Taking Off Weights: Harrison Bergeron and OCD

The interaction described below actually occurred about four years ago, I finished writing this post three years ago, and for whatever reason I waited to publish it until now! It’s odd to read my old writing, both because I used to be so lost in the depths of OCD and because I had to go back and fix some commas. I think this is my favorite unintended consequence of my blog: I have record of how far I’ve come.

Quick clarification: I am not saying having OCD can be beneficial. I am adamant that OCD has almost no benefits. For example, I got good grades not because of my perfectionism but despite it. The exceptions are that battling OCD and going through that journey taught me how to face my fears and made me more compassionate. It brought me to my passion of mental health advocacy.

Harrison Bergeron weightsA few weeks ago I decided to tell one of my professor’s about my OCD. I was really having trouble keeping up with the reading, and I eventually decided it was best if I was open with her. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and I figured by being open we could talk about which readings were most important or what to focus on when reading.

Even though I knew telling her might make the class more manageable, I was definitely scared to do this. Sometimes people respond well and other times not so much. I was also worried she might think I was dumb or would think less of me for having trouble reading and finishing exams on time. There was no way to know for sure how this would go. At first because of the fear I kept changing my mind, but time kept ticking and I didn’t want to keep getting more and more behind. Eventually I decided to embrace the uncertainty and go for it. I marched myself to office hours, explained how OCD makes reading and taking multiple choice exams difficult (rereading and checking compulsions), and asked for her advice about the assigned readings. I was pretty scared during the whole meeting, but the amazing thing is it could not have gone better. I never could have expected such an incredible response and I wanted to share my experience so maybe someone else contemplating telling a professor or teacher might feel hopeful and encouraged.

Overall the conversation was packed with kindness and respect. Never once did she poke fun at or minimize the topic at hand. Beyond that though she shared a really wonderful metaphor that I found inspiring and quite meaningful. The metaphor related to the short story Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut, which takes place in a futuristic version of our society. In the story being average is ideal so those with talents, good looks, strength, etc. have to wear various handicaps. The handicaps are supposed to bring their skills down to average and prevent jealousy. Harrison, the main character, and ballerinas he interacts with have to wear weights to hinder their strength, among other handicaps. Toward the end of the story, Harrison and the most talented ballerina remove their handicaps and dance together, shortly before being killed for their actions. Ironically, because they had been dragging around the weights for so long this only made them stronger. Without them, Harrison and the ballerina dance especially well and jump incredibly high.

Harrison placed his big hands on the girls tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!
Harrison placed his big hands on the girls tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

My professor said OCD, or really any difficulty, is like these weights worn by Harrison and the ballerinas. Carrying around the weights for years makes things much harder at the time, but all the while they are also making us stronger.  Once the weights finally come off, or once we can live without OCD holding us back, what we will be able to do will be remarkable since we will be stronger than we ever could have been without the weights. 

In the end this class ended up becoming one of my favorites and has greatly influenced what topics I am interested in continuing to study. Of course being open didn’t make the class “OCD-free” for me, but it certainly made things a little easier. This experience goes to show that once again nothing ever goes as badly as we expect it to, and more importantly that most people are kind. Thank you to my professor for being so awesome.



P.S. If anyone would like to read the story Harrison Bergeron here is the full text: Harrison Bergeron. There have also been several films based on the story.

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