OCD = Obsessive Christmas Disorder.
The headline hit me like a sucker punch in the checkout line at TK Maxx.
I’d just finished up a very pleasant day of Christmas shopping and I was in high spirits with “Santa’s Coming For Us” blasting through my AirPods. Until I saw those greeting cards and it ruined my entire night.
If you read that like an exaggeration, I don’t blame you. I did that myself for years before I was diagnosed with an alphabet soup of mental illnesses that my mum collectively calls “XYZ.” (I get it— in all fairness, it really does take ages to say PTSD, OCD, ADHD, anxiety, etc…)
So, I get it. I really do. I used to wonder, “Why would anybody get so worked up about a joke on a greeting card?!” But here’s why I don’t find it funny.
One night a few weeks ago, my friends and I left a bar. It was neither a late night nor a crazy one. We were a bit tipsy, but only enough to think we were much more funny and interesting than we are. We were certainly not drunk enough to black out, to do or say things we would not later remember.
My best friend walked me home that evening and I have clear memories of hugging him goodbye and letting myself into my apartment. I should also add that neither he nor I own a car. We don’t have our driving licenses and we both have zero desire to drive.
And yet, the very next day, when I woke up, the first thought in my head was, “I hit and killed somebody with a car. I killed them and I’ve blocked out the memory.” If you’re waiting for the punchline, there isn’t one. There is only the reality of my life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Because, as ridiculous and irrational as this thought was, I couldn’t shake the fear that it somehow must be true.
My first symptoms appeared when I was 6 years old. I had recently read a swear word in a book. I knew that was a word I was not supposed to say. On a phone call with my grandmother, a woman for whom my love was boundless, I suddenly- out of the blue- became gripped by the horrible fear that I would randomly say that word to her and disappoint her.
I didn’t want to say it. I was vaguely aware that I had the choice NOT to say it. But my fear was that it would happen outside of my most fervent wishes and best attempts at self-control. In stark terror, I thrust the phone at my mum without warning and ran.
These were the mildest symptoms I would ever experience. And, at 6, I didn’t know that- over the next 20 years- these thoughts would only worsen. They would intensify until I convinced myself that I had murdered someone and repressed the memory or said something nasty to my mum, along with many other acts that I considered even worse.
Each time, I would be mystified when my worst thoughts were disproved. And each time, I would check and check and check again. “You’re sure you’ve never seen me hurt anyone? You’re sure I didn’t say anything horrible last night?”
My fevered attempts at reassurance were baffling to my friends and family. They did their best to reassure me and brush it off as a weird quirk of mine.
But when I turned 21 and alcohol got involved, I discovered a new circle of hell. As an autistic- and very anxious- person, alcohol made me feel great. The pleasant buzz of being tipsy helped me to freely laugh with friends, to turn off the constant fear and anxiety that dogged my every waking moment. But it was kryptonite for my OCD.
I became paralysed by the knowledge that I had consumed a substance that can literally alter memory. Could I ever trust my own memories? Could I ever truly be sure I hadn’t somehow blacked out and done something terrible? These fears generated a new round of endless reassurance-seeking.
I compulsively apologised to friends, to bartenders, to my mum, and dropped not-so-subtle hints that I was looking for proof I hadn’t said or done something to offend them. It’s taken years of time and therapy to break this cycle— but even now, there are days when I relapse and fall into the old trap of, “Hope I wasn’t too weird last night…!”
My lifelong struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has ruined years of my life. Intrusive thoughts attach themselves to the values I treasure most— being a good person, being kind to others, doing my best to never hurt anyone— and distorts them until I convince myself that I am everything I hate and fear.
So, no, I don’t think it’s cute or funny to use phrases like “Obsessive Christmas Disorder.” When I see phrases like this, all I can see is a mockery of the disorder that made my life a living hell. And, most importantly, I see the misinformation that contributes to a widespread lack of awareness about what OCD really is.