After being reminded it’s time for bed, a seven-year old girl begrudgingly makes her way upstairs. Bedtime is typically an uneventful part of the day for most children except, perhaps, for the occasional “but I’m not tired yet” protest. Not so for this particular little girl. She knows what lies ahead and while she doesn’t look forward to it, it must be done. She doesn’t understand why she does these things. She only knows that performing a certain set of checks and routines (or more accurately rituals) before bed will keep bad things from happening.
Her nightly routine can take up to 20 minutes to complete. It includes a list of 12 “rituals” that must be performed perfectly and precisely four times each. The number four was not selected arbitrarily – it represents the members of her family – herself, Mom, Dad, and Dog. After completing these initial rituals, there are more to follow. They involve the particular arrangement of certain objects around her room; placing her stuffed animals in the correct order around the bed; ensuring she sleeps in the same position each night; and arranging her bed covers in the same specific pattern. Everything must be in its appropriate place and order – it is the only way to keep everyone safe.
You could be forgiven for thinking these are the actions of a crazy person, but I can assure you, they are not. I have since learned they were merely coping mechanisms created by my seven-year old mind in response to a sad and confusing event that had just occurred in my life – the death of my Grandfather. He had been ill for quite some time. I understood he was gone, yet I was also afraid that I’d somehow see him again or that he’d somehow appear to me from beyond the grave. This was a frightening thought to a seven-year-old. Of course, it wasn’t going to happen and, even if it could, my Grandfather would never do anything to hurt or scare me; still, that knowledge could not soothe the overwhelming fear that had taken hold. So, the rituals began. I was convinced that nothing bad would happen if I just stuck to the routine and, because nothing bad did happen, I became convinced it must be working.
By the age of 13, I was becoming increasingly weary of these behaviors. One afternoon I finally blurted everything out to my somewhat bewildered parents. As an only child, it had been easy to keep these things a secret from them. After listening to me explain all my “quirky” behaviors and the reasons behind them, my parents promptly scheduled an appointment with a child psychologist. This was in the early 1980’s and at the time my psychologist never mentioned OCD. Instead, he insisted that my actions were caused by a lack of self-confidence and suggested that my parents and I work together on improving my confidence level. His plan of attack helped some of my symptoms, but not all. It wasn’t until years later, as a much older adult, that I was “diagnosed” as obsessive compulsive. The more this particular counselor explained OCD, the more everything started to make sense. It was nice to finally have some sort of understanding about how my brain was wired and to have someone reassure me that I was not, in fact, a weirdo.
Thankfully, throughout the years, my need to perform rituals has significantly decreased. These days it usually crops up when I am feeling stressed and typically only involves checking light switches and door knobs. However, other OCD symptoms remained and intensified. It is these symptoms that I feel sometimes get over looked when people think of OCD. This is not just a disorder of obsessive rituals, it is also a disorder of repetitive, obsessive, and sometimes disturbing thoughts. OCD can disrupt sleep patterns as your brain gets stuck on the circular train track of repetitious thought. It can prevent you from making a timely decision as you consider every possible scenario – the good, the bad, and the worst – this decision may bring. In short, OCD is emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting.
While obsessive compulsive disorder is fairly well-recognized in today’s society, if I’m honest, it still is not something I am comfortable discussing. Many OCD behaviors and symptoms are embarrassing to those afflicted and difficult to understand for those around them. Even as I write about the ways in which OCD affected me in the past and continues to affect me today, I know how odd it sounds (and, believe it or not, I’ve left out quite a few details). Still, I think it’s important to realize OCD is not just about germs or cleanliness. It is an intrusive thought disorder that can cause great distress and frustration. It can wreak havoc on your well-being if left untreated. But, there is help for those suffering with OCD. Counseling can provide helpful tools to alleviate or disrupt obsessive thought patterns and, in some cases, children may even outgrow their rituals as I did. In other cases; however, medication may be necessary to treat more extreme OCD behaviors.
Though I am not on a personal crusade for political correctness, admittedly, I do experience a slight twinge of irritation when I hear someone flippantly claim, “Oh, I’m so OCD sometimes.” This phrase just emphasizes the general lack of knowledge most people have about OCD. They don’t realize it is a multi-faceted disorder that affects people in different ways and for many people, germs and obsessive cleaning don’t even enter into the picture.