On her blog “Into My Own,” Elizabeth recently wrote about her experiences in school as a student with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she reminded me of my own experiences.
There’s a word that appeared multiple times on my report cards as I went through school: conscientious.
“Tina is very conscientious with her work,” my teachers would write.
And I was. I always wanted to do well in school. I loved school for the most part. I was the type of student who got excited when I picked up my textbooks for the new school year, and read as much as possible in them before classes even started.
I loved to learn, and I did very well in school. I realize now that it became part of my identity. Tina was the smart girl. Tina got good grades. Tina was conscientious.
My OCD symptoms started when I was a child. I was worried about being “saved” at church, washed my hands compulsively, counted compulsively and confessed my sins, real and imagined, to my mother. But my OCD symptoms didn’t affect my schoolwork at first.
That changed when I entered seventh grade.
That year my conscientiousness became extreme. I read and reread passages in assigned books, waiting until I felt like I’d thoroughly read the words before moving on to the next paragraph or page.
Obviously, it took me longer than usual, and longer than necessary for a student of my abilities, to finish reading assignments.
I also became very slow in completing my assignments, reviewing my work repeatedly and beyond necessity to make sure everything was correct.
The curriculum the school used incorporated self-grading. In other words, I had to check my own work against the answer books.
This slowed me down even more as I struggled to make sure that I really did have the right answer. If I made a mistake and counted an answer correct when it wasn’t, then I would be cheating.
And if there was any hint of discrepancy between the answer book and my work, I sought out my teacher for reassurance, over and over.
So I became the problem student. My parents and my teachers thought that I was being contrary, deliberately working slowly or not at all.
I didn’t know how to explain my fears, or even that I might have an explanation to give them. I agreed with them: I must not be trying hard enough, and I must be bad.
I was no less frustrated than my parents were. I knew that they couldn’t understand why I just didn’t read the book, or finish my schoolwork. I couldn’t understand either.
I didn’t know why, if I didn’t reread a paragraph at least once, I felt anxious and guilty. I fidgeted or daydreamed, trying to avoid the torture of never being sure that I had “really” read what I was obliged to read because it was a school assignment.
I also developed obsessions regarding writing. In high school, when I began writing research papers, I became obsessed with the possibility that I would plagiarize.
My writing became painfully stilted as I carefully and sometimes awkwardly worded sentences in response to my fear of not giving proper due to my sources.
These reading and writing symptoms have remained in varying degrees since then, and I still struggle with them.
These symptoms break my heart. They get at the heart of who I am and what I love: reading and writing.
I have been studying “Brain Lock,” by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. Reattribution and refocusing make sense to me. I want to use the steps to deal with my OCD symptoms.
But I think deep down I’ve been thinking they would be most helpful with my contamination and checking issues.
This evening, as I read about the importance of refocusing, one of the patient examples was about a person who had issues with reading.
I really considered for the first time that the reattribution and refocusing of the CBT could be used for my reading and writing. I felt more hope than I had been feeling.
I’m determined. It won’t be easy, but I want to get back to a healthy conscientiousness and a full enjoyment of the things I love.