When I was in kindergarten, my teacher once commented to my parents that I was “very mathematical” as she watched me take out a toy bin every day and line up whatever toys I happened to be playing with in rows from tallest to smallest. I was very neat about it, and spent most of my time fixing the position of my toys rather than playing with them. In fact, I always lined up my toys before I began to play with them. It took a lot of time, and sometimes I would be upset because I wouldn’t have time to play make-believe before I had to move on to the next daily activity, but it just felt right to line up the toys first.
At home I did the same thing. I would line up all my toy animals, from tallest to smallest, in a circle around me or in rows. After I had completed lining up the animals, I would be ready to play with them. When I put my toys away, I took a long time, because I had to put them back one at a time, in a specific order. The biggest animals went first, and the smallest animals went last. If I didn’t do this, it felt wrong. If I missed an animal, I had to take out the other animals that came before it, and put them all back again, in the proper order this time.
As I child, I never really reflected much on my own behaviour. It was just the way I played with my toys. Today, I look back at these early memories and think “aha, another ritual.”
My parents would watch me doing these repetitive things, and joke that I had Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Little did they know that they were pretty much right on target.
The first time I got in trouble for a noticeable compulsion was when my dad asked me one day why I was touching the corners of the walls.
I stopped what I was doing, and sure enough, I was touching the corner of the wall. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I shrugged and said “I don’t know” and my dad said, “Okay, well, stop.”
It should have been easy, but it wasn’t. When my dad told me to stop, my chest tightened and I touched the wall again. My dad grew angry and told me to stop again. I was torn between the need to obey my parents and a need, abruptly entering my awareness, to touch the wall.
I was scared that my dad was going to get angrier, but a part of me was urging me to touch the wall. I didn’t want to touch it, I wanted to walk away, but I lingered in the hallway. Once my dad was out of sight, I touched the wall again, a few times, until I felt relief.
I discovered most of my compulsions this way. Someone would interrupt me while I was in the middle of completing one, or they would ask me why I felt the need to do what I was doing, and I would realize that I couldn’t stop. It took me over an hour to get to bed, which I got into a lot of trouble for, because every night I would have to position the blankets and my pillows in just the right way or I just couldn’t get to sleep. I would remain anxious until my bed was “just right.” I had to say goodnight to all of my stuffed animals, because something inside me said that if I didn’t they wouldn’t think I loved them, and I did this in a very specific order and made sure to distribute affection equally. I also had to say goodnight to an angel in my room, and I could not go to bed without saying goodnight to her either twice, five times, or eight times. I would have to look at her and then look away, and then look back again while whispering “good and love” under my breath. If an “evil thought” entered my mind, I would have to start over, to avoid angering the angel. Sounds exhausting, right? Trust me, it was. Lots of people seem to believe that Obsessive-compulsive disorder is all about being neat and tidy and enjoying cleaning. It’s not.
I loathed having to do these things. As I grew older, I gained more rituals! My parents noticed a lot of them, and were annoyed that I couldn’t just control myself and stop “acting weird.” I wished that I could. I wished that I didn’t feel anxiety when I didn’t complete them. But the worst symptom I have ever experienced because of Obsessive-compulsive disorder is intrusive thoughts.