Stop saying you have OCD. You are just anal, I have OCD.

Growing up on a fault line meant that I have been through more than my fair share of earthquakes.  This includes Loma Preita in 1989 the 6.9-7.1 magnitude quake that collapsed the bay bridge, and our fireplace.  I was six at the time.

Bricks are no match for that kind of cute.
Bricks are no match for that kind of cute.

The randomness of earthquakes was one thing.  But it brought with it the concept of random destruction and mortality.  When I saw the pictures of the bay bridge and collapsed buildings on the news I asked if everyone was ok.  My mom replied that they were not, that many people had died in the quake.

Being young ,I had never thought much about death and injury.  Now, I had experienced a violent event that killed many people.  This revelation when reasoned to its logical end meant that if you were hurt bad enough to die- you did not come back.  Not even for Christmas.

I have always been high strung and anxious, even as a baby.  My mom could not leave me anywhere even for a second without a HUGE fit.  After the quake I became preoccupied with mortality and the concept that everyone and everything around me would one day die.

This was a fact.

One of those things you find as a child that you can not prove false and must accept for the rest of your life.  An absolute truth about the world.

I also began to feel that was nothing special protecting the people closest to me any more than anyone else in the world.  Thousands of people die everyday, old and young, expected and unexpected.  I could not find any reassurance that tomorrow wasn’t going to be the last day for someone I loved and counted on.

I felt it first with my mom and dad.  A horrible pain in the pit of my stomach; every night when they tucked me in, that it would be that last night they ever did.  I wasn’t sure how exactly to express this anxiety or what to do about it.

I began making my parents promise me they wouldn’t die the next day before they left my room.

They did this dutifully but as time passed, I found it helped less and less.  This feeling started popping up more and more frequently in my head triggered by a hug good bye or even a trip to the grocery store without me.

I would freak out every time my dad went on a business trip, sure his plane would crash.   He would try to console me by reasoning with me that the chance of dying in a plane crash was thousands to one and that it was statistically more likely to die in the car on the way to the airport.

This did absolutely nothing to alleviate my fears.

First of all, I hadn’t even thought to be worried about the car ride yet.


He drove “over the hill” to San Jose everyday for work.  Second, my dad was flying for “press checks” almost every week; so in my mind he was getting ever closer to that one in however many flights and this statistically assured his demise.

I felt so helpless.  My world was teetering on the edge of oblivion and every time someone left my sight- I became convinced it was the last time I would see them.

I had yet to experience actually loss at this point in my life.  Not even so much as a goldfish had croaked under my watch.  It did not help me feel any better and I developed habits that I would preform when these feelings arose.

Actions that I felt somehow made it less likely for tragedy to strike.  It enabled me to feel that I had done something to prevent it.  Since this was first triggered by bedtime my first attempts to do something about it happened after I was tucked in for the night.

Before I went to sleep I would have to say my prayers perfectly three times and if I stuttered or left any part out I would have to start over.  I did not adopt any existing prayers-instead I made up my own so that they covered every possibility.

I felt any detail or loophole I left our would be exploited and the prayer would not have the protective effect I hoped it would bring.  I have forgotten it but I know that at one point I wrote it all down and it took up a whole page of paper.

I had to preform this ritual perfectly every night and it often took more than thirty minutes to get it right and drift off into uneasy sleep.   The comforting properties of perfectly executed prayers had less and less effect as time went on.

I developed other habits throughout the day to ensure the safety of my loved ones.  The prayers at least had an explicit connection to this fear; the new rituals, did not.

I became obsessed with the number three and thirteen and any of their multiples.  If a fear arose I would crack my wrist three times, and if it didn’t crack all three times I had to start again.  I was sure that any incomplete set would result in the chances of a death increasing.  I had to brush my teeth just right, rinse and tap out my brush three times then do that whole thing three times.   Doorways had to be tapped three times before I would go though them and I would constantly count to 33 or 13 in sets of 3 in my head over and over again.

Most of these things went unnoticed by my family since they were largely internal processes.  It was not until I was in college studding physcology that I realized these habits could be accurately diagnosed as OCD.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is NOT I repeat NOT when a person likes everything just so.

Being a neat freak or doing things a particular way is categorically different than OCD.  Some people’s rituals DO revolve around cleaning or having every little thing in its place but this is a symptom of the problem it is not the problem itself.

The important distinction is that these habits or ‘rituals’ are a reaction to an illogical anxiety, one that arises independent of logical worry.  In reaction to this fear you are compelled to preform a task or tasks and you believe will have some effect on the outcome, though logically they can not.

The term is thrown around in popular language these days like an adjective- “I’m just OCD about it, LOL”  It has become slang for anything that causes someone mild anxiety.

Being concerned about what people think if they come over unannounced and see dishes in your sink is not OCD.  That’s being ANAL and having judgmental friends.

In short, if you like your house supper clean, with everything in its place because you have anxiety that if Suzzie from next door comes over she will think you are a lazy slob.

That is not OCD.

On the other hand…

If you have the constant and intrusive feeling that if your house is not exactly as it should be, then Suzzie will come over and kill your whole family with a screwdriver.

Then welcome to my world!  

“Step right up! Overwhelming anxiety is your right, and meaningless rituals to your left.  Remember everyone you love could be dead right now and have a great day!  Thank you for picking us for all your disordered thinking needs, we know you have choices when you are being irrational.”

Personally I would describe it as being miss-wired.  Thoughts jump from one spot to another in ways that I am quite sure most people don’t experience.  For me, every happy thought has an immediate and uncontrollable link to feelings of certain dread.

If I find myself daydreaming about a person in my life who makes me happy my next direct thought is that they will die and be gone someday.  There is no reason it could not be today or tomorrow, heck they could be dead right now and I just don’t know it yet.

It is exhausting and has taken me years of self knowledge and mindful discipline to stop my rituals.  To separate out my illogical anxiety from logical anxiety.  At my worst I was a slave to these impulses unable to do many simple daily processes without experiencing immense internal turmoil.

I spent years trapped in my own head.

In time, I learned to sort out the root of my impulses.   Just as it had taken years for my behavior to get that out of whack, it took years to get it back in line.

It is a very basic part of me and the way I interpret the world.  Though my rituals no longer take up large portions of the day I am still constantly aware of my disordered thinking.

Recently, my anxiety became a small asset when my dad passed unexpectedly.  Since I had been preoccupied with the concept for most of my life and the event happened decades after I feared it would.  My acute awareness of mortality meant that to me, all those years in-between where “bonus years.”

To this day I cannot control the inception of these anxieties I can only control my reaction to them.  Marital arts have helped in my endeavor to overcome this peculiarity.

In Aikido there is a famous calligraphy phrase that says “Masakatsu Agatsu” its characters mean “true victory is victory over oneself.”  Aikido and martial arts helped me to find calm and mindfulness in motion.  A higher awareness of my body and mind but it took years of daily practice and discipline to develop.

The years of constant stress and anxiety have taught me many things.  Most importantly- to think critically about how I feel and why.  My feelings are often wrong and that is ok to acknowledge.

In fact- it is the first and most important step in getting my OCD under control.

My most basic flaw has given birth to one of my greatest strengths.   I do not take for grated that my thoughts and impressions are right.

It is not a mistrust of myself.  It is the honest evaluation of the facts given my mental state.

In the end, I am grateful for my disordered thinking.  Even though it is a constant struggle, it means that I take nothing for granted.  That is a very positive state of mind to occupy.

There is great happiness there.  So while I am constantly worried, scared, aware and anxious, I am also grateful because even moment of every day,  I am truly aware of myself (well, I try to be.)

In all my f*cked up glory.

“Masakatsu Agatsu”

7 Comments on “Stop saying you have OCD. You are just anal, I have OCD.

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