I’m an incredibly messy person. I rarely put my clothes away – most items have found a nice home on my bedroom floor. My makeup is regularly strewn all over the house, and my cream carpet is covered in black kohl pencil. I always drop food and drink down the front of my dressing gown (I can’t drink coffee without supervision). I don’t clean out my hairbrush very often. I drop towels on the floor instead of hanging them up. Mess follows me everywhere.
And yet, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Many people think that having OCD means you have to be an obsessive cleaner. Some people say, “I’m so OCD!” just because they like things clean, not realizing that they are using a mental disorder as an adjective, and actually saying, “I’m so obsessive-compulsive disorder!” instead.
My experience, like it is for many people, is all about compulsions; to check locks, close doors, and turn off switches. When I’m about to leave the house, my compulsions kick in full force.
I scan my room to make sure no plugs have been left on, then I go into the bathroom and make sure my taps are off. I focus on the one I haven’t used – obviously – because that’s the one on the left, and I need to focus on the left side of everything to feel balanced. I usually sing or hum and tighten the tap to whatever tune I have in my head at the time. My taps are completely ruined; they are barely attached to the basin.
Once that part of my routine is over and done with, I check the main source of my panic – the sockets under my makeshift dressing table. I rarely use my hair straighteners anymore (in fact, I haven’t even plugged them in for nearing on six months), but this is where I would plug them in if I did use them. I spend minutes staring at the empty sockets until the part of my brain that controls my compulsions accepts that I haven’t left anything plugged in, and that I didn’t have anything plugged in in the first place, and that the house isn’t going to burn down.
I do a final scan of my bedroom, checking everything is just right, then I turn off the light and shut my bedroom door. Most of the time I don’t make it to the top of the stairs before I have to go back and check again. I get such a strong feeling – I feel sick, my stomach sinks and I feel like an invisible force is pushing me back into my bedroom.
Then it’s time to tackle downstairs.
I go into the kitchen to check that I haven’t left the back door unlocked (I probably haven’t unlocked the door that day, but you can never be too careful). I push repeatedly on the fridge and freezer doors, once again waiting for the green light that tells me the doors are firmly shut (using my eyes to see that the doors are shut is simply not enough). I’ll probably check the back door one more time, just in case.
Once I’ve gone through my routine (sometimes going back upstairs to check something, or going to the back door once again), it’s time for my confrontation with the front door. I push down firmly on the door handle, over and over again, repeatedly pushing down with all my weight and force. Sometimes a few seconds is enough. Sometimes the neighbours give me a look because I’ve been stood there for so long. Other than the idea of burning down the house, this is my biggest anxiety. Scenario after scenario race through my mind; flashes of every bad thing that could happen if I left the front door unlocked. Some are justified, some are far-fetched, and some (most, actually) are downright idiotic.
If I’m lucky, the routine ends here. I can walk away and forget about my compulsions. Forget about them, that is, until I get home and have to repeat most of the routine before I go to sleep.
More often than not, however, I have to fight the urge to run back to my house as I’m walking away from it. On more than once occasion I have gone back to check my hair straighteners aren’t plugged in, or to see if I’ve left the iron on, or the check the back door, making myself late for the bus, and waking up an entire new layer of my anxiety.
If I’m ever in charge of locking another door – my sister’s front door, or the cellar door at work – then my obsessive behaviour goes into overdrive. The very idea of accidentally leaving my sister’s door unlocked and risking her possessions or leaving the cellar door at work open and risking thousands of pounds of stock almost drives me to a panic attack. In cases like this I use extra force on the handle, pushing to the point of pain and leaving a red mark across my palm. My sister’s door handle has actually come loose; the metal no longer rests solidly on the wood, and it wobbles with every use.
What caused my compulsions? Is there a cause at all? I never used to have such strong urges to turn off taps or compulsions to check door handles. I sometimes wonder if my dad’s carelessness is to blame. Years of hearing drip, drip, drip because my dad left the bathroom tap running, and years of following him around the house to turn them off. It doesn’t make sense to most people. People who can turn the key and be satisfied that they’ve locked the door, or people who flip a switch and don’t have to stare intently at the wall. It’s difficult to explain or give a reason why (if there’s a reason at all). I’ve tried to explain to my boyfriend, who has been witness to my obsessive behaviour more than most, why I repetitively tap my bedside table (which lives on my left-hand side) with my left hand. I need everything to be focused on my left side or I feel off-balance. I get the same feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach as when faced with a lock or a running tap. Is it because I’m right-handed? I’ve often wondered if the constant use of my right hand has made my left feel neglected, and my brain is trying to make up for it.