“Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”, or so the saying goes. Unless you’ve already stepped on a crack with your right foot, in which case you have to step on one with your left as well. If you stepped in sunshine on one foot, the other foot cannot step in shadow, and let’s not even get into shopping mall floors. Who decided to tile the floor in seven different colors anyway? And, when I found myself on the last black tile surrounded by a sea of beige with one foot hovering in the air…why did it bother me so much?
When I was eight, I had never heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder – that’s a whole other can of worms).
It wasn’t until I grew up and started talking with a psychologist about my son’s behavior that I discovered how many of my old idiosyncrasies were compulsions.
A teacher once explained to the class that smells were created by tiny particles of a substance entering our noses – and it became a fixation. Feeling a need to clear unpleasant smells (and therefore substances) completely from my lungs developed into a complicated breathing pattern that had to be performed in its entirety to prevent contamination, even if it meant hyperventilating in the process.
My habit of sleeping while wrapped in the sheets like a mummy terrified my mother, who was convinced that if the house caught fire I would be smothered; I didn’t tell her that if I wasn’t wrapped up exactly right, I couldn’t sleep a wink.
Dealing with OCD
The reason behind OCD is frequently based on an irrational fear that is kept at bay by the meticulous use of rituals. The disorder might have been easier to recognize if I had had a definable fear- fear of dying, of bad luck, of harm coming to myself or my family – but my underlying fear was a little more abstract than that. I believed that if I didn’t complete my rituals, the world itself would reject me and I wouldn’t have a place in it anymore. What I thought would actually happen in that event, I don’t know – but whatever it was, it terrified me.
Once I recognized my old habits as compulsions, I realized that my method of finally resolving them was basic behavior therapy: I began deliberately walking with one foot in the grass, one on the pavement and wouldn’t let myself “even them out”. My odd brand of self-imposed therapy began with one of those epiphany moments when you step outside yourself and think “I’m being silly. Maybe I should stop this”. But that moment can’t happen until the rational brain is fully developed. And in many cases once the brain matures, the symptoms lessen. If, as some scientists believe, OCD is a result of brain chemistry gone awry, the shifting cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters in a child’s developing brain may help explain it.
According to kidshealth.org, some of the most common OCD compulsions amongst children include “needing to move through spaces in a special way, rereading, erasing and rewriting, rituals to undo contact with a ‘contaminated’ person or object and hoarding and collecting things of no apparent value”. They can also include ADHD and compulsive hair-pulling.
Thankfully, my odd quirks gradually faded away as I got older. Most of my eccentricities were not so intrusive as to draw attention to themselves, so they were largely overlooked – and remained undiagnosed. This is fairly common; even though OCD is a frequent childhood condition in the US, most kids are not diagnosed.
For more information about OCD, visit ocdcenter.org.
Take an OCD quiz at texashealth.org.
In some cases, OCD can be outgrown, although treatment is far more successful. Even today, I wonder how many traces of my old compulsions still exist. Can I really walk from tile to carpet now without a twinge, or am I unconsciously gauging my steps to make them even out? And it’s perfectly natural to hold your breath while driving rather than smell the skunk by the side of the road.