Over the last decade or so the portrayal of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders in entertainment and media has ranged from being charming quirks to near superpowers. While the exposure OCDs have received has been beneficial, I’ve never seen a depiction that comes anywhere close to how my personal OCDs affect my everyday life.
Now, everyone is different and manifestations of OCDs are extremely varied, so I can only share my experiences living from day-to-day with a brain that often times won’t turn off, or won’t let go.
What Aren’t My OCDs
The first thing people think of when discussing OCDs is germaphobia, cleanliness, and uniformity. Mostly because that’s what they see on TV. For my own purposes none of those are a part of my OCDs.
I don’t obsess over getting sick or washing my hands (though this is one of my dad’s manifestations). I do like to maintain a certain level of neatness, and I do prefer to have things like movies, books, etc in a certain order. The difference is, in my case, I’m not compelled to do these things and I don’t obsess when they aren’t done that way. I prefer to have my place be neat and orderly, but admittedly, by the end of a week I may have clothes in the floor or dishes in the sink. I always keep my movies in alphabetical order, but if I find one out of place I never go through and make sure they are all correct, or am even compelled to fix it. Sometimes I’ll just “fix it when I feel like it.” I like having items symmetrical and at right angles. If that doesn’t work or look good though I go for what’s aesthetically best. Hell even my desire to separate my gummi bears into color isn’t done for obsessive reasons. I just like to eat them in preference of flavor. And I don’t have to do it or even need to do it all the time. Just if I want to save the best for last. These read as neither obsessions nor compulsions to me. Merely preferences. Tastes in how I like my environment but nothing is driving me to do these things or troubling me if I don’t. My obsessions and compulsions are very different.
My First OCDs
When I was a kid there was a local mall that had 12 inch tan tiles in blocks of about ten or so in a square and after every block of around ten there would be dark brown tiles at the corners. I used to make a game out of walking only in the tan tiles. Never stepping on seams between them and never stepping on the dark brown tiles or a row where there were dark brown tiles. At the time I thought it was just a game I was making up but it’s hard to describe then tenseness or tingling sensation that I would feel when I nearly stepped on a seam, or even worse the anxiety I’d feel when I almost stepped in a row with a dark brown tile. A 7 year old me altering how I stepped and walked just to make sure I didn’t step on anything but tan tiles and never in seams. Though of course I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the first manifestation I can recall.
Thankfully: A.) I never go to the mall anymore and B.) They’ve carpeted so if I do go there it’s no big deal and C.) They’ve changed modern architecture design so that kind of pattern isn’t common anymore. Even though this doesn’t seem like a major deal, having to keep track of something so minor at a very specific place, it is a perfect representation of how my own OCDs impact my everyday life. Just in this example image how much mental energy, time, and focus was spent making sure I didn’t step a certain way. This is a theme that runs through all the ways my OCDs manifest themselves. And it’s the hardest aspect to explain. Imagine going through your day, and even excelling at tasks, but a portion of your mind is always keeping up with nonessential tasks that it just can’t stop doing… What kind of tasks? Well…
I count a lot. I count everything. I count to nothing from nothing and for no reason. I’ll often count going up stairs (1, 2, 3, 4…) then when I get to a landing start counting down starting from a different number even though I’m still walking up (10, 9, 8, 7…). I’ll count up to 8 then pick up at 80 and count up from there then count down from 100 when I reach it. I’ll count the number of times I’ll wash a plate, not because I need to wash it a certain number of times, just to be counting. And often I don’t start at 1. I’ll be washing and just start counting “9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.” Just a constant count of numbers that is going on all the time. So often I can’t even imagine how many times I’m doing it and don’t notice. I only notice when I catch myself and then I’ll realize I’ve been doing it for a long, long time.
The Mind Loop
This is an excessively difficult one to describe but it is one that has the worst impact on me. I’ll get a name, concept, song, movie, line of dialogue, whatever in my head. And it will repeat. It’ll repeat over, and over, and over. I’ll say it out loud. If it’s just one word I’ll say the one word. I might say it over and over. While I’m driving, or working, or even talking to someone. For example someone will say “pizza” at work. I’ll think, “Pizza. Pizza sounds good.” Then I’ll think, “I really don’t need it, it makes me a bit queasy, I don’t feel like stopping, and I don’t really have the money.” But in my mind, “Pizza, pizza, pizza.” I’ll be driving home and say , “Pizza.” And it won’t stop until I get pizza. The same goes for a line of dialogue in a movie, I’ll remember a certain phrase or scene and it will repeat over and over until I watch the movie. Sometimes I’ll have to watch it over and over until I’m well tired of it and won’t watch it again for a long time. Sometimes it’ll go on like that for days. The worst part is when something loops that makes me want to buy things. Things I really don’t need and shouldn’t be spending money on. I’ve been able to curtail this one for the most part but for a few years anything I got into (Anime, Star Wars, etc.) I just thought about the things until I bought loads of stuff. I’ve gotten into the “selling” of that stuff right now. Which is healthier in a number of ways. But it doesn’t stop the loop…
Another version is replaying events over and over. Overanalyzing things that were said or done amd playing them over and over and over. An example would be saying something to a co-worker and wondering if they took it the wrong way. Worrying about it all weekend, and then apologizing the next week only to find they didn’t even know what you’re talking about. It’s fun…
Many might call this tunnel vision, but for me at least it’s far more serious. The Wormhole is what I call my inability to progress on something outside of a predestined concept or series of concepts my brain lays out. It’s something my dad does too and his most common version is the simplest way to explain it. He’ll ask me a question, “Hey did you go ahead and-“ and I’ll know what he’s asking from context and answer, “Take the car in? Yeah I had to. The oil was getting low and it might be dangerous.” But he can’t not finish the question and will continue after I’ve answered, “-take the car in? The oil was low. If it gets too low it can get dangerous.” That’s the simplest version but imagine that in bigger concept. An attractive girl asks if you want to go shopping with them. You say “sure!” That’d be a nice way to spend an evening getting to know someone. You meet them and they go out on a limb and say, “You know it might be fun to stay in, I can cook you some dinner!” And what’s the first thing I think and say, “I thought we were going shopping.” Because that’s what was all laid out in your head. You can imagine the reaction that kind of thing can get. And that’s just one example. During conversations, working, anything going on, you are paying 100% attention. You’re able to be in that moment, it’s not like you’re head’s in the cloud. But your mind creates its next course of action or attempts to complete a predestined pattern and breaking that is nearly impossible. Because you don’t realize you’re doing it. Not until you’re thinking about it later and it turns into the mind loop mentioned above…
Living With It
How do I live with what I call my “broken brain” (a term renounced by the person who understood my mental strangeness the best)? As I’ve said it can be exhausting. You don’t know why you’re so tired. Why you can’t think to write or be creative or be social. It takes so much extra mental energy to do anything that often you find you’re completely burned out just from daily activities.
So how do I cope? Not medications. I know too many people who have had terrible reactions from medications. The best I can do is do activities that bring me what I call my “Zen.” Boxing, writing, playing guitar, painting, drawing, all of these things I’ve found take up all of my mind. And silence the noise a bit. I’ve never found myself counting lines drawn or obsessing over how a picture appeared in my head rather than how it looked on the page (I did once get punch counters for boxing and stopped using them. I found myself obsessively never throwing fewer punches than I did the previous day. I got to well over 2000 each hand before I realized it was taking the fun out of it…) But these activities can quiet the demons, even if only for a while but often they are the activities that suffer the most from my daily mental exhaustion. It’s hard to find the will to write or draw when your mind has spent ten hours socializing at work, doing your job, counting randomly throughout the day, repeating ten things over and over, and anchoring important conversations with the singular concepts stuck in your head.
I didn’t write this to complain or receive pity. I’ve never actually listed out the most persistent of my personal OCDs and felt expressing them might be a way to try to manage them. I noticed when I catch myself counting I stop counting. So maybe if I can catch some of the others I can control them as well. And there’s another reason I thought I’d share these. I was over thirty before I realized counting even was a manifestation of OCDs. When you live with them you don’t think about them they’re just a part of you. It took reading Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters companion book and finding out it was one of his personal OCDs before I realized I did it too. And that’s one of my most consistent and persistent manifestations. So hopefully someone will read this, see something they didn’t know they did, and it’ll help them identify and maybe manage their OCDs a bit better too. And maybe help them find their version Zen.