Friday, May 08, 2009

My OCD Life

This past week was Mental Health Awareness Week in Edmonton. A friend of mine who is a fellow freelance writer wrote an excellent piece for the Edmonton Journal about her struggles with depression. I found it an inspiration to write something about my own journey with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So here we go.

Years ago, a few of my friends commented that if I ever wanted to change careers I should consider becoming a safety inspection manager at a chemical plant. Not that I actually have an interest in such a profession - rather, I have an uncanny talent for taking any situation, picking it apart, and listing point for point everything that can go wrong.

I don't have any particular interest in this profession. What I do have, is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People who have OCD perform a series of rituals (compulsions) in order to relieve troublesome thoughts (obsessions). I am a washer and a checker, because my obsessions tend to center around germs and safety. My symptoms ebb and flow depending on the general stress level in my life as well as other health factors. Others fellow OCD-ers are counters - they feel something bad will happen if they do not count to a certain number under various circumstances. Some of us are also concerned with activities being done in a certain order. As I often joke, I don't have OCD - I have CDO. It's like OCD, except the letters are in their PROPER alphabetical order the way they are SUPPOSED to be!

Like with any mental illness, OCD carries with it a stigma. There is the social humiliation of being discovered. As much as I try to hide my habits, sooner or later anyone who spends enough time with me will witness me wash my hands a few times too many, repeatedly check that the doors are locked, whip out my bottle of hand sanitizer, or eat a sandwich with a knife and fork. Even those close to me get a good laugh from time to time at my expense, including a few who also have mental health issues. Which leads to another problem that is caused by my OCD - I tend to take things very personally and can obsess if I feel someone is giving me short shrift.

I know I am not the easiest person to get along with because the struggle in my head makes me have problems even getting along with myself. Then, there are the aspects that no one sees - the ones that live inside my brain. Ruminations on upsetting conversations, negative experiences, worrisome thoughts. The end result is me being grumpy, tired, and anxious much of the time. And frustrated - OCD is a neurotic condition, which means that when I am in the midst of a hand-washing spin (for example), I know I am being ridiculous - but I feel helpless in stopping it.

At the same time, having OCD comes with benefits. One of the key ways I live with OCD is working with it instead of fighting it. I try to divert my energy from rituals and worrying to more productive activities. As a result, I am a very productive person in a variety of areas. When I get involved with something, whether it be a new hobby, interest, activity, or relationship, I go at it with gusto.

OCD was a factor in my career choice, as being self-employed requires me to constantly be on my toes when looking for and managing the number of contracts I balance. My profession as a freelance writer, photographer, editor, and sometimes musician allows me to have a variety of work scenarios, locations, and contacts - no two days are ever the same. And, most importantly, it allows me to call my own hours. I don't have to face explaining to a boss about needing to take the day off because I am suffering from lack of sleep as a result of the broken record going through my head all night.

To be truthful, if I could magically erase OCD from my life, I don't think I would do it (as if that would ever even be an option). While I hate the effects of OCD when I am in a full flare of my symptoms, I would not want to walk away from the creativity and intensity of my life. OCD is part of what makes me who and what I am, so I may as well view it as a gift instead of a curse.

1 comment:

cath said...

as you may recall, i call mine OCT (obsessive compulsive tendencies)! i like the way you desrcibed the inside part of the head battle.

today i am sitting at a desk that is a total disaster. i have a tonne of things to do. but i can't start any of them until the order is restored - but when i look at it, it is overwhelming to know where to start. therefore, it is 1:52 and i have accomplished next to nothing ...

thanks for the reminder that i CAN channel this - i am off to tidy my desk now!