I love watching documentaries. I genuinely think it’s made me a more open-minded person. How else can you understand what life is like for someone whose existence is so different to you but listening them to tell it themselves?
I watch one about a man with severe OCD. Among many other things, he’s got an obsession on whether the front door is closed, having to check at least seven times of almost closing and reopening the door to see whether he had dropped something before closing it for the final time. I realise that at some point I had had a similar obsession with doors. Not anymore, but I used to.
I didn’t realise it then but this was when the abuse was happening. I wouldn’t have dared to reopen doors once I was indoors like that poor tormented man. My obsession was to check that front door was closed after I had closed it. I’d forcefully close it, turn my key and bolt it but would still remain suspicious. At one point I had to get up several times in the middle of the night to see that the door was indeed closed. I’d run my fingers up and down and side to side the frame, push and then pull at the door time and time again.
It was bonkers, to use a professional term, but I couldn’t help it. Now I understand that I put all my helplessness, hurt and fear into this exercise. I couldn’t help what was happening to me but I could indeed check whether the door was closed. It’s actually quite ironic that I was so obsessed with the door being locked, when the real threat was on the same side of the door as me, and my every check reassured me time and time again that I remained there.
Trauma is weird, yo. I’ll say it time and time again. I couldn’t stop horrible things from happening to me, but I could check whether the door was closed and that, at least momentarily, harnessed the roaring anxiety inside me. I understand now that compulsions like this are attempts to control what is happening inside with the outside.
My other compulsions include cleanliness. At the time I was living with nine other people. It’s pretty easy to predict that this wasn’t happening. My housemates have an absolutely infuriating habit of not rinsing plates properly before setting them to dry, so the entire draining board swims in soap foam. They also leave dishes in the sink for days at a time so nobody can use it. Even today, while living alone, I refuse to leave dishes in the sink overnight. I just can’t do it.
This disarray is genuinely distressing to me. I’ve always been a very tidy person. My mother’s side of the family has had cleaners across four generations. Cleaners and models, often both at the same time. Women in my mum’s side have been slim, tall, pretty blondes throughout. So, basically we look good while cleaning. Even my alcoholic uncles who’d be expected to live in squalor always looked after their homes. It’s in genetics, I think. Both in the case of being tidy and being messy. My best friend Amy, to my great distress, sees no problem in throwing clothes on the floor. I pick up after her and together we form a machine of perpetual motion.
I think it determines your character as a person whether you drop clothes on the floor, or put them on a back of a chair, a table, a dresser, anything other than the floor. It’s a spontaneous response to an issue at hand, so I think it’s a pretty good indicator of how tidy of a person you are.
Whenever I happen to absent-mindedly touch a handrail of a public staircase, I can feel my mum swatting my hand off.
I start an uphill battle with cleanliness. I probably come across as bitchy and passive-aggressive, cleaning other people’s dishes, but I can’t help it. I can’t stand to see those dishes in the sink. I lie awake at night and creep downstairs to wash them because I keep imagining what kinds of pests they’re going to attract if I don’t – ants, rats, mice. It’s up to me to stop that from happening. I keep things going. I make it safe.
Even though it doesn’t address the real reason of the constant distress, it does make you feel like you are, at least temporarily, in control.
As I’ve been attending therapy, I’ve learnt that this is basically what all trauma coping mechanisms from cutting to rituals are about at the end of the day. Trying to reclaim the control that was lost.
Once I started my antidepressants, that overwhelming distress started fading. It was genuinely like a weighted blanket had been lifted off of me. The need to control anxiety with rites just faded away. In the evening I still have a little routine of saying goodnight to my granddad’s picture, turning on my night light, trying the door handle (four times) and placing my draught excluder that looks like a snake, Sir Hiss-A-Lot, in front of the door. However, I don’t get up to repeat the process. Once is enough.
Even though I had only a temporary bout with OCD symptoms, my heart goes out to those constantly battling the disorder. I hate it when the words ‘I’m so OCD’ are used about something. It completely undermines the sheer hell going on inside this poor person’s head. If someone had experienced this even for a day, they wouldn’t use this expression.
I know it doesn’t make any difference, but I get it. I genuinely get it.
If it’s of any use, filming myself trying a door handle before going away for a few days genuinely helped me to let go of the ritual. I’ve never needed to look at those five second videos I’ve shot again. Just knowing it’s there has been enough.
‘I did close the door. I have it on video.’
Even if it doesn’t make sense, please try to be kind to yourself. We do what we have to do to survive.