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Pens, Paper, and Panic: On OCD and perfectionism at University

CW: anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, perfectionism has become a centre point in my life. Everything I have ever done has had to be to the absolute highest standard it can be, or it isn’t good enough. To an extent, this has been a good thing. I attribute a lot of my high achievement to the immensely high standards I set for myself. However, there comes a point at which it becomes counterproductive. Instead of these high standards motivating me to work harder, I get into a loop of worrying immensely about what happens if I don’t do well enough. 

This self-sabotage is something that’s really intensified, along with a lot of my other OCD symptoms, since coming to university. I could stare for hours at a blank screen out of pure worry that what I’m writing wouldn’t be a masterpiece. This is the point at which the compulsions kick in – tapping on my head five times for good luck is my most common one. Any mix-up in how I do it and I’ve got bad luck for the rest of the day.

Having to tackle such obsessions and compulsions, largely on my own, has certainly made for a difficult first few weeks at university. The anxiety I develop around submitting essays, especially if I’m not completely happy with the outcome, can at times become deeply troubling for me. I’ve never been satisfied with work that’s anything less than the absolute best and, having succumbed to the dreaded freshers flu, I’ve had to really work to create a balance between my perfectionism and not overworking myself, as I’ve been prone to in the past. In an environment that is incredibly difficult to control like university, OCD can spiral and worsen because there isn’t that anchor. 

A lot of people I know, with and without OCD, have spoken about their perfectionism and the stress they’re under. Compulsions, in a rather irrational way, can be comforting in dealing with these and, in relation to that aforementioned desire for control that is intrinsic, at least for me, to my condition. I will think to myself that, if I do not carry out this compulsion, something dreadful will happen. A recent development in this is that, as I mentioned my good luck compulsion, I have to do it before starting an essay or else it’ll be a bad one. 

Contamination OCD, linked to germophobia and manifesting as increased hand washing and other rituals, is something I have particularly struggled with since arriving at university. My previous obsessive cleaning has shown itself again, both related to the pandemic and the general change I’ve experienced in moving to a city. Staying conscious of the changes I have experienced in compulsions related to this, especially increased hand washing, has helped me overall in recognising when I may need help and therefore in helping to control these compulsions.

Without a doubt, the first few weeks of university have significantly impacted my OCD and how I cope with it, and I’ve seen many of my peers struggle with the stress of the situation. Such a vast change in my life has put me in unfamiliar situations and with unfamiliar people, intensifying my condition significantly. But, thankfully, being around excellent people and reaching out for help when I’ve needed it has made it much easier to understand my condition and to cope with it. Life at university with OCD, as I have found, is a constant work in progress, but one that is certainly improving.

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