BY SARAH TWAROG
I have obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD. The reason why I use the full name is 95% because it’s good writing practice to define your acronyms, and 5% because Target decided to sell a sweater this past Christmas season with the words "OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder" charmingly knitted on it. I mean, if there is really such a thing as obsessive Christmas disorder, I definitely have that.
If I’m defined by one thing in this life, let it be my love of family holidays that always include prime rib, and offer the opportunity for us to celebrate not one, but two famous white men (Jesus and Santa Claus). But you know, I also actually have obsessive compulsive disorder. And if we are voting on who gets the acronym, I think the mental illness wins.
I don’t think that I have ever told anyone that I have OCD in a normal, or sane tone of voice. More often, I have delivered it in a cutting, defensive way, taking on the tone that someone would respond in if you had just made a "yo mama" joke about their dead mother. But there’s a reason for this. 9 times out of 10, telling someone that you have OCD is met by a response from them that falls into one of two categories. People Who Saw That Episode of Girls Where Hanna Counts Everything, and People Who Say That They Probably Also Have OCD Because They Really Love Keeping A Clean House.
Which is not to say that some people who have OCD do not have counting habits, or obsessive habits about cleaning. Some absolutely do, and it’s important to fairly acknowledge that. But when I say I have OCD, I’m telling you that I have a mental illness, not that I, like you, a person without OCD, just can’t sit still if I know a few crumbs are going un-Cloroxed on my counter! I’m not telling you that I have to eat exactly 8 potato chips, and that I will eventually stick a Q-tip too far down my ear. Really, I’m learning how to properly tell you about it still because I’m still learning what it means to have it myself.
Before I was diagnosed with OCD, but once I started to suspect that I had a problem, I began to think about my life in 3 sections. Life Before I Could Drive, Life After I Could Drive, and Life When I Stopped Being Able To Drive. Life Before I Could Drive was spelling bee awards, quarterly report cards, Hollister jeans, and Participant track ribbons. It was a simpler time. Life After I Could Drive was pretty great too, defined by the same mediocre athletic ability and what photos will prove was not, in fact, a better sense of style. Life When I Stopped Being Able To Drive began when I was 20 years old, in December 2013 or January 2014, some time during that weird period where you’re on college winter break and all the days not spent at holiday parties begin to bleed together. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it started, but I can imagine how it did, because once it started it never stopped.
One day, I drove over a crack in the road, a road, really it could have been any road. The break in the road probably caused the car to shake or teeter a small amount in the way that cars do over uneven terrain, barely perceptible to the average person, and certainly not notable or memorable. Except, for me once it happened, I couldn’t forget it.
In the 20 yards I had gotten past the crack, I had already convinced myself that I had in fact driven over a person. A person had been lying in the road, and I for whatever reason did not see them, but they were definitely there, and I had most certainly just killed them. So I turned my car, coming down the opposite side of the road, to locate the dead person/offending crack. But coming down the opposite side of the road, I also drove over a crack that probably caused the car to shake or teeter a small amount in the way that cars do over uneven terrain.
So now, after turning to drive down the original side of the road to check for a body/crack, I already knew I’d be turning around once I passed it to drive down the opposite side of the road again and check for that second crack. Confused yet? Yeah, so was my family when I came home from a car ride that should have taken 15 minutes 2 hours later.
I don’t know why I became so convinced that people were just lying in the road, and I was driving over them, but this became the most debilitating of my obsessive habits. I went through that winter break watching the news 3-4 times a day, terrified that a hit and run story would appear involving a street that I had driven down.
Car rides that used to take me 10 minutes could take up to an hour. I dragged any sibling I could recruit along when I needed to run errands, convinced that if I was to hit something, the second person in the car would have surely noticed. In what was one of the most profound displays of love that I have experienced in my short lifetime, my parents silently and without complaint began offering to drive me everywhere, including the overnight shifts I worked at a local grocery store that began at 11pm and ended at 5am.
Once, when I was 17 years old, during Life When I Could Drive, I was driving with a boy that at the time I was nursing a pretty serious unrequited crush on. We were driving to a bonfire or a graduation party, or some other summer teenage gathering, when I eased my car into a familiar left turn and drove over what I know was a pothole in the road that caused the car to shake gently.
"What was that, oh my God," I exclaimed, still driving.
"Nothing," the guy said, bored.
"What if it was something, though?" I said half-heartedly, already refocused on getting to the party.
"Oh my God, Sarah, it was a baby. You probably drove over a baby," he responded, in that teasing way that teenage boys have of making a girl feel at once delightful, stupid, and altogether silly. It’s a pretty insignificant memory, but it’s one of those weird little anecdotes that sticks with you. At some point during Life When I Stopped Being Able to Drive, I remembered that story and all I could think was oh my God, way to go Sarah, it probably was a baby and why didn’t you turn around and double-check, and also you should give up on Kevin because neither of you will care about your friendship 8 months into college, and anyway, no one wants to date a BABY MURDERER.
My wonderful, sensible mother who holds wisdom at a capacity I can only dream of attaining gently approached me and suggested I see a doctor before I returned to my school at the end of January. She drove me, a ride I remember clearly because on the way to the doctor I made her take a side route on some streets I had driven on earlier that day to verify that the potholes in them were indeed what had caused my car to be jostled.
I came prepared with the term "anxiety" that I had borrowed from my best friend and Regular Prescribed Xanax User, something that I now know she would probably not appreciated being labeled as. What I got was "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," 10mg of Prozac, and some lavender sleeping pills because the thought of going to jail for vehicular manslaughter was cutting into my 8-10 hours.
After I got diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Life Before I Could Drive and Life After I Could Drive started to look a little different. I began to remember not spelling bees or poor fashion choices, but the fact that in my 10 years of playing school basketball, I refused to allow a ball launched into the air land and bounce on the ground more than twice. At 9 years old I made desperate dives to stop that third bounce, and at 17 I still was.
I remembered being unable to shut off lights in a room without having my eyes closed for the extinguishing of the light, and getting irritated with movies when a character turns a light off that I am unprepared for. I remembered random, uncontrollable urges to scribble on a page in the middle of writing, or to tear a hole through a piece of paper I was writing on. I felt like a Cinderella of mental illness, a down on her luck girl who finally got her Glass Medical Diagnosis. A shoe that I did not expect to fit actually fit almost too well, and as I imagine the glass slipper would have felt to Cinderella, was ultimately uncomfortable and yet altogether relieving at the same time.
Sometimes on job or school applications these days, I’ll come across a portion that asks you to voluntarily identify if you have a disability or mental disorder, which I guess is part of recruiting a diverse workforce. Sometimes there are lists, and sometimes OCD is on it. Sometimes it is not. I haven’t decided whether to identify it on my applications or not. When it doesn’t appear, I’ll often stare, chin in palm, at this portion of the application and wonder if I should indicate in the Other portion that I have OCD.
Then I’ll worry about what it means to list that I have OCD on a job application. Will people think I’m really clean (I’m not)? Will someone have seen that episode of Girls? Then I’ll think of someone close to me, who has a moderately severe learning disability related to a genetic condition, and feel guilty for equating my diagnosis with hers, which I imagine qualifies as what these questions believe is substantial enough to mention.
Then I’ll chastise myself for arbitrarily labeling her own personal condition as "legitimate" because of some negative and inaccurate perception of her ability, and finding it, therefore, worthy of indicating, based on imagined standards imposed by some application. I’ll also chastise myself for de-legitimizing my own very real disorder. This is a fun argument with yourself that most people who have a disorder that the rest of society can’t describe without using air quotes will have with themselves at some point in their life.
I’m still learning how to tell the people close to me, and those I am growing closer to that I have OCD. Maybe I’ll write it in a rap, or tattoo in on my leg with a lotus flower or an infinity sign. Maybe I’ll start pressing this essay into people’s hands, giving them the kind of knowing, intense look that says "Read this" and compels them to put it in their downstairs bathroom for a late-night toilet perusal. I’m not sure exactly what telling people is going to look like, and I am fairly certain that I will not do it the same way for every person. I know that some people will read this story and wonder why I need to at all.
When you live in a society where some people will lightheartedly label themselves with your disorder in some dramatic way of poking humor at their own habits, you become fiercely protective of being in the percentage of people that don’t get to make the choice about even silently identifying with it or not. I don’t get to put on the label of OCD like a silly hat that gets me laughs and can be tossed in the party host’s hall closet at any time once I get bored of it. If you are to know me, to truly get to know me, I need you to know that I have OCD. I need you to know that at times, I may do things that seem weird, confusing, or altogether inexplicable. Please be patient.
I need you to not expect me to be really clean, because I’m actually pretty messy, and I need you to not act surprised when you find this out. I need you to know that my OCD is not a defining factor of me, but it is an identifying one, and being honest with you about it also allows me to be honest with myself. I don’t totally understand it, and I don’t need you to either. I just want you to know that I have it, and I need you to be willing to learn to be okay with that, if you’re not already. I’m learning to be okay with it too.
Sarah Twarog is a 22-year-old aspiring writer. She minored in writing at Stony Brook University and teaches creative writing at a high school in Albany, NY.