When I hear people say, “Don’t be so OCD” just because someone is organizing the things on their desk, it makes me sad. I’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and it isn’t a joke to me. For me it’s a fear of germs that prevents me from focusing on anything other than washing my hands. But in the last year I’ve finally gotten help to control it.
Things started in seventh grade when we learned about germs in health class. Our textbook said that germs are everywhere and that they can be easily passed from person to person, person to object, and object to person. This scared me. How had I not known about this?
Before I had learned about germs, I hadn’t made distinctions between what was clean and what was dirty, unless it was something obvious like garbage. But this planted a seed in my head. Maybe the things around me aren’t clean.
I started thinking about germs hundreds of times a day. When I would touch something like the TV remote, light switches or my phone, I added them to my mental list of dirty things. I felt like the germs were clinging to my hands and would spread to the rest of my body.
The bathroom sink pulled me toward it like a magnet. As I walked to the bathroom I’d wish that I didn’t feel this need to wash my hands. But as I got closer the need to wash my hands overpowered any other thoughts. Once my hands were under the warm running water, I’d pump the liquid soap onto them, rub it all over and scrub. But as good as I felt after washing my hands, having to do it so often kind of scared me. Was there something wrong with me?
I also became obsessed with organization. When I helped set the table I had to make the forks and knives parallel to each other. And each place setting had to be identical to the one across from it. Then I would line up the chairs. If I noticed a mistake (even a fraction of an inch), I would correct it before sitting. I didn’t know why I had to do this, but it was like an itch that wouldn’t go away.
I didn’t want my parents to know how bad it was
After a few weeks my parents noticed my handwashing and obsession with organizing. When they asked me why I did it I shrugged and told them that I didn’t know. I was afraid to tell them the truth because I thought that they would think something was wrong with me. I hoped it would just go away.
There were times I didn’t wash my hands and lived with them feeling tainted because my parents had just asked me about my handwashing. I didn’t want my parents to start asking me more questions. When I didn’t wash my hands it felt like they were covered with a layer of dust. Thinking about it sometimes literally made it hard to breathe. But other times I couldn’t not wash my hands even though I knew my parents might question me. Every day I had to choose between being clean and risk getting asked about my obsession or avoiding their questions and being dirty. I felt stuck.
The weird thing about my OCD was that it didn’t bother me at school, which was good because I didn’t want to attract more attention to my handwashing. But as soon as I got home I immediately had to wash off all the dirt that had accumulated on me during the day.
After a few months my obsession with staying clean became mind-boggling to my parents and sister. Instead of accepting my “I don’t know” explanations, they started asking if there was something they could do to help. I always said that I was fine. I felt like I had to get this under control and wash my hands less or my parents would force me to get help.
I had no idea what was happening with me, but there were hints on the television show Monk, which I liked. The lead character Adrian Monk is a police consultant who has OCD and on the show is depicted as having an over-the-top fear of germs (and pretty much everything else). I recognized some of his OCD tendencies in myself, but I refused to believe that I also had OCD because I didn’t want to be like him.
To try and help me, my dad told me that although he loved being clean as a kid, one day he realized how fun it was to play in the dirt, as if these were magic words that could change my thinking.
I felt like I was a burden. Our water bill increased about $100 a month. My parents would always say, “It’s not just because of you,” but I knew it was. I washed my hands more than 30 times a day and most of those were unnecessary, like after I got out of the shower, because I thought the shower handles were dirty.
I got professional help
One day in ninth grade, my parents said that I would be seeing a psychiatrist because they saw that my obsessive thoughts weren’t going away. I was surprised. We hadn’t talked about a psychiatrist and my parents thinking I needed professional assistance made me feel like there was something wrong with me.
Before my first session with my psychiatrist, I was anxious because I thought she would think that I was a freak. She asked me questions about how I would feel if I was asked to touch something dirty, like the garbage bin. I told her that I would feel like the germs were on my hand, and that the only way to get them off would be to wash my hands. I sat in that chair answering questions for an hour. At the end it was official: I had obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I was scared to be diagnosed with a medical problem. I thought I would turn out like Monk, scared of everything and a burden to everyone. But I also realized that it was exactly what I needed to hear. In a weird way, it made me happy to be diagnosed because if doctors had heard of this maybe there was a treatment. The psychiatrist prescribed Zoloft, which is an antidepressant sometimes used to treat OCD. I thought it was annoying that I had to take pills twice a day, but I’d rather take pills than constantly feel like I had to wash my hands. The psychiatrist wanted me to come back in a few months to see how I was doing.
But things didn’t change. My mom suggested I try a form of meditating. Whenever I felt the need to wash my hands I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to wash them, because I was OK. As much as I wanted to believe what I was telling myself, it didn’t help.
Half a year after I started seeing the psychiatrist (and a few increases in the dosage of my medication), I was still obsessing about germs and washing my hands dozens of times a day. I was so angry that there was no change. All the meds seemed to do was make me tired. I felt like I was being cheated out of the help I needed.
In 10th grade things got even worse. I took my first AP class, and it was incredibly difficult. The pressure made me even more stressed and I became depressed. And I was so tired because of the meds that I even fell asleep in class a couple of times.
I felt like I couldn’t win. I had a mental disorder to deal with, and I had this class that was giving me hell. Every few months when I would have my check-up with my psychiatrist, she would just say that they hadn’t found the right dosage of the medication. It was a constant annoyance, like a fly buzzing around my head.
And then came junior year. At the time when my classmates and I were starting to think about college, I felt like I was cursed with OCD.
I couldn’t study as hard as other students because I was always focused on how clean things were. I’d be reading and then suddenly it was like I could see the germs on my binder and then I couldn’t focus on what I was reading. I would add the binder to my mental list of things that are dirty, and I would know not to let that touch anything or else whatever it touched would get dirty. So instead of studying I was obsessed with how dirty my stuff was. In class the next day, I would make mistakes on tests because the day before I had spent so much time thinking about germs. I didn’t tell my teachers because I didn’t want to get singled out.
With all that stress, I washed my hands even more. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to function in college, and it made me think that I wouldn’t go at all. My parents and sister tried to help me by telling me to focus on something else that wasn’t related to cleanliness because the pills weren’t working work. But I was skeptical. If the medication hadn’t helped me, then how could their advice to just think of something else help?
The medication finally worked
In second semester of junior year, after about two years of trying, we finally figured out the right dose for my medication. One day I went to wash my hands after moving from doing homework on my bed to the computer, but I stopped myself. Was it really necessary to wash my hands?
It was a question that I had asked myself thousands of times, and the answer was always “yes.” To my surprise, this time the answer was “no.”
It was like a switch flipped inside my head, and I realized how foolish it was for me to always feel the need to wash my hands. I imagined that all of the things I had thought were dirty, like the TV remote, the light switches and my binders, were being crossed off my mental list of dirty things. I was free, and I knew that life would start to get better for me. I told my parents and sister and they were cheering for me. This was just the first moment, but I realized that I was over my obsession with germs, and that I could function like a normal person for the first time in years.
Since we figured out the right amount of medication, my life has been great (except for the times I fall asleep in class). I haven’t had to worry about washing my face after a dog licked it, which is important because I get paid to walk dogs (and they like to lick me), or washing my hands when I bring in the trash cans for my neighbor. Now, I wash my hands only when it’s necessary, like after I go to the bathroom, and the water bill has dropped down to what it was before all this started.
I wanted to write this story to show people that OCD isn’t a joke, but that you can get help for it. Now that my OCD is under control, I’m looking forward to going to college and so relieved that I can finally live a normal life.
Where to turn
If you are having any kind of mental health problem and need someone to talk to, there is help. Counseling and other services are available.
To find them:
Dial 2-1-1 to find social services in Los Angeles County, including counseling and mental health centers. Or search online at www.healthycity.org.
Call Teen Line at 1-800-TLC-TEEN (1-800-852-8336) to speak with a trained teen peer counselor from 6 to 10 p.m. or go to www.teenlineonline.org.
Go to the ReachOut forums, a website for people ages 14-25 to talk about what’s on their mind, at www.ReachOutHere.com.
This special package is funded by the Mental Health Services Act, Prop. 63