The truth about OCD is fucking ugly. Some folks assume it’s counting, or fear of germs. Some think it’s just a quirk; that I’m just a “checker”, that it’s just the “management gene” in me that likes things to be done in a certain way – properly. Some people just cannot get their head around it.
1. I have a fear of germs and contamination.
This means that I put my sleeve over my hand or use tissues to open doors, cringe whenever someone sneezes, refuse to use communal cutlery, and shower or wash often. It also means that if I don’t do these things I can feel the dirt. Example: I had to bring the bin in on the way to work. It’s a wheelie bin. Without thinking, I grabbed it with my hand. The handle was wet. It lives outside. The last person to touch it was someone who touches all of the bins which all of the other people have touched. I was already late. I thought about going inside to wash my hands again, but I decided to try and be brave. I believe it’s called exposure and response. During my car journey, I avoided touching anything else with that hand as much as possible and it began to feel warm and itchy until I was in actual pain because of the dirt and germs on my hand. I imagined them multiplying and spreading up my arm. It is distressing. So that’s why I cover my hands to open doors.
2. Need for symmetry.
Symmetry and order, but only in some things. My room is a mess. My desk is a mess. I don’t know why this is. I’m not convinced someone will die, as is apparently common with OCD. I just like it. It just feels right. It almost seems to calm me a bit, but it’s the sight or feeling of unevenness that makes me feel distressed enough to need calming. I like to step on coloured floor tiles in shopping centres with the same part of my right foot as my left foot. I’ve done this since I was a child. Even without looking, I feel like I know one foot is uneven because it touched a coloured tile when the other one didn’t. Then I’ll try to compensate for it by treading on a metal carpet strip with the foot that missed out. It may look like I’m practicing for the ministry of silly walks.
I think this is the one that people understand the least and find most irritating. It’s also probably the most noticeable compulsion. There have been some really bizarre looks from people on checkouts when they see that my shopping is arranged like a jigsaw with nothing overlapping or stacked and the labels facing the same way on the conveyor belt. I am embarrassed by it but I give in to it frequently.
3. Intrusive thoughts.
These were the start of the checking. I worry about car accidents; that I’ve caused one or been in one and my brain is coping by pretending I’m still driving, like the dream that you’re getting ready for work that you have before getting out of bed. Intrusive thoughts can be anything from that time in 1997 when I forgot how to spell “doesn’t” and how fucking stupid I am for it, to being utterly convinced that one of my loved ones has died. Usually, these thoughts are completely illogical and I do my best to explain them away. There’s a weakness though. I’m terrified of burglars and fires. I don’t know why, I’ve never been a victim of either. It just seems like a more logical and likely thing to happen. As a child, I had a fire escape plan. I had a box of trinkets under my bed to grab and take so I wouldn’t lose everything. It contained a couple of photographs and small bits and pieces given to me by my grandparents and a tiny teddy bear head my mom made out of fimo when I was about 6. Even aged 6 I appreciated the beauty in that teddy head. I knew I needed to keep it (sign of hoarding? Another OCD trait) for a day when my mom was not around. I thought about death a lot as a child. I don’t know why. I kind of sound like one of those creepy kids from horror films.
A result of the intrusive thoughts; checking is the way my brain tries to control or quiet them. This is a common compulsion and the one that really indicated to me that I have a problem. This seems to be improving lately but I suspect that’s just because my other half is usually in the house when I’m not. The main things I check are locks and electrical items.
I can see the film in my head of my carefree drive home, seeing flashing lights as I approach my street, and realising the smoke is coming from my house. I see my reactions. I feel the pain that my tortoise has suffered and died and that I couldn’t save him. I feel the guilt for keeping a pet where he can’t escape. I feel the realisation that my photographs and books are gone, that the teddy bear head is gone. That I’ll never hold those things again and one day, I might forget they ever existed. I feel every single thing so very deeply. I see myself trying to hold it together, making phone calls and matter-of-factly taking control and making arrangements. I see the look in my face as I give the policeman a statement gripping on to a foil blanket with dishevelled hair and smudged eyeliner. I see myself in the hotel shower, sobbing uncontrollably.
I see and feel all of this in a matter of seconds. There’s a similar scenario with burglary and that is the feeling that makes me turn my car around a mile down the road and turn back to check the sun isn’t bouncing off a mirror. Check the doors are locked. Check there are no chargers still turned on and touching the carpet. But even after I’ve checked, and said out loud “The door is locked. Today is Wednesday 30th December and I have locked the door”, I’m still not convinced I’ve saved myself from the heartache of the burglary or the fire.
5. Skin picking.
This is the one. This is the secret. This is my ugliest compulsion. I have picked spots and scabs for as long as I can remember. I’ve often spent hours in front of the mirror until my face is red and sore trying to get rid of every single blemish. They invariably end up worse; inflamed and angry. Recently, this has got a lot worse. In growing hairs, stray hairs (thanks pcos) and blocked pores. I manage to avoid my face mostly, with difficulty, but there are parts under my clothes that are scarred and pocked by my inability to just leave it alone. Sometimes, while I’m picking my skin, my brain thinks “That’s it. Get the evil out. It’s concentrated evil and dirt and grime in those pores, from outside and in.”
It is fucking ridiculous. I tell it to shut up. I tell it we will be late for work. It doesn’t care because that’s how OCD brain rolls. It’s a cunt. It also tells me how the picking could lead to mutations that cause cancer. Or maybe I have just picked out the cell that was going to cause cancer. But maybe there’s another one. And how will I know? It tells me to carry on even though it hurts and that I will feel a relief and gratification when I finally release whatever that is under my skin. The dirt, the hair, the spiders’ eggs, or parasites, but more likely just inflamed tissue caused by prodding, I imagine. I rarely feel any kind of relief from picking my skin. I don’t stop because I am satisfied, or finished. I usually stop because I can’t breathe from the positions I have tied myself in to dig holes in my skin. Afterwards I feel dirtier. I hate the scabs. I feel ashamed of them. I hope against hope that they don’t scar. I worry what my boyfriend and beautician will think. But I can’t stop. I don’t know how to stop. OCD brain takes over from rational brain. OCD brain ties rational brain up in a broom cupboard and goes to fucking town on the inside of my skull. If it stays in control long enough, I’m worried rational brain will succumb to insanity caused by being tied up in solitary for so long.