OCD: How It Manifests In Me

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is often misunderstood by those who don’t have it. This is due to media misrepresentation, term misuse in daily life for someone’s slight eccentricities, and the hiding of the diagnosis from people because of the stigma surrounding mental health. But as someone who has OCD and is vocal about mental health, I thought I’d give some insight.

First, what is OCD? The International OCD Foundation defines it as “a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease distress.” It is important to note that while many people have traits or habits that are related to this disorder, it doesn’t mean we all have OCD. “In order for a diagnosis of OCD to be made, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions must be so extreme that it consumes a lot of time (more than an hour every day), causes intense distress, or gets in the way of important activities that the person values.”

Examples of Obsessions: Fear of contamination, doubts/being unable to handle uncertainty, needing things orderly or symmetrical, and violent or unwanted thoughts

Examples of Compulsions: Washing and cleaning, checking, counting, following a strict routine, or demanding reassurance.

This is not a fully comprehensive list but it gives you a better understanding of what obsessions or compulsions might be present in those diagnosed. I encourage you to click on the link for the International OCD Foundation to get a more thorough list of things that may be experienced. I’ll have other links as well below for more information.

So how does this manifest in me? My OCD has to do with cleanliness, routine, and struggles with accepting uncertainty. The first trait that I noticed involved cleanliness, specifically having to do with sheets on the bed. I cannot sleep if I know that anything “unclean” has touched my sheets. This means only my freshly showered body and clean pajamas are allowed in my bed. No one else is allowed to touch my sheets unless they are completely clean. An example of the lengths I will go to in order to make sure they are clean happened in college. During the first year I was living with my current roommates back in the dorm, we were getting to know each other and therefore my roommate did not know that I had this obsession about clean sheets. She had gotten back from the gym that morning and came into my room to tell me something. I noticed that she was resting her elbow on the corner of my sheets. Literally a minuscule part of her body on a minuscule part of my sheets, but I could no longer pay attention to what she was telling me. I got through the rest of the conversation and didn’t bring it up, because I didn’t want to be seen as “weird,” but as soon as she left the room I stripped my sheets off the bed and took them directly to the washing machine so they would be clean again when I went to bed that night. The part where this becomes diagnosed OCD is the way it greatly affects my life. I literally cannot sleep if I think the sheets are dirty or I am not showered before I get in the bed. I will stare at the ceiling and my thoughts will only circle around the uncleanliness. I used to not be able to sleep in hotels because even if I was clean when I got in the bed, I did not trust the cleanliness of the sheets since I was not the one to wash them. My parents kindly gifted me what I refer to as my “hotel sheet” that I take with me on any travel now that is basically a sleep sack in bed sheet material that I can put on top of the real sheets and slip into so I know it is clean. If I forget my hotel sheet, I am back to not being able to sleep.

The second trait that my OCD manifests itself as is strict adherence to a routine, specifically at night. I have specific steps I have to take before I go to bed, otherwise I obsess over the step that I miss and have trouble getting to sleep. I mentioned that I have to take a shower before bed, and there is a specific order of products used in the shower I have to do or I feel more anxious. Then I have a multiple-step process of self-care type things and actions I have to do before I go to sleep. I won’t bore you with the whole process but it easily takes an hour or more to get through it all. Another example of an OCD trait is within the routine. There is a specific game I have to play on my phone before I go to sleep and there is a score I have to achieve in order for the routine to be complete. The score is 500. I once got 499, and tried to reason with myself that it was close enough so I put my phone down and tried to fall asleep. That did not work and I spent thirty minutes willing myself not to pick the phone back up until I gave in and got a 502 and then went to sleep no problem. Obviously that is not normal “perfectionist” type behavior that people mislabel as “a little OCD” in daily conversation. The fact that I have to do this routine usually doesn’t bother me too much because I factor it into when I start getting ready to go to bed. When it really makes me mad is if we have a concert, event, or I get back to my house later than usual for some reason. Then I watch all my friends fall into their bed and go to sleep, while I have to shower and do my routine before I can doze off peacefully.

The other trait I mentioned, obsessions over accepting uncertainty, is also present in my life but is harder to explain in concrete examples. Basically I feel the need to try to make plans for all of the uncertainty in my life or create ways to alleviate the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty. My therapist and I were talking about when I first noticed things that may have been an indicator of an OCD diagnosis and I remembered around elementary school age, adding numbers either in my head or on paper, when I was feeling anxious in new situations or around new people. I would just start saying or writing the mantra “2+2 is 4, 4+4 is 8, 8+8 is 16, etc,” until I felt less anxious. It was my way of taking control over a small something in the midst of an environment I was not in control of. I do variations on that idea to this day in order to feel more in control. I often get trapped in a cycle of thoughts about uncertainty until I start making some sort of plan to work it out. This doesn’t mean I actually do the plan, as most of the time I just simply can’t be in control of the situation, but it allows my mind to calm down to just create steps. Again, this trait is harder to explain, but it is something that has been present in some way for many years.

Not everyone who has OCD experiences it in the same way. Not everyone you know who has diagnosed OCD will have the symptoms I described in myself. Many people’s lives are affected even more by this disorder than I am. It is one of those broad psychological topics that encompasses a lot of different things and a lot of different people. My hope is that by sharing my own experiences with things like my anxiety and OCD, others will feel less alone and less afraid to talk about their own struggles. Yes, I have these symptoms, but no it does not make me weird. My brain just processes things differently, and that’s okay. I am in continuing conversations with my therapist about how to manage it and that is what matters.

Below you can find some links to better understand OCD:

  1. International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/
  2. American Psychiatric Foundation: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/what-is-obsessive-compulsive-disorder
  3. My OCD Voice blog: https://myocdvoice.com/about-this-blog/

Thanks for reading! I appreciate you letting me be open about my mental health journey. Have a great week!

Rachel (:

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