I’m standing in front of the stove.
I’ve been here for a long time. And the longer I stand here, the more upset I feel with myself. Why can’t I just walk away? Why can’t I convince myself the stove is off and staying off?
I check the console and the knobs. Sometimes I count them out loud in a whisper. Sometimes I just whisper “off, off, off, off” as I glance at each one.
I don’t touch them. Because if I touch them, what if I accidentally turn them on instead of off? If I touch them, I have to start over.
Sometimes I have to start over anyway. Especially if anything interrupts me. If Chad asks a question from the other room. If my mind wanders onto something else while I’m checking.
I check them in order, top to bottom, left to right. Off. Off. Off. Off.
There’s no set number of times. It’s not like the movies. No sequences of three. At least not for me.
I do it until I feel okay or until I can tear myself away.
It’s easier to tear myself away when there’s someone else there. Not because they’re a comfort or a distraction, but because I’m embarrassed. So I try to pretend the checking is normal. And even though my body is tense and my chest is tight, I walk away because I’m ashamed of my compulsions. I’m worried you’ll see. I’m worried you’ll hate me. You’ll think I’m weak. You’ll think I’m faking. You’ll think it’s funny. Or stupid. Or crazy.
* * * * *
I walk away from the stove and my mind says go back. Go back. What if you accidentally bumped a knob? What if, as you were walking away, something on your clothes caught the knob and turned it? What if your obsession was so powerful you turned the stove on with your mind, with the very act of wanting it to be off?
I know the thoughts aren’t real. I know they’re not true. Especially the last one.
But they’re terrifying. What if my house burns down? What if it’s my fault? What if there’s gas spreading through the room as we speak? What if the fire kills my dog? I don’t think I could survive that.
Even typing that makes my heart race.
And so I check.
* * * * *
I was diagnosed because of a podcast.
I thought the story was going to be true crime-related or something, but instead I listened as a man told a story of watching a horror movie and being inundated with violent thoughts he couldn’t get rid of afterward. He couldn’t stop the thoughts even though he was terrified and disgusted and hated them.
By the end, I thought, oh god, that’s me. I think I have OCD.
So I made an appointment with a psych.
I needed one anyway. My anxiety had gotten so bad I was waking up in the middle of the night to vomit. I told her I wanted to be assessed for OCD and re-assessed for my previous diagnoses.
She gave me a series of tests. I filled them out and handed them back. She walked out of her office with eyebrows raised. Surprise at the results. She wanted a second more in-depth test on the OCD.
The first test was to confirm I had it. The second was to measure its severity.
The first test I had checked yes on almost every “do you do this?” question. On the second, though, I scored low. The thoughts were there, the rituals too, but they weren’t keeping me from going to work or getting out of bed.
The psych professional that diagnosed me told me the first line of defense is just this:
Stop if you can.
Stop checking. The stove. The door. The outlets.
(Sometimes I have to unplug everything in the house. Sometimes I just stare at the plugs. I’m not sure why that one makes me feel better, but it does.)
Stop, she said.
It’s easier said than done. Most of us can’t just stop.
But try, she said. See what you can do.
The theory behind it is this: the more you give in to the compulsions, the more you want to. The more you can walk away, the easier it gets. The more you expose yourself to the thing you’re afraid of, the more you realize it isn’t worth fearing so deeply. The more you force yourself not to whisper “off, off, off” like a talisman, the more you realize that it isn’t a talisman.
So, I try. I ask myself what would a normal person do?
If someone without OCD had the thought “oh dear, maybe I left the stove on,” they’d check once.
Once. Only once. And then they’d be convinced it was off and let it go and go on with their business.
They wouldn’t stand there for five minutes (or longer). They wouldn’t go back again and again.
And so I try to follow that example.
I’m allowed to check once. It’s reasonable to check once.
And some days I only check once.
* * * * *
The stove isn’t the only thing I obsess over. It’s just the easiest to talk about.
What OCD really does is mine your deepest, darkest fears. The worst things you can think of. And it replays them for you over and over again.
If you don’t stay awake, your dog will die and you won’t be able to stop it.
If you don’t whisper this exact prayer as you leave the house, it’ll burn to the ground.
You’re dangerous. If you carry a pen, you’re going to accidentally stab someone with it.
Or, if you walk across that bridge, you’re going to throw yourself over. Or throw your computer over. Or throw your backpack over. Or, worse, throw someone else over.
The thought utterly terrifies me. Makes me want to run to the other side and curl up in a ball in a corner and cry. It’s not a thought I choose. But there it comes, screaming at me the whole way across the bridge.
I remember when I was cycling across France, there were so many bridges. One in particular I had to cross over and over again because my hotel was on one side and everything else in the town was on the other.
And I did cross. I did make it. I wasn’t completely debilitated, and perhaps that makes me lucky. Because some people are.
But crossing that bridge was horrible every time. It was stressful and tense and exhausting.
* * * * *
I’m told my OCD is on the mild side.
The worst consequences are deep embarrassment, shame, sometimes exhaustion, and having to leave early for every appointment because I know I could get held up by my checking. I’ve almost missed trains. I’ve hated myself at times. Sometimes I stay in because I can’t bring myself to leave the house. But ultimately, the consequences are small compared to most people who have OCD. I can force myself to leave if I’m really dedicated. My embarrassment overrides my fear in most cases.
But you should know that there are people who have it so much worse than I do. When someone tells you they have OCD, it probably means hours of rituals every day. It probably means sleepless nights. It probably means constant panic. For some, it means an inability to work or go to school.
If you want to better understand, I recommend this book.
* * * * *
There are ebbs and flows.
Places I’m high strung and places I’m relaxed.
I don’t think I checked the stove when we were on vacation in Slovenia, though I do remember checking the doors. I find that the more relaxed my schedule and my surroundings are, the more control I have.
Here in NYC, with its constant noise and wailing sirens, shouting on the streets, I’m checking a lot, though. I know it’s because I’m tense and tired and overwhelmed.
* * * * *
I asked my support group what they wish people knew about OCD.
This is what they said:
I wish you knew that we can’t just snap out of it.
I wish you knew that it isn’t about cleanliness or organizing. It’s serious and debilitating.
I wish you knew that it has nothing to do with intelligence.
I wish you knew we’re kind, caring, empathic human beings.
I wish you knew we aren’t crazy.
I wish you knew it isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t make us more organized. It makes us more panicked. It isn’t joke fodder for job descriptions or TV shows or something to brush off.
I wish you knew that I don’t like washing my hands until they’re raw. I don’t like holding my breath the whole time I’m in the bathroom. I don’t like having to climb back up the stairs to check again if the door is locked.
I wish you knew that I’ve already tried everything you’re about to suggest. I wish you wouldn’t try to fix me.
I wish you knew it isn’t a matter of willpower.
I wish you knew that you might not ever understand. And that’s okay. Just be nice to us.
I wish you didn’t belittle the struggle.
I wish you’d stop thinking I can pray it away.
I wish you knew that every experience is different. We’re not all the same.
I wish you knew how scary the intrusive thoughts are.
* * * * *
I’m afraid of your reaction.
Afraid of your pity.
Afraid you’ll tell me it’s all in my head. Afraid that it is all in my head.
Afraid I’ve been misdiagnosed. Afraid that I haven’t.
Afraid that an agent will see this and not want to represent my book.
Afraid that a client will think I’m too risky to hire.
Afraid that others with OCD will come on here and scream that I’m doing this all wrong. That I’ve been misdiagnosed and there is something else very wrong with me.
Some of those fears are reasonable. Some aren’t.
But still they haunt me. Still they make it harder to tell you about all this.
* * * * *
I believe in the power of vulnerability.
And the power of words.
When I talk about my mental health diagnoses, I feel like I’m taking some power back.
It’s taken me years each time. I get a diagnosis. I grapple with it. I go to therapy. I share with one person. Another. Another. And then eventually, when I feel like I have the words, when I feel like maybe you need to hear it, when I think maybe there’s something valuable in sharing, I write something like this.
Something to shine a light.
Something to make sense of things.
Something, perhaps, to let others know they aren’t alone.
Something, perhaps, to let me know I’m not alone.
For more personal stories on life with OCD, see:
If you have experiences you’d like to share, please do. Comments are open. So is my email inbox.