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I came of age in the company of an enemy. Over the years, I made the enemy a friend, even if the relationship is still very much a love-hate one. My friend’s name is OCD: obsessive-compulsive disorder.
My relationship with OCD has improved to the extent that I have even thought of including it on my résumé. When I asked my husband for advice on this idea, his response was: “Uh … I wouldn’t if I were you.” So I didn’t, but I did jokingly mention it at a recent job interview. The response was one of amusement, but perhaps it didn’t do me any good.
OCD is a condition most people see as something to hide, for the simple reason that it falls under the category of “mental illness.” Admittedly, its sufferers indulge in obsessive, ritualistic behaviour, both internal and external.
I have known people to joke about having OCD, whether or not they actually do. Some go so far as to turn an acronym into an adjective: “Oh, I’m so OCD about such-and-such!”
While our obsessive and compulsive tendencies are all, no doubt, on a spectrum, diagnosable OCD is rarer.
I was 10 when I developed OCD. What began as a new, frightened awareness of death – really, a horrible case of anxiety – led to a number of compulsive behaviours. I flicked light switches on and off, tapped door frames, washed my hands until they were so dry they cracked and bled. And there were other, stranger things. When I walked, I had to have my arms bent at the elbows and all my fingers perfectly straight. One time, opening my family’s cutlery drawer, I noticed a scattering of stale crumbs, which I was forced to place one-by-one on my tongue before distributing them again in the drawer. One of the most consistent symptoms was counting, which persisted in my head as well as in my external rituals. There was always a special number that felt “safe.” For a while it was 4, but it changed to 5 after I thought about how a coffin has four corners and four sides.
I would feel specific urges when I became anxious, and couldn’t settle until I gave in and performed the ritual. It was a way of keeping control of the world when I felt my grasp slipping.
But regardless of all this, I have come to view my abnormal brain chemistry in a new light. I’m not saying these disturbed rituals are ordinary or healthy – far from it. When OCD intrudes negatively on a person’s life, the obvious solutions are therapy or medication. But there are benefits to having an OCD brain and personality type.
My obsessive nature led me to explore what would become lifelong passions. After taking out a library book on the Plantagenet kings and queens, I became fascinated by British royal history. I would sit in my bedroom drawing family trees, tracing the genealogical line from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. Soon, I was able to do it from memory. Then I invented my own monarchy, a line of kings and queens of Ireland dating back to the ninth century. I wrote their fictional biographies.
When I’d had enough of royalty, I looked to fictionalizing my own life. My family was so small; two brothers weren’t enough. I filled pages with lists of imaginary brothers and sisters, inventing full names and birth dates for them. They didn’t only exist on paper; on occasion I would speak to them. One day, I stood in my driveway, pretending to watch my younger sister ride her bicycle. I imagined in such precise detail that the memory feels like an image of her: a small girl with a blond ponytail and a blue gingham dress.
When I was 12, I completed my first novel, its second draft reaching 800 pages. This can be attributed, at least in part, to my OCD. My passions mirrored the unpleasant OCD rituals to which I was vulnerable; they gave me as great a sense of accomplishment as doing the rituals gave me relief.
I have learned to manage the urge to perform rituals, and my childhood OCD helped me nurture some very positive skills and abilities. For example, I can remember certain minute details, particularly to do with names or people. (Sometimes, I have to pretend I don’t remember something. Many people will forget that they’ve told you something, especially if it was in passing, and are surprised if you remember.)
I retain bits of dialogue from conversations that took place years ago. I can work for years on a single writing project, then edit it for several more years. Currently, I work as a freelance editor, and am well suited to this job for the very reason that I have some OCD. If an apostrophe has been forgotten, my skin crawls.
It’s true that the obsessive personality type can be difficult to live with: There have been many nights when I’ve kept my husband up till all hours while I ruminate over some dilemma or another. And we cannot just let things go – a perceived offence from another person must be dealt with in order to be dismissed. But OCD, once my enemy, has become an accepted part of who I am. I am proud of my unique, flawed, eccentric, but ultimately good personality. And for those with OCD who see themselves as simply suffering from an illness, I hope they can start to acknowledge that there is good in it, too.
Ellen MacDonald-Kramer is a Canadian living in London