A Slave To Control: My Agonizing Battle With OCD

Routines and exercise are a distraction, a way to exhaust myself so I can't think.

Last updated on Mar 17, 2023

photo os sad woman in black shirt against wall Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

Six. That's my allotment of pieces of gum for the day, not because of calories, but because that's the arbitrary number I decided on at some point in time. Sometimes it's less than six but rarely ever more.

Three. That's the minimum number of things simultaneously racing through my brain at any given point in time. It's like having a song in your head but multiplied by 1,000, and that's a fraction of how things can feel.


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One. The percentage of adults in the United States diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented mental health challenges out there. And while I found it hard to articulate my depression, I find it even harder to talk about this.

Why? Because OCD is so misunderstood. Just like depression isn't "being sad," OCD isn't a synonym for anal-retentive or quirky. We all have our quirks, but many of those quirks don't lurk in your brain all day long and keep you from working, going to school, or maintaining relationships.


Technically speaking, people with OCD grapple with brains both structurally and functionally different from non-OCD brains.

And for most of us, we derive absolutely no pleasure or true benefit from our behavior. In fact, it gets in the way of our everyday functioning and leads to distress when we can't engage in it. It's not quirky; it's intrusive.

For example, while I might prefer that the books on the bookshelf are all lined up or that my clothes are picked off of the floor, that's just because I like things to be neat. I don't really feel uneasy or highly anxious when they're not. But eating and doing things at the same time every day?

Counting over and over in my head, even if they're the same things I've counted a million times before? Cleaning after someone touches my stuff? I derive very little pleasure from these behaviors other than a temporary sigh of relief that it's done and anxiety if it's not.


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It's not a conscious decision but then I realize I've been compulsively conjuring up and replaying vivid mental sequences, from what I've done exercise or food-wise to work to conversations, always with the aim of neutralizing some obsession or another.

It started when I was younger with needing to say the same prayer every night in the same place or thinking I had to brush my teeth every hour, and resurfaced after a personal trauma in high school as an obsessive relationship with healthy food and exercise.

But regardless of the situation, it's important to note that most people with the disorder are particularly fixated on avoiding harm, discomfort, and uncertainty.


I would much rather deprive myself of certain things or stick to my rigid routine than deal with not knowing how I'll feel if I change it all up.

Routines and exercise are a distraction, a way to exhaust myself so I can't think.

Despite what it does to my health, I do anything I can to avoid feeling trapped or uncomfortable.

But ironically, the rigidity of thinking makes it difficult to make decisions or changes; the obsessional, inflexible approach to life makes it difficult to imagine eating or living differently; the preoccupation with things makes it difficult to consider engaging in other aspects of daily life.

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It's having to answer or delete emails right away to clear clutter or obsessively refresh a website.

It's a never-ending stream of thoughts that won't leave until they're addressed. It's planning. It's checking. It's the need to feel clean both inside and out. It's a constant mental itch I can never quite scratch.

So I get why it's misunderstood. I myself find it ridiculous that I can appear competent and successful in many areas of my life, yet waste so much time engaged in the most ridiculous, nonsensical behaviors so many of which you can't see by just looking in: counting things in my head, eating the same foods at the same time, exercising to simply try and escape myself multiple times every day.

But every day I still try to fight because that's also who I am. Some days are better than others—it's hard when you're fighting yourself—but of course, I'm stubborn as hell and refuse to give up. It's simply one of my quirks.


Every day I try and change one thing, do one thing that scares me a little, like changing the order of my routine or resisting the urge to clean something right at that moment, to prove that I can survive.

One. One day at a time.

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Abby Heugel is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been featured multiple times in The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Thought Catalog, Bustle, XOJane, In the Powder Room, and Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in November 2014.