OCD took my relationships and career. Listen to my warning | Mental Health Perspectives

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

OCD took my relationships and career. Listen to my warning | Mental Health Perspectives
OCD took my relationships and career. Listen to my warning | Mental Health Perspectives

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Roughly 30 years ago, when I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I reacted with robust denial. Raised to be a high achiever, I hadn’t the slightest room in my life for a mental disorder. So I minimized the OCD to myself and to others.

Boy oh boy, was that the wrong approach. But at long last, I’ve come to terms with having a mental illness, and my reward is seeing the chance of a happier existence ahead.

In fairness, it’s hard to recognize a condition that invades your mind and thoughts and pushes you to act urgently on constant obsessions. In my case, I needed to check everything under the sun. A trip to the grocery store meant checking and rechecking that I’d been charged accurately and had received the right change. Doing the laundry meant checking and rechecking that I really had poured in the detergent and set the dials correctly.

The Seattle Times Mental Health Project features contributed essays from members of our community as part of our Mental Health Perspectives guest column. We invite individuals with personal stories related to mental health to share their experiences that reflect broader issues and concerns in the field. If you would like to inquire about submitting a column, please email [email protected].

Above all, I was deathly afraid of making a mistake in the freelance newspaper and magazine articles I wrote, so I repeatedly checked the facts, the quotes, everything. Because of my OCD, which I long ago named Fred, I was convinced I was getting something wrong, and equally convinced that the results would be catastrophic.

All that checking and fear meant I couldn’t produce articles quickly, so my planned journalism career fizzled. The part-time jobs I took to supplement my writing income also required constant checking, whether I was shelving books at the library or marking down shoes at Sears. Fred is no snob about the kind of employment he impacts.

Through my 30s and 40s I essentially worked three jobs — the part-time one, the writing I could manage, and placating my OCD, Fred. I was poor, and too wrapped up in basic survival to step back and really see what was happening: not only a dashed career, but a level of poverty that rendered relationships difficult and guaranteed I’d never be able to have a child.

OCD is an illness that demands much time and effort. It took me ages to absorb that Fred is a big, old liar, and an extremely persuasive one. Having Fred is like living with P.T. Barnum in my head. I now recognize the minimizing, the survival dog paddling, the junctures where I should’ve made different decisions. At 59 years old, I certainly have the benefit of hindsight, and it’s motivated the heck out of me to use my experience to advise others to face your conditions, and fight back.

If you’re wondering, I was in therapy during some of these years. But I tended to compartmentalize the sessions and the homework, viewing them as tasks to check off rather than as steppingstones to a better life. I missed the big picture.

Now I accept that OCD is a part of me. I approach therapy as a pragmatic means to learn the right tools to cope. And I’m more willing to use what I learned in therapy on a regular basis, rather than in a scattershot fashion.

The best tool I’ve used for my OCD is exposure and response prevention, whereby you don’t perform the compulsion that allays your anxiety — i.e. checking — and instead sit with the sky-high anxiety for an unknown length of time.

Who wouldn’t sign up for that kind of constant distress? I get it. Whatever your mental disorder, the treatments aren’t a treat. But the alternative of continuing to live under the control of your illness is often untenable. If you get the chance to fight your disorder, take it. Throw everything you have against it.

And hey, if you’re in my age range, it’s not too late. You, too, can strive to grab your life from your own Fred’s grubby clutches.

Leslie Robinson’s humorous memoir is called “Fun With Fred: Life With OCD and Hoarding.” She lives in Shoreline.

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