Sara Kirschenbaum
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My Turn OCD

Posted Sunday, Aug 15th, 2010 at 11:18pm

My friends and co-workers who know I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) think they are being clever when they say how handy it must be to have OCD when you need to clean the house or focus on a project. In truth, I have never known OCD to be anything but disabling.

As Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) slides into society’s vernacular and pop consciousness, I have seen a profound misunderstanding of its nature. It is not uncommon for me to hear people jokingly laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just my OCD!” when talking about something as mundane as an expensive pair of shoes they shouldn’t have bought or their need to have a clean desk.

Each time a new DSM IV diagnosis enters cultural consciousness, people have a chance to recognize new psychological themes in their own lives. I am glad that people now have a way to conceptualize and discuss obsessions and compulsions, because everyone has them. But I say if the compulsion doesn’t grab hold of you and twist your arm into submission, if the obsessive worry doesn’t take over your life and make you want to cry, then it ain’t OCD.

My first clear memory of the compulsion monster twisting my arm into submission was when I was walking down the street in Manhattan, my home town, the summer I was to turn 13. I was minding my own business when I stepped over a crack in the sidewalk. As I stepped, the thought came into my mind that I should stop, turn around, and step on the crack before proceeding. “Well that’s stupid,” I thought to myself and kept walking. About four steps past the crack, the threat in my mind got more specific: if I didn’t turn around and step on that crack, my mother, an artist, would not have a successful career. “Well that’s really stupid,” I thought to myself. By now I was 9 steps away and worrying - what if it really would doom my mother’s career? I couldn’t shake the fear. “Well, I guess there’s no harm in it,” I said to myself as I turned around and walked about 12 paces back and stepped on the damn crack with a feeling of relief. Now I could get on my way. There was only one problem.

When I was two steps past the crack, the words popped into my mind: if I didn’t turn around and step on that crack a second time, my father, a sculptor, wouldn’t succeed as an artist. I don’t remember how many times I ended up walking back and forth to the crack that afternoon, but I know I was profoundly embarrassed, hoped none of the passersby noticed, and didn’t tell a soul.

There were to be many more compulsions as well as obsessions before I wound up in a psych ward with a diagnosis of Post Partum OCD at the age of thirty. Until then no one, including my parents, camp counselors, even my best friend’s mother who was a child psychiatrist, had a clue that I was suffering, much less what I was suffering from. Which might be just as well because at that time there were no medications available for OCD and virtually no successful treatment.

The string of obsessions and compulsions that run through my life can, in a wicked way, tell my life story, and an almost historical one at that. OCD has a way of rooting – like a pig for truffles - for the very fear or image that is the most disturbing. It is interesting to me that as a 12-year-old girl, the worst threat that my Uber mind could come up with was my parents’ failure as artists. When the United States was racing to put a man on the moon, my worst obsession was my fear of a meteorite striking me as I slept. During the Vietnam war protests, I was convinced that if I ever let myself get directly under a plane, it would drop a bomb on me. I would run frantically whenever a plane flew overhead. In the early 1980’s, I daily feared for my life knowing that the world was bristling with nuclear weapons. When I finally landed in a psych ward in 1991, it was intrusive images of harming my newborn baby that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

My second child, a daughter, is now 11. She not only inherited my courage, but tragically, my OCD as well. She was a tiny five-year-old when her OCD first flared and immobilized her with a compulsive need to confess anything she thought she did wrong, and a fear of germs that was so severe she washed her hands until they were red and sore. Now with both of us doing well on identical medication, we have an OCD-friendly household. If I resent my co-workers casually claiming OCD to explain their quirks, my daughter and we know we will never forget how gravely “OCD sucks” (my daughter’s words).

The next time a colleague jokes about how handy it must be for me to have OCD, maybe I should tell them the handy things I have gotten from having OCD: humility, compassion for others with mental illness, a profound respect for pharmacology, and an ability to put all crises in perspective – if it doesn’t send you to the psych ward, how bad can it be?

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