Wednesday, August 18, 2010

OCD vs. Me, High-School Style

Maybe I am young and naive to believe such a thing, but I like to think (and sincerely hope) that I will never work as hard as I did in high school ever again.  High school, looking back, was like one long OCD marathon that kept me constantly exhausted and feeling like I was on the verge of emotional breakdown.  I pushed myself so hard because the alternative seemed unacceptable.  I wasn't sure how I would be okay with myself if I didn't.  So I pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and as such, my life was school, and school was my life.  It was a love/hate relationship - a relationship saturated with the compelling force of a mental disorder.

I'm pretty sure that at times my teachers both appreciated and were simultaneously annoyed by my dogged attention to detail, perfectionism, and tendency to push my limits - theirs and my own.  I was almost always the last one to finish a test, making the rest of the class wait in impatient silence long after most others had completed their work.  I was the one always begging for more time, making teachers wrestle with their desire to be firm but also not wanting to upset someone who always worked so hard.  I was the one who went above and beyond on even the smallest assignments, but then, I was in a "gifted" class full of students who often did the same.  Regardless of their reasons for going above and beyond, I felt trapped.  I felt like I had to not only live up to the standards they set but also those I had previously set for myself.  Every new assignment was a formidable challenge, a new trial of my creative skills and intelligence.  I had to prove myself again and again and the bar was constantly being raised.

I couldn't prioritize.  I couldn't tailor the amount of effort I put into an assignment according to its relative worth, because any time I didn't live up to my evaluation of a previous performance, I wrestled with my self-identity.  It was never enough because OCD was the one setting the bar, and OCD was the one evaluating my work.  Not me, not my teachers, but OCD.

It didn't help when some teachers praised my self-sacrifice.  I remember one instructor commenting admiringly on how I regularly persevered despite all the demands on my time and lack of sleep.  He said that I reminded him of a relative who spent his life sleeping only four hours a night and working multiple jobs during the day.  He praised this relative for his impeccable work ethic and his ascetic self-denial for the sake of accomplishment.  But I didn't hear praise.  I heard, "Some one else lives this way.  You must continue to push yourself and do the same if you ever want to get anywhere, if you want to achieve anything in life.  If someone out there is working just as hard or harder, and others commend them for living that way, then you must try to live up to such an example."

So looking back, what may have been meant as a compliment was, for me, only translated into more pressure and more anxiety.  It felt similar to how someone praising me for spending hours every day washing my hands might feel now.  I didn't like thinking that life was supposed to be the way I was living it, but I didn't feel like I had a choice if others believed such a lifestyle was praiseworthy.  Admitting to myself that I found the prospect of such expectations overwhelming would be, at least in my mind, accepting defeat.  It would be proof that I was somehow defective - that something was wrong with me and I just couldn't keep up.

The voice in my head would prattle on:

Someone else lives this way, why can't you make yourself do the same, and do so happily, without complaint?  What is wrong with you?  Why do you always feel like you are straining to keep up with others?  

I had to keep pressing forward, meet said invisible challenges, and continue on.  I couldn't fold as much as I sometimes wanted to.  

Who would you be?  What would you become without these self-imposed standards? 

My work-ethic and the product of that work-ethic seemed to make me as a person.  Putting in three times as much effort for that one extra point was my trademark.  My talent was my ability to push myself harder than most others for minimal extra gain.  That was what set me apart - my ability to keep pressing onward where others chose to fold, when others recognized that the effort, the cost, was not worth the potential gain.  That was what I was good at.  That, I assumed was the only reason I excelled, the only reason I stood out.  That was what set me apart and made me "me."

Or so I believed.  Looking back, so much of my behavior, my goals, my beliefs, and my whole approach to life at that time were built on the faulty foundation of OCD.  I wish I could say that I was in control, that I was the master of my disorder, using it to my advantage, to push myself to excel when and where others gave up.   But I don't think I can say that, because I was hardly aware, if at all, that I had a choice.  I mean, rationally yes, I knew I never had to do anything.  I didn't have to keep working on that project.  I didn't have to write and re-write that essay.  I didn't have to come up with an even more creative theme for that assignment.  But choosing not to, even when it would have been advantageous to me overall, didn't really seem like an option.  I felt stuck.

Rather than harnessing and channeling my disorder to my benefit when and where I could, I was ruled by it. I was constantly being pulled in a million different directions out of a fear of what would happen if I cut those ties in deliberate disobedience.  I feared the consequences of what might occur, of who I might find out I "really was" or who I would become, if I didn't put more effort into this assignment or that activity just because I could.  It didn't matter if, in the bigger picture, it was taking a toll on my physical and mental health; if I could work harder, I felt like I should.  Battling to complete something, to finally accept that it was "good enough" to hand in, was a constant struggle.  I thought I was winning the war because I could push and deny myself where others chose not to, but it was at a cost that I didn't really feel like I had much control over.  I made a lot of sacrifices, not always because I wanted to, but because I was afraid not to.

Needless to say, my perfectionistic tendencies had more specific consequences.  Perhaps I will go into those another time.  But reflecting on those grueling four years of my life reminds me of why I want to break free, why I DO want to cut those invisible ties pulling me in a million different directions.  They may not be pulling me in exactly the same direction as they once did, but they are still there, tugging at me in new and different ways.  And as much as I may feel like I NEED to obey now, resigning to the will of OCD is resigning myself to the kind of life I felt I had to live in high school - a life dominated not so much by what I wanted to do as what I feared not to.


  1. I am so sorry you went through this. My OCD in high school was totally different. I was obsessed with different people, and it was a MAJOR distraction in my studies. But I prevailed and graduated in the top 10 percent of my class somehow. Yes, OCD can be extremely exhausting, and, you're right, it makes you just keep pressing harder. My youngest daughter who is a high school senior has shown OCD symptoms in the past. They now have a rule at her house that they do not watch the local news as she tends to get obsessed with the stories and cannot sleep. Like mother, like daughter.

  2. Thanks for your support! As much as I emphasize the negative aspects here, high school wasn't all bad!! :) Just tiring, and stressful...but I'm still proud of some of the things I achieved because of my hard work! I'm just glad I can look back now and know that I don't need to push myself so hard now and in the future!

    I can relate to your daughter's issue with local news stories. I went through a time when I really couldn't watch the news without obsessing about whether it was making me depressed and whether, if I was becoming depressed, I would be able to find my way out of that state. It never spiraled out of control but I can remember trying to avoid watching the news when I was struggling more than usual.

  3. A couple of years ago I became obsessed with the Caylee Anthony story and also the Anna Nicole Smith death story. They took up so much of my time!!!

  4. That teacher's "praise" was seriously warped! Living on 4 hours of sleep and exhausting onself isn't something a teacher should be praising! In some ways I'm glad my school didn't have a gifted program--I was already hard on myself with impossible standards, and the culture of a gifted classroom may have exacerbated everything. But I did get praise from my teachers anyway for my perfectionism, and that fed the OCD, and I took full responsibility for any angst I felt--as if I was a bad person for imposing perfectionism, when in fact anyone with such intense anxiety, would feel driven to do something to get relief.

  5. "It was never enough because OCD was the one setting the bar, and OCD was the one evaluating my work. Not me, not my teachers, but OCD. "

    TOTALLY get this. I spend way too much time on essays for school. I don't crazy on every assignment, just essays because I'm an English major and if I can't write brilliant essays every time, then what the hell am I doing? (Not rational, but that's OCD talking). I write and re-write and on and on. I keep editing essays until the last minute when I have to print it out to turn it in. My anxiety always spikes about this time, because the essays are never perfect, never good enough. I'm always convinced they're C work at best. I always get A's, but I always expect C's. It makes no sense. But as you said, it's not me or my teachers doing this evaluation, it's OCD.



Related Posts with Thumbnails