Sunday, February 26, 2012

OCD: Picking up sticks

It seems like a stick looking straight down, but at an angle, it looks like a nail. When I nudge it with my foot, it rolls a little, but I still can’t tell.
People are coming. I turn and walk in the direction of my original destination, the student services building.
But it might be a nail. Somebody might step on it and get hurt. It would be my fault.
I turn around again, and I walk back the 10 feet. People are passing by.
I lean forward, put my head down and move it around, like I’m looking over the ground below. Maybe they’ll think I’m just looking for something I dropped.
After they pass, I touch the stick/nail again with my shoe. I can’t tell.
I pick it up. It’s a stick. But it’s a hard stick. I can’t break it. Maybe it’s not a stick.
I place it at the edge of the sidewalk, right where the concrete meets the grass, out of the way of walkers.
I take up my journey again.
But someone could still step on it. And it might not be a stick.
I go back and pick up the stick. Maybe if people see me do it, they’ll think it’s something I dropped.
I carry it with me into student services, into the bathroom. I throw it into the trashcan. Then I wash my hands.
That’s a small illustration of one of my harm obsessions. It was strongest when I was in graduate school.
When I walked on the street or on campus or through a parking lot, I checked for things on the ground that could harm someone.

At one point in my life, a walk along here could cause me a lot of anxiety.

I don’t remember ever finding any nails. But I found lots of sticks and rocks that could potentially be harmful. Or so I thought.
Walking somewhere was never a quick trip or a straight journey from A to B when this OCD symptom was at its peak.
I had to check every stick I saw, every little rock and anything that looked like it could be harmful.
I had to stop and examine it. I had to pick up a lot of things to figure out what they were. And sometimes that wasn’t enough.
This harm obsession was sometimes at odds with my contamination obsession. If I picked up a stick or an unknown object, I was contaminating my hands. But I had to pick it up in order to keep other people safe.
That was what it was all about. Keeping other people safe. It was my responsibility.
So harm trumped contamination long enough for me to get to a sink to wash my hands.
When I started taking medication for my OCD and depression, some of my symptoms got a lot better. The picking-up-sticks was one of those.
My eyes are still drawn to potentially harmful objects on the ground, in the driveway, in the parking lot. But now I have a new tool. I can call the obsession for what it is—OCD—and walk on, refocus.
Have you experienced a checking or harm obsession like this?


  1. Oh yeah! It's a HORRIBLE, sick feeling because you just feel this overwhelming burden of protecting everyone around you. You didn't ask for the job, but somehow you ended up with it. Deep down, you really know that this whole thing is wacky and you should just walk on by, but maybe, just maybe, it really is a danger to someone else and well, then what kind of person would you be if you walked on and didn't do anything about it? This is probably one of the more painful obsessions (well, I don't know, I guess they're all kind of painful now that I think about it!). It seems to hit out of nowhere when you're just walking along and minding your own business. This reminds me of an incident that happened to me a couple of years ago on the way home from the Int'l OC Conference. I'll have to write a post about it.

  2. Sunny, I like your comment that "You didn't ask for the job, but somehow you ended up with it." I sometimes think, why can't I be like everyone else? No one else seems to worry about these things.

    This sense of responsibility for the safety of everyone else is overwhelming. At least I know now that I'm not the only one! :-)

    I'll look forward to your post when you write it!

  3. I completely understand! This post really speaks to me in so many ways. The stress of feeling like you're responsible for everyone's safety, like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The stress of the conflicting compulsions and obsessions. It's just all so overwhelming.

    1. Kat, that's a good point you make about conflicting obsessions and compulsions. There are times when you either do something or don't do something, but it would be bad to do that something or to not do it. It's enough to make your head spin.

  4. Kat, It is overwhelming. You're right, like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. And I don't think I ever questioned the responsibility or why I had it. I just felt the weight.

  5. It would be hard to have that compulsion constantly weighing on you each time you walked anywhere. I'm glad you're able to recognize it and move along now!

  6. You do a great job of giving non-sufferers an idea of what you used to go through with this particular harm obsession. I had never heard of obsessing over sticks and rocks until I read Jeff Bell's "Rewind, Replay, Repeat." Thanks so much for sharing and it's great to hear you can now call it what it is and refocus.

    1. Thank you, Janet. You're always so encouraging! I'm a work in progress.

  7. Yes....I had a few friends who's houses burned down. One because of clothes that got under the water heater and the other from a curling iron. I just couldn't let this happen at my house, now could I? Consequently, I had to check under the water heater at least 5 times a night before I went to bed, at least, and everything had to be unplugged at night,....EVERYTHING (except major appliances,) because of the curling iron thing. It used to drive my parents nuts that they had to plug in their toaster and microwave every morning.

    1. Oh, I know how it is, Melanie. It's so hard to feel so responsible, and afraid. I still keep my coffee maker unplugged.

  8. Gosh, this post just goes to show that just about everything I do is OCD! Yep, I do this kind of stuff too and have for many years.

  9. OCD takes up a lot of time, doesn't it!?

    1. It's amazing that you get back free time when you deal with the OCD. Sometimes I was completely stumped as to what to do with my free time!

    2. Me, too. It's kind of scary to have the time and not know what to do with it.


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