School OCD: Portraits of Perfectionism at an Early Age

School OCD in Childhood: Portraits of Perfectionism at an Early Age

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

My parents used to say that the only obligation I had in life as a child was to study. They cleaved to this premise because, as children, they had to stop their education before the sixth grade to start working very early to help support their family. In turn, they vehemently wanted both my sister and me to have an excellent education. For this, they spared no efforts so that the two of us did our best to achieve excellence in school activities and exams. This attitude mostly impacted me, as I have a very sensitive personality, am a bit of a perfectionist, and am attentive to details.

My study routine started very early each day. My mother used to wake me up at 6 a.m. with the spirit and voice of an army general so that I wouldn’t be late for class.

My backpack, books, notebooks, and pencil case were spotless. Everything was very neat, clean, and organized. My mother used to say that a study table should have two characteristics: it should be clean and orderly. For this reason, she made a point of covering my school supplies with decorated plastic and even going so far as ironing the pages of notebooks and books on the rare occasion that they were crumpled.

Needless to say, my uniform, hair, and nails were also impeccable as they were all basically an extension of my school outfit.

On days of intense rain, I wore a huge raincoat that covered me from head to toe so as not to damage the precious uniform, much less the backpack that contained and protected the sacred school books.

School OCD

In the classroom, there were more challenges; I wasn’t good at math. The equations and calculations were torturous for me. I just couldn’t understand all those numbers and arithmetic operations. And that’s when things got complicated at home: I would study for hours all the exercises and multiplication tables, reviewing each mathematical operation explained in class, under the austere supervision, and judgment, of my parents.

My mother used to explain the multiplication table to me by screaming, until one time, when I was seven years old, because I got the answer wrong for a calculation, she threw a chair at my head. Fortunately, the chair crashed to the floor and missed me. I was speechless and continued studying.

When I look back, I see a child who is scared, and depressed. A child whose mother suffered from emotional instability, as well as episodes of depression, which ended up being triggers for an upbringing based on shouting, beating, and demands for impeccable school performance.

Today I still bear the marks of an energetic childhood, and I confess that my inner child is wounded. However, I have sought psychotherapeutic treatment again and have learned to self-regulate, to reflect on my soul aches and to manage my emotions. If I were to meet Daniela from the past, that shy and insecure child, I would hug her and tell her that one day everything would be all right, and that she would still be a very happy person.

As I grew up, I felt my routine flood with numbers. I couldn’t stop thinking about them anymore. The multiplication table became the symphony of my life. I no longer needed my parents’ supervision so much, as I knew exactly what to do when I got home from class. Review each lesson, with an emphasis on arithmetic calculations. I was encouraged by my parents to develop mental calculations, and to abstain from electronic calculators as much as possible.

Once, my father was explaining a numerical calculation to me, and he didn’t like my handwriting. According to him, my teacher would fail my homework because she wouldn’t be able to see my cursive handwriting because it was so small. As a result, my father made me erase the entire lesson from the notebook and force the pencil into my hand so that I could make larger handwriting that was visible to the teacher’s eyes. That day, I cried because I felt pain. However, my tears weren’t as audible as my father’s stern voice.

After modifying all the handwriting and redoing all the math exercises, I got full marks on my homework. The same did not happen with the final exam, leaving my father devastated.

I showed him the result of my math exam: 8.5. He took the test from my hand and, with a melancholy face, said: “It could have been 10”. I remember grabbing that test as if it were the 3rd place trophy in a competition—with guilt and disappointment.

But the worst was to come: the fearsome fifth grade and the transition from a routine with only one teacher in the classroom to the administration of new curricular subjects taught by different teachers in 50-minute classes. How could I copy the material from the blackboard, understand the lessons, clear up doubts with the teachers, and still have impeccable handwriting in 50 minutes, with teachers changing classrooms every hour and so many different subjects, all in one day? That’s why obsessive-compulsive disorder emerged in my routine at such a young age—at 10 years old.

School OCD

 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in my School Routine: The Endless Pursuit of Excellence

At the time when I was in elementary school, there was too much concern on the part of parents with the transition of their children from the 4th grade to the 5th grade. The reason was that in the 4th grade, there was only one teacher in the classroom who provided clear assessment procedures, methodology, and a certain number of assignments. Already in the 5th grade, the child would have at least seven different teachers, one for each subject. Among the new challenges, the student would have to: bring the material planned for each class; understand the continuity of subjects, even after a few days without contact with the teacher and the subject; and adapt to the way of teaching of each educator.

I, who was already afraid and difficult in mathematics, found myself in a situation of extreme concern and self-demand for ever higher grades. But this time, having to get used to the new educators and the new teaching methodology.

In my mind, the obsession with mathematics was growing every day. The fear of not being able to keep up with the new school year, linked to the new arithmetic content, made me develop a series of behaviors in order to alleviate the tension. That’s when I decided that I wouldn’t go into school holidays; I would use the end-of-year break to study and review all the 4th grade content in order to be able to handle the new 5th grade math lessons.

My compulsive study routine began in December, 1992 and ended in March, 1993. They were the most intense and tense months of my life.

 

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I cannot say that I started or ended my day studying. I simply decided that I would not sleep anymore or eat, as this would interfere with my study routine. It was as if all the time and energy in a day were invested in study, effort, and dedication to mathematics.

And so, my quest for perfection began.

I removed all of the fourth grade school year’s notebooks and went over each arithmetic assignment again, one by one, in ever-tinier handwriting until only I could read it. As long as I could analyze every equation, commit every multiplication table to memory, and double-check every calculus result, I didn’t give a damn about how I wrote. After completing a notebook full of calculations, I would begin writing more and more until, eventually, I was dissatisfied and found a way to look up the equations I would need to know in fifth grade.

I remember days when I didn’t even take a shower because, instead of doing my personal hygiene, I would have been studying the new arithmetic calculations.

School OCD

Whenever my mother tried to intervene by taking the notebooks away from me, I would scream and say how much I wanted to die rather than have my lessons taken away from me.

My condition was deteriorating over time. I weighed as much as a seven-year-old at the age of ten due to lack of sleep and poor eating. My thinking was still weak, even though I was taking vitamins to treat my body. Up until the day my mother brought me to see my teacher at school.

My teacher and the other students who had stayed for the exam were together at the moment.

She smiled when she saw me and told me to relax and enjoy the summer because it was my school holiday. She told my mother that I was depressed and advised her to get help from a psychotherapist. I had my first visit with a child psychologist the same week.

 

School Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment

My mother got an anamnesis before I had my first appointment with the psychologist so that she could tell the therapist everything about my life. The expert said that I was experiencing depressive episodes as a result of school-related obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition in which a person experiences feelings and compulsive thoughts brought on by worry related to school.

My mother was surprised by the diagnosis, as she didn’t know that children could develop OCD, much less in a school environment. However, during the sessions with the psychologist, she recognized that both she and my father demanded high academic performance from me. It was a way for her to overcompensate for not being able to complete her academic studies.

This way  neither she nor my father could resist taking me to a psychotherapist, since I was losing a lot of weight and due to lack of sleep, I could no longer concentrate on school activities. They feared for my physical and mental health, because as well as OCD I was also developing episodes of depression. My parents didn’t stop being authoritarian at home, but when it came to my studies, they preferred to talk rather than shout. They understood that the way they treated me would only make me more tense and therefore less productive at school. I continued to get good grades, but without the pressure of before.

Throughout the sessions, my therapist helped me to gradually realize that I was a child with a complete life ahead of me, not simply a life at school; a life filled with family, friends, enjoyment, and leisure. In addition, if I kept up my current study habits, I wouldn’t be able to study or do anything else because of my health.

The therapeutic work was done together with the family and the school:

  • On the first day of class, I sat at the first desk in order to be able to monitor the teachers more closely and, with that, reduce anxiety.
  • I wouldn’t need to copy the entire lesson from the board quickly, because the teacher would let me photocopy the texts so I could take them home, if needed.
  • My parents would no longer supervise my lessons, leaving me to clarify my doubts with a tutor. Yes, my parents put me in math support classes, and that helped me have limited study hours outside of my routine at home.
  • I started studying in a group with my classmates for tests. It made me realize that it wasn’t just me who got nervous during test week. In addition, we exchanged ideas and clarified doubts about each other, which helped to reduce anxiety about the exercises.
  • At home, I started to help my mother with the housework. This diverted my focus from thinking about studying as soon as I got home. I also started to do more family activities like going to the movies, shopping, and walking outdoors.

The school year passed, and I managed to pass to the sixth grade! I continued in therapy, and during the sessions I related every challenge, every small achievement, and every fear. I was no longer distressed, as I now had the support I needed at home, at school, and with my peers.

I understood that what defines me is not my school grades but my effort and dedication in everything I do. Not just at school, but in all of life!

With regard to school OCD, this is a disorder that was part of my childhood, and because of therapy it didn’t affect my performance in high school or at university. Currently at work I try to focus on my own task rather than comparing myself to others or demanding more and more from my performance. I’ve learned to trust in my potential and I believe that each of us has a different talent, and that’s what makes us so unique and great at what we do.

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Daniela Silva is a Brazilian Education and Mental Health Writer living with her husband in Goiânia (GO), Brazil. She holds a BA in Pedagogy, an MBA in Personnel Management, and a postgraduate certificate in Neuroeducation. Working as an educational writer since 2012, Ms. Silva is a regular contributor to several educational websites, such as OC87 Recovery Diaries, The Ability Toolbox, 4W, Inspire the Mind, Psychreg, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, New Heights Educational Group, and Texas HomeSchool Coalition.