The Habits

When I first learned that I had OCD, neither I nor my family had any idea what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was. I can't speak for them, but I myself had never heard of OCD before. After all, I was only 8 years old. So one night when I was talking to my dad and started repeating myself for seemingly no reason at all, I was scared out of my mind.

We had just gotten home from dinner at a local restaurant. I was relaxing, just laying around in my pajamas watching the March Madness college basketball tournament with my dad when the game on TV went to halftime. I don’t remember what I said exactly, I just know that I said something, a simple sentence.

Then I said it again. And again. 8 times in a row I said it. When my dad asked me what I was doing, I said simply, “I don’t know.” Then I repeated that, too.

That was the first time I became aware of what I would later find out was my OCD.

On that night, March 25th, 1995, my life changed.

The next few days were a nightmare. I couldn’t speak without repeating myself. I couldn’t lift a fork to my mouth to eat. I couldn’t change my clothes, or walk over a threshold in a doorway. Walking out the front door of the house was an ordeal. Buckling my seatbelt was another. I didn’t go to school that Monday, or for the next two weeks. Instead, I went to several doctors trying to figure out what was wrong.

The first doctor thought there was some kind of deficiency in my nutrition, but made no mention of OCD. He drew some blood and ran some tests, but ultimately he couldn’t explain what was going on.

The second doctor’s waiting room smelled like popcorn. He didn’t diagnose me with anything either, but one thing he did say stuck with me. He said, “You’re not crazy, and you’re going to be OK.” But again, he made no mention of OCD.

It was late in the evening when we got to the third doctor, still trying to figure out what was going on. By that point, I hadn’t eaten for two days, though I was beyond hungry. So when I asked my parents for two chicken sandwiches from Burger King, they were happy just to see me want to try to eat. My dad ran out to get food for me while my mom and I hung back in the waiting room. There was a “no food or drink” policy in the office, but the woman at the front desk was kind enough to let me eat the sandwiches by the door. That may very well have been the first time I saw food as a comfort.

Finally, the third doctor saw me, and by the end of the appointment, she had diagnosed me with OCD. To be honest, I don’t remember what happened in the moments after that. I don’t know if I had a moment of relief, or if I really understood at all what was going on, other than that I now could put a name to my condition. What I do remember is that after that night I began seeing this doctor regularly for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 3 times a week and that I would continue going to therapy regularly for the next 10 years.

As an 8-year-old with little to no concept of mental illness (they didn’t teach these things in third grade at the time), to me the idea of going to therapy was akin to going to any other doctor, or at least it was at first. At that point in my life, going to the doctor meant three things:

  1. That you were sick;

  2. The doctor would probably give you medication; and

  3. Taking that medication meant that you would get better.

As far as I was concerned, going to therapy meant that at some point I would “get better” and that my OCD would go away. I had no idea that I would have my case transferred to 7 different therapists, or that I would be prescribed varying doses of at least 3 different medications over the next 10 years. Frankly, even when I stopped going to therapy just before my 18th birthday, I had weaned off of my medication and thought that I had come to a point where I could be considered “fully recovered.” The fact of the matter is that while in some rare cases it may “disappear,” for most people, OCD is a life-long battle.

If you do have OCD, I don’t say this to discourage you. If you don’t have OCD, I don’t say this to shock you. I merely say this to be honest about the disorder. And whether or not you have OCD, what I can also say is that the amount of energy it takes to control behaviors caused by mental illness is immense. While this is not an excuse for certain behavior, I can’t emphasize that statement enough.

From the beginning, my OCD did not always manifest itself in the stereotypical ways of ritualistic hand-washing, stove-checking, and door-locking. Yes, I did do these things more regularly than someone without OCD might have done them, but my rituals (or as I named them, “the Habits”) were mainly patterns of symmetry and balance which usually presented themselves as part of my physical movements. Tapping my hands on a tabletop, or my toes to the ground. Scratching an itch on my face. Basically, anything that involved physical contact with my limbs was subject to becoming a part of my Habits.

If my right hand were to brush the wall as I walked down a hallway, I would have to touch the wall in a specific, symmetrical, balanced pattern: right-left-left-right. If the toes of both of my sneakers were to touch the two front legs of a chair, where the left foot touched the left leg and the right foot touched the right leg, I would have to execute the same, mirroring pattern by tapping both toes in the same symmetrical pattern. In this case, my right toes would follow the “right-left-left-right” pattern, while my left toes would balance by following a “left-right-right-left” pattern.

Following these patterns served very little practical purpose other than to alleviate my anxiety, which would spike whenever I touched something without performing the balancing patterns afterwards. Yet, as irrational as these Habits may have been and still are, the irony of my patterns is that they cover all possible combinations, similar to the way a truth table does in logic. For this reason, the number four played, and still plays a large role in performing my OCD-based rituals and behaviors.

Being bound to these behaviors made it very difficult to do most things discretely. In the very beginning, these patterns were blatantly obvious to anyone who would see me. To be tapping nearly everything I came in touch with in these patterns was simply not something that would allow me to function “normally.” This became a driving force and motivation behind hiding my OCD.

As I mentioned before, it takes an immense amount of energy to control behaviors caused by mental illness. With me and my OCD, these Habits were not something that I found I had control over. The anxiety behind the impulse to correct every movement or action that didn’t feel “Just Right was so great that not performing these patterns wasn’t an option for me. Since staying out of school was also not an option, I had no choice but to learn to adapt.

Many of the adjustments I made to adapt to my Habits went against the principles I was taught by my therapists in my CBT sessions. These behavior principles specifically told me not to perform my Habits and patterns, and to let the anxiety subside on its own. This was much easier said than done.

As I continue writing, I’ll expand on my experiences in therapy and the adaptations I began to make in order to cope with my OCD and anxiety. For my non-OCD readers, I encourage you to continue following along with me and my journey, and hope that I have or will can shed more light on mental health issues. And, for my readers living with OCD, I’ll repeat again what the second doctor told me on the day I was diagnosed: “You’re not crazy, and you’re going to be OK.”

Stay strong and move forward in your fight.

© Copyright Whatismyhealth, January 8, 2017