I am posting this as something of a public service announcement that, I hope, will help educate people about OCD. There are a variety of typical things we associate with OCD, and these usually involve obsessive cleanliness or neatness of some form – some people in fact incorrectly boast about how “OCD” they are about cleaning their house, at which point I want to ask these people, “Really? Does apparent messiness really send you into a state of panic and anxiety based on problems that do not exist and are dealt with via compulsive responses that will not help? If you were in fact “OCD” about it, you would be too exhausted to boast (and for that matter the feeling of messiness would never go away, no matter how clean things are).” To be sure, there are people whose obsessions and compulsions involve arranging things, or cleaning, or eliminating germs. But if this is the only thing you think of when you think of OCD, there are a significant number of us you are failing to see. What I want to tell you about here is how in fact someone with OCD can, in fact, look exactly like the opposite of what people stereotypically associate with OCD.
The thing to remember about OCD is that those with OCD only feel their particular obsessions and compulsions regarding certain areas of life – in other areas, they can be as cautious or rash as anyone else. And externally, in the areas that their OCD affects, they will usually appear to the casual observer as just overly cautious because most people with OCD are good at hiding it. The question of whether OCD in fact affects their actual results in their area of obsession is debatable. In some cases it will mean a house is spotless by any normal standards even while it appears filthy to the person with OCD, much as a person with anorexia will appear to themselves overweight even when they are not – and are often indeed underweight – by verifiable standards. But in some cases OCD in fact negatively affects the exact thing one is worried about. Let me tell you about my dissertation.
Back when I was preparing my dissertation, I was editing obsessively, reading words over and over again, looking for some tricky, hidden errors that might be missed by everyone else. Finally, in exhaustion, I submitted. But I read my dissertation again just before my defense, and found all kinds of embarrassing errors. Why did I catch them the second time, and not the first time?
Upon reflection, I think the reason is that what I was doing to deal with the anxiety in the first round was obsessing and compulsing rather than editing. I was whipping myself up into a state of frenzy and looking for that one tiny thread that could pull apart the dissertation entire. But when one is looking for apocalypse, one overlooks little things, like spelling and grammar etc. – there is just not enough energy to deal with these things AND that one mysterious thing you are looking for and trying to fix lest it undo everything. In fact, there is barely enough energy to think rationally and be able in fact to tell reasonably what such a gap might look like – one is too busy looking for it to bother defining it.
So what was different the second time? There were no stakes. I couldn’t change anything even if I wanted to. And so I could read more calmly and actually see my dissertation as it was rather than as an object of intense anxiety. The difference is that there was nothing I could do about it, so I was actually reading it rather than trying to save it with an exhausted OCD hero-complex. Paradoxically, though, it was exactly this intense obsession with fixing the dissertation that in fact kept me from seeing the places where it needed to be fixed.
So how does this pan out in the rest of my life? I think it pans out such that I sometimes appear to people as lazy, only approaching something with a half effort. This is because what for most people are just the basic standards of good work are in fact what comes last in my OCD brain. Spelling errors and grammatical errors can always be fixed. But that one elusive argument that might be there and might be one’s undoing – that is something more serious, and it must be found before moving on to more basic issues. So you will see how it is that, though I have pored over my work to a point of exhaustion, these errors will still be there, coming last in the process and undertaken under the shade of a huge crisis of stress. The problem of course is that other people are not obsessive-compulsives – or rather, it is certainly not a problem, but it comes into effect when they gauge my work. There are people who stop paying attention after a few grammatical or spelling errors.
But why, you say, don’t I get proofreaders? First, getting things to them on time is nearly impossible because I am editing and rearranging right up to the last exhausting minute; I never finish things, only cast them off wildly and in a flurry at the deadline. So what I send proofreaders is a draft, if I even have that ready, and even then it will be likely that I have changed a significant amount by the time they get back to me. And then there is the problem of bothering people generally. I do not like to put people out just because I have OCD, and even if I did, I can never figure out the appropriate way to approach or ask them (another OCD thing, having to feel “just right” before doing something, for me particularly when it involves interacting with people).
So why am I writing all this? Three reasons: One is in the hope of helping people realize that OCD is not synonymous with carefulness or preciseness – indeed, obsessions and compulsions may leave no energy for other “more normal” concerns, and so those with OCD can in these areas appear negligent or lazy whereas in fact they are just exhausted. Another is that I hope others with OCD might resonate with this story, and might in fact see that sometimes identifying the toll of OCD in one’s life involves making a distinction between something like real editing and what one thought was editing but was in fact really obsession. Thirdly, I want to end in appreciation of those who do not get credit precisely for this reason, that OCD causes others to judge them wrongly. I know the battlefield for myself, and I know that many of those who judge can’t even begin to understand how very courageous and resolute you are in simply retaining your patch of small and malnourished ground in the battlefield of life. Take a moment to recognize your accomplishments – and there are accomplishments if in fact you have survived long enough to read this – and then keep fighting, if not for yourself, then at least for the sake of others with OCD.