Short story by Calvin Ma, Durham, North Carolina, 2017.
“It’s a different day,” I tell myself, yet the feeling never goes away. It’s always there, lingering over me, waiting to pounce. Sometimes, there will be a “trigger.” I use the word trigger sparingly because it seems people just throw it around nowadays. “Oh, I’m so triggered by this thing being out of place!” I don’t mind it – I think it’s funny sometimes. But they just don’t understand, which is why I don’t tell them. However, most of the time, they’re just there. Always on the edge of my mind. They’re just “things” that I have. For those who actually know what OCD is, I’m not one of those people who washes my hands till they bleed or are immobilized by anxiety when I see something out of place. Those are few and far in between. I’m one of those many people diagnosed with OCD that live our everyday lives almost normally. Almost. I’m in the group that nobody talks about because we’re high functioning, I guess. And now, college. College is quite possibly the worst place to have OCD. There are so many things around that can trigger OCD. And frankly, I just must be harder on myself in terms of what I let affect my OCD. College just forces you to deal with it, and I do every single day.
I like to compare it to a crying baby, as odd as that seems. You know those annoying things you always see at the mall? Yeah, those guys. So, imagine you’re walking peacefully through the mall. And unfortunately, you’re the one stuck with the baby. Suddenly, your baby is screaming its head off and won’t shut up. You feel embarrassed. Everybody is looking at you. You just want your baby to be quiet. So, you have two options – you can give it candy and make it shut up, or you can ignore it and muscle through the loud obnoxious noise until it goes away. Problem is, if you give the baby the candy, it will never learn its lesson and will just do the same thing the next day and the next – every single day. Even better, if you choose to ignore it and stick through the noise, the baby will learn that you won’t coddle it and cry and cry and cry. It’s pretty much a lose-lose situation. It sucks. Welcome to my everyday life.
Let me take you through one of my days. Let’s say it’s Friday, who doesn’t love Fridays. Different day, same thing. I wake up and go through my routine. At any time, my OCD may kick in.
My hands feel a little dirty, I should wash them. After all, I haven’t washed them since last night. And so it begins.
So, I wash them – twice just to make sure they’re nice and clean. I take a look at my phone – it’s 9:15, still plenty of time to head to class. I see a smudge on my phone. That’s definitely dirty, I tell myself, I should clean that. I use the conveniently placed antibacterial next to my sink to wipe down my phone, but now my hands are probably dirty again. I wash them. But what if my phone’s still nasty, did I get anything on it? I wipe that down. 9:25. Another wash, and another wipe. I look at my straightener. I definitely didn’t use it this morning, but is it turned off? I take a look; it’s off. A feeling of relief rushes over me. I start leaving for class finally at 9:45. Late again.
Wait, did I turn off my straightener? My chest pounds and my brain gets fuzzy. I hurry back to my dorm and check. And then double check. I leave again, locking the door and rushing to the bathroom to wash my hands again.
It’s these obsessions that define my OCD. I’ll obsess over how clean my hands are, about my straightener, and I can’t get them out of my mind until I fix it. Whatever I do to get rid of the feeling is a compulsion. I have this thing about being clean, and it’s a very common obsession among OCD sufferers. And no, it’s not about the germs. It’s weird. I hate “outsideness,” if that makes sense. Just things that I’m not familiar with. It sounds ridiculous and I agree. This one time, my friend gave me a stuffed animal for my birthday and before I put it on my bed I kept it on my nightstand for about a month because I needed it to get rid of the “outsideness” and absorb it into my room. It’s totally irrational and makes no sense, but it’s how my mind works.
So, fast forward through my day. Occasionally, random thoughts will pop up in my head. As I’m walking around, I’ll just randomly think, “okay, if you don’t make it to that light in 20 seconds, so and so is going to die tomorrow.” Let that sink in. Pretty morbid and freaky right? Yeah, just another thought. Of course, no one’s going to die, but I still make it in 20 seconds without fail. Whenever I accomplish one of these tasks, I can relax. No more worries for a little time before they inevitably pop up again. What keeps me doing it is that they don’t seem like difficult tasks. But, they never stop coming.
After a long day of classes and more handwashing and more phone cleansing, I come back to my dorm to take a nap. My dorm, specifically my bed, is my haven, my home. And my OCD kicks up a notch when it comes to this area.
I always shower before I get into bed, and I mean always. I don’t care if it’s for a 20-minute nap or when I’m coming back at 3:30 in the morning after a long night and I can barely stand or keep my eyes open. I will shower. If I can’t somehow do it, I’ll sleep on the ground. If someone else’s bed is there, I can sleep in that one dirty fine. But not my bed, not my safe space. If I don’t shower – it’s hard to explain – but imagine someone is screaming in your ear constantly, a baby perhaps, until I get up and shower and get it to shut up. Extreme discomfort, anxiety, whatever you call it, keeps me awake and I won’t be able to sleep since I just want to get out of my bed and shower. I finish showering and right before I get into my bed, I see the corner flipped up.
It kicks in again. I must make my bed. Some of these compulsions are part of my routine. I make my bed each and every morning without my parents telling me because I need to keep my space clean and organized. They’re just things I do daily and they really don’t impact my life much. However, like in this case, my bed is not made and it needs to be made. It doesn’t matter that I’m going to get into my bed in two minutes – I’m making my bed.
Night rolls by, and it’s a Friday. I wish my OCD would just realize I had just come back after a party and it’s almost 2 AM and my roommate is asleep and I’m about to pass out. But it doesn’t. I crash on my bed, and an overwhelming sense of anxiety fills me. Something is crushing my chest. There are no thoughts that come to my brain. Something is yelling at me. I have to get out of this bed. I’m sure you all have felt anxiety at one point of your lives. Like before a big test or maybe after, when you think you’ve failed the test and you’re playing the consequences over and over in your head. You can’t think. But it’s the only thing you think of. Except, you’re thinking about a test. I’m thinking about getting out of my bed and showering. I lay there, paralyzed. Sometimes, I can wait out my compulsions – I don’t always have to wash my hands or check my hairdryer. But this, I can’t do. I lay there, my body is exhausted, but my mind is alive. I try to sleep but I can’t. I jump out of bed. Shower. Wash my hands. Sanitize my phone. Make my bed. And pass out.
Welcome to my daily life. As a person who can live their normal life, I’ve gotten used to saying OCD doesn’t affect my life. But there’s no doubt it would be different without it. We all have our things, quirks, whatever you want to call them. But for the most part, people can avoid them. Maybe after some strong words from your parents, you can cut your bad habits. I can’t. They’ve become part of my routine – things I just do. I can’t avoid them. I wouldn’t say they’re constantly on my mind, but they do shape the way I act. They’re always there, waiting. You could say they’ve become a part of me, a core aspect of my identity, but some of even my closest friends may never find out. They can be easy to hide, but hard to avoid. However, I’m just one of almost four and a half million people in the United States who have OCD, living and breathing right along with you. Welcome to our world.