Writing About OCD by Cammie McGovern
The most interesting discovery I made in writing Matthew, a character with OCD, is how many people read a little bit about OCD and think they have it. As I researched, I diagnosed seeds of it in myself as a teenager. I also recognized it in my oldest son who is seventeen and has autism. For me, though the real surprise came when my fourteen-year-old son read Amy and Matthew and came into my room afterward. It was late at night and he whispered softly, “You based Matthew on me, didn’t you?”
Of our three children, he is our most outgoing and most social kid. In his group, I think of him as the relatively easy-going one who navigates the moodiness and hilarity of his friends with an even keel. “God no,” I said, stunned. Where had this idea come from? Most nights, as I lie on my bed reading, he leans into my bathroom mirror, examines his face for new patches of acne, and tells me stories about his crowd that get me laughing so hard I get tears in my eyes. “I do all that stuff,” he whispered that night. “I make deals all day long—if I make it to my locker in ten steps, my test will go well…If I don’t step on any lines, I’ll get an A…”
He’d never told me this before. In fact, I’d never thought of him as particularly anxious or as someone who would dabble in the—I’m not sure how else to put it—the illogical comforts of OCD deal-making. I remembered doing it all the time when I was a teenager, but I was far shier and less social than he. I didn’t travel school hallways with a pack of friends, so I had plenty of time to walk on blue tiles only and touch certain heating vents.
When my youngest son, the ten year old, overheard us talking about it again the next morning, he cornered me that afternoon and whispered, “Those things you and Charlie were talking about, I do them too. All the time—"
By this point, it was slightly less of a surprise, or maybe I’d learned something, not about my children, but about OCD. In my research, it’s often described as the mental illness that afflicts the otherwise sanest people you’ll ever meet. Frequently very bright, people with OCD nearly always recognize the irrationality of compulsive thoughts. They know the stove has been turned off; still their brain insists on checking. They know step counts won’t effect a test score; still their brain insists it will.
Perhaps in the chaotic pressure of navigating adolescence and all the changes one has no control over, OCD thoughts provide the comfort of some illusory control. I know they did for me without becoming too obtrusive later in life. They kept me busy as I navigated hallways filled with people who weren’t my friends. I don’t mean to equate an adolescent propensity toward mild OCD with the more serious, more debilitating form that Matthew and so many others experience. I only mean to say that if you have it and talk about it, I suspect you’ll be amazed at how many people recognize immediately what you are saying. It’s not as illogical or ridiculous as you suspect it might be. It’s a complicated bargain with the abstractions we have all wrestled mightily with: perfection, luck, safety, hope. It’s our brain playing games to keep us well. If I do these things, everything will work out. Maybe it’s a kind of creative faith, or a tool. Or maybe it’s a way for a fourteen year old kid with a lot on his plate to seem easy-going. I’m not sure. I just know you’re not crazy and you’re not alone.
Thank you so much for this wonderful post Cammie!
If you'd like to hear more from Cammie follow her on Twitter @CammieMcGovern
Amy and Matthew is available to buy in all good bookshops across the UK as of today