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SocietySeptember 25, 2023

A teenager’s OCD journey


A 17-year-old shares their reality living with the ‘doubting disease’.

A version of this essay was first published on Emily Writes’ Substack.

Every day I return to my house, gently closing the door behind me. Each time I unpack my bag, wash my lunch box and water bottle, place my laptop down to be charged, and then I sit. I am always on the left side of the couch which is covered by a yellow blanket. Periodically I check over my right shoulder, after which I must always check my left. Doors are opened with my feet.

I must not, under any circumstances, sit upon my bed in my room. I must wash my hands at least twice before I touch my belongings. The curtains must be drawn. This criteria is lifted only when I shower each afternoon. Every evening, without fail, before I sleep, I check that all the external doors are tightly closed. I wish my sibling the same good-night, and check over both shoulders before shutting the door to my room. I rest only on one side of one particular pillow.

Over the years, I have come to learn that the invisible order is perhaps the most powerful. Something I dictate to myself contains far more conviction than the demand of any nagging parent, any lawmaker, or overseer of systems.

When posed the question; “which rules, the body over the mind, or the mind over the body?”, I will never express any hesitation to agree with the second option. The brain is undeniably the ruler, a king upon a calcium throne. With fine strings that draw from the royal chambers to the hands, dry from over washing, orders are given. It is the will of a dictator that the rest of the body fears the punishment of deviation.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is difficult to articulate or even describe, as even those most strongly affected by it will agree it is deeply irrational, and doesn’t make sense. It centres around an obsession with an object or concept (such as contamination), and performing compulsions in order to relieve stress from the obsession (like washing your hands repeatedly). Obsessions and compulsions are varied in severity and type. A person who refuses to touch their wallet with their left hand – and a person who feels they must cross their toes in order to prevent a life-threatening car crash – equally have OCD.

When out at school, walking through town, or sitting in a cafe, I feel I am surrounded by contamination and dirtiness, and so I succumb to unease until I return to my front door at the end of every day. At home, my routine transforms into a harsh self-instruction of carefully constructed behaviour, revolving around the protection of items that I consider ‘uncontaminated’.

I avoid touching my bed, for example, as I consider it to be clean. Breaking the order subjects me to continuous discomfort and distress, and so, I maintain my compulsions so that I can relieve myself of anguish. This lies at the heart of what OCD is, a feeling of being constantly subjugated to a kind of deeply nonsensical demand.

This may sound different from the conventional reference to OCD, pervasive in pop culture, a throwaway expression. “I cleaned all my cabinets, organised all the food containers, and labelled them,” the robot voice of a TikTok narrator screeches; “sometimes being so OCD is a blessing!” Cue the collective sigh of the many people who suffer from the “doubting disease”.

Not once have I ever felt blessed by my persistent washing and self-soothing, my reddened hands and loss of time with my family members and friends. Keeping myself inside on the weekends, distancing myself from normal activities or going out.

People who take joy in thorough routines and perfectionism instead likely have OCPD, or Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, this is when the individual sees their attitudes as normal, justifiable, and part of themselves. But this is lesser known, and so, OCD will continue to be a vehicle for people with a specific personality style to express themselves.

Being ‘so OCD’ is not possible, and is capable of marginalising a suffering that millions experience daily, and will likely continue to have for much of their lives.

I can imagine the confusion of those who witness actual compulsions performed first hand. How taken aback they must be by how redundant and pointless OCD behaviours usually are!

“Why are you cleaning your arm after you brushed against a wall?”

“Why are you checking the locks for the seventh time?”

“Why do you flip the light switch repeatedly?”

Thus, my disorder, and that of an estimated 70 million others, is often the subject of dismissal, or it is seen as just being plain weird.

Famed tennis player Rafael Nadal is often referred to as “superstitious” or “bizarre” in his behaviour, crossing lines with only his right foot, jumping and facing the stands as he removes his jacket, placing his bottle in the same position every match. But what lies at the core of his expression is a deeply-rooted fear of everything going wrong if he doesn’t do as his mind says.

What if he places his left foot over a line instead? He might sustain an injury. It cannot be proven that he won’t, so he’ll use only his right foot to stave off the fear a little bit longer. Compulsions feed on anxieties, and in the case of Nadal, the final product of his distress is a funny moment for a broadcast, or articles about his quirky habits.

Pop culture joins in, with characters that express habits of OCD being the butt of a joke – the strict, unrelenting routine of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or the constant cleaning and scrubbing of walls and floors of Levi from anime Attack on Titan.

OCD habits are often referenced or introduced as a form of an entertaining personality issue no different from being overly forgetful, or angry, or playful. Rarely, however, are they given the depth and complexity of real experiences that millions face. A person with OCD can insist on organising their books by colour, sure, but obsessions can focus on any different subject, and compulsions can arise in many ways.

Representation is known for being cathartic and validating, and so I believe that it would be of exceptional value to see OCD shown truly and for what it is. Perhaps, in the form of a character that must conquer the villain that their own mind can often be. Regrettably, I have spent many of my younger years feeling broken due to the fears of contamination my mind induces – and regularly I must reconcile with the fact that my only cure is exposure.

The sole true recovery from OCD is cognitive behavioural therapy that has the patient face the subject of their obsession, proving that everything will be fine if they refuse to perform their compulsion just once.

Sound familiar? Facing one’s fear is the climax of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Through the hellfires and smouldering surroundings, the hero goes up against their adversary. Following a clash of metal, only seconds long but requiring years of courage, they emerge victorious and finally leave the ashen cavern to see the brilliant sun.

Then, perhaps, they can finally open the door with their hands.

Keep going!