The thing about OCD

I’ve struggled with OCD most of my life. For a long time I didn’t know what it was or why I sometimes do the things I do. 

OCD has driven me mad, and it has also made me good at some things I do — in my work life, as an athlete, and as a parent. I worked hard in my late 30s and early 40s to get the more harmful elements of this disorder under control. Some of it was hell. It was not healthy or good for example to check things over and over and over, often making myself late to work or other important functions. Or to drive around the block repeatedly to make absolutely certain I had not run someone over or caused an accident. To stop doing these things I had to come to terms with my mind making stories up that were not true or even logical. Or at least to recognize when it was doing so.

It was in this process that I recalled my earliest experiences with OCD. I was 13 and my mom had remarried in the last couple years. We had moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where my new stepdad lived and worked. I was in 7th grade and attending junior high at a recently integrated school. I had probably never heard the word “stress” before but I know now that I was feeling its cumulative effects from previous childhood trauma, all the recent changes in my life, as well as finding myself in a racially intense school situation where I once saw a kid beaten by a mob for getting into the wrong lunch line. What’s more, my mom had been hospitalized with a gall bladder attack, and my stepdad had been scheduled to leave on an untimely business trip. I was staying with friends of the family.

The school was a fair distance from home but not far enough to ride the bus. I noticed walking home one day that I was unconsciously counting steps between the sidewalk cracks. Over the days this became obsessive in thought and practice. My mom was still in the hospital. I developed a cadence between the lines in the cement that would not allow me to step on a crack. Then one day a voice in my head told me I could not step on a crack or my mom would die. 

And thus it began. The absolute conviction took charge and it soon was extended to other obsessive activities. I made myself run to a certain point ahead, a traffic sign or a power pole, without stopping. Otherwise I thought my mom would die. I ran while being sure I took two steps in each square of the sidewalk without stepping on a line. Otherwise my mom would die. 

Soon this thought process would apply itself from everything to counting holes in the vinyl ceiling of the family car to my homework. As I matured this same process took other forms in just about everything I did. At its best it gave me an edge at extremely detailed work like editing; at its worst it was a debilitating affliction. Sometimes it was my work. Sometimes it was household chores. Often it was in my recreation — one more cast while fishing, one more lap while running. Sometimes the part about my mom dying would be replaced with some other tragic possibility, but most often it would come back to my mom’s death.

When I finally got a handle on this, it was partly out of survival and partly out of exhaustion. I could not play the OCD game with my mind any more. There is no cure. It still haunts me almost daily — this little voice that says do this or do that, or do something extra — or something bad will happen. But I have managed to keep it checked. In recent years I’ve also recognized a strong OCD component to my son Harrison’s autism spectrum.

This past year my mom died. It had nothing to do with my OCD or failure to meet the demands of the voices in my head. She was 80 and had cancer.

Then one day I headed out to go running. I was stressed over work and money. I was short on time because of a dental appointment. I’d had a list of chores to do before leaving, including shoveling snow off the deck. As I headed out to run I realized I had not shoveled any snow. I was low on time. I thought, that’s OK, when I get back I will shovel just a little snow off the deck. I must shovel some snow because my mind is telling me I have to. Then I quickly realized that if I shoveled even a couple scoops, my OCD would take over and I would not be able to stop. I would make myself clear the entire deck. And I would make myself late to the dentist doing it. . . . But maybe just one minute of shoveling . . . There was this little voice nagging that if I didn’t shovel some snow that my mom would die.

Then it hit me like an avalanche of unshoveled snow: My mom is dead. These voices in my head were messing with me. They’ve always been messing with me even when she was alive. They will continue to lie to me even after the lie is dead. There is no cure for OCD. You can only learn to live with it, and move forward of course always avoiding the cracks.