Thursday, February 9, 2012


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.


  1. Tina, I think you have a very healthy attitude about wanting to change or 're-focus' and lead a different type of life for yourself and isn't that the beginning?
    Mine came out in school as a form of perfectionism...If it wasn't going to be perfect then I wouldn't do it OR it took me so long to complete an assignment because it had to be perfect. I couldn't even have an erasure mark or I'd have to start all over again...I think of all the time I wasted and all the assignments that never got finished...

  2. Tracy, I believe it is the beginning. I have a lot of hope. Thank you for your encouragement!

    Perfectionism and conscientiousness sound wonderful, don't they? That is, until we take them too far.

  3. Wonderful post....I actually see a lot of myself in your description of your younger years in school. Your "conscientiousness" got worse from seventh grade on, and mine got "better." As I've said in my posts before, I sometimes wonder why I never developed OCD....
    I have a good feeling about your moving forward with your therapy...I'm glad you have a lot of are surely on the road to recovery.

    1. Thank you, Janet. Encouragement like yours helps tremendously!

  4. This sounds like a wonderful therapy, and no doubt you'll find successes with it. I have a video on OCD that I show my intro to psych students - it follows a couple of individuals before and after various forms of CBT and it's really amazing the differences!

  5. Lisa, Thanks for commenting. I hope I'll be one of those great examples of before and after!

  6. I thought some of my reading trouble was because I was homeschooled and didn't realize until I read your post that it could have been just the same in a different school since it was probably OCD driven. I could skim books for pleasure with good speed, but I read assigned reading quite slowly, since I thought missing a word could be cheating. Remarkably enough, the love of reading that ran in my family and that I probably had early on suffered during this time, to my mom's confusion. I don't think she understood why it took me so long to read, either. Even with my explanation of having to read everything instead of skimming. When I told her I sounded out the words in my head, she was more understanding. Looking back, even sounding out the words probably had to do with OCD, though it might have helped with my learning style as well.

    Now my OCD has to take a different attack since my completion of assignments is not measured by whether or not I read the whole book or chapter but instead is measured with tests and papers and homework. Fears of plagiarism hold more power. And tests? Well, last proctored test I questioned myself about whether having a tissue in my pocket counted as paper which could count as cheating. I left it, though. Called it an Exposure. And so I continue my slower method of CBT using Accidental Exposure Response Prevention. :)

  7. Abigail, I had exactly the same fear with the reading. I was afraid that if I didn't read every single word, I could not honestly say I had read the book or assignment. I would be cheating. Fears of plagiarism also plague me, but I'm going to be working on that. I like your "Accidental Exposure Response Prevention." Take the opportunities when they come! :-)

  8. Dear Tina,

    Conscientious was also a word that the teachers used for me. But I never BELIEVED it :-)

    I also regularly confessed my sins to my Mother throughout my childhood. I think it drove both of us crazy at times. LOL

    Yes, yes ... reading until you feel just right about it. Re-reading words and paragraphs.. like Abigail said, skipping a word is like cheating. Only recently did my therapist tell me this is all the scrupulosity OCD.

    Gosh, again, we have such similar experiences!


  9. School must have been agonizing for you at times. As a recent grad, I can so relate to what you said about awkwardly writing sentences so as not to plagiarize. I've always hated research reports for just that reason.

    My identity as a child was also really wrapped up in being the perfect student. When I hit math classes that were harder in the 7th grade I realized I could not keep up the great grades. My perfectionism wouldn't let me accept this, so I just gave up and did only what I needed to, to get decent grades. I figured why work hard if it didn't accomplish perfection? I realize now how skewed that thinking is.

  10. Elizabeth, I'm not sure I believed it either. It was almost meaningless, maybe because I heard it so much but couldn't connect it to me.

    Sunny, I think when we're perfectionists, we get caught up in the "all or nothing" thinking--either I'll be perfect, or I won't even try. You're right--not a good way of thinking.


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