[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
A familiar sinking feeling morphed into steely indignation as I stood in front of thirty undergraduates, explaining the statistics required for an upcoming assignment. Two students whispered and then looked up at me with a smirk; most of the others had glazed expressions, and some just sat wide-eyed, looking perplexed.
Don’t these students care about their education? I wondered. I finished the lecture feeling tight and irritated.
Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is distinct from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in that OCPD sufferers don’t suffer from unwanted, repetitive rituals. On the contrary, they might see the compulsions as completely warranted, possibly also expecting others to act in similar ways. The American Psychiatric Association defines OCPD as “a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.” The incessant perfectionism and control pertain to the obsessive-compulsive part of the definition. What makes it a personality disorder is when the obsessive compulsiveness occurs in many contexts, over a long period of time, and can result in distress in several areas of one’s life.
Two weeks later, I reviewed my students’ assignments. The majority passed, but, for such an easy assignment, they ought to have gotten higher marks, I thought. If only I was a better speaker, if only I had prepared more, and if I only was more attractive, the students would’ve paid more attention to my lecture and handed in quality work.
At the gym later that evening, I made eye contact with a few people whose eyes seemed to carry a similar smirk I had witnessed in front of the class. Ugh, this gym is too small. I can’t even look up without feeling judged. I tried to run off the irritation and tightness from the day, but it was tough—and I felt so unfit. No wonder people look at me and judge.
The following morning my body hurts from working out—a wonderful sign that I may be fitter and slimmer soon. But there’s a problem: I can’t get out of bed. A thick atmosphere of panic sets in because I have so much to do today. I’m falling behind in my studies.
Do the dishes, run the errands, start on the publication. Find a way to have fun and relax (the irony). Buy groceries. Improve my lazy attitude and carry myself with more confidence. All this before breakfast.
Panic turns quickly to dread as I revise my schedule and wonder what was making me feel so bad. I know I need to relax, but when I’m not productive, my mind swirls with thoughts of what I have to do, how to fix myself and navigate working with others.
In 2015, I spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital. It was impossible to control how suicidal I felt which freaked me out because, as a promising academic, control was something I understood well. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder which can be created and perpetuated by perfectionism and inflexibility. And so I received a second diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), a condition characterized by these traits.
But I am so nice, understanding, and accommodating! I pride myself on being able to appreciate many points of view and adapt when new information presents itself. Psychologists are not always correct in their assessments. I told my supervisor about the OCPD diagnosis and, to my surprise, he didn’t bat an eyelid. A professor who worked long hours thought I was a misguided perfectionist. Instead of focussing on my thesis, we spent the meeting discussing perfectionism and why it can be difficult to navigate alongside studies.
Read more: A Day With Social Anxiety
I started to realize that I may not be as easy-going as I’d imagined. For one, even though my peers would experience feeling stress out about their work, they didn’t seem as devastated if something didn’t work out. If they tutored and lectured they did so with confidence and felt far less attached than I did about how students perceived them, or how well their students performed. Most importantly, they seemed to enjoy themselves more.
It was a big shift in perspective for me as society encourages and celebrates hard work and productivity. OCPD is not often a diagnosis we hear about: overworking and perfectionism can sound like really positive traits.
I learned to cede some control and accept my depression and OCPD. With acceptance, I could devote my time and energy into therapy in an effort to better cope. I am learning that my prior standards can be unreasonable, unhealthy, and unfair to myself and others. So too, my achievements, hours worked, and appearance are not fulfilling or enduring enough to define me; I’m learning (and practicing) how to focus more on my lived experience.
In the morning, I’m still hit by an unavoidable, long list of tasks. But now, I’m more mindful of my mental wellbeing and the scope of my limits. I fix myself breakfast and dress in something that is comfortable and cute. When I feel that familiar tightness and irritation, I know that I need to take a step back: a tactic I practice routinely. Overworking is still a temptation for me, and I sometimes have to tear myself away from work; turns out that efficiency and productivity may not be humanity’s highest calling. Who knew?
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The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.
Artwork by KAREN HONG