Obsessive Compulsive

I’m at a conference about the past, present and future of libraries, but tonight I’m thinking about those stages of myself. Yesterday afternoon, Sharon Prado gave a talk about the Roxburghe Club and women’s reading habits in Ireland; today at lunch I found myself talking to her. She’s at UCD, I’m from the North; as happens, we got to talking about Ireland. She mentioned that after 9 years there, she’s still unearthing so much history; people reveal themselves so slowly, so cautiously, she said. “This is an Irish/Northern Irish trait,” I clumsily, inappropriately, agreed. “We are anchored in centuries of shush. It’s like our approach to mental illness…”

I realized quickly that I should leave it there. That wasn’t the venue. Then later this evening, I learned about Wesley King’s book OCDaniel, about a middle-grader with OCD. Apparently, the book review community felt that the book’s target audience wasn’t old enough for such information. More shush. What follows is a mishmash of malformed thoughts that have been trying to get out all night.

I was eleven when I first had what I can now recognize as my first OCD flare-up. Contrary to popular depictions, obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t—or isn’t always—about washing your hands. Or about being extraordinarily neat (just ask my partner). For me, it was fear—that if I didn’t cross my fingers while going upstairs a friend would die, that if I didn’t get across the road before the pedestrian sign was flashing my grandmother would die, that if I didn’t say, “take care” before taking leave of someone then they would die, that if I didn’t go up the stairs two at a time my kitten Mittens would die; that if I didn’t highlight passages from the Bible(!) somebody would die, that if I went to sleep I might wake up and somehow hurt my parents without even knowing and then they might die.

OCD is fiendishly smart. You can present yourself with counterarguments to your obsessive thoughts, but then you’ll present yourself with counter- counterarguments. In popular depiction, the compulsion that gets rid of the obsessive thought is cleaning or hand washing; for many of us with the illness, though, the compulsion is more thinking—and then maybe voicing that thinking out loud. We can reason our way out of this. But as we try to reason ourselves out of the abhorrent proposals put forward by our minds, we add to their importance, give them more weight next time they return. 

“How do I know I won’t do [insert horrible thing here]?” I asked my mum, who let me talk about my “monsters” when we were in the car driving to gymnastics, between the hours of 11 and 12 on a Saturday. Now that I am the parent of a child approaching middle-school age, I understand how difficult it must have been to hear these confessions. To her credit, she listened without judgment; for my part, I needed someone to hear. I needed to say these things out loud because it gave me relief from their tyranny over my mind. These were thoughts that had been circling and circling in my head for a week, for longer, forever. What I didn’t realize at first was that speaking them out loud only provided temporary relief. It helped me see them as ridiculous, as not things I would ever *do*—but the moment that hour-long session in the car was over, they’d start up again, louder and stronger because they’d been said out loud. 

Taking medication, accepting therapy, admitting there’s even a problem—to someone suffering from OCD, these are complicated. Not because we don’t think you need help, but because your mind, your disorder, will tell you that help is simply a panacea to shield you from the Truth. If you have OCD, you feel like you can control the manic pattern of your thoughts with ritual, be that cleaning, cleansing, or confessing. Your rituals feel like real solutions. Outside interventions not only lie to you, they mess with that sense of control. 

After a month or so, my mum took me to the family doctor, who had no idea what to do with this weeping, panicked mess of a tween. He prescribed beta blockers (culture of shush). I lasted three days.

It was 14 years, an Atlantic Ocean, and many incidents later that I was diagnosed. 


I tried to write this post once before, then couldn’t go through with publishing it for fear I’d never get a job again. When I applied for my current position, I disclosed my condition for the first time. Nobody has come after me yet.

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