Habit and routine have an unbelievable power to destroy.—Henri de Lubac
I’m so tired, I thought. If I just lay here, I’ll forget about it and fall asleep eventually… Won’t I? Yeah. Of course. Right? I’d been having this conversation with myself for at least thirty minutes, and no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I would fall asleep if I just ignored the problem, I knew very well that this was not so. I knew that in just a minute, I would throw the covers off and go back into the living room. I would walk over to the front door and check the lock—counting three times in my head and three out loud—and only then could I lie back down and go to sleep having failed yet again at my own version of behavior modification therapy.
This is not a new problem. Well, that’s not exactly true; the counting the locks thing is relatively new. I only developed that particular tic after we moved into our current apartment, but I’ve been dealing with similar problems since at least age four or five. I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD; luckily, it isn’t nearly as severe as it could be. Take the television show Monk and its title character, for example. Adrian Monk suffers from OCD so acutely at the beginning of the series that he has lost his job as a police officer and doesn’t leave his home for three years. When he does go out, he is at the center of his own personal hell. Everything outside of his well-maintained apartment is something he must touch, count, or of which he must be afraid. Fortunately, nowhere near all the people with OCD are as bad as this. You probably know more than one person with it right now and don’t even realize it. Most of us learn quickly to fly under the radar by hiding as many of our weird compulsions and habits as is physically possible. After all, we are fully aware of how bizarre and nonsensical the things we think and do are, but that is precisely what makes our hells that much worse: we know. We know, and we can’t do a damned thing about it.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is declared actual disorder or just a personality quirk based primarily on how much time is consumed daily with counting and sorting and worrying about your counting and sorting (or whatever your particular demons happen to be) and also on how much distress they cause you on a regular basis. The Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale is one of the main tests used to determine this, but usually only if you already are fairly certain you have OCD. (There are several others that target specific obsessions and compulsive behaviors, but they’re a bit less reputable and don’t generally show up in actual diagnoses. Those of us with the disorder take them over and over again. There isn’t a question on the Yale-Brown about how much time you spend diagnosing yourself and how much distress that causes, but there probably should be.) It asks things like “How much control do you have over your obsessions/compulsions?” and “How much effort do you make to resist them?” One online version of the test misspells the word obsessions as obsessins, which I imagine causes those among us with scrupulosity (a religiously-based form of OCD) no end of anxiety, not to mention those of us for whom spelling and grammar are life and death issues.
The answers break down broadly into five categories ranging from “actually, it doesn’t bother me” to “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” (loosely translated, of course). You add them up at the end, and this is supposed to tell you, basically, whether or not you’re crazy enough to need professional help. Think of it as the sort of quiz you’d find in a Cosmo-type magazine about cleaning products:
0-7 You are fairly normal. Yeah, you might like your towels folded a certain way, but it’s cool. (Yale-Brown: sub-clinical)
8-15 You’re a tiny bit strange about how your stuff is. Your friends may or may not pick on you about how clean you keep your kitchen, but again, it’s cool. (Yale-Brown: mild)
16-23 You’re the one who yelled at someone for not using a coaster at last year’s Christmas party. If you think you’re getting on too many people’s nerves, try behavior modification, maybe. (Yale-Brown: moderate)
24-31 You need help. Stop counting the pages in this magazine, and go look up a therapist ASAP. You’ll be putting their kids through braces and college (and possibly paying for their weddings). (Yale-Brown: severe)
32-40 How long has it been since you left your house? (Yale-Brown: extreme)
To put my own disorder into perspective, I have taken this test multiple times, both before and after meds and on good and bad days, and I have never—not even once—scored less than 30.
My OCD and I have a strange relationship. On one hand, I can’t say that cleanliness and organization are bad things or that they haven’t helped me out on various occasions. On the other hand, refolding clothes at three a.m. is not a hobby I would have chosen. Many, many times I have been asked what it’s like when my particular insanity kicks in, and many, many times I have found no way to explain it clearly. The closest I have ever gotten is to say that it feels like my brain is being shaken, rattled and bounced off my skull until I want to rip it out, look it in the eye and ask just what the hell it thinks it’s doing.