Progress Not Perfection

My journey to heal depression, anxiety, and OCD

I Was Diagnosed with OCD

How stigma and shame turned into relief and hope

Girl with OCD
Sitting on the couch at my first ever visit to a psychiatrist last summer, I took a deep breath. What had brought me to her office was a recent bout of depression where I couldn't stop crying while I was washing the dishes, followed by a panic attack where I could barely eat or leave my apartment for days. I had just finished a lengthy monologue about my lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety, and looked at the doctor, waiting for her response.

"What I'm most concerned about," she began, "is your OCD."

WHAT? I thought. But what about my constant anxiety? And the sadness that won't go away no matter what I do? Sure, it took me 10 minutes to leave my apartment every day because I had to check, double, and triple check that all my appliances were turned off and/or unplugged, but I just thought of this as a few small OCD tendencies. And yes, I had to proofread emails over and over again before sending them, but that was just because I was a perfectionist. I didn't think that I actually had OCD.

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"Your depression and anxiety are manageable," the psychiatrist continued, "but the OCD is really diminishing your quality of life. And it gets worse over time."

I thought back to my childhood, searching for signs of OCD. For the most part, these tendencies didn't appear until I was in my 20's, when I was pursuing an acting career, and would check my headshot mailings multiple times before dropping them in the mailbox. But that was it for a while.

Until I moved into my current apartment when I was almost 30, and started picking up some other "small tendencies," like checking the oven before I left my apartment, three times. And then this grew to include checking outlets, light switches, faucets, locks and more. Would my routine continue to grow and grow until it would take me 20, 30, 60 minutes to leave my apartment every day?

Isn't depression and anxiety enough? I thought. I didn't want to be burdened with the heaviness of OCD, too.

But then the psychiatrist told me that there were ways to make it better, and I felt relieved. Relieved to give a name to all these little daily actions that piled up, and made the simplest tasks feel like insurmountable feats. Relieved to see how OCD was making my life very difficult, and how now that I knew I had it, things could finally be easier.

After I got my diagnosis, I started admitting it to friends. For years, I had openly talked and written about my depression and anxiety; practically everyone I knew struggled with one or both. But OCD felt more private, and more shameful.

One of the first people I told was my neighbor, because we both had these little tendencies and had even joked about having adult-onset OCD. Soon after I told her, I went to her apartment to watch So You Think You Can Dance. She locked the door when I came in, walked to the TV, and then walked back to the door again.

"Live OCD in action!" she said, as she double checked to make sure that it was locked.

Then I told three more friends about my diagnosis, and all three admitted to also having OCD! They shared stories about elaborate closet-organizing rituals, an inability to stop thinking about things that had been misplaced, and being tormented by the same worried thought all day long. I had felt so alone in my obsessions and compulsions, and couldn't believe that all this time some of my closest friends were suffering similarly.

Recently I was having coffee with a new friend, when she sheepishly confessed that she had OCD.

"Oh!" I said, leaning across the table. "I have OCD, too!"

Knowing that several of my friends are also dealing with OCD helps take away the stigma and the shame. It's comforting to tell them when I'm trapped in an obsessive thought or stuck in a compulsive behavior, or say it was my "live OCD in action" when I'm 10 minutes late as a result of my rituals. By openly airing my OCD instead of hiding it, I can diffuse the power it has to diminish the quality of my life.

I still check, double, and triple check appliances, outlets, faucets, light fixtures, and locks before I can leave my apartment. And don't even get me started about how much longer it takes me to leave home on mornings when I have to use the iron. But every so often I will skim a few things off my daily ritual, and feel a lightness and a freedom and glimpse, for a moment, that I don't have to be bound by these elaborate repetitions forever. That one day I'll be able to get a call from a friend for a spontaneous plan to meet for dinner or a walk in the park and say, "I'll be right there!" and mean it. That I will be able to breeze out of my apartment worry-free, only doing the necessary things of turning off the lights and locking the door, and absolutely nothing more.

Jennifer Garam is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and teacher, and the founder of Writeous Chicks.

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