How OCD Affects Me in Theater

backstage, pre-show selfie

I absolutely adore participating in community theater. I am on my sixth show with a local group, currently rehearsing for Mamma Mia! A common saying is when you enter the theater, leave your problems outside. And that is true to an extent. No matter how my day has gone, I am here to perform. Plus, I will be surrounded by friends and get to do an activity I love. How can that not make me smile? However, no matter how much I wish I could, I can’t check my OCD at the door. This disability comes with me and sometimes gets in the way, despite the fact that treatment has greatly lessened the severity of my OCD. I doubt my cast members or the crew even notice, but I know some of my subtle behaviors and worries are OCD.

Here are three ways OCD affects me in theater.

1. Needing immediate water, to blow my nose, or empty my bladder

Okay, maybe this is a weird one, but when I have the thought that I’m thirsty, I panic that I will never be able to stop thinking about the thirst. If I don’t get water, I won’t be able to focus on the next number or the rest of the show and everything will be a mess and it will all be my fault. The same thought spiral happens when I feel a slight sniffle or urge to pee. What if I don’t take care of it, and what if that bodily need messes up my ability to perform? If this sounds dramatic, I realize it is, but one, I’m a theater kid, and two, OCD is not logical. My brain really tries to convince me I will never stop having these thoughts unless I address the need, which honestly can be quite distracting. So, sometimes I give in to the OCD and blow my nose or pee again. Other times, I try to do an exposure and wait a song or two. It honestly depends on my stress and exhaustion levels. And yes, drinking too much water can sometimes lead to needing to go to the bathroom too often. It’s a great cycle.

2. Doubting my ability to remember the order of the show and what I need to do

OCD is called the doubting disease for a reason, and for me, I often doubt my own skillset. For every show, I make myself a printed chart of notes for the order of songs, my costumes, and whether I’m on stage or off, even including which side of the stage I enter. Part of this stems from my love of organization. That is not OCD. But OCD latches on, and again takes it too far. I’ll check what I need to do next, and then I’ll feel the urge to check again. And again. Why not once more, for good measure? Heck, I’ll know confidently where I need to be next, and I’ll still feel the urge to check. It’s tricky when the lines of what is OCD and what is being just responsible get blurred. I let myself make these notes, but I also need to work on trusting myself and all of the rehearsals we’ve had.

My “brain” for Act 1

3. Fear of making mistakes & being overly hard on myself when I make mistakes

This is one probably all performers can relate to, but OCD takes perfectionism to a new level. When I mess up a step, the logical part of me knows that mistakes are inevitable. When I get I note (theater slang for feedback on how to do something differently), I try to tell myself this is an important part of the process and making the show as good as it can be. But I can’t help but be hard on myself. How could I mess that up again? They must think I’m terrible. They must hate me. I should be ashamed. This easily translates into a fear of making future mistakes or of doing anything wrong. This leads to being too careful, instead of confident. In these instances, I take a breathe and do my best to practice self-compassion. Mistakes are inevitable and part of growth. I am doing my best and I can do better, not or. I am imperfect and I am still loved. Gotta love dialecticals!

Beyond a fear of doing something wrong performance-wise, I also worry intensely about doing something wrong that would be breaking “rules” or social constructs. Don’t mix dressing rooms? Got it. Don’t talk backstage? More like, don’t talk ever. Don’t touch props that aren’t yours? I would never. I’ve been this way my entire life. In pre-school, I wouldn’t wave during an animal costume parade because I was convinced it was “against the rules.” I’m also constantly overanalyzing and replaying what I said to “make sure” I didn’t offend someone or make someone mad at me. I just want to do the right thing, to a fault.

I’m writing all this out for a couple reasons. One is that it will help me be more aware of when OCD is showing up. Increasing my awareness will help me catch compulsions and move on mindfully to exposure. And two, part of me wants to share this information with the cast and crew. Having a hidden disability is an odd experience, especially when I’m so good at masking, because no one has any idea you’re struggling. And most of the time I’m not really strugging. My OCD is so much better managed than a few years ago. But it also goes to show that I will always have OCD. These circuits are how my brain operates. I don’t really need help with anything, at least not at the moment, but sometimes it’s just nice to have others know. That knowledge of validation and support can help me feel less alone in my head with just OCD, and more part of the community again.


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