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Pens, Paper and Panic: On the differences between OCD at home and at university

CW: anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, can be characterised by a heavy reliance on routine. Individuals such as myself that live with the condition can very quickly become reliant on the stability provided by certain day to day routines, especially given that a symptom of OCD can be a reliance on performing certain compulsions, such as only being able to shower at certain times of day. Over the vac, I certainly got used to a much different routine than that I am used to in Oxford – it’s shocking how quickly our brains slip back into old habits once we’re back at home. 

My OCD contributes significantly to a feeling my friends and I have often described to each other: feeling like we have one life at home, and one at university. My experiences with OCD at home and here have many similarities and are yet also incredibly different. At home, without my own space, my compulsions seem much more restrictive; only being able to cook dinner at a certain time, or having to turn off the lights a particular number of times before I go to bed to make sure I feel safe can be a lot more difficult when I have to share a space with the rest of my family. However, I’m able to adapt to this once I have the time to do so, which a six week vacation at home gives you.

But this led me to worry whilst I was still at home – how would I adjust back to my lifestyle in Oxford once again? Though, this time, I would be used to it to an extent given that I was coming back for my second term, as someone with OCD it is nevertheless incredibly daunting to have to shift your routine all over again. It took me long enough to get used to being back at home and not having such intense contact hours to structure my day with. Adapting to a new routine, another intensively academic term, and having my own space once again can be a shock to the system when OCD latches so easily onto having a strong sense of routine in your life. I find, thankfully, that my reliance on routine does allow me to fall rather easily into one, but it is still a daunting prospect to once again upend your life, especially when your condition almost centres on maintaining a level of control over aspects of it. 

I also find that my compulsions manifest differently at university than at home. Because I have my own space, I find that a lot of my compulsions begin to rotate around feeling safe and comfortable in that space; keeping certain items exclusively in certain parts of the room, opening my window at a certain time every morning, and so on. It is certainly easier to formulate a sense of routine with heavy academic contact hours to shape my day, but I do find that this leaves me struggling more on the days in which I am left more to my own devices or independent study. Dealing with the switch back to an entirely different routine has certainly impacted on my ability to deal with my OCD as a whole, strengthening how much I feel a lot of my compulsions.

Because of how my OCD manifests, I also find that it has quite significant relevance to the actual academic side of my university experience. Last term, I focused quite heavily in this column on the idea of perfectionism. This idea has been a common theme in my experience of OCD throughout the years; during my school years it became something of an inside joke, but it developed into an obsessive, compulsive need to achieve absolute perfection in all academic endeavours, with no space for failure. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that, with typical work pressures and the new, added stress of collections, returning to Oxford certainly led to a spike in my experience of this. Despite friends and coursemates telling me that I’ve worked enough, and knowing in myself that I had worked as hard as I could, the perfectionist manifestation of my OCD once again struggled to adapt to the sudden manner in which I was thrown back into work upon returning to Oxford. Again, due to the shift in routine that took place over the vacation, I found it difficult to comprehend once again having to work to a tight schedule, sometimes meaning I couldn’t complete everything to the exact perfect standard my condition tells me I must meet. 

Yet, just as I did last term, I am hoping to learn more about my condition through my experiences at university. Though it comes with a unique set of struggles, which I am learning to balance with my work, OCD is a condition that no one is alone in experiencing, and the challenges it poses are ones that can be overcome with help and treating yourself with kindness, as difficult as this can sometimes be. 

Over the duration of term, my next few columns will look at different issues relating to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, based upon my own personal experiences. Next week, I will look more in depth at the concept of contamination OCD, and how it can impact the university experience for those with the condition, including looking at navigating university nightlife as a student with OCD.

Image Credit: Tejvan Pettinger, CC BY 2.0

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