Growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Illustration: Thomas Tait
From the ages of twelve to fifteen, I went through an obsessive-compulsive rigmarole before bed every night. The process demanded a minimum of two hours filled with concentrated touching, blinking, gulping, repetitive thinking, and chanting. If I botched any part of this strict routine, or if I was interrupted, I’d have to start the whole ordeal again, often tacking on an extra hour.
When I finished, I’d tuck myself into a sleeping bag under my covers, even during the most humid summer nights. I did all this out of fear: if I didn’t adhere to my compulsions, I thought, I would be brutally murdered in the middle of the night by a nonspecific being, or snakes would slither up my bedpost from beneath the frame and bite the soft spots between my toes. I used the heatstroke-friendly sleeping bag to “protect” my vulnerable digits.
Even then, I understood that my compulsions didn’t make sense. Many people with OCD are aware of the irrationality of their compulsions. But our behavior and our habits are governed by an internal system, a logic engineered to quell fear and anxiety so we can operate within our skulls and in the outside world. These rules, mind games, and habits are reinforced through practice. They become a way of life.
Though there’s a lot of overlap among the repetitive behaviors that people with OCD share, every person’s habits are as unique as his personality. Or, at least, the mental Hula-Hoops and self-justified raison d’être of each compulsion are unique. The reason I organize my life in sets of fives may be different from the reason another person with OCD uses the same number to create internal order. And we might both touch locks, but not in the same way or for the same reason. Furthermore, the habits and regular tics shift and evolve over time. Many people are stuck with the disorder for life. Its intensity can fade or be mitigated with therapy, medication, et cetera, or it can return with potency during periods of stress. While I don’t know if it can fully disappear, I do know that, for me, the practices that define my OCD have developed as I have.
Over the course of my adolescence, I’d frequently try to overcome one tic by replacing it with another—a psyche hack, of sorts. But this often created a more arduous obsession that would control a new part of my day-to-day life. When I was in third grade, every time a terrifying or negative image invaded my mind’s eye, I’d bite down on my tongue, as if immediate pain would nix hypothetical future pain. When it got to the point where my tongue started bleeding, I replaced the biting with a new habit: I would gulp or swallow the saliva in my mouth while imagining a red antismoking symbol surging through whatever thought was plaguing my brain. The symbol would have to cut through a mental visualization of the thought upward and to the right, as magical thinking demanded that I progress upward, higher! Better! To the heavens! in all aspects of life. I always wanted to be right, not left and wrong. Ironically, one of my biggest compulsions today relates to smoking cigarettes—so that more semiotic habit never protected me in the long run.
I had seemingly infinite habits, but that nightly routine, which lasted for three solid years, was one of the most exhausting—quite literally, as I’d be up until odd hours in the morning, stuck in an OCD K-hole. My compulsions were at their strongest as I was starting middle school, blitzed with all sorts of hormones. I thought I’d forget pieces of my routine, but the rote rehearsal and muscle memory make it all easy to bring back. The process would start after I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the bathroom, a few feet away from my bedroom door. Once I was inside my room, I was inside my room, and going back to the bathroom counted as an interruption that would reignite the whole mental checklist of compulsions I had to placate before I could finally go to bed. Often, I’d be deep into the routine and would suddenly have to pee, but I was so spent from the habits that the thought of leaving and starting over was too much. I’d go into my closet, quietly piss in the corner, and then cover it all in water, as this was infinitely better than restarting. That shabby blue carpet probably had an ever-present layer of dank urine, at least an inch thick.
My room had a double-sized mattress, a futon, a desk, a closet, and a door to an outdoor deck. Most of my bedroom-related fear revolved around imagining deranged figures bursting through that door to the outside world, a place filled with uncontrollable objects and happenings—so I’d start there, officially, by getting on my knees in a kowtow and aligning my eyes with the lock. I’d push on the lock and hold it tight for thirty-two seconds—one of my compulsive numbers, others being multiples of two and ten. Five was the ultimate number, as it was the only odd one in my repertoire, the logic being that I wanted to be an even person, not an odd one, and numbers like thirteen were strictly off-limits. After that half minute was up and my knuckles were white from the pressure, I’d stare at the lock, gulping and imagining the antismoking sign cutting through the lock to negate any possibly bad things that could happen, like nonexisting serial killers breaking in. I’d gulp five times, touch the lock for another thirty-two seconds, and then gulp five more times to punctuate the action. If it didn’t feel right (and it never did on the first try), I’d do it again. And again. If I broke my concentration and looked away, I’d have to start again.
This was step one.
Next came a similar checking process through the rest of my room in a calculated sequence—the closet first, then the futon, the desk, the nightstand, the space behind the bedroom door, and finally under my bed. I proceeded clockwise to each object. Time and numbers were the bigger-picture regulatory concepts overlooking all my smaller habits. Each part of my room had its own mental requisites of gulping, counting, and touching. When I checked behind my door, I’d insert my big toe into the corner where two walls met while I gulped and counted. Right angles were also very important. I had to press the toenail in while counting and thinking, and I wouldn’t let up until it was perfect, which regularly resulted in my nail cracking. Checking under my bed for those imaginary snakes, I’d strain my neck so much that I’d pull muscles in it. (Though I hate to admit it, that one episode of Girls where Lena Dunham’s character hurts her eardrum through a compulsive Q-tip habit felt a little close to home.)
When I finally climbed into my bed, it felt like hitting a massive checkpoint in a video game—but I still had a Ganon-like boss to take on before I could get into my sleeping bag. On my nightstand was a bonsai tree, a lamp, a red water bottle, and my alarm clock, each of which required not only the grueling touching and gulping process but a kind of mental conversation. I didn’t think these objects were animated. I didn’t believe I was actually communicating with them. Still, to placate my psyche, I had to either chant out loud or shout in my head to these objects. Repetitively, I’d ask each to keep my family, our pets, my friends, their families, their pets, and me safe, healthy, happy, and successful, and that no bad things would happen to any of us (in that order). I’d often mess up the order or not speak/think some part of the mantra articulately enough, and then I’d have to start the murmuring again; or my mouth would be too dry from the nonstop gulping, and I’d have to take a sip of water and then restart. Thinking or mumbling at these objects was my own version of some sort of obsequious prayer. I believed my disorder decided my fate.
This was very much a lifestyle, and I don’t remember exactly how I broke it or when I stopped sleeping in that Patagonia heat trap. But I’m glad I never took meds for my OCD, though therapy was fucking essential. What’s important to me now is that this routine, in its own special, torturous way, helped inform the development of my personality. Some of my mental acrobatics were extremely creative—even if masochistic—and that warped thinking was ultimately transferred into practices I’m passionate about today. Back then, I was hyperfocused and disciplined. I made sure I finished each compulsion. Later, I brought this dedication to what I think of as practical life rehearsals, studying being the most obvious.
As a friend once wrote in a starkly honest essay for The Atlantic, the tics associated with OCD are more widely understood than the darker, obsessive thought processes that many people with the disorder experience. Similarly, a colleague of mine wrote about society’s tendency to belittle and misunderstand OCD. I still believe that the average person, to say nothing of pop culture, doesn’t really understand how creative, bizarre, and sometimes ineffable the actual compulsive habits can be. As my routine suggests, the disorder is more complex than its usual, phobic presentation: “I have to clean that doorknob before I touch it because there are germs on it and germs are bad.” People understand when I explain that I do things that I recognize don’t make sense, and that I must do them to continue functioning. But explaining the self-created logic behind my actions, and how this logic informs my identity, usually elicits blank stares. It’s a disorder that marks us in strange ways, and not always for the worse. Even today, for instance, I derive a fetishistic satisfaction from sleeping bags—but I’ll always be terrified of snakes.
Zach Sokol is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He works for VICE magazine’s editorial team, usually focusing on fringe arts and culture. He likes cats and the musician Dean Blunt, and he no longer sleeps in a sleeping bag.
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