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Pens, Paper, and Panic: On adjusting to university life with OCD

CW: anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Today, I checked to see if I’d locked my bedroom door five times before heading over to the library. I walked down the stairs and was sure not to step on any cracks or gaps in the pavement on my way over. For good luck in writing my first essay at Oxford, I tapped my temple five times with my index finger. 

At the age of 13, after months of waiting, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, as it is commonly abbreviated. Having originally been referred due to my experiencing tics, which I would later find out were a symptom of my OCD, I was surprised when I found out that the behaviours I had exhibited for my whole life were actually conducive to this disorder. It’s odd to hear that your own personal ‘normal’ isn’t actually ‘normal’ to everyone else; an entire reshaping of my reality and how I had perceived myself occurred in an hour-long hospital appointment. Especially groundbreaking to me was the reconsideration of how I perceived time and numbers; having to perform certain acts at intervals of five and ten minutes for fear of something dreadful happening if I were to be even a minute out was just as much a manifestation of my condition as washing my hands sixty to one hundred times a day was. But at the time, I didn’t consider that either were out of the norm.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about OCD. It’s not been a matter of learning to live with it, but rather understanding how it is a part of myself and how I can harness it for good. After all, the doctor who diagnosed me told me that I could make my perfectionism and pedantic nature that comes from my OCD an asset for my work, encouraging me to become a surgeon so I could use my precision, which I chose to disregard in studying a humanities degree. Some of my symptoms have lessened over time, for example, though I still struggle with germs and dirt, exposure therapy helped me to reduce the amount of times I compulsively wash my hands in a day, and similarly I can cope with eating from a table rather than having to hold a plate in my hand. 

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for myself and many individuals who live with OCD, led to the arising of new compulsions and the worsening of certain existing ones. For example, I found that my hand washing compulsion once again took hold; including the use of hand sanitizer, I probably got back to the levels of handwashing I was exhibiting when I was younger and my OCD was completely untreated. I’m also not alone in this: a US study conducted into the impact of COVID-19 on individuals with OCD, published in November 2020, found that 72% of individuals with OCD that participated in the study reported an ‘increase in OCD’, denoted as the worsening of compulsions, greater severity of OCD symptoms and the arising of new compulsions. Therefore, the combined shift that the pandemic and coming to university is something that I believe has impacted me, as an individual with OCD, in an incredibly unique and at times immensely difficult manner.

I have always struggled to deal with change, as my condition has meant that I rely on having control over my surroundings and what I encounter for my stability. Thus, experiencing possibly the greatest shift I have ever had to deal with in my life has really caused me to evaluate how my OCD impacts not just me personally, but now my life at university and how the next three years will pan out in terms of my academic study. How do I navigate a post-COVID world and the hygiene-related compulsions that I developed due to the pandemic, and how will these impact my experience of university life? How will my perfectionistic tendencies, arising from an OCD-induced deathly fear of failure, interact with my academics?

Through this column, I hope that I provide an insight into life at Oxford whilst coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and document my experiences of my first term in this situation. Understanding the issues surrounding the interaction of mental health conditions and academic study is a vital first step towards improving provisions for those who live with these in their day to day lives.

Image: Jesper Sehested Pluslexia.com/CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

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