What Living With OCD Is Really Like

By Linda Stansberry 10/10/14

October 5th to October 11th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. One woman's story.


When you realize your brain doesn't work the way other people's brains work, you're usually afraid to let on. Instead, you learn an intricate set of rules and behaviors modeled after people whose brains appear to be “normal,” copying their turns of phrase, interests and facial expressions. None of those people are counting the number of steps it takes them to walk from the car to the office door, none are convinced to the point of ulcer-inducing anxiety that they left a stove burner on, or occasionally grip their steering wheels incredibly tight as they drive across narrow bridges, afraid that a sudden muscle spasm will make them jerk the wheel and plunge to their death.

The diagnosis of mental illness often comes with a whiplash double-punch of relief and renewed anxiety. There are few illnesses that are more stigmatized, less understood, or that come with a larger burden of admittedly squicky side-effects. The usual reaction I get when I tell people that I'm obsessive-compulsive is a smirk of disbelief. These are the people that have seen the littered chaos of my home or car. 

“Not that kind of OCD,” I explain patiently, “The kind where you spend all afternoon worrying that you've inadvertently done something that's going to kill someone, like not properly washed raw chicken juice off the kitchen counter or sneezed near an old person. The kind where you write obsessive lists about everything from your ideal daily routine to how many people you've kissed. The kind where you eat a sandwich in specific bites, chewing on one side of the mouth for each bite, and your meal is ruined if you switch the order or finish on the left side of your mouth instead of your right. That kind of OCD. But I do wash my hands a lot, sure.”

On the other side of the tent are my fellow admitted “abnormals,” who howl with delight as I wryly admit that I was diagnosed from a multiple choice test and was frustrated that I only scored 89 out of 100.

The same therapist who administered the test used cognitive-behavioral therapy to help me patiently unravel my anxious thoughts from reality. Today I function fairly well thanks to a sort of objectivity. When I start down the rabbit hole of wondering whether or not I accidentally offended someone or unconsciously picked my nose in public I can usually pause and ask myself whether I'm reacting to reality or if it's just the anxiety talking. A few deep breaths or twenty minutes of cardio help me detach from anxiety-based behaviors. And I watch other people closely for “normal” behavior to model.

Except that I've learned that an increasingly large number of people aren't actually “normal.” Mental health is a spectrum rather than a state. Some of the same people who have modeled “normalcy” for me suffer from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other debilitating conditions. The beautiful thing about honesty is that it allows other people to be honest as well. When I open up about my own obsessiveness, I find it frees other people to talk about their own problems. 

In honor of Mental Health Awareness week, I invite you to apply the same principles of detachment I use to deal with my OCD to the stigma of mental health. Physical health has become an increasingly fashionable topic in our society. We talk incessantly about gym routines, juice cleanses and probiotics. Why can't we be at least a fraction as open about our phobias, trips to therapy and suicidal thoughts? As someone who suffers from anxiety, I can tell you that I'm very afraid of admitting my problems and then being dismissed, as though nothing I do or say now has relevance because they're the actions of a “crazy” person. One in seventeen American adults live with a serious mental illness. Fifteen percent of clinically depressed people take their own lives. Someone you know is suffering silently right now, convinced that they're unsalvageable. 

I believe the reason we resist seeking help is because of a uniquely American sense of independence and exceptionalism: the idea that any person can rescue themselves if they try hard enough. We're protective of our mental autonomy, and worry that if we get someone to “fix” us, we'll no longer be ourselves. But a mental health professional is more like a plumber than a mechanic. No one can be fixed because no one, no one is actually broken. Sometimes we have irrational fears or beliefs that block us from functioning as well as we could, and a therapist can redirect us into a healthier way of thinking. Sometimes we have chemical imbalances of the brain that can only be corrected with medication, and there is nothing wrong with that. Making a commitment to our mental health does not make us less ourselves. The brain is much more plastic than we think, and our brain is not our soul.

I know what my soul is made of, and it's more intact than ever for admitting that I struggle with mental illness. I'm grateful my symptoms are manageable without medication, and I'm grateful that said medication exists for my fellow sufferers who need it. I am not less than anyone whose brain chemistry works properly, and I refuse to be ashamed. Sometimes my symptoms ruin my day, and sometimes they entertain me with their ludicrousness. On the best days, they make me stronger, because I have to do the spiritual heavy-lifting of confronting, analyzing and detaching from them. Crossing a narrow bridge, white-knuckled and terrified that I'll veer over the railing, a train of thought about my funeral starts. I imagine the newspaper headline, the obituary. What will they dress me in? Will my ex-boyfriends meet each other? What will they talk about? Will there be a fistfight? My brow furrows in annoyance. I can't believe they're fighting at my funeral. Jeez. My commute passes like a breeze. By the time I get home and find I've left the oven on I can laugh. 

Linda Stansberry is a regular contributor to The Fix. She has recently written about the glut of misery memoirs and Gabor Maté. Her latest project is On the Tracks.

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