When most TV shows or movies portray a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), that character can usually be found washing their hands for 15 minutes straight or flipping a light switch on and off five times before leaving a room. And to most of the world, that’s what OCD is.
But there’s a different kind, a kind you can’t really see unless you’re inside my head — where everything has a place. My life and my memories are in those stacking cubes that freshmen buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Each cube is stacked perfectly on top of the other, each row and column perfectly aligned.
Everything I’ve been through, every jarring experience, every tiny little piece of trauma is compulsively shelved away. Sometimes I’ll pull a cube out and face what’s inside; try and process it all; make a little progress; and then I’ll push it back in. But it’s a fragile sense of order, and it’s all too easy to break.
Do you remember when you were seven and your parents broke a mug? It wasn’t your favorite mug. It wasn’t particularly special. It was just a plain mug with nothing on it. But it just fell one morning in the kitchen and crashed to the floor and shattered.
I’d come running, no matter where I was or what I was doing, and I’d start sobbing. No one really understood why, least of all me, but I just wouldn’t stop crying. My mom would bring out a mug exactly like that one from the back of the cabinet and replace the broken one. But something still hurt.
Thirteen years later, I think I finally understand why. The mug, you see, was part of my tiny six-year-old routine. And when it broke, the order in my tiny six-year-old brain crumbled, and I responded to that the only way I could.
Ten years later, I’m in high school. Because of how ruthlessly cutthroat the culture at my high school was and how incredibly high the expectations on us were, my anxiety had spent the past few years growing a lot worse.
In high school, we used to have cumulative final exams every two years, and we’d have this thing called a “study leave” — a month to study for two years’ worth of material. We’d have zero contact with the world outside our houses, because everyone else we knew would be home studying nonstop.
As for me, I would break down constantly. Every time I did, I’d start feeling like there was something crushing my head and getting hopelessly overwhelmed. My closet was filled with at least 15 giant binders and notebooks, and I’d sit on the floor in front of it and pull everything out and throw it all in a circle around me.
Three hours later, I would have rearranged my entire bedroom. At first, my mom would try to stop me. She’d try to explain to me that I was wasting my time and that I should focus on studying and she would take care of the mess I had just made on the floor. But that would just make me hyperventilate more.
Eventually, she learned that it was a better idea to just leave me to it. Putting everything back on the shelves, piece by piece, I would start to feel like I was piecing myself back together. I’d calm down, I’d get back to work and then the next day it would happen again.
My OCD is very strange. I don’t need to wash my hands for 15 minutes. I don’t need to flip the light switch five times. But when a friend accidentally stepped on a container of marinara sauce on the floor and it exploded on my laundry hamper, I shut down. I stayed up till 4 a.m. washing the hamper clean in the shower. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop, I just had to make it go back to normal.
When things like this happen, all the stacking cubes in my mind lose their balance. It’s no longer as easy to just push them back in their place because I’ve forgotten where they’re supposed to be. And then I stop functioning until I can fix my surroundings — and fix what fell apart in my mind.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better at dealing with it. But it still lingers. Writing this article, I noticed that my first few paragraphs were all exactly four lines long on my Google Doc. So as I continued, I made every paragraph four lines.
It looked perfect, and it eased my flaring anxiety for just a second — until I realized that the structure actually made no sense that way. The article wasn’t really flowing. Ideas were being broken up in weird ways. So I fixed it. It doesn’t look as good anymore. It feels kind of imperfect. But I hear sometimes things are better that way.