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How My Checking OCD Crept Up On Me (And How I Learned To Cope With It)

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
My parents are away on holiday and they have left me to look after the house. The other day, as I left, I checked that the back door was locked ten times. I checked that the front door was locked 14 times. I turned off all switches in the house and I unplugged all the appliances. Sometimes during these moments, when I'm checking, I float outside of myself – I can understand that what I’m doing is absurd, but I carry on anyway – knowing it’s ridiculous just isn’t enough to stop me. This time I check until I feel satisfied that the house is secure enough to leave. I take a video on my phone as I lock the front door – the evidence I’ll need to ensure myself it’s locked when I start worrying about it later. Then I get on with my day, albeit half an hour late.

I was once told that, with obsessive compulsive disorder, you experience doubt, but respond as if it's danger. Checking that the door is locked begins with the obsessive doubt, the intrusive thought that tells me that today is the day that our house will be ransacked. These urges repeatedly appear, consistently bullying their way to the forefront of my mind. The obsession quickly transfers itself into a compulsion. From there, the compulsion quickly morphs into a feeling of imminent, rising danger – it really is the day that my parent’s house will be robbed, my flat will burn down, or I’ll find a violent murderer in the kitchen.

My OCD ducks and dives, rearing its head every couple of years. It's like having a neurotic in-law come to stay, who tells you your house isn't clean enough, or an unwelcome friend who drains all of your energy. I’ve looked for patterns, and I have begun to understand my triggers, the tell-tales signs – like the onset of intrusive thoughts about robberies or the sudden need to clean a floor meticulously – and now I can catch myself in time to manage slow, semi-effective ways of coping. It took me a long time, a lot of Hoover bags and a shed load of therapy to get there. And if my iPhone camera roll is anything to go by, I’ve still got some way to go... where other people have embarrassing bursts of mirror selfies, I have sexy pics of the kitchen hob.

We could do with your Hoover obsession making a return whilst we’re away

Before my parents left for the holiday, my stepdad made a joke: "We could do with your Hoover obsession making a return whilst we’re away," he said. We all laughed, but the joke took me back to the nadir of my anxiety-ridden teenage years; it was a sour reminder of how my OCD first materialised. I was 11 years old. My mum moved us to an old house that probably should have had an "enter at your own risk" sign strapped above the door. It was a damp, stuffy shoebox that she renovated slowly – an outlet for her own post-divorce stress and trauma. Here I used cleaning as a panacea to sooth the rising tumult of starting a new school, my grandfather dying, living in a new place, adjusting to life after my parent’s divorce, and a mum who was a little too preoccupied with finding the right colour of emulsion.

I would vacuum the house up to five or six times a day. My mum didn't know how to stop me and as I unplugged the vacuum after its sixth consecutive ride, I felt automatically calmer, in control of the dust and the chaos taking hold around us. There's a scene in the film Mommie Dearest where Faye Dunaway illustrates to her cleaner how to polish the floor. She informs her that she’s not cross with her but that she is "mad at the dirt". Dunaway plays an unravelling Joan Crawford, who wasn’t "mad" at the cleaner, but was in fact very mad at the intrusion of her adopted children, the reaction to which slowly materialised as an obsession with cleaning. This was me – I was cross with the intrusion, the change and the lack of constancy. I was mad at the dirt.

When all this cleaning first started, the frequency with which I did it increased incrementally. It began with just hoovering in the morning. And then – slowly and over time – I was mentally blocking off periods in which to specifically go home and vacuum. I was never anxious about the increase in frequency – this compulsion stood as a symbol of tranquillity and calm – I began craving this activity, needing it more and more regularly within my day. What I didn’t realise was that as my desire for this time increased, so did my fear of losing control.
Many people misread or stereotype OCD as a desire for tidiness. In reality, it is "about having no control over your negative thoughts. It's about being afraid that not doing things a certain way will cause harm." Control is like a well-balanced weighing scale and anything unexpected can suddenly tip the balance. My OCD is often exacerbated in periods of stress, change and uncertainty: my GCSEs, moving house, the final year of my undergraduate degree and splitting up with my ex-girlfriend – and it’s a sure fire way to knock you while you’re already down. I have grown used to knowing that these heightened periods tend to pass. But there are times when my OCD creeps up unexpectedly and I feel as if I have been entirely unaware of its presence and completely unaware of its strength, until I am full swing into an episode. Which is why, in the last year, after having found myself in an unsettled home environment, with housemates I didn't trust and who I passively argued with on a regular basis, my OCD came back in a new incarnation: The checking.
Most recently, it got to the point where going to bed was difficult. I had to take sleeping tablets every night because I felt that I might never switch off the repetitive and intrusive thoughts I had swilling around my head. I would have to wait until all my housemates had gone to bed because I would persuade myself that they might have surreptitiously unlocked all the doors and switched on all the plugs that I'd just spent half an hour checking. I would slowly creep out of bed and start my rounds around the house. My growing inability to fall asleep without routinely checking the entire house was incredibly frustrating and it got to the point where I didn’t think I had the tools and methods to get over my current "flare-up". However, knowing that my OCD comes in waves and degrees of intensity is the first step to accepting my own behaviour. I know that seeking professional help and advice is the next most important step, that the illusion of anxiety that OCD fosters is temporary and that – with the right help – I can remember how to manage it.

Effectively managing OCD can be an exhausting and anxiety-inducing task in itself. When I was younger I had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and since then I have also had therapy provided through my university health care service. There are plenty of useful methods and tips that I have learnt from therapists and counsellors. One of the most useful techniques of these was beginning to monitor my OCD with an ‘Obsessive Fear Monitoring Form’. I found that this was an effective, if not dogmatic way to establish the triggers for your OCD and what compulsions you might try and use to manage your anxiety around any particular situation. This certainly isn’t a fail-safe option, but I also find it constitutive to calculate the probability of the danger of the situations that provide the most anxiety and I sometimes refer back to self-help sheets like these. They're little things, but they help me get to know my OCD better, and break the cycle of worrying.

I figure that, if my OCD is sticking around for now, coming in and out of my life as it pleases, I need to try to make peace with it. And so I try to sum up my OCD in a sentence. Doing this allows me to keep my disorder in a box, or at least give a glaze to something that sends my life into complete disarray. I think of it as the most obvious of metaphors: I feel mentally unsafe and therefore I continually check that I am safe by shaking the door handle and taking pictures of the locked door – there is a lack of security in my mental landscape and therefore I need to know I can trust the physical environment around me. When I put it like that, it seems like a natural way to alleviate the shame and stress, as well as a simple thing to fix. And until I fix it? For now I've learnt to cope.
The mental health charity Mind has an extensive list of different treatments and avenues for those suffer with OCD. Visit their website here.

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