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SMART PEOPLE ON BAD DAYS: DANICA

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I have crazy OCD. It has affected me my whole life, and I know I need to work on it. Six months ago I got serious about seeking help. I started five medications and weekly therapy with both a counselor and psycho-pharmaceutical specialist. I thought I was doing better, at least to some extent, and then I had an “episode,” we’ll say, last week.

I came home from a weekend away with my friends to find that my bed had been made. I KNEW I hadn’t made it before I left, so I felt an immediate panic. I literally ran downstairs to ask my roommates if they knew what happened, feeling a tightness in my lungs and my heart thumping the whole way, but before I could reach them one of them came up to me and said she had let her friend (whom I’ve only met once) sleep in my bed. I immediately put one hand on either side of my face, a typical “oh-no” gesture that I couldn’t help but express, and started making a whining noise. My roommate, seeing my panic, said, “Should I not have told you?”

Probably the worst response I could have imagined.

I went into panic mode, immediately started sobbing as I ran back upstairs.

I behaved like a total child. I refused to speak to my roommate, couldn’t even be in my room, and sat in my boyfriend’s bedroom sobbing uncontrollably while we hugged me with wide eyes. The roommate tried to talk to me and I refused. I literally could not calm down.

I can’t describe the way I felt. As someone who suffers from OCD, it’s incredibly important for me to feel like I have a safe space—an environment all of my own where I know all of its contents, all of it’s happenings. Where I feel completely familiar. I have control of my surroundings, nothing is unknown. Her letting a stranger sleep in my bed made me feel incredibly violated. Why didn’t she just ask me? Why did she express that she shouldn’t have told me when she saw my reaction? I recognize this may not be a normal response to this type of situation, and I must admit I was a bit surprised at my reaction, too. But I just couldn’t help it. I felt like my home was taken away from me and I had nowhere to go to be safe.

Therein lies my question. I know it’s inappropriate for my roommate to have let a stranger sleep in my bed/room without asking me. BUT—at what point should I acknowledge that my reaction is caused significantly by my OCD? How much can I expect my roommates/loved ones to bend to my needs in light of my OCD?

I often feel like it is me vs. the rest of the world:

me batting my OCD and trying to decide whether or not I should hold my feelings inside or if I should say something out loud, understanding that I am pressing my own emotions about a subject onto them, and in some cases, demanding they sympathize.

What is the best way for me to live with my own, albeit sometimes irrational, needs and tendencies as someone who has OCD, while still co-existing with my loved ones? Is it fair for me to expect them to sympathize to my needs, or is it unreasonable to expect others to live up to my “standards”?
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Dear Danica,

I am so sorry you are struggling with this. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, while occasionally exploited to much hilarity (see What About Bob?), can be a seriously debilitating condition, and is a heavy burden to bear. More than one in four Americans suffers from a mental illness, and far too many suffer alone.

You deserve a huge amount of credit for seeking professional help and taking control of your life.

You know that you have a lot of work to do to be well and happy. And the fact that you are working with a professional –getting therapy and drugs—means that you already understand you can’t do this work alone. But you will likely need more help than a weekly session and daily pills can provide. You need support from the people around you and you need help ordering your life in a way that is manageable.

So, you need to talk openly to your roommates and loved ones. You need to talk to them because you need their help. And you also need to talk to them because it is unfair to keep them in the dark about an illness you have that has an effect on their lives.

How does it affect their lives? Well, let’s look at the example you provided in your letter.

What your roommate did by letting her friend sleep in your bed is bad behavior, for sure. But it doesn’t really go beyond normal roommate assholery.

What is more unusual is your reaction. In the constant negotiation that is living with others, your response to this affront was uncommon. And that means your roommate is probably perplexed at best, or riddled with self-recrimination or resentment of you at worst. She deserves an explanation, and you deserve some empathy from her. And neither will be possible without a frank talk. Be honest with yourself: acknowledge that while distress was reasonable in that situation, the extent of your anxiety was caused significantly by your illness.

Then, be honest with your roommates and loved ones.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying that your reaction was wrong, or that the fault for your panic is yours. You have a right to your emotions. And the fact that you are actively seeking out coping skills doesn’t mean that you won’t experience anxiety or that you should chastise yourself every time you succumb to OCD-induced episode of bat-shit crazy. The goal of therapy and medication is not to make you (or anyone else with mental illness) totally fine all the time, but rather to make your symptoms manageable so you experience emotions unclouded by uncontrollable panic.

With that in mind, even if you didn’t have OCD, you would have experienced your roommate’s behavior as a betrayal and a violation. You have a right to be angry and annoyed. But you also have a right to not be debilitated –to be able to feel safe even when things are unexpectedly out of your control. That means that you need to give yourself credit for the work you’re already doing, and be committed to continuing to work hard to combat your symptoms.

Smart People On Bad Days

So think about how you are going to broach this with your roommates. Don’t think of this conversation as an emotional imposition. You are not really asking your roommates for undue sympathy, nor should the initial discussion be about your standards and whether or not they are reasonable. Just let them know what is going on with you, the same way you would if you were experiencing any other kind of illness. As with any other element in your personal life, you can choose how much or how little you share with your roommate about your OCD.

The goal of this discussion should be simply to let them in on your experience a little.

Tell them what a struggle certain things are for you, and give yourself credit, too: mention that you are getting help and working really hard to be well. You don’t have to roll out this talk like it’s an accusation or a declaration of life-altering proportions. For the most part, you’ve been functioning in their presence for the duration of your lease so far, and that’s not going to change. What can change is that you can function with a bit more ease if you let others support you when and how they can.

It is likely that, if they are not douchebags, your loved ones and roommates will offer their support, or at least ask if there are any simple behaviors they can adopt to help you feel more at ease.

And that’s a good thing. You need to work with your roommates and loved ones, and with your therapist, to figure out exactly what accommodations others should make to help you cope with your illness, and what it is more adaptive for you to just learn to deal with. In other words, it will be a process for you to figure out what your real standards are, and which expectations you currently harbor are actually compulsions.

I can’t tell you what exactly is reasonable behavior to expect from your roommates (beyond basic stuff like not going into your goddamned room without your permission, paying their share of the bills, and not being slobs), but your roommates can help you figure out what boundaries you can all live with. And if you can all work together, then that’s awesome. If your particular habits and anxieties mean that you have to be roommate-less, then, well, there are worse things; start saving your pennies for a security deposit.

The important thing to remember is that you are already doing pretty well, and you are working hard to do even better.

You don’t have to do all this alone, and you deserve some support and some love –and that’s what loved ones are for.

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Photos courtesy of A and Divine Harvester.

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One Response to SMART PEOPLE ON BAD DAYS: DANICA

  1. I like that this post is tagged with assholes and doughebaggery. Props to Danica for getting the support she needs and being exceptionally self aware.