It seems like every week, there’s yet another instance of the Kardashians being totally tone deaf. One of the recent Kardashian catastrophes was Khloé’s “Khloe-C-D” YouTube series—comprised of multiple videos, many of which have been viewed millions of times, about how she organizes everything from her fridge to her sunglasses drawer. Khloé calls it “the method to my madness,” but fans are now calling the series out for being making light of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But let’s be real, when it comes to misusing terms like OCD, Khloé isn’t the only guilty party.
I frequently hear people saying, “OMG I’m totally OCD about my desk being clean” or “I thought I lost my phone, I just had a total panic attack.” For years I would just smile and laugh, maybe add an “I know, right?” to keep the conversation moving—but I’ve finally started to correct people. I know what these terms *actually* mean, and it’s time other people should too.
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I suffer from panic attacks—two disorders that aren’t always seen together, but often go hand-in-hand. Having OCD doesn’t mean I have the lofty organizational standards of Khloé Kardashian and my attacks don’t just happen during moments of high stress. Instead, both are real, chronic mental health problems that I’ve dealt with my entire life.
I knew I was different early on
In hindsight, there were obvious and early signs that I was different from other kids. Everything I did had to be even; if I chewed something five times on one side of my mouth, I then had to chew something five times on the other side. It took me a while to get up and down stairs because I’d have to alternate which leg went first, just in case one leg muscle was inadvertently getting more of a workout. I didn’t realize these habits were odd until friends or family pointed them out, or told me to “stop being weird.” When teachers or friends noticed the particular way I laid out multiple pens on my desk every morning before class started, or when someone caught me daydreaming, I was just labelled “quirky” or “absent-minded.” What they didn’t realize was that my thoughts weren’t in the clouds, but rather obsessively looping—sometimes about something very mundane and other times something existential.
I didn’t want to be seen as ‘that weird kid,’ so I started doing things in secret by maintaining a mental log of the numbers, rituals and routines of my daily life. I kept a running tally in my head throughout the day so I could make sure everything was square before I went to bed, even if that meant delaying sleep to complete a ritual to give me temporary peace of mind.
Whether because of my obsessive personality or in spite of it, I thrived in my teens: I excelled at school, played sports and had a great social life—even though it often meant sleepless nights replaying an awkward conversation over and over in my head, or taking notes in class and then re-writing them at home because they weren’t neat enough the first time around. Going through multiple rewrites wasn’t just about wanting organized notes, it was a way to quiet my anxiety. Though this wasn’t normal behaviour for many of my peers, this was my normal. But when I went to university in 2006, everything changed.
What it’s *really* like to have a panic attack
When I started my undergrad, I was juggling working full time, overloading my course load each semester and holding myself to unattainable standards—and by the end of my first year, it became too much. The panic attacks started at night. First, I would feel hot all over. My heart would start pounding, my hands would shake, and then the nausea would roll in and I’d feel light-headed. I’d try to take deep breaths, but my mind would be moving at hyperspeed and the only thing I could think about was trying not to faint. These attacks would last about a minute or two, but when they were happening, they felt like an eternity.
For a while, I thought they would just go away on their own. Maybe I needed to increase the sleep I was getting or how much I was exercising. But the more I tried to get on with my life, the more I began to obsess over when the next attack was going to hit. Seemingly anything could set them off: a weird dream in the middle of the night, stressing about a project or exam or getting stuck on a crowded bus. Sometimes they came for no reason whatsoever. Eventually the stress of thinking about panic attacks actually gave me panic attacks.
Finally, I sought help with a counsellor. After a few sessions talking about my anxiety, my “type A” personality and my history of compulsions, I was diagnosed with OCD and general anxiety disorder. The latter wasn’t a surprise to me, but I didn’t know much about OCD. I soon learned that the Canadian Mental Health Association defines OCD as a mental illness made up a combination of obsessions and compulsions. According to the CMHA, these obsessions are unwanted, repetitive thoughts; the compulsions are behaviours—like washing dishes or putting items in a particular order—intended to reduce anxiety. Statistics Canada estimates that two percent of all Canadians will experience OCD in their lifetime, like I have. Studies also indicate that most individuals report the onset of OCD later in their teen years or in early adulthood. So basically: check, check, check.
Looking at myself through a critical lens, I suddenly saw that the obsessive thoughts that I had experienced since childhood weren’t me being ‘high-strung’ or ‘anal.’ And while I had some compulsions to count actions, I consider myself lucky that they aren’t a huge part of what the illness looks like for me. For some people, these types of compulsions can be crippling and take up a large portion of their daily lives.
A new normal
I’ve come a long way from where I was in undergrad, but OCD is an illness that will stay with me forever. Right now, I’m coping really well, but there have definitely been highs and lows, good times and bad, especially related to the events and stressors in my life. Buying our first house, getting married and starting a new career were all bittersweet for me because the excitement and happiness was mixed in with anxiety and a noticeable increase in obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour. I’ve tried anti-depressants, therapy, meditation and anti-anxiety medications in different combinations over the years. I know what works for me at the moment might not work for me in 10 years—and might be completely different to what works for someone else with the same diagnosis.
As comfortable as I am talking about my illness, I am also guilty of hiding my weaknesses, my thoughts and my anxiety. I project a pretty tough exterior to the rest of the world (my therapist would say this is a way of maintaining control), but my relationship with my husband, the one person who I let witness these moments, is where I find a lot of strength. He didn’t know a thing about OCD or anxiety disorders before we started dating. The first time he ever saw me having a panic attack, he wanted to take me to the hospital. Seeing me struggle to breathe while flush-faced, repeating a mantra over and over to myself, was a lot for him to absorb. Since then, he’s become the one person (aside from my dogs) who can actually calm me down when it’s really bad, because he took the time to learn about what’s really happening to me, and he’s attuned to when I need space and what to say to help snap me out of my repetitive thoughts.
I also know individuals who struggle with mental illness that don’t want to talk about it at all. And it’s with them in mind that I’ve started correcting people who say things like “Jeez, your house is so clean, must be nice to have OCD.” Because you never know who might be struggling with mental illness, and what that term really means to them.