OCD – When the Controller Becomes the Controlled

The year was 2001 – my first year of teaching. New job. New town. New apartment. New friends. The 9/11 attacks happened my first full week as a fifth grade teacher. It was a lot to process.

On a night like any other night in my little apartment above the hair salon in the center of town, I set aside my correcting for the evening, brushed my teeth, and washed my face. Because my bedroom wall abutted the apartment of my neighbor who sometimes came home late from the bars with noisy, drunk friends causing me unnecessary agita, I set up my comforter and pillow on the couch in the living room. The hiss of the old-fashioned radiator and the rumble of Mack trucks slowing down for the stop light just outside the window provided white noise that would help my troubled, broken sleep.

I headed to the kitchen and set a chair in front of the door, piling pots and pans on top of it – my “sleepwalking alarm” designed to keep me from sleepwalking out of the apartment and having the door slam and lock shut behind me. (Seems crazy, I know, but not when viewed through the lens of first-hand experience.)

Finally, I turned to the stove. My nemesis. My Kryptonite. Sure, it looked like a harmless, eggshell-white companion to the refrigerator (which was an appliance I had no particularly strong feelings for either way), but there was something about the stove that held power over my brain. Most likely its ability to create fire.

I faced the stove. I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t resist it. I had to check it. Otherwise, I would not be able to sleep. There were five black nobs along the back panel, one for each burner and the oven. I looked at each one. Off. Off. Off. Off. Off.

This should have been enough to convince me the burners and oven were off, and I could safely go to bed. But I felt compelled to stay and check again. I looked harder at each nob. Is the arrow lined up perfectly with “Off”? It’s like I couldn’t trust my own eyes, my own brain. Check again. I looked at each nob for a third time, but now my eyes felt blurry from concentrating. Frustrated, I strained to see the markings on the nobs. The fluorescent light overhead hummed. The sound built up like pressure in my ears. My heart began to beat faster. My chest tightened. I couldn’t focus. Are they all off? I can’t tell now!

I reached out a shaky hand to touch each nob. “Off,” I said aloud. “Off, off, off, off.” I placed my hand on each burner. They were all cool to the touch. I opened the oven – the oven that had not been turned on since I moved in – and unsurprisingly it was also cold.

Then, and only then, could I step away from the stove and remove myself from the kitchen.

On bad nights, I might have to return to check it again, but on this night I was able to take a deep breath, turn off the kitchen light, and, after setting three different alarm clocks, settle in on the couch for sleep.

I learned years later that I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My obsessive-compulsive behaviors have always fallen into one of two categories:

  1. Behaviors that sort of make logical sense
  2. Behaviors that only make sense if you’re inside my brain

Stove checking behavior falls under the first category. Leaving the stove on may cause a fire, so checking the stove before bed makes logical sense on some level. But the logic is really only on the surface, because the underlying causes for my obsessive checking are anxiety and self-doubt. The behavior becomes a feedback loop: I check the stove because I am anxious. I doubt my own judgment. I check again, which raises my anxiety, causing me to further doubt myself.

Adding to the anxiety is my frustration with the behavior itself. There is a part of me that knows what I’m doing is unnecessary, even crazy, but to stop myself would mean a night of agonizing and worrying about the damn stove. I know the anxiety would continue without relief until I’m forced to return and check it again. And so I’m compelled to remain and see it through, to convince my doubting brain that the stove is indeed off. Only then is my mind released.

My obsessive hand washing as a child would also fall under the first category. Washing my hands until my skin was red, raw, and cracked was logical, because …you know…germs.

But then there were my strange behaviors as a teenager, the kind that would only make sense if you were inside my head. And honestly, even then, maybe not.

One example: I would sometimes count each step as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. If at any point I thought I had forgotten to count a step, or if my concentration had been interrupted or my focus had shifted for a fraction of a second, I would have to go back down to the bottom and start again. I can’t explain any logical reason why counting those steps was necessary. All I remember is that it was important to count them and count them correctly.

Although these behaviors have long since faded, my experience with OCD has made it easier to recognize obsessive-compulsive behaviors in my son. OCD often accompanies autism, although it’s sometimes tricky to tease out which of his behaviors are repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors and which are truly obsessive-compulsive. Both have roots in anxiety, however I distinguish between them based on (what I perceive to be) his motivation for the behavior. He swings and spins, runs back and forth, and jumps over and over on his trampoline – all repetitive behaviors yes, but they satisfy a sensory need. On the other hand, his OCD behaviors fulfill a cognitive need for sameness, order, and control. While his sensory “stims” usually make him feel less anxious, his OCD behaviors sometimes compound his anxiety and increase his agitation.

Like me, some of his OCD behaviors sort of make sense. When he accidentally knocks a toy off the table, he doesn’t just pick it up and put it back on the table; he picks up the toy and slowly traces the trajectory of the path it took through the air back up to the edge of the table, rolls it to the spot it started from, and tries to perfectly place it in its original position. It’s like he’s running his “mind movie” in reverse, erasing his mistake as if it never happened.

Not only is this a slow process, it can be extremely stressful for him if he thinks he hasn’t gotten the position of the toy exactly as it had been before he knocked it over. When he’s in this frame of mind, his attention to detail can drive him mad, so I thank him for being thoughtful in picking up the toy, reassure him that it’s fine where (and how) he has placed it, and distract him from his perseveration with a new activity.

But some of his behaviors would only make sense if I could climb into his head. When he feels compelled to step only on specific patterns of the carpet as he walks down the stairs, returning to the top to start over when he “makes a mistake,” it brings me back to the stair-counting behavior of my youth. His stutter-step indicates there is a correct foot to start on, a perfect placement to land on. It’s very likely I would not be able to help him achieve his idea of perfection in this moment, so I help break the OCD loop by offering a piggyback ride or letting him lean on my back while we descend so his vision is distracted from the carpet pattern.

Therapists and doctors speak of “perfection” when we discuss my boy’s OCD, but my own experience tells me it’s more nuanced than simple perfectionism. After all, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Stove knobs perfectly lined up with “Off,” hands perfectly free of germs, perfectly placed feet on perfectly counted stairs? Perfection seems more of a symptom than a cause or even a desired outcome. To me the goal is to lessen anxious thoughts or feelings through control… more to the point, by being in control. Unfortunately once the feedback loop kicks in, the controller becomes the controlled.

I never would have guessed that my own strange behaviors would some day help me understand my son’s behavior. It’s quite possible I know what’s going on in his head better than anyone else. Maybe not the logic behind it, but definitely the feelings.

The other day my son stood beside me as I was studying our calendar hanging on the wall. The picture next to it was crooked, and I unconsciously reached out and straightened it. My son immediately moved it back to its crooked position, spending several moments adjusting it so it was exactly the same degree of crooked as before. “Good job, Buddy,” I laughed, kissing the top of his head. “Perfectly askew.”

2 thoughts on “OCD – When the Controller Becomes the Controlled

  1. Wonderfully written. I actually became anxious reading your story. You really brought me into your kitchen.
    Perhaps your OCD has blessed your boy with a compassionate Mom who is able to love him through his anxieties. God Bless!

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