboard and pillows. (This task was made more complicated by the fact that the pillows weren’t exactly the same size.) Since I also needed to turn off the light at precisely the same time, to the second—22:48:36, if I remember correctly—the ritual was carefully orchestrated and would usually continue in the dark. If I woke up to go to the bathroom, I would start the pillow straightening from the beginning. This meant that it was often three or four a.m. before I fell asleep. Frustrated by and anxious about my inability to arrange the pillows correctly, I would occasionally give up, get out of bed, and sit up reading until the morning.

Why didn’t I just, you know, go to sleep? Because something deep within my brain told me that if didn’t properly execute this routine, my family would die. Yep. It’s embarrassing and weird to admit that I tied the state of my pillows to whether or not my parents and brothers would live to see another day, but it’s the truth. I was only later told that thoughts like this are common among people with OCD.

I eventually found a way to better manage this behaviour, and at some point in my teenage years, I stopped doing it completely. OCD, though, can be like Whac-A-Mole: almost as soon as I pound down an OCD ritual and bask in a brief moment of victory, another one of those obsessive-compulsive vermin pops up.

Ten-year-old me is freaking out right now.

A word to the wise: unless you’ve taken a psychology course or have gone out of your way to read about it, OCD likely isn’t what you think it is. You may want to do a little research. Google “OCD” or “obsessive-compulsive disorder” and find a reputable source. Knowledge is good. Information is good.

I can’t help cringing (on the inside—I’m not a monster) when people say that they’re “so OCD” if they like to keep their belongings organized or if they have a strong preference for cleanliness but aren’t burdened with the other “stuff” that comes with obsessive-compulsive disorder (side note: I don’t have “that kind” of OCD; I find it hard to care more than a “normal” person would about the state of my apartment). I realize that this colloquial use of OCD is based on the stereotype that OCD = extreme perfectionism, and I’m not offended by it, really; I will say, however, that I’m a little annoyed by the lack of awareness that throwing the term around in the “I’m so OCD!” fashion suggests. This too-long-to-quote-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway excerpt from the website of the International OCD Foundation approaches the issue from a slightly different angle and proves(?) that I’m not a total jerk for reacting this way:

“Unfortunately, ‘obsessing’ or ‘being obsessed’ are commonly used terms in every day language. These more casual uses of the word means that someone is preoccupied with a topic or an idea or even a person. ‘Obsessed’ in this everyday sense doesn’t involve problems in day-to-day living and even has a pleasurable component to it. You can be ‘obsessed’ with a new song you hear on the radio, but you can still meet your friend for dinner, get ready for bed in a timely way, get to work on time in the morning, etc., despite this obsession. In fact, individuals with OCD have a hard time hearing this usage of ‘obsession’ as it feels as though it diminishes their struggle with OCD symptoms.” International OCD Foundation, “About OCD”

(WordPress won’t let me indent this paragraph. The lack of proper formatting is really, really, really bothering me. Given the theme of this post, I feel obliged to try to breathe through my no-indentation-caused discomfort.)

And with that, I’m going to try to fall back asleep. The only thing that’ll touch my pillows will be my head since my OCD no longer commands me to straighten them, thank goodness. Another day, in another post, I’ll write more about OCD as it currently affects me. For now, I’ll savour the fact that a messy pile of pillows is inviting, not anxiety-provoking.


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