Content Warning: self-harm, OCD, family pressure, trauma, perfectionism, stress, anxiety
I’ve had control issues for as long as I can remember. I think they’re the result of being raised by a narcissistic father, whose moods were unpredictable. At his best he was conversational and willing to have a discussion about why he was right and everyone else was wrong, and at his worst he punched holes into the drywall, just barely missing my head. I quickly found myself feeling terrified and on edge every second of every day, scared to death of setting him off.
Because my circumstances were always so unpredictable, I couldn’t help obsessing over the few things I could control. When I was little, I’d start each morning by making my bed, neatly folding my pajamas, placing them in my dresser, brushing my teeth, and brushing my hair. While these tasks would normally take ten to fifteen minutes to complete, for me, they took at least a half an hour, and longer after one of my dads episodes. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn–I never could sleep well anyway–and carefully tuck my sheets one by one. I’d strip the bed of its pillows and blankets and straighten out the fitted sheet, going back and forth between corners to make sure it was equally distributed. Then there was the flat sheet, which I’d thoroughly smooth out, making sure to tend to the slightest of bumps or wrinkles. Finally, there was the throw blanket, which would be turned back and forth several times before I decided which was correct and darted between the sides of the bed, making sure the excess was exactly equal on both sides. And of course there were the mornings where I finished and felt an overwhelming urge to rip everything off and complete the whole process again, otherwise I’d feel icky and aggressively pent-up for the rest of the day.
It was a similar routine for the rest of my tasks. I spent time folding and refolding my pajamas, placing and replacing them in the drawer, making sure they aligned perfectly with the pair beneath them. When I brushed my teeth, I’d count how many motions I made on one side in order to replicate them on the other side. Sometimes I’d lose count and restart the whole process, carefully squeezing exactly another pea sized amount of toothpaste on my brush. I did the same for my hair, my head itching in the places the brush didn’t give the same amount of attention to.
Things got worse in high school, as homework and extracurriculars piled up and had me suffocating. Tests and quizzes made me a ball of stress, constantly frustrated with the failure I couldn’t seem to avoid. I used self-harm to handle it all, deciding that if I couldn’t control the many outside factors constantly hurting me, that I’d at least control the hurt. It was around this time that I started begging my parents to send me to therapy, but my dad was having none of it, as therapy is “for the weak” and teaches “communist propaganda” (whatever that means). Never mind the fact that I was a shaky mess of scars and jitters as a result of his erratic behavior, no, that was just my female hormones overreacting and creating lies to make him look bad.
Fortunately, once I reached college and was mostly out of my dads clutches, my morning routine grew a bit more relaxed. Everything still needed to be in its place at all times, but I redid my tasks much less. I also got to start seeing a therapist–as my dad could no longer track my every move–which really helped with the self-harming. That being said, my schedule was packed to the brim with work, assignments, and classes, which quickly had me constantly fretting over bills to pay and degrees to be obtained. Freedom was a blessing but the stakes were so much higher, and the longer I was out of that prison house the more unfathomable it became to go back. So I channeled my fears into crafting my planner, writing and rewriting tasks until the pages were perfected, a beautiful creation of the million tasks and events I needed to complete. It became my right-hand man, the thing I was unable to leave the house without, sometimes simply staring at its pages and admiring its appearance and perfection. I consulted it twice before doing anything and everything, treating it like a parent and their permission. I was also unable to leave the house without checking the oven, door locks, lights, and AC several times, often reaching the lobby of my apartment complex and being unable to leave without checking just once more.
During the fall semester of my freshman year, I met my best friend, who had struggled through her own bouts of mental illness and was studying to become a therapist. She noticed me constantly consulting my planner and asked if I had OCD.
“Oh no, I’m not a germ freak at all,” I shook my head in assurance.
“That’s not what having OCD means to everyone,” she told me, “a lot of times OCD is just obsessing over doing something over and over again, and not being able to move on until you’ve done it.”
“Oh,” my therapist had diagnosed me with anxiety, but she hadn’t mentioned anything about OCD.
“I would just mention it to your therapist,” she suggested, practically reading my mind.
My therapist confirmed my friend’s suspicion, which was alarming at first but quickly became a relief. I had such a different picture of OCD in my head that when she diagnosed me, I was worried I was missing symptoms and was subconsciously a million times worse than I realized. But my therapist clarified this for me, and over time it just became easier for me to treat my control issues. I still rely on my planner pretty heavily and occasionally self-harm, but the icky feeling I get from not fulfilling a compulsion has steadily lessened, and I spend less time obsessing over not turning off the stove or AC. The stakes are still pretty high, though, as I can’t fully escape my dad (although my therapist has helped me heal from a lot of the trauma he inflicted upon me). But the things I can control are getting better, and I’ve found good coping skills that I work on each day that are helping me through the everyday hell I used to live.