One of These Things is Not Like the Others: My Surprising OCD Diagnosis and How It’s Helped Me Heal
by Jenny Vanderberg
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It was 6:00 pm in October, but already black as night. Granted, it was always pretty dark in the laundry room we had, “remodeled” into a makeshift office. I would prop my laptop on the stackable washer and dryer in our second-floor, two-bedroom apartment during the day and attempt to keep some kind of life in my voice for the twenty-three faces in squares that filled my screen every forty-two minutes until the end of the “school day.” At the end of the day, we all closed our screens and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now we could stop pretending.
I wanted desperately to provide some structure of normalcy to my students’ days that, at the peak of the pandemic, felt endless and frightening. But the truth for all of us simmered just under the surface. This wasn’t how I wanted to teach, and this wasn’t how they wanted to learn. We were all scared, confused and very, very tired. As much as we missed each other, shutting off the screen felt like a relief. As someone who has suffered from health and illness related to anxiety since childhood, a global pandemic seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Everything felt dangerous and scarce. Groceries. Saying hello to your neighbor. A return to a classroom was a hopeless possibility.
I sat in my doctor’s office a week before, masked and wary, answering the questions she was required by law to ask patients after they say that they are having a hard time being hopeful, sleeping, or pervasively feeling as though they might never be okay ever again. It had been an undercurrent of anxiety I had thus far been able to manage on my own without any interventions. The onset of the pandemic blew all of my limited coping skills out of the water. I saw disaster everywhere.
The doctor reluctantly offered medication, which I declined, although I am in full support of those who require/opt-in for medication, my particular body chemistry has never taken kindly to medical modifications and I’d prefer my own, familiar sense of malaise over nausea and vomiting any day. The doctor then wrote me a prescription for therapy.
Therapy in the time of Covid felt like plugging holes in the Titanic. Sure, we’re all going to die but we might as well learn how to feel our feelings on the way down. My insurance would cover six sessions, and I was expected to Facetime this therapist once a week in the hope that I could learn to redirect the difficult emotions I was experiencing. After thirty-six years, I was now expected to learn how to talk about why I wake up in the morning with a heart already pounding, or that a single sneeze emitted from one of my children would send me running for the thermometer.
I had pulled fourteen-hour work days since I could remember and I still feel worthless and lazy. These have been truths for as long as I could remember, built into my tapestry. But the forced slow down caused by the pandemic gave space for me to face them for the first time. Everything was quieter, more focused. I could no longer hide behind being busy- there was nowhere to go. I began to wonder, “Were these things typical to other people?” I wasn’t sure.
My therapist and I had already had several sessions, and truth be told, I wasn’t that impressed. We didn’t, “hit it off,” or however you would categorize a connection between a therapist and their patient. She was a bit of a wet blanket; she never laughed at my clever self-deprecation. Our internet connection was always a bit wonky and I wasn’t thrilled about facing yet another hour on the same screen I had been glued to all day. I was half-heartedly running through my day, identifying as requested, times in which I felt my anxiety reached a fever pitch when she softly, benignly proposed a few suggestions of coping mechanisms for my OCD tendencies.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
She backtracked through the concept of me writing a letter to myself as if I were a friend, her eyes blank behind her tortoiseshell rims. I held my hand up in the air, floating between our screens.
“No,” I said, my tepid coffee cup frozen halfway to my mouth, “Did you say OCD?”
OCD was a little child unable to play with their dinosaurs unless they were lined up according to color and height. OCD was Mark Summers of Double Dare fame straightening the fringe on his carpet in the middle of the night. It was locking the door three times before you could sleep at night. It was wiping down the same corner on the kitchen counter, convinced germs were still lurking. OCD was my Dad, scissors in hand, on his knees in the yard when he discovered a blade of glass taller than the rest.
What I have isn’t OCD.
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The therapist proceeded to ask me to verbalize any, “checking behaviors,” I had when my anxiety felt the highest. Checking behaviors? I mean, I check my bank account balance three times a day, but isn’t that recommended? I compulsively check my kids’ temperatures when they’re sick, but we’re in a global pandemic for God’s sake, I think I earned a pass for that.
The list went on, the if/then statements pouring out like a monologue I had long memorized but only now listened to myself recite.
If I don’t walk to my laptop immediately upon waking and get some work done, I believe I’ll be fired.
If I don’t organize my time down to the minute, I am lazy.
If I don’t consistently apply for jobs, even when I have a good one, we will be destitute.
If I don’t constantly monitor my children’s health, they will die and it will be my fault.
If I don’t meet people’s needs, I am a terrible person.
If I don’t read something educational or informative first, I can’t read anything for fun.
If I am not completely depleted at the end of the day, I didn’t work hard enough.
All of sudden, my love for meal planning and the stress of grade submission week made sense in equal parts. I love to see a weekly calendar full of prepared and planned meals- that meant, we would not starve that week. If I consistently ask people, “Are you okay?” several times a day I won’t miss any signs that they are suffering from an invisible illness or death. When it came time, four times during the school year to submit final grades for my students for the semester, I was inconsolable. I would check and recheck averages like they were the stock market, subject to change. I never pushed the button until the last second even though I had grades ready at least a week in advance. I was always convinced I was missing something.
I’m an anxious mess preparing for long trips- packing and repacking bags, contents strewn all over the dining room table weeks before we actually set off only to realize that I had completely neglected to pack socks in my obsession to procure the perfect travel-sized toothpaste.
How have I missed this?
Our session ended the way the disappointing finale of a fireworks show does on the Fourth of July. I had a revelation! This was a life-changing discovery, no? She seemed unaffected, taking down notes on a legal pad, just out of view of the screen. A flippant, side comment about a simple observation didn’t seem noteworthy to her- but it was as though I was seeing myself for the first time. I realize now that she must see these behaviors all day, in rotation. My inability to move past certain things, intrusive thoughts, general anxiety until a cycle was completed was in her everyday purview. But I had only now recognized them for myself, as a thirty-six-year-old woman with a spouse and children and now, language to explain why I am, sometimes, the way that I am.
I got a new CBT counselor who was integral in helping me articulate my checking behaviors when they arose. My literary tendencies made it fairly simply to narrate when I felt them approach:
My littlest one feels warm to the touch, with a runny nose. These are the facts. It gives me information to know what to do next- it does not predict what will happen.
I am feeling like I cannot break away from my work chair, or take my eyes away from my computer. This is how I feel, but it doesn’t make it true. I know that I produce higher quality work when I allow myself to take the breaks my body needs.
I have been poor before, sad before, stuck before. The, “before” doesn’t indicate the future but it can encourage me that I know how to survive it.
I began to meditate. I cut back on my coffee intake. I prioritized sleeping. I set work boundaries and downloaded apps on my phone that prevent me from checking things at certain hours of the day. None of it made my patterns disappear—but all of it gave me hope that I could live alongside my OCD, instead of letting it drag me from behind.
One of my favorite visualization exercises is to invite Anxiety or Depression or OCD or whatever you’re facing inside your “house” for tea. The act of inviting in something you’re used to fighting in and of itself is a calming practice for my nervous system, but it doesn’t stop there. I invite my OCD behaviors and the anxiety that comes with it inside my “house,” and I sit with them a while. Then, we have a polite conversation about how this isn’t their house and they don’t make the rules. I promptly see them to the door and am able to get on with my day.
I may never live a day without anxiety or OCD behaviors showing their faces at my door. But I now know how to sit with them instead of fighting them. I know the house, my body, belongs to me. And I know that I can see them to the door with the full assurance that I make the rules, and not the other way around.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays, OCD