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At The Walrus, Lisa Whittington-Hill looks at how media has portrayed people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) “as Type A clean freaks, Sheldon Cooper–like nerds, productivity machines, or eccentric weirdos.” With characteristic wit, Whittington-Hill says that these stereotypical portrayals betray the true experience of people with OCD. Pervasive, inaccurate stereotypes have allowed some to misuse the term to refer to someone who simply prefers organization over disorder. Think Monica Geller from Friends. Whittington-Hill says that living with OCD — a mental illness — exacts a far greater toll and for her, one that she pays by isolating from others.
The obsessions—the unbidden thoughts driving the compulsions—are comparatively less discussed. When I try to explain my OCD to people, they don’t understand the fears and anxieties that drive these compulsions or what the repeated actions are meant to accomplish. I don’t check taps because I am really into ornate faucet design. I do it because it is the only way to quiet my brain.
I once heard OCD described, very accurately, as a record skipping in your head. The checking routine I have before I leave my apartment can take anywhere from thirty minutes, on a very good day, to two hours, on a very bad one. There is a voice in my head that won’t go away, repeating: “You must check the fridge door to make sure it is closed, or the fridge will defrost. All your food will go bad and your kitchen will flood. It will destroy your apartment and the one below it.” I pray that my foot won’t hit the overflowing recycling bag in my kitchen that sits directly across from the fridge. If my foot hits it, it disrupts my very specific, everything-in-its-place checking routine, and I have to start all over again. Repeatedly checking the door helps to calm all the fears I have about what disasters could happen if the door were left open. These fears may seem irrational, even ridiculous, to others, but they are very real to me.
My OCD makes me feel like a bad friend, a bad coworker, and a bad daughter. I can’t show up places on time and I feel like I am always apologizing for being late. I can’t travel easily and I avoid doing so whenever I can. If I do have to travel, I start dreading it months in advance. My pre-leaving-my-apartment routine is nothing compared to my routine for leaving my apartment for a vacation. I often cancel plans so I can avoid having to leave my house at all—the thought of going through my checking is too exhausting to contemplate.
As a result, I isolate myself. I live in fear of people laughing at me, which they have. I avoid relationships because I can’t imagine someone staying at my house for a night. “Just go to bed. I’ll be there in a couple of hours, after I check the windows repeatedly to make sure they are closed because I am worried that, if they aren’t, someone will somehow scale the side of my building, climb three floors, cut the window screen, and enter the bedroom to kill us.”
Who’s in the mood for romance now?
I RECENTLY REALIZED that I went three months without using my stove, reasoning that, if I never turned it on, then I didn’t have to worry about checking it. If food needed to be heated, I microwaved it or used boiling water from a kettle, or else I didn’t eat it at all. That lasted until I began to think about checking the microwave and kettle, at which point I switched to sandwiches and cereal. My OCD has cost me so many moments and opportunities.
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