I left my psychologist's couch three years ago, feeling bitter and yet relieved. "You don't have OCD," she says, "everyone has these compulsions, I wouldn't worry."
And yet I was worried, because while she told me that most people battle anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to an extent, I still felt that she hadn't taken my cry for help as seriously as a psychologist should.
My "don't have" OCD, often paired up with my "moderate" crippling anxiety, is triggered by my inability to handle stress, thoughts, or even superstitions as well as I should. Or so I thought it was, but then again most six- and seven-year-old children aren't necessarily running frantically through the house touching oven knobs and placing their hands over locked locks repeatedly to make sure that they don't get robbed -- or worse -- burned down in a house fire (but just in case, she made her list of top three items she'd take with her if that house burned down and she escaped, and a list of all the right things to say to a robber if held at gunpoint, and her final self-sacrificing speech in case a serial killer forced her to choose between parents).
So yes, I was a bit hurt and embarrassed when she dismissed my irrational thoughts and behaviour as "normal"; but normal doesn't feel like playing hide and seek with your thoughts -- your body hiding and you mind looking for you. Normal doesn't feel like not being able to study in the silent area, or having to sleep with the TV on because you are so afraid of your thoughts. Normal doesn't feel like not stepping foot outside on a beautiful summer day for fear you may trip down the stairs and break your neck.
As I've gotten older, the triggers have gotten worse: homework, deadlines, boyfriends, grades, lack of sleep, insomnia over quarter life crises -- you name it. In the past three years, I've ground right through my teeth to the point where they've been filled twice and my night guard is cracking. Waking up with your teeth jammed together like puzzle pieces doesn't necessarily put one in a good morning mood.
Neither does night time dry mouth around stress season, making it painful to separate your tongue from the roof of your mouth before trying to down whatever spit it can supply just to ease that raw pinch in the back of your throat.
But these are just minor things that as my psychologist said, are "normal." I'm sure missing your menstrual cycle is normal stress behaviour as well, but is doing the sign of the cross repeatedly as a hoping/coping mechanism normal behaviour? How about constantly knocking on wood -- and not just any wood -- the older, the better. Laminate wood won't guarantee your safety. And if there's no wood nearby, wood elements will work, such as a newspaper or a tree. Maybe even your own head, if necessary. I take my knocking on wood so seriously that I have purchased real wood stick ons -- one for my laptop, one for my bedframe, one for my keychain for all my karmatic knocking needs.
I've turned into quite the hypochondriac as well, critically scoping out bus seats before I sit on them, or ripping a sheet of lined paper to sit on if I'm holding up the line and have to find a spot to settle into. When I have no choice but to hold the bus railings, I hold the very top of them, where I can be sure most people wouldn't bother to reach, or push doors open with my fists, trying to avoid the handprints and snot all over the glass and exit doors.
I open doors by pulling the very bottom of handles. My baseless theory is that most people touch the middle and top of handles; not many people would take the time to use one finger to pull a door open. I wipe down every counter and carry Kleenex everywhere I go, for spillage, for clean ups, and for unforeseen circumstances. I dust off every seat and keep my backpack on the chair beside me, feeling light-headed and nauseous to think of all the scabs, boogers, fingernails, product buildup and hair on the ground, especially near people's feet. And don't get me started about feet, how can anyone sit on the floor where the bottom of people's shoes have been. Who knows what they've walked on? I can't even trust myself to sit where I step.
I also fear untimely accidents. At night, I make sure that there is no shopping bag or lone tissue hanging around, in case my someone at home steps on it, slips, and breaks their back. And how about freak accidents? My God, there's always room for those. Sometimes I have to stay inside because I just have a terrible feeling that something bad is going to happen. Maybe if I go outside and look both ways before crossing the street, some car that my vision may have missed will come out of absolutely nowhere and hit me and I'll fly up in the air and fall back down and end up paralyzed or dead.
Sometimes I worry that terrorist groups are going to bomb big events in the city where there's hundreds of people, and I'm so terrified that I have to skip it and stay in. I can barely get myself to Canada's Wonderland anymore, because I am so terrified of falling out of my seat mid-air that I triple check and push the lock bar down so hard I can't breathe and then I'm worried that I might have broken the bar and that I'm going to watch myself fly hundreds of feet out of my seat, wishing I hadn't played with that stupid lock bar and trusted myself but by then it will be too late and I will be no more.
Lately, I've been having chest pain and extreme shortness of breath, caused by hypertension and stress. Every time I worry about something, I have trouble breathing. Every time I think of everything I have to do, I have to reach for my inhaler. But as my doctor told me, it won't do me a bit of good- the trigger is my own mind.
Thirteen years later, I still touch all the oven knobs and check the lock (although my list of top three valuables has significantly changed). I also do checks to make sure everyone's breathing, and since I'm there, might as well do the sign of the cross to protect them from evil and harm. Things have gotten much better, with breathing exercises, yoga, and a little more focus on the positive things in life. But I still feel like I'm suffering, like I'm right under the ocean surface but unable to break free. I still don't know if this is normal behaviour, or a sign of something more serious. Especially with the stigma around mental health and potentially the fear of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, we have a long way to go for educating others and ourselves. I hope we get there.