I am a slave. To ritual.
I know this sounds crazy, but right now, I am writing not because I want to, but because I have to. It’s that time.
My usual routine is to wake up between 3:30 and 4 am. And this is when I really truly write. But when I come home after work, it is my designated try time. Literally, I must sit at the computer and try to write. Usually, I’m not successful, but it’s of no matter because trying is what I must do.
“Normal” people prioritize. Bend and twist and be flexible. They say, “I’m exhausted. I can wait until tomorrow to do _______.” They say, “It’s not a big deal. I can take a bath tomorrow or go to bed with my makeup on. It’s not like the world’s going to end if I don’t do _____________.”
But for people with OCD, there is no wiggle room. Everything is a big deal. Everything must be in its place and everything must be done at the right time. And in the right order. Or the world as we know it will literally crumble beneath our feet.
To some of us who manage to hold it together while living in our highly mechanized world, others ironically believe we “have it all together.” We are disciplined. We are meticulous. We are successful.
But the truth?
We are exhausted. Trapped. Held prisoner by the structures we have built and the ticking of the clock that signals when we move from walking to running on our own individual hamster wheels.
OCD is a thief of the worst kind. And here’s exactly what it steals from people like me who live with it every day.
It steals sleep
Healthline explains that one of the main features of OCD is “repetitive unwanted thoughts.”
This is why people like me who suffer from this condition lose sleep.
From the minute my eyes open (which is around three-thirty in the morning), my thoughts immediately run rampant. I need to do__________ because if I don’t do whatever it is now, maybe ________________might happen.
For me, my first worry is that if I don’t get up and write, I won’t have the time or energy to do it later in the day so I must do it now.
If I manage to punch out an article, I move to the next obsessive thought.
As an English teacher, I am often overloaded with papers to grade. So instead of going back to bed, I will transition to grading papers to make myself feel less stressed about the fact that I’ll get more papers today.
At exactly six-thirty in the morning, I move to things such as cleaning up the house so that it will be orderly when I return from work. Because remember, when I get home from work, it’s my “try time” to write, and I can’t try if I come home to a messy house. Everything must be in order for me to move to the next task.
By the time seven am rolls around, it’s time to get ready for work. And I’m exhausted even though the day has only just begun.
If when my husband wakes up in the middle of the night to get water, he tells me to lie down, close my eyes, and try to go back to bed.
But I know it’s no use. Simply lying there is often worse, because then I begin to think about how much time I am wasting lying there instead of doing what must be done before work.
I still promise myself every day that I’ll lie down to take a nap when I get home or make myself stay in the bed at night when the urge to get up at an ungodly hour rears its ugly head.
But I know deep down, it won’t happen. And it doesn’t. So the cycle continues. And getting a good night’s rest? It’s an impossibility.
Mayo Clinic explains actions such as mine by saying that trying to change ritualistic behavior only makes anxiety worse because the rituals are undertaken in an attempt to ease stress. They explain that “despite efforts to ignore or get rid of bothersome thoughts or urges, they keep coming back,” thus “[leading] to more ritualistic behavior” which they define as “the vicious cycle of OCD.”
It steals time
I can’t begin to tell you how much of my time is whittled away by OCD every day.
When I leave the house to go to work, the anxiety so common with this disorder continues. For example, my eighteen-year-old and my thirteen-year-old are now at home all day alone learning virtually due to COVID. My thoughts as I pull out of the driveway?
Did I leave the curling iron on? Will it burn the house down with my children in it? What about the stove I used to make breakfast? Did I leave it on? Did I lock the door? And even though I checked at least three times before I left the house, the uncertainty continues, often so much that I can’t help but turn around and double-check. And even when I do turn around and check, guess what? Still unsure.
When I’m at school grading papers, I also lose time. For instance, as a teacher, you begin to learn the grades that automatically go with the number of mistakes made. For example, if a child misses six questions, each error is 16.6 points deducted from this grade. I know this because I have done this for over twenty years, but still I check the math, and if I don’t, I can’t move to the next paper. And after I do the math, I begin to wonder if I miscounted the number of errors they made, so I go back and check that.
I’m fairly certain when I’m done that I’ve doubled the amount of time that this task should actually take.
And at this point, you probably know the bedtime ritual. Because it’s much like the morning one. Check the locks three times. Check the stove three times.
Think of the minutes and even hours that this compulsion steals from me and fellow sufferers concerning both home life and work life.
As a matter of fact, in an article entitled “Why OCD is a Serious Issue in the Workplace, “ they explain that OCD often leads to decreased “performance and productivity” on the job, likely because of the checking and double-checking needed to reassure the sufferer that job duties have been done correctly.
And even though people like me are often praised for the end result of a job project so meticulously done, the truth is that employers usually realize they can often find someone just as effective at the job without taking so much time on the tasks required of them.
It steals health and physical well-being
The correlation between insomnia and OCD obviously have detrimental effects on health and well-being. An article entitled “OCD, Anxiety, and Sleep: What You Need to know” states the harmful physical effects of the lack of sleep from which many who suffer from this disorder suffer. These include “mood changes, trouble concentrating, and forgetfulness.” These effects increase the likelihood of things such as car accidents and other injuries.
But these dangers are nothing compared to the deadliest physical harm associated with OCD: substance abuse.
For instance, I smoke over a pack of cigarettes a day, and when my anxiety is at this peak, I engage in this dangerous habit with even more frequency.
And though I know I’m not alone in using nicotine as a coping mechanism, I am thankful that I have not fallen prey to the even more serious substance abuse issues from which many OCD sufferers deal with every day.
Very Well Mind reports “nearly 30% of people with OCD have had a substance use disorder at some point in their lives” and that this is close to “double the rate of the general population.”
They go on to explain the reason for this correlation stating that “many people with OCD begin to use substances as a form of self-medication either to directly reduce the severity of their obsessions or compulsions or to decrease the distress associated with the consequences of living with OCD, including problems in relationships or difficulties at work.”
And the very ritualistic nature of this disorder makes quitting or recovering from these abuses infinitely more difficult.
It steals joy
For most people, vacations bring much-needed rest and enjoyment, but for many OCD sufferers, these events are more taxing than tranquil.
Vacations take away the ability to perform some of the ritualistic behaviors that bring people like me comfort.
For example, it’s hard to get up and write at 3:30 when other family members are in close proximity because I don’t want to wake them up or disturb their sleep. So I engage in the torturous behavior of simply lying in the bed wanting desperately to perform those things that soothe me and bring me some semblance of peace.
In addition, vacations often bring out another facet of OCD: an obsession with cleanliness and fear of contamination from the germs of vacationers who have been in the same quarters as me.
Often, OCD sufferers never pack lightly. They must bring as many things as they can to relieve this fear of being in places that are unused to.
For example, when I prepare for a “vacation,” I must bring my fan that helps me sleep and my own set of sheets and pillows. I bring shower shoes so that I do not have to step on the shower floor.
Once we get to our destination, I must buy paper plates and plastic utensils so that I am not forced to eat using the silverware provided. I must buy canned drinks or plastic cups so that I do not have to drink from the glasses in the hotel. I wear long-sleeved footie pajamas so that my body does not have to touch the couch or chairs in the room.
And it’s not just vacations. The same behaviors are performed even when I go to my family’s houses when my power is down and the like. Even though I trust that their beds and sheets are clean, the fact remains that they are not my bed and sheets.
This is often why OCD sufferers are homebodies. Staying in their home allows them to perform the ritualistic behaviors that bring them a sense of control and allow them to feel relatively safer from the germs of others.
The bottom line:
I am considered a person with “high functioning OCD,” which means that I can usually perform my daily responsibilities in spite of my disorder. And I am one of the lucky ones because many sufferers cannot function effectively in everyday life.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the effects of this disorder any less.
And while I do take medication to help with my OCD, oftentimes they still don’t stop the intrusive thoughts or behaviors.
David Adam, author of the book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought says that “people who live with OCD drag a metal sea anchor around.”
And people who suffer from this disorder know that he couldn’t be more right.
So please don’t call us crazy. Even though we often think these same things of ourselves, it’s not a joke, because carrying around this anchor is so heavy and so cumbersome we can barely keep going.
And the saddest part about that anchor? We wouldn’t let you take it off of us even if you tried to. Because it’s been there so long, we can’t bear the fear of not carrying it around.