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Note to self: 'don't get run over by car'

by Julia Kite

24th April 2006

We all have our bad habits. For some people, it's smoking. Others just can't kick boozing or eating sweets. I suppose I'm lucky that my only vice is that I leave myself far too many notes to remember to be careful crossing the street. That should be easy to quit, right? Not if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Post-it notes on a memo board
What most people can simply dismiss, or not even think about outright, tends to stick around in my mind for more than its fair share of time. It seems so silly, doesn't it? I can do Calculus but I have to remind myself to do something that every five-year-old knows - look both ways before stepping into the intersection!

It's not that I've ever been run over - it's just that from time to time I become complacent, as we all do, and have a bit of a close call with a speeding car. I then go into overdrive. I can't just shrug it off. I start worrying that one day I won't be so lucky. That's when little yellow adhesive notes start blooming around my flat. In the world of OCD, writing reminders is my number one strategy for fending off worry.

Back in high school, I used to affix Post-It notes to the lenses of my glasses so that they would be the first thing I saw upon waking up in the morning. More recently, when I got a mobile phone (after years of deferring due to worries of brain cancer), I enlisted the calendar feature to schedule my life, which meant I regularly received a buzz and beep accompanied by a message to not forget about a report due in two weeks. A good use of technology.

Unfortunately, this backfired, as I would copy the reminder so many times that I would get sick of the constant messages and end up ignoring them altogether!

In my room, I have a day planner that usually gets filled a week in advance. I'm known to hop out of bed several times after turning out the lights because I just have to make sure I've written myself a reminder. Sometimes I can go for weeks without doing this, and sometimes I'm left worried if I'll get so little sleep due to this practice that I'll doze through my alarm and miss class!

In addition to silly OCD worries, there's so much I can't miss, so much I have to get done - or else.

Perhaps I heap these anxieties upon myself by living a hectic lifestyle, taking a full course-load at university and living in bustling New York City. If I took it easy for a while, would I be able to "get over myself"? Or would I find something else to worry about if I lived in the slowed-down world of the countryside? Walking too close to the back end of a cow and getting kicked in the head, most likely.

I suppose the only bright side to this silliness comes in the form of the magical thinking that usually gives me so much grief. See, if I can convince myself that writing down a reminder will keep me safe, then once I take the time to scribble down a few words or program them into my mobile, I can rest easy. Usually.

Every so often, I wonder if perhaps I need a small 'disaster' to shock me out of this compulsive behaviour.

Let's say I did forget something which I would usually write down a dozen times - the deadline for an important assignment, for instance? Argh! This is where the lovely cycle of fear begins. If I forget to do it, I'll panic, imagine I won't pass the course and then totally fail at life.

Does that sound ridiculous?

I should be able to look at that sequence and tell myself, "Be realistic, Julia. The path of your life doesn't hinge on one essay". And it sounds just like that in print! I admit that I'm embarrassed to be writing this column. Reading over my own words, I just want to tell myself to get over it already, and perhaps the most important reminder I need is that there are millions of people in this world with much more critical worries. But I tried thinking like that once before, and it only left me beating myself up about being so selfish as to feel down about my own problems. I should say that once I got a proper diagnosis, I finally allowed myself freedom from that particular kind of guilt.

What am I going to do about this? Buy shares in Post-It notes? Wait it out, as I - fortunately - find that I don't leave as many reminders for myself as I used to do in high school? I'm willing to take suggestions, but if you don't have any, I'll gladly accept a mobile phone with more memory than my current Nokia - do you have any idea how maddening it can be when you just HAVE to leave yourself a reminder but there's no more space in that little electronic calendar?

Finally, one bit of advice to all you primary school teachers out there ... never tell your students that ink will seep into them and give them blood poisoning if they draw on their skin with biro. It will haunt any of your secretly OCD forever - and make it even harder for them when they just have to write reminders on the back of their hands!

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