Life and Writing Advice is a blog series intended to help writers, editors, and freelancers learn from each other. Sometimes the most helpful information is knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences, that others can empathize with us, and that we can learn from others.
Once a month, we give a writer a prompt question. Then we post the writer’s response. Get ready to read about personal experiences that impacted or changed writers’ and freelancers’ lives. We hope this series connects people and provides inspiration. Let us know your thoughts about our series in the comments!
But it gets harder to laugh when you think of me at six, frantically piling pillows on the floor in what I thought of as the exact right order over and over and over again to keep my dad’s plane from falling out of the sky.
Or when you picture my teenage self rushing to the sink first thing after school for years, scrubbing my hands for five minutes until they were quite literally raw and bleeding, and even then they still felt contaminated.
Or when you picture adult me at a work meeting, rocking back and forth in my chair, clutching my hair and making a weird keening noise at the back of my throat because I felt off balance and this was the only thing that helped.
OCD contaminates (ha) every aspect of my life, including my writing life. After a few good writing years, the last two have stalled to a stalemate. When you combine a compulsive need to do everything perfectly with a paralyzing fear of the consequences of failure, then top it all off with anxiety and depression and new parenthood, you get two years of obsessing about writing with nothing to show for it.
But my OCD has been with me for my entire life, as has my driving desire to write. I’m not getting rid of either one easily, so my only option is to learn how to cope. Here’s what I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) about living and writing with OCD.
I Am Not the Enemy
A few years ago, a therapist suggested that I view my OCD and anxiety as a fleet of firefighters scurrying around my brain on high alert for fires that need dousing. Instead of seeing my mental fires for what they are—little licks of easily extinguished flame—my poor firefighters see towering, terrifying firestorms.
Bless their frantic hearts, but they run themselves ragged trying to extinguish tiny trash-can fires with an ocean. And while it’s hard to think when your head is sparking quiet flames, it’s even harder when you’re underwater.
As misguided as they might be, though, my firefighters are trying their best. They genuinely want to help, which means my brain isn’t fighting me. I’m not fighting me. I don’t need to hate myself for having OCD or hate my brain for trying to help me control an uncontrollable world. I am not the enemy.
With writing, I procrastinate and panic about perfection and guilt myself into the gutter for each day I don’t write—which, shockingly, doesn’t actually get me to sit down and write the next day. That’s why this piece of writing advice from author Daniel Jose Older sticks with me:
For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness . . . Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it [to] a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it . . . There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
In other words, hating yourself—blaming your brain for being what it is—doesn’t help anything. Forgiving yourself, though, helps you start each day of creativity with a blank state—and that’s potentially revolutionary.
Let Go of Control
Pop culture stresses that OCD is about perfectionism and contamination, and in a lot of ways, it is or can be. But OCD also has a lot to do with maintaining a sense of control over your life, eliminating the possibility of mistakes, and ensuring everything is as safe as possible by taking obsessive actions or creating time-consuming rituals.
Think of six-year-old me piling pillows on the floor to keep my dad safe on his business trip. I was clearly anxious about him traveling, and it made me feel better to believe that if I just took the right actions, he’d be safe. I wish I could tell you why the “right actions” in this context meant dumping a bunch of pillows on my floor and stacking them obsessively, but OCD isn’t really known for its logic.
How does this compulsive need for control bleed over into writing? My brain tells me I can’t write unless I plot meticulously, find the perfect words, make sure everything makes sense before I put it on the page. Of course, this is an impossible feat, which is why I’ve written next to nothing in two years.
Besides, obsessive plotting and outlining aren’t what I love about writing. Instead, I love the loss of control—the times I don’t know what’s coming next and I’m lost in the words and the world, surprising myself with the ideas end up on paper.
Letting go of the panic and anxiety and instead accepting the mistakes and horror and beauty of every facet of life, writing included, is one of the most freeing sensations in the world, but it’s not easy to get there. When I do, it’s often because I set aside time to write instead of trying to fit writing into the edges of my day. With that extra time, I can scrawl mantras on the margins when I get jumpy (writing starts with self-forgiveness, writing starts with self-forgiveness, writing starts with self-forgiveness) and let myself ramble into something incomplete and unlovely and thoroughly, ridiculously enjoyable.
The Struggle Doesn’t Stop
I’ve spent most of my life—decades—being mentally ill. I feel good about my treatment, but managing a mental illness doesn’t mean it goes away. The daily battle to stall my compulsive rituals, practice relinquishing control, and talk back to my panicked, illogical thoughts is exhausting. Just thinking about juggling writing, working, remembering to eat, exercising, being a new parent, and managing my OCD, anxiety, and depression makes me want to lie down on the floor and refuse to get up.
But eternity doesn’t happen all at once. An endless struggle is also a daily and hourly struggle—which makes the entire experience much less overwhelming and much more easily managed. Similarly, a novel doesn’t spring into being like Athena from the head of Zeus; instead, it’s a word-by-word creation that eventually coalesces into something beautiful, mistakes and all.
When I get stuck in my head, in the panic of knowing this particular struggle is never going away, it helps to focus on what will change—namely, how I feel about it. Right now, I might feel panicked and trapped and overwhelmed, and those are certainly valid ways to feel, but in the morning I feel different, and that difference is what makes things bearable. That’s true about writing, too: if I have a bad writing day, I can set it aside, go to bed, and remember that I’ll feel differently about writing another time. And, almost always, I do.
OCD comes in all shapes and sizes. My symptoms and experiences are likely different from yours. But if any of this post resonates with you, then today is the perfect time to find some help. The International OCD Foundation is a wonderful place to start—the site has loads of information and lists of therapists who specialize in OCD. The Peace of Mind Foundation aims to improve the quality of life for people with OCD; you can browse their resources or send them an email to get personalized assistance.
Whatever the nature of your struggle, I hope you can remember that you aren’t the enemy. It takes patience and courage, plus a heaping dose of self-forgiveness, but mental illness doesn’t have to be an immovable rock blocking your creativity.
How does living with OCD affect your writing lifestyle? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments or online.