It’s taken me a while to decide on writing this piece, which is a strange admission given the fact that compulsive tendencies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I believe that writing - and therefore admitting - my experiences with OCD tendencies will lead to a more productive result than if I simply kept my thoughts to myself.
As a disclaimer, I think it’s safe to say that I’m no expert on obsessive compulsive disorders. I’ve never mentioned my tendencies to a doctor - reasons for which I’ll touch upon later - so I’ve never received any professional opinions. I would never claim to be some sort of authority on OCD, and I know for a fact that I don’t have the disorder completely; such is why I’m taking care to specify that I’ve experienced tendencies. I feel compelled to perform certain obsessive actions, but I don’t undergo the full aggravation of OCD.
Realizing What OCD Tendencies Are
I remember there was a marked time in my childhood when I started performing obsessive actions, and then a time when I realized these actions were not something everyone did. Around first or second grade, I began exhibiting OCD tendencies at home. I would perform mini-rituals whenever I crossed a doorway. I had a specific hand motion I had to perform in order to cross a threshold. When I saw bottles of water or half-filled cups on tabletops, I had to do a similar motion to ensure that the water didn’t fall onto the floor. I somehow thought that if the water did spill on the floor, then it could lead to a flood in our house. This was the same reason why I had to double, then triple, then quadruple check that all the faucets in the bathrooms were closed.
I would often count in my head, going from one to ten then starting over and over again. In this compulsive counting, I would have to make sure I ended on a “good” number versus a “bad” one. (Good or lucky numbers were 3, 5, 7, and 10. Particularly bad numbers were 4 and 6.) There was little sense to these justifications. I did have reasons, or at least originations for each ritual I did. For instance, everything had to be even or equally spaced apart. I wanted everything to be secure. But there was no connection between the actions I did and the results I wanted. I simply performed them because they somehow reassured me.
The first time I got “caught” performing one of these actions was when I was doing a ritual to make sure a mug on the kitchen counter wouldn’t knock over. My mom walked by to turn off the lights and asked what I was doing. It took a few minutes to explain to her what I was doing and why, but thankfully she simply took it as part of a child’s whimsy and brushed past it.
Despite my mom’s comforting reception, that moment stuck with me. It was the first time I fully acknowledged that I had these tendencies, and that they were, to other people, simply weird.
Since then, my tendencies have taken on constant changes. The obsession with spilling liquids has stayed, and now I close and re-close water bottles three or four times every time I take a sip. I check the light switches on the top floor several times before coming downstairs to eat breakfast for the day. When I leave my house, I make sure all the stove burners, the water kettle, and the toaster oven are off - even if I haven’t cooked at all for the day. If I’m counting in my head while doing something, like locking my phone, I have to repeat the action until I land on a “good” number. And I always wash my hands two or three times before leaving the bathroom, just to ensure that they’re as clean as possible. Sometimes the tendencies die down, and sometimes they resurface even stronger than they usually come. I try my best to hide it when I leave the house, but recently I’ve begun to open up to more and more people about these experiences.
First Reading about OCD Tendencies
We’ve all seen or read about characters with OCD, and most of the time, these are simply stock personalities. In this past semester, however, I read a graphic novel called Fun Home in which the protagonist had experiences with OCD tendencies rather than having the full-fledged disorder. Alison Bechdel begins to display compulsive actions at a young age, such as having to perform rituals when crossing doorways, or obsessive counting (avoiding odd numbers).
When I read Fun Home, it was the first time I had ever actually related to a character on my OCD tendencies. Some of the behaviors Alison exhibited were exactly the same as mine. It was the first time I felt as if I was not, in fact, that big of a weirdo. I mean, I knew that OCD existed, but I never encountered any literary character that reflected my own tendencies. Reading about Alison Bechdel changed my view on my OCD tendencies, and she’s a large part of the reason why I began telling people about my own experiences. To me she represents a healthy acknowledgement of her compulsive behaviors and an exploration into the causes for these behaviors.
Since deciding to discuss my OCD tendencies, I’ve received a mixed bag of reactions. When I first told my closest friend, she was a bit skeptical, given the stigma around people nowadays being so quick to claim they have OCD. So many youths - whether it be online, in person, or even in movies and on TV - profess to have OCD simply because they like things clean, or they have a particular way they arrange their clothes. Even with the daily compulsive habits I have, I’m careful to elaborate that I don’t have OCD, or that I don’t know enough about it to claim that I do. The only reason why I have to take such care, though, is because popular culture has taken OCD and turned it into little more than perfectionism. I’m therefore hoping that by writing this article, others will become more aware of the realities of OCD and compulsive tendencies, and that they will be able to replace society’s neat, inaccurate view of OCD with a more complex one.
Another experience I had in opening up to others was finding that many of those around me had similar experiences when they were young. Two of my roommates shared similar quirks - around numbers or the placement of certain objects - when they were children. One even explained that her sister still had those quirks. Discussing our experiences made me feel even more so that my own tendencies were closer to normal and ordinary than strange or idiotic. And I hope that those who have shared or still do share in these behaviors will feel the same way, either through this article, or through the friends around them.
Why I Never Consulted a Doctor
A couple of years ago, my dad and my uncle were out late at night. My uncle had come to visit from Korea, and they were celebrating. It wasn’t unusual for either of them to return home late: both my dad and my uncle often go out for company dinners or return home from work past 10 or 11 at night. I knew that they would be drinking, but I also knew that they were two grown men who would simply call a taxi to get home. However, on this particular night, as the hours went on, I began growing more and more anxious. I started imagining worse and worse scenarios, and my anxiety quickly became outright panic.
At 1 am, I went to my mom and unleashed all my worries on her. She stayed up with me and called both my dad and uncle incessantly until one of them finally picked up the phone. At this point I was already freaking out, crying, and hyperventilating, but once I heard their voices I was reassured. Nothing was ever wrong in the first place. They called a cab, and I woke up the next morning to my dad sound asleep at home.
Before I went to sleep, though, my mom asked me why I had gotten so worried. I finally explained to her that I always had anxiety about my parents coming home, that I worried about my dad and her every day when they drove to and from work. I had just never vocalized it before because if I did, then my parents would have to reassure my senseless worries every night. It was at that point that my mom asked if I wanted to see a doctor about my situation.
My immediate reaction was to say no. A doctor had never crossed my mind, and even when I contemplated it, I didn’t imagine medical help benefitting me. I thought that the doctor would just teach me breathing exercises, or give me an anxiety pill if he deemed my situation severe. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t believe that my tendencies were serious enough to warrant medical help.
But my greater worry was that if I went to the doctor, I would be seriously admitting that I had a problem. I was afraid that such an admission would somehow cause my tendencies to grow even worse, and that I would never be able to break out of them once they were deemed a real, official thing.
Since that night I still have never felt the urge to go see someone about my compulsive behavior. But the decision isn’t from some sort of conviction that my tendencies will worsen; rather, I simply want to learn how to handle my obsessive behavior on my own. Of course I can’t speak for everyone who struggles with OCD tendencies, OCD itself, or really any mental health issue. Seeking medical, professional help is a great route for anyone who feels overwhelmed when taking care of their mental health. Choosing not to consult a doctor was, I felt, the best choice for myself.
When I was younger, my tendencies never made any sense to me. I simply did them because I couldn’t see a reason not to. As I grew up, they comforted me and gave me a false sense of security. They briefly reassured worries that were senseless in the first place. Now, I see them simply as a part of my everyday life that I’m working to diminish. I still wish I didn’t worry about my house flooding even when I know all the faucets are closed; I still want to one day not have to check all of the stovetops before going upstairs to sleep for the night. But I don’t hate these tendencies the way I did before, that night when they brought me to tears over my father’s night out. I don’t feel ashamed of them, and I don’t bother actively trying to keep them a secret. My compulsive tendencies are what they are, and they’re not in control of me. Disorders or illnesses are never truly in control of anyone who experiences them. I believe there is a stigma around the influence mental health has over people, and that the only way to overcome this stigma is to talk about the actual experiences people have had. I am willing to talk about the problems I’ve encountered and my experiences with OCD tendencies; I can only hope my own willingness encourages others to join the discussion.