Content warning: This article describes mental health and OCD symptoms in detail. It speaks only to the author's personal experience of the condition.
One of the most cursed ice-breaker prompts is being asked to reveal a 'fun fact' about yourself. I was sitting in a Pickling 101 workshop the last time I was asked this, and fell back on an old classic: I'm terrified of door handles. Growing up, I thought that this was just one of my weird quirks. I had no idea that it would be so key in helping me get a life-changing diagnosis two years ago.
I've been in therapy for most of my life. Even when my anxiety isn't too bad, I've always found therapy to be great; somewhere to vent, brainstorm coping strategies and have a space to work on myself. In 2018, I started seeing a new therapist and just by coincidence, I mentioned my fear of door handles. He stopped scribbling on his notebook and asked me what was behind that fear. "I don't know, germs or something? Like if I touch them, I'll immediately get sick. I've trained myself pretty well to operate all doors and buttons with my elbows," I said, having a laugh. He didn't laugh back; instead printing off a five-page quiz for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Which, not to brag, I completely aced. And there was my new diagnosis.
OCD tends to be wildly misunderstood, mainly due to stigma; or using the illness as a synonym for 'perfectionist' or 'neat freak'. People still use phrases like "I'm so OCD about this", or assume the worst it gets is needing to perfectly straighten out your bed sheets in the morning. In reality, OCD significantly impacts your daily life, with symptoms varying from the disruption caused by endlessly checking electrical switches and standing over a sink to re-wash already clean hands, to violent and distressing daydreams.
According to headspace, OCD is a "condition that involves obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions include unwanted ideas, thoughts, images or urges. Compulsions, also called rituals, are actions the person feels they must perform repeatedly."
Being diagnosed with OCD changed everything for me. I thought my intrusive thoughts and rituals were just me being crazy; that I was the only one who experienced them. I thought the 20 minutes of standing in front of my house, in tears, checking and rechecking the front door lock would just be a feature of my life forever.
Armed with my new diagnosis, I began writing in my phone's notes app every time I had a compulsion or obsession, so my therapist could make a plan for me. It was then that I realised how OCD had taken over my life. I'd spend nearly 25 minutes in a Liquorland refusing to pick up a bottle of wine because my brain had me convinced one of them was poisoned. I'd sit outside my house in my car and refuse to get out, because I was too scared the handbrake would release itself if I did. I'd be way too anxious to share drinks, worried I'd get ridiculously sick from someone's germs. I'd wash my hands upwards of 40 times a day, and only be able to use one cup in the whole house; the only one I didn't think had cyanide in it.
Writing them all down was an intense experience. OCD has a way of making you feel like these thoughts are completely sane, but as you start to write them down or speak about them, you can realise how irrational they are. This can lead to a lot of guilt and shame, and make people with OCD feel too scared to talk about their experiences.
When people speak about OCD meaning things need to be ordered, they might not understand that for some, things need to be ordered so immaculately that you think you're a horrible person if you can't get it right. Your brain will tell you to do and re-do things over and over again, even if you see that you've already gotten it right. It can make a task that seems easy to most people feel like the most daunting and distressing thing imaginable.
As with a lot of mental illnesses, as soon as I had language for what was going on, things already started to feel less terrifying. I would tell myself, "okay, there's an intrusive thought," or "that's just my compulsions speaking". Being able to name my symptoms has meant being able to confront them head-on, with far less fear than before.
As I'm currently going through 'exposure therapy' (exposing me to my OCD fears, which is exactly as heinous as it sounds), I've been able to have open conversations with my family and pals about why I do certain things, instead of making up weird lies and excuses. Instead of saying, "yes you can have a sip of my wine, and you can actually finish it and never give it back because I literally just quit drinking right now!" I can feel more comfortable saying, "I don't really love to share drinks because I've got OCD." Sometimes it opens an important dialogue, or sometimes people just shrug and choose not to ask any prying questions. Opening up to my friends about my OCD has also helped me connect with other people who have similar symptoms, and we get to hold each other through the scariest parts.
Luckily, OCD responds pretty well to therapy and medication, but it's still a long road. I've had years of therapy, but while writing this story I still got up to check that I properly turned the stove about 13 times. I also regularly jump out of bed in the middle of the night to check if the back door is locked, and there are certain symptoms I might live with for a really long time. But knowledge of what I'm experiencing – borne of my diagnosis – has been powerful in combatting my internalised stigma; allowing me to forgive myself a lot more easily when I take twice as long to get anything done.
But seriously, door handles can still fuck off.