I have put off writing this post for a long, loonnng time. Not because I am afraid people will think I am a freak but because I want to portray this behavior accurately and maybe even help just one person who also struggles and can relate to what I speak of.
We all have a story – a part of us that we can choose to share or choose to protect and keep hidden. I finally feel as though I can share the raw, gritty details of my anxiety disorder even if it feels as though I am ripping off a Band-Aid to a wound that is always at the surface.
So now that I have finished procrastinating I am ready to finally share a chapter of my story. First let me give you some background…
I grew up in a loving home in a teeny tiny town with two working parents and an older brother. We always had what we needed but not a lot of the extra, fancy stuff. We had more than enough though. My Mom was a pretty decent housekeeper and like any parent who works full time there were the occasional times where things got messy and untidy. My parents were quite traditional in that Mom did the majority of the cooking and cleaning and dad did more of the yard and vehicle maintenance. As a small child I always liked things neat and tidy. We didn’t have a ton of stuff, definitely not many brand new things; even a large portion of my wardrobe were hand-me-downs from my cousins (I was the youngest). I didn’t mind though. I just liked my home and my belongings to be in order. I found myself always looking through catalogs and getting rid of the ones that expired, I put things neatly in piles, I was always looking to get rid of food that was past its prime and I enjoyed vacuuming, (I still do!) I liked things in straight lines and symmetry was my friend. Then there was my room. My parents NEVER had to tell me to clean or pick up my room. I wanted my closet to be organized and would only keep the clothes that fit and so I hung them according to type and even colour. Ok now this is the part where you might think I am insane; that’s ok. I would also space my hangers evenly because I thought that it looked neater. My dresser, bedside table and bookcase would always have a clean and uncluttered look. I would never, ever have clothing, garbage or items that were not put away. My posters were carefully placed on my walls symmetrically. I was constantly trying to make my room look nice. Only when I thought it looked perfect was when my mind could rest.
I loved reading and art. Ahhh, art was a passion of mine. I also played piano, loved my dance classes, and played the odd sport. I found school projects would take a long time for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do them. I was quite eager to please, it was just very stressful and I was a perfectionist – and then some. My grades were usually average or above. Not because anything came easy to me but because I worked my ass off for every mark that I got. Like I said I loved art, I even took an advanced art class by correspondence. Any poster or project that I ever did took me hours upon hours to complete. I would draw and erase and draw and erase. I was meticulous with shading and tried to get everything looking as life-like as possible. Some might say that the process was pain-staking. I don’t think that anyone noticed how school work gnawed at me at times. I got my work done and I did fine so no one paid much attention.
It wasn’t just about order and neatness for me. A big part of my life has been worry over this and that. Sometimes things that one might consider worthy of worry and much that people wouldn’t think twice about. I would and still do agonize over many things – comments, things that have hurt me, even other people’s issues. I do not take lightly to anyone hurting those that I love – call me loyal or call me the grudge. But when I was hurt I felt it and still do for a long, long time.
It is interesting now that I think about it. I always enjoyed going to my friend’s house SO much. I didn’t care what their home or rooms looked like. Their messiness didn’t bother me… unless it was extreme chaos. I felt like I could relax. I didn’t have to think about things being in order because it wasn’t my stuff. I have always offered to help clean up though, I still do. Sometimes I will just start doing dishes at my friends’ houses after a meal. I never want to be a burden. My hubby says that isn’t necessary but I look at it as helpful. The way I look at it, is if someone is kind enough to invite me to their home for a meal then the least I can do to show thanks is help clean up. That is partly my upbringing too.
As I grew up and got my own home and had children suddenly things got a little more complicated. I wanted my home to remain clean and tidy with everything put away in its place. We all know that is easier when you are alone but with the addition of more people under one roof things become more complicated. They don’t clean up the way you think they should or even at all. I was becoming agitated when my son was making ‘messes’ with his toys, or when my husband was not helping out with chores to my standards. I was literally picking up toys behind my little boy. All. Day. Long. My husband, bless his heart would get frustrated with me as he felt like I was just going to go behind him and re-do anything that he had tried to help with. I would sometimes point these things out. That was hurtful to him. I would refold the laundry. I would also re-clean in all the nooks and crannies that I felt he missed. I understand why this would be upsetting to him, yet I could not (sometimes I still can’t) leave it alone. We have even joked that I would be really good at being one of the basic training officers in the Military with a white glove, going around and inspecting the recruits’ rooms. Making sure that everything was ship-shape. The truth of the matter is there have been frustrations on both sides. I have been a puddle of tears many-a-day over things that I know should not be a worry – things that most ‘normal’ people don’t think twice about. I have had days where I want to call-in sick and stay under the covers and just not face the day and all of the constant harping thoughts in my head. It can be exhausting. Some days it can be a chore just to get out the door as I cannot leave until everything is done.
I admit I have some crazy habits. (This is the part of my story where you will think I am a freak.) Deep breath. Here I go… I like to run my hands over the counter tops and feel a smooth surface with no crumbs. If I feel like they are too dirty then everything gets moved off of them and I clean them from the back splash to the edge of the counters which often leads to wiping my cupboards. I sweep and vacuum regularly – sometimes daily. It honestly depends on the day and what is weighing on my mind at the time. Sometimes it is counters, sometimes it is a project, sometimes it is errands or items out of place. I try not to get too busy because the overwhelming feeling is almost unbearable. It suffocates me. I have wondered what it would be like to not have the obsessions and compulsions. I can’t imagine how freeing it would be.
So you probably guessed that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Here is the official definition as per anxietybc.com.
“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects about 1-2% of the population. People with OCD experience both obsessions and compulsions.
- Obsessions are unwanted and disturbing thoughts, images, or impulses that suddenly pop into the mind and cause a great deal of anxiety or distress.
- Compulsions are deliberate behaviors (e.g. washing, checking, ordering) or mental acts (e.g. praying, counting, repeating phrases) that are carried out to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsessions.”
I was once informed by a Counselor that we all have some OCD tendencies. Many of us have habits or things that we like done in a certain way. You may have to load the dishwasher a certain way, put your groceries on the belt in the store a certain way or fold your laundry exactly the way you like it. When you have OCD it’s not a matter of having a few habits. It is also about the thoughts that play over and over in your mind until they are ‘dealt’ with. In other words if I see something that is out of place it might be on my mind over and over until I put it back where I think it should be. It doesn’t just go away on its own. It can be quite stressful for me especially if I am tired and don’t have the energy to get it done. But I do, no matter the time. <Cue frustration with my family who don’t see ‘the problem’.>
You may think then why do you let these things happen? Well OCD can be a debilitating disorder. I put on a pretty good front and joke about it at times. Most of my friends laugh about it and say that I should go to their homes and clean. Often I take it in stride and it doesn’t bother me – there is the odd time that it does. I don’t think many people understand the ins and outs of it. Sometimes when we think of OCD we think of the person that washes their hands repetitively until they are raw. But there are so many forms of it. I should also add that I don’t always let it get the ‘best’ of me but sometimes I feel like I can’t control the beast.
This is adapted from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health
When the fears reflected in the following obsessions are experienced, they usually result in immediate anxiety. Some of the more common obsessions are:
- fear of contamination by dirt, germs, or other diseases (for example, by shaking hands)
- fear of own bodily fluids
- fear of not having done a specific act that could result in harm (for example, turning off the stove, hurting someone in a traffic accident or leaving a door unlocked)
- making a mistake
- fear that things will not be “just right” and become distressed when things are shifted or touched
- focus on exactness and order
- fear of having blasphemous thoughts
- preoccupation with religious images and thoughts
- fear of harming oneself (for example, while eating with a knife or a fork, handling sharp objects or walking near glass windows)
- fear of harming others (for example, poisoning people’s food, harming babies, pushing someone in front of a train or hurting someone’s feelings)
- fear of blurting out obscenities in public
- forbidden or unwanted sexual thoughts, images or urges
- fear of being homosexual
Most people who experience obsessions engage in extreme rituals, or compulsions. Acting out these compulsions does not give them pleasure, but it can help them feel less anxious or distressed. Compulsions can be very rigid and involve elaborate steps. They are either not realistically connected with what they are meant to stop or they are extreme beyond reason. Although by no means an exhaustive list, common compulsions include:
- washing hands too often or in a ritualized way; showering; bathing; brushing teeth; grooming a lot or having detailed toilet routines; cleaning household items or other objects
- avoiding objects and situations considered “contaminated”
- checking that you don’t harm others or yourself; checking that nothing terrible happens; checking that you don’t make mistakes
- making sure things are just right, or are consistent with a specific rule, such as bed sheets or notes on the desk
- collecting seemingly useless items, such as paper, magazines, towels, bottles or pieces of garbage
- unable to throw these same things away
It is unknown as to what causes OCD. Some think that it may be genetic (which I am unsure of as I am adopted). Recently research has identified that people with OCD have low serotonin levels. It is one of the brain’s chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells. Serotonin plays a role in the regulation of mood, aggression, impulse control, sleep, appetite, body temperature and pain. All of the medicines used to treat OCD raise the levels of serotonin available to transmit messages. Some other studies say that the brain activity is different in people with this disorder. All I know is there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.
So what can we do? It wasn’t that long ago when doctors thought that this disorder was untreatable. Cognitive and behavioural therapy and medication (anti-depressants) are a couple of ways that people seek help. I cannot speak for either though I am learning about them with research. Many people with OCD benefit from supportive counselling in addition to treatments aimed at reducing the symptoms of OCD. Individuals may see a therapist one-on-one, or they may involve the partner, spouse or family in counselling. Group therapy (with people who have similar concerns) can also help. There are options which is encouraging.
I just want people to know that they are not alone. Though it can feel like it at times; like you are a prisoner of your own thoughts. It is not hopeless. You should not feel ashamed. You are worthy. Seek help with a specialist that understands anxiety disorders. Find a support group and surround yourself with people who accept you know matter what.
For me the pain isn’t gone nor is the sadness, the tightness in the chest, the palpitations when something is weighing on me. Yes my loved ones have been victim to the wrath of getting in my way to get things done. Yes I have yelled, screamed, cried and freaked out. There is no cure but each day is a new day with new possibilities and I know that those closest to me love me anyways. I will continue to try every single day to keep the upset to a minimum. I know I have come a long way and still have a ways to go. I know that I can take this curse and turn it into a gift as I have with helping others strive to get out of their chaos and get more organized. I can take each day as it comes and look forward to the possibilities instead of dreading the worst. I. Am. Me. And I too am deserving of a life that is valuable.
If anyone out there reading this, thanks for stopping by to ‘hear’ my story. If you have anything to share I would love to listen.
Hugs and happiness,