Written by Jenn Griffith
It’s 5:39am. I’ve snoozed my alarm once already and would like to do it again, but the stress of schoolwork is weighing heavily on my thoughts. I stayed up until 2:30am the night before studying for behavioral endocrinology. I know I’m more than well prepared, but still, the thought of failing looms. I should get up and review some more. At least until I have to start getting ready for the day.
Two and half hours later I decide to stop studying. I showered the night before, but tossing and turning in the middle of the night has formed a giant bird’s nest in my hair. I reluctantly plug in my hair straightener glancing at my clock. My straightener has become the bane of my existence – with it comes a flood of intrusive thoughts and my newfound harmful rituals.
It seems so trivial. A small appliance used for purely cosmetic reasons causes me such emotional distress. Every time I use it though I drown in obsessive thoughts of burning down my building, yet it still isn’t enough for me to get rid of it. Is it because the fear of those around me seeing me look disheveled would cause the perfectly structured façade I’ve created to cover up my struggles to fall apart?
I dress myself as my straightener heats up and make a bee line for the mirror to cover the dark circles that have been accumulating under my eyes due to lack of sleep. I know I’ve taken on too much, but I can’t help it. I bounce around the city going from class, to work study, to my home health aide position, to the Red Cross for nursing assistant classes, to RA staff meetings. Everything I do will look good on paper, and that’s all that matters to me currently.
At last my straightener is hot. I iron out the snarls and awkward wave in my hair in a hurry. I need to unplug it. It’s getting too close to when I have to leave. I can’t be late again.
As someone who prides themselves on their punctuality, I have developed a horrible pattern of being late. I can’t help it though! If only I could tell them it’s not my fault!
Finally I unplug it. Now comes the dance that I have grown to despise every morning. I call it my OCD limbo. I touch the outside of the straightener and can feel the heat in my palm. I already know it’s going to be a long morning.
I check myself in the mirror once more and gather my things. I glance in the bathroom to make sure my straightener is unplugged. It is. Of course it is. It always is.
I head to my front door and begin to turn the knob. But did I unplug it?
I run back to the bathroom. Phew. It is.
I start walking to the door again. But what if it’s too warm and falls and catches the toilet paper and sets my room on fire?
I run back to the bathroom. If my palm can stay on the iron than it’s cool enough for me to leave.
I wrap my palm around the straightener. Ouch!
I retract my hand. I can’t leave yet. It’s too warm. It will cool down though Jenn.
I try to calm myself, but I know it’s a futile attempt. I move the straightener from the windowsill to the closed toilet seat. This is better, less chance of falling.
I head back to the front door and this time I get it open. But what if something falls on it?
I shut the door and run back to the straightener and put my palm on it again, but it’s still too warm. It’s already 8:26. I’m going to be late again.
I stare at the straightener willing for it to cool down immediately. In this moment I know my thoughts are irrational, yet not enough so for me to leave my apartment. I place my palm on it yet again, burning my hand in the same spot. It seems to be getting cooler though – maybe I can leave now.
I make a move again to the door. I did unplug it though, right? Damn it, Jenn!
I run back to check again. 8:28 now. I’m definitely late.
This dance continues until the fear of being overtly late surmounts my straightener foolishness.
“The straightener is unplugged.” I say out loud to myself. Maybe this will help it stick.
I move the straightener to the tile floor and push everything within falling distance far away from it. I take out my phone and take a photo, making sure to get the unplugged cord in the picture. Maybe this will keep me calm.
I leave my apartment wanting to turn back every step of the way to make sure it has cooled down. It takes all the willpower I have in me to keep walking forward.
I arrive to work a couple minutes late (not too bad this morning) and say that one of my residents was having a crisis again and I needed to help out. I apologize – ironically not realizing that the imaginary resident crisis I’ve created was actually one of my own.
Throughout the day I glance at the photo. Reminding myself it’s unplugged. The likelihood of me burning down my building and losing all my things and probably my job as an RA is slim today.
That picture was from today though right? Not yesterday? I ask myself – trying to sabotage any calming factor the photo provided. No of course not, I delete the photo at the end of the day.
It’s become a ritual far too familiar.
I’m in class now and see a fire truck whizz by the window. My heart drops. That’s definitely my building. I knew it was too hot! Why did I think I could leave?
Deep down I know hours have passed since I left my apartment, but the rationale still can’t calm me.
I feel paralyzed in my seat. Trying to decide if “going to the bathroom” would provide me enough time to run back to my building to check my straightener. I crane my neck a little to look out the window to try to get a better view. The sirens are getting further away, if it was at your building they would have stopped by now and the sirens would sound the same.
At last, I try to calm myself rather than make the thoughts worse.
Class is finally over and I rush home right to my room. Of course my straightener is right where I left it on the floor, completely cool to the touch. Part of me wants to throw it out the window, knowing that I’ll put on the same show again tomorrow, but I can’t.
I want to tell someone. Confide in anyone, but I’m afraid of the reaction. Afraid of the facial expression I’ll receive when I say I’m afraid I’ll set my building on fire via my rogue hair straightener. Afraid of the non-supportive remarks I may receive when I explain how I try to calm my thoughts or show someone the raw reddened area on my palm. But wouldn’t it feel so much better to tell someone? I can’t dwell on this long – I have studying to do. I delete the photo from my iPhone and take out my notes prepping for another long night of flash cards and textbooks, fully aware that the same song and dance will take place tomorrow.
Two years in retrospect, and with great insight, it’s easy for me to encourage others to seek out help and take their mental health into their own hands. But had someone try to extend that same courtesy to me, I don’t believe I could have acted on it. In the height of my obsessions and compulsions, it was easy enough to realize that something was not right – I didn’t need an outsider to tell me that. But to remove my OCD from the safe haven it had created in my brain, where it may have eaten away at me but at least it was concealed, was often a thought scarier than trying to deal with it on my own. Acknowledging it out loud or to another person meant it was real. It was no longer just an idea of a diagnosis, but something tangible – something that could be used to label me or discredit my accomplishments. There were hundreds of rationales behind my outwardly irrational behavior, but I believed others would only be able to focus on the absurdity of it all and seemingly unfounded reasons behind my actions. I feel the need now to almost apologize to my entire support system for thinking they’d be anything less than understanding.
If I had known the relief that would have come to me when I finally found the strength to say, “I need help,” I would have said it ten times over. I would have screamed it from the rooftops; spray painted it on the walls; or paid to have it written in the sky. Clueing someone else in on what was going on and finding a therapist to confide in provided me with not only liberation from my own mind but immense clarity on why I was feeling the way that I was.
I really try not to view my diagnosis as a weakness, if anything it was a catalyst for honing my own strengths and starting myself on a journey of self-awareness. I know it’s not easy to be open when it comes to all things mental health, especially when you feel your struggles are so obvious yet everyone around you is entirely oblivious to your suffering. But whether or not you’re ready to be open and honest with others, it’s so much more important to be open and honest with yourself – the rest of the dominoes will fall into place.
Image credit: Kipp Baker
Jenn Griffith is a graduate student in NYC, but a New Englander at heart. She’s a self-proclaimed mental health advocate, gluten free food connoisseur , and lover of all things pertaining to travel. To make sense of her own struggles with OCD and anxiety, Jenn tries to turn her thoughts into words on her blog at https://talesofmytwentiesblog.wordpress.com/.