Last week, I was back in Ohio where I grew up, and I spent some time cleaning out my room. I expected to find signs of OCD and mental illness, but I didn’t expect to find so many signs. Most of the clues were subtle. Probably no one else or maybe only my past therapists with in depth knowledge of my symptoms would notice the signs. But I found at least a dozen remnants of OCD within about an hour.
Here are some examples of what I found.
This is a list of things I needed to remember to bring with me when volunteering at the zoo in middle or high school. Again, to the untrained eye, this might seem like a typical way of not forgetting something. What’s not pictured is the countless other lists I found, many that make far less sense than this one. I had a fear of forgetting information. (I like to call it information hoarding.) The secondary fear was that I would forget my list of everything I needed to bring. So, I wrote it down, and checked the list every day.
These papers are from studying in high school. To the left are solubility rules from chemistry. It’s in a plastic bag because I studied so obsessively and for so many hours a day that it wasn’t uncommon for me to study while showering. I didn’t want to waste any time. I often put information I needed to straight memorize in plastic bags to go over while showering.
On the right, are some charts I made while studying for a set of final exams. You can see how I meticulously went through each chapter for each subject. I made master lists of how I would study for each exam, and if I didn’t accomplish everything on the lists, I felt terrible, even if I still ended up getting a good grade. I felt like I hadn’t done my best. Classic perfectionism.
And this shows the result of all that compulsive studying. My senior year, I was taking all AP and honors classes, and in my final quarter I received all A’s or A+’s. I took schoolwork very seriously because it felt like something I could control. I now have a much healthier relationship with school, but at the time school and succeeding on paper were my life. Also worth noting are the increasing number of absences each quarter as my mental health deteriorated.
This one might seem sweet. These are all of my corsages from attending formal dances in high school. I kept them preserved in a box, until last week when I finally threw them all away. This again was a type of hoarding. It terrified me to throw away the physical items or the mental memories. A huge part of going through my room was just throwing out items I had been hoarding. I don’t have a diagnosis of hoarding disorder, but there is definitely a connection between OCD and hoarding tendencies. After all, both disorders are in the OCD and related disorders umbrella in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition).
I also had a BFRB (body-focused repetitive behavior) where I rubbed my eyebrows, to the point that in high school I would create bald spots. Often, this was while focused on something like studying, and often I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. The items in the bag are just some of the tools I used during college to try to replace the BFRB. I tried wearing finger covers, gloves, and band-aids on my fingers. I tried playing with putty, stress balls, and other fiddle toys, of which I have amassed a huge collection from mental health events and conferences. Ultimately, for me, the toys and covers helped some, but not significantly. Interestingly, when I went on medication for depression, the BFRB decreased as well.
Finally, here are some signs of starting therapy and working towards recovery. On the left, is some research into more intensive treatment programs. And on the right, it one of many therapy books I own.
I don’t mean for this post to be such a downer. I was surprised myself just how much OCD used to impact my life and how present the remnants of OCD were. And it’s important to mention that OCD is only a small percentage of my life now, nowhere near this level. There is treatment for OCD, recovery is possible, and hope is important. Exposure and response prevention therapy, medication, social support, and other therapies changed my life.
What I want to show though is how pervasive OCD can be, especially when untreated and before a diagnosis. It can take over just about every aspect of your life. OCD is also a subtle disorder and easily hidden. It leaves a trail, but the trail takes a trained eye to spot. I hid many compulsions for a decade, and the visible ones, my family and I didn’t know any better to identify them as OCD. This is why we raise awareness of OCD and mental health. We want to decrease the time spans between onset, diagnosis and beginning treatment.
Yes, OCD is pervasive. But recently, so is education about the disorder and people sharing personal stories and human connection and hope.