Sam Evergreen and Emily Dickinson on Life with OCD

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt

Sam Evergreen:

I was diagnosed with OCD when I was six. I had undergone quite a bit of trauma early in life along with a litany of health problems, the two did not mix well. Before six, I had severe digestive issues and would vomit for little to no reason and could barely digest food. Eventually, my stomach calmed down for a while, but my OCD did not. And then my health declined; I experienced gastroparesis (where your stomach does not empty itself properly), frequent illness (both respiratory and abdominal), and was eventually diagnosed with Celiac disease and other food allergies. I rationally knew my food was a big part of my health issues, and my OCD clung to that desperately, focusing on food-related contamination.

I developed a pathological fear of food poisoning and allergic reactions to the point where I stopped eating entirely. Even now, I struggle to eat and have to sometimes resort to a list of “safe foods” so I know I won’t become ill. Sometimes, I will stay up all night worrying about whether or not I will become ill, and it cuts into my work and personal life severely.

To satiate food poisoning and illness obsessions, especially related to vomiting, I have to wash things, usually my hands, but often dishes, countertops, or other materials used with food, three, five, or seven times. My mind is calmed by prime numbers exclusively, but the number increases with the severity of the “contamination.” For example, after a bowel movement, I wash my hands five times, and if I was cooking raw meat, I would wash my hands seven times, but for any other reason, it would be three.

There is another, much darker side to my OCD that I do not share with people often: intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are difficult to explain, so I like to use an example most people I know have experienced: when you’re driving, do you ever have the impulse to drive off the side of the road, or into another car? Most people I know say yes, and I would use that as an example of an intrusive thought. However, mine are much crueler.

As it is believed trauma was the true onset of OCD, I have graphic intrusive thoughts of horrible, violent things done to me, and if I did not complete certain rituals (usually involving hand washing, but sometimes checking locked doors, turning my phone on and off a certain amount of times, or mental mantras), then they would actually happen. Even worse, I would have the same thoughts, but in reverse — that I was secretly a terrible person who would do things that I had experienced to other people, and had to, again, complete rituals to calm down. Rationally, I know both are not true, but that does not make them less distressing.

OCD is incredibly distressing and controls my life. I currently have some control over it due to being on antidepressants, which are often used to treat OCD, but though my compulsions are dissipating, the thoughts still remain. It is important for me to minimize personal stress in my life, because the more stressful circumstances are, the more my OCD flares up, so I am pursuing a degree in what I hope to be a low-stress career and do my best to take care of myself.

Emily Dickinson:

My alarm clock goes off and I roll slowly out of bed. I mentally check off my list of morning routines such as taking my medicine, making my bed, checking emails and cleaning my room. I do a final sweep of my room and move things into place. “Perfect,” I breathe.

This routine happens day and night. I make sure everything on my mental list is checked off and that my stuff is in its place and my room is clean. It usually takes me at least an hour to do this, morning and night. So you can imagine how much less time I have to do other things.

I have definitely gotten better at controlling my OCD. I have gone to therapy to work through my need for organization and have tried to let people mess up my room and not fix it. The problem with having this obsession with cleanliness is that I don’t allow other people into my “perfect” space. I also get super stressed when I walk into a room that’s messy. This leads to anxiety and sometimes panic attacks about lack of control.

I have learned with time that the core cause of my OCD is the need for control. I have control over my space and my room, but not life. Many people, in fact, 2.3% of the population have OCD. OCD is a chronic condition that can’t be cured without treatment. However, OCD is a learned behavior of habits repeated over time, which means that you can improve how much OCD affects you.

Along with being organized, I also have this obsession with counting things. I count to make sure I remember everything that needs to be done. If I don’t check everything off mentally, I can’t sleep. Counting keeps me calm and helps me focus, but it also causes me to be late often because I feel like I have to finish all of the tasks before I can show up. Otherwise, my brain will only be thinking about what I have to get done.

It is helpful to learn about OCD so that you can reduce stressful situations for a friend or family member with it. In our culture, it’s a common misconception that OCD is simply a person being overly clean, methodical, and organized, but this undermines the anxiety and intrusive thoughts that drive such actions. It’s important to understand that OCD is not a logical disorder; it is about anxiety and finding relief from it. So help people with OCD avoid their triggers so that they can find relief from anxiety. If someone doesn’t eat the food you made, it might be germ-related. If someone doesn’t want you to go into their space, it might be an organizational obsession. To learn more about OCD, especially if you think you or someone you know may have it, check out the Mayo Clinic’s website.