Little by little, I’m conquering my OCD and taking back control of my life
My quest for order was a symptom of a greater need.
“Let me inside you, into your room, I’ve heard it’s lined with the things you don’t show,” sang Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, waking me at 5am from my tinny alarm clock.
I was 15. It was the first time I had a room of my own, after my older siblings had moved out.
My room was pristine. A single mattress on the floor, the clock radio, a wardrobe, a pile of library books. For years, I retreated into the possibilities that existed between book covers.
The sun shone onto my bed and I fell asleep with “Catcher in the Rye”, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and autobiographies.
The yellow walls of my room were covered with posters. The Cure, Depeche Mode, A-Ha. I won some posters and LPs in competitions on Radio 5 and had a massive crush on Alex Jay, the deejay.
My room was the refuge where I could create and maintain perfect order. Everything was neatly aligned and my clothing was packed away. I vacuum-cleaned the carpet every day to control my chronic rhinitis. But there was more to it than that.
My quest for order, as I would later discover, was a symptom of a greater need to exercise control over my life.
Every weekday morning, after the alarm, I would be the first learner at the nearby high school. I would stand on the balcony, watching the sunrise, enjoying the silence before the rest of the learners arrived.
My classmate in Grades 8 and 9 was devoted to me. We’d walk the same route for an hour every Friday to return and borrow library books. Even then, I found it irresistible to straighten book spines and place them in the correct order.
At home, there were times when I had to leave my womb-like room, for meals, chores, and to serve tea and biscuits to church members at prayer meetings hosted by my mother.
I would perform my duty with a shy smile, before fleeing to the sanctuary of my room. But I enjoyed the chores, polishing kitschy ornaments and placing them just so on the display cabinet.
I learned my domestic skills from my mother when I was a teenager. She had been a maid from the age of 14, moving seamlessly into marital servitude at 26.
I learnt the “correct” way to sweep, wash and hang laundry, and iron clothing and sheets. My relationship with my mother was sometimes strained, possibly because she had me at the age of 46.
After having nine children, her heart yearned for just one more girl. She prayed for and received said girl, but she wasn’t specific enough in her request.
Even as a toddler, I was an introverted loner. My older siblings dressed me like a doll, and my hair was chemically wrestled into brown-girl acceptability.
Surely these older siblings were not related to me, I reasoned. For years I was convinced my mother would tell me I had been adopted.
My need to control my environment stayed with me when I moved into university residence in my second year.
In my mid-20s, I started a therapeutic journey which explained my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The lack of safety and control over chaotic circumstances demanded that my brain create order in my own space.
Towels had to be folded with the label inside right, then into three even folds. Food had to be evenly packed in neat rows and grouped together, with labels facing the front.
The bath had to be dried after every use. Washing had to be hung a specific way, with matching pegs. Once I realised the reason for my compulsion, I started taking small, significant steps to break the habits that eased my anxiety.
Although it niggles at my sense of order, I don’t always refold towels. I no longer iron clothes. Easy fabrics and body heat take care of the wrinkles. I seldom resist the impulse to turn the toilet roll around to face the front, whether in public or private spaces.
Little by little, I’ve released myself from the burden of performing tasks to meet an impossible ideal of perfection. With every act of resisting my compulsion, I lose some of the weight on my shoulders.