There’s a good chance that you don’t know who I am, and that probably makes perfect sense; after all, I haven’t been hanging around at the faculty all that much in the past few years. Instead, my life has been dominated by a disorder that’s more tiresome than you can begin to understand. This is my personal story.
Life is a capricious business
When I started studying at the University of Amsterdam at the tender age of 16 (having skipped two grades in primary school), I couldn’t possibly have imagined where I’d find myself today, and I don’t mean that in an overly positive way. I don’t necessarily mean it in a very negative way either; it’s just that an unexpected medical setback towards the end of the first year put me in hospital for much longer than I could’ve foreseen, thus forcing me to quit studying — temporarily, of course, or at least that was the idea. However, to this day I still haven’t resumed my study programme, and that has almost everything to do with the increasingly complex thought patterns that seem to have emerged from that same event. I didn’t think of these thoughts as terribly unsettling at first, but now that I’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I know for a fact that they’re not exactly normal. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, OCD is a mental disorder that’s characterised by recurring obsessions and corresponding compulsions, which are supposed to ease some of the discomfort that a sufferer experiences as long as the obsessions aren’t carried out. In reality, however, it’s these very compulsions that reinforce the vicious circle that should instead be broken, since giving in to the obsessions only feeds the thoughts that caused them to begin with. As such, patients should fight the obsessions themselves. That might sound like a straightworward task to you, but it can be (and usually is) a mentally exhausting process that triggers anxiety — far from straightforward.
Rules, rules, rules
I can hardly believe the extent to which OCD has disrupted my life. What seemed like fairly innocent automatisms at first have turned into strict rules that must be adhered to at all times. Since I’ve become this meticulous, I haven’t been able to finish a single task without scrupulous attention to detail. Even while writing this article, I’m bound to strict rules that must be followed. To put it simply, everything must be worded perfectly, and even the smallest typo can cause a nagging feeling that won’t go away until it has been corrected. Needless to say, there are many different types of obsessive behaviours, but most of mine concern order, perfection, or symmetry in one way or another. (Oh, and Oxford commas — don’t you dare leave one out!) An extreme example that springs to mind is when I once rebought a brand new chess theory book that I had spilled a few drops of tea onto. You don’t have to say anything — I’m still embarrassed by it.
OCD — much like practically every other mental disorder — can be difficult to treat. It often comprises a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — a psychosocial intervention that’s the most widely used evidence-based practice for treating mental disorders. CBT focuses on the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems and changing unhelpful patterns. Exposure response prevention (ERP) is often used in this context as well. This comes down to nothing more than gradually opening yourself up to your fears. In my case, it comprised composing a list of obsessive behaviours that I found myself doing on a daily basis, then ordering them to the amount of distress that they caused, and finally working my way up the list, doing increasingly distressing tasks over time. It’s quite torturing, but as soon as you start noticing some improvement, it’s also really rewarding. Needless to say, there’s more to it than that; you also want to find out what might have caused this behaviour. That’s where the talking comes in. It typically turns out to be a combination of several different factors, the result being a preoccupation in some shape or form with the things that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Personally, I’m inclined to think that OCD is a learned behaviour, possibly strengthened by living in an increasingly digital world, wherein things tend to be quite linear. Think about it: we all grew up into a world that’s dominated by computers, which can organise documents quite neatly. The icons on your desktop are nicely ordered. As I’m writing this article, every letter looks identical to every other letter of the same kind. Despite not being aware of all those things at an early age, I presume that this has played an important role in the development of my own OCD. However, this is an unconfirmed hypothesis, and with the relatively small amount of research that’s being done into the cause of OCD, it seems unlikely that we’ll have it tested one day soon.
Back to school
I’m still very much in the the process of fighting my own brain right now, so I’m not sure when I’ll get back to studying. At the time of writing, the most probable option is September of 2018, which still seems like an awfully long time away from now. That’s a slightly depressing thought, but on the other hand, I’m far less obsessed by time than I was after skipping those grades in primary school anyway. Back then, I always wanted to stay ahead of schedule, and I considered grade retention — even if I had already skipped two grades at that point — to be the worst thing that could ever happen to you. None of that anymore. I’ve also become much more relaxed about whatever it is that I’ll end up achieving in my life — or not. That’s a funny thing to realise to me, especially given the considerable amount of time that I’ve ‘lost’ in the process of my recovery. Given that fact, you would’ve expected the opposite to happen, but that hasn’t come true at all, which stands in stark contrast to the incredible amount of pressure that I always put on myself.
Finally, I’d just like to say that I speak from experience when I say that skipping grades is a double-edged thing to happen to you at such an early age. It certainly affected my youth and the social life — or lack thereof — that I had back then. It’s okay, but should you ever find yourself having to make that decision yourself, be advised: the pros might not always outweigh the cons.
If you want to learn more about the disorder central to this article, google ‘obsessive-compulsive personality disorder’ (‘OCPD’) rather than ‘OCD’. There’s a subtle difference between the two, but I’ve decided to use the latter term for the reason that its abbreviation is much more common.