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OCD under the microscope

by Julia Kite

3rd April 2006

I've always felt torn about the notion of having pride in my obsessive-compulsive disorder. On paper, it seems like an empowering move. After all, no one questions me about having pride in my Jewish background or in the creative writing I've had printed, so shouldn't I take pride in how I'm living the life I want even though I have this disorder? Every time I ask myself this, the answer is, "Yes, but ..."
I've been thinking about this more and more recently, because I just scored a part-time job in my school's psychology labs. For ten hours a week, I will be entrusted with the care of several lab rats who will be trained to perform certain decision-making tasks. Hopefully, by this summer I will have enough experience to run some of the experiments myself.

When I applied for this position, I resolved not to get my OCD involved in my work. School is school, the rest of my life is my life. But when I met with one of the postgraduate students in charge of the lab, he mentioned his work with obsessive-compulsive disorder and I couldn't help but prick up my ears. Believe it or not, I had only known this man for about ten minutes, he was about to entrust me with one of his projects, and I made the split-second decision to admit that I had the very disorder he was researching.

I think my fascination with psychology stems more from a curiosity about what makes humankind tick, rather than from any desire to want to figure out what is going on in my own head. Studying on my own and poring through library books was what first helped me assign a name to my obsessive thoughts and realise that my compulsive behaviours were not normal. Since then, I've been hooked. I have covered many different topics - from drug dependency to cognitive processes - but abnormal psychology remains my favourite. I like having an explanation for my behaviour.

OCD frequently makes me think and do things that seem to make little sense, and psychology - so long as I'm not the one sitting on the couch - shines the slightest light of reason onto those strange bits of my life. The more I can learn, the more hopeful I feel.

For example, when I took a class on memory and stress, I uncovered reports of recent studies focusing on memory deficits in obsessive-compulsives. Reading through them, I felt comforted, as I finally had an explanation for why I would forget to go to certain appointments despite having written reminders on two calendars, in my mobile phone planner, and across sticky notes affixed to my glasses so that I would be forced to notice them first thing in the morning. But it wasn't just the lab reports that told me this. All they provided was the data. Having lived with OCD, I had a distinct advantage over the scientists, because I didn't just have to hypothesize about the theory that when your mind is crammed full of useless worries, you're clearly going to have trouble remembering less emotional data!

When I told that postgraduate student about my OCD, I made the deliberate decision to let my desire to learn even more about the disorder override the occasional bit of shame I still feel about it. So what about that question of pride? Well, I reckon I have a lot more of it than I usually acknowledge. Considering how many people still equate this disorder with a complete inability to function in mainstream society, I think it's an incredibly - whisper it! - BRAVE move to be 'out' about your OCD. You may well cringe at my use of the B-word, but considering the kinds of attitudes that still accompany mental health problems in the year 2006, you have to be gutsy to risk alienating your peers by admitting you have one! Doing so is pride enough.

But what I really wish is that I could stumble upon some other OCD people wandering around this campus or working down the psychology labs - the kind of people who might empathise with the utter frustration of lying awake at night reminding yourself to look both ways before you cross the street lest you get hit by a car, something everyone else stopped thinking about when they were six years old. After all, the only other obsessive-compulsive I know in New York City is a neighbour's parrot who pulls out his own feathers whenever he's stressed, and he can't exactly discuss stigma-busting with me.

Any day now, I'll start my work with the lab rats, and I'll possibly become a bit of a lab rat myself, serving as a subject in the aforementioned postgraduate's research. As of now, I don't regret any of the decisions I've made to tell people about my disorder. It's all part of doing my bit for OCD pride - and if people want to cringe and run away and label me a loony, that's their problem. Besides, I'll be too busy worrying about the lab rat droppings on the front of my apron, so I won't have time to think about other people's opinions of me.

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