Anxiety Disorders on the Road

Symmetry and Balance


That’s my safe word. My personal command. My ideal circumstance. My life’s mission. The following quotes have been uttered in just the past year, verbatim and veritas

“Haas is Vidya’s favorite building on campus.””Why’s that?” “Because it’s clean.”

“I really like Warsaw. It’s so clean!

Singapore Airlines is truly the best. Everything’s always clean.

(Etc., etc.)

To anyone who knows me, this is no surprise: I am a highly self-critical human being who thrives on perfection – and as a result, is commonly in a state of anxiety. I don’t avoid doorknobs or buttons on an elevator, but I cringe when sharing food and I’ve been known to reject handshakes when I feel that I haven’t washed my hands recently enough. All of my clothes are hung on color-coordinated hangers, separated by sleeve length or type, organized again within each category according to the rainbow. I single-handedly reorganized my entire summer home within a week of moving in. I like symmetry and evenly distanced objects and a place for everything and everything in its place. Mess drives me crazy (a phrase I learned later I shouldn’t treat so lightly).

All of this might indicate that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).* Which is the conclusion I too arrived at, leading me to consult a psychiatrist to confirm or deny my potential hypochondria. What she said was interesting, as often is the case with psychiatrists, particularly as they’re talking about you and your infinite intriguing problems.

In a word: yes. I might have borderline OCD. But whether or not I do, I don’t require counseling for it – it’s fairly manageable and doesn’t interfere too significantly with my daily life. Instead, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), OCD’s more functional cousin. OCPD doesn’t encompass the ritualistic anxiety-alleviating/provoking activity of OCD, nor does it include the acute awareness that such obsessive behavior is unhealthy. But in a way, OCPD is somewhat worse. There are no pills you can take and no defined treatment plan. Antidepressants have been prescribed, but for those with no support system, OCPD can easily spawn a series of related disorders, including OCD, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder.

According to Wikipedia, the preeminent medical resource, OCPD is defined by one of two ways:

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (2000) requires four or more of the following symptoms –

  1. is occupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or agenda to the point that the key part of the activity is gone;
  2. demonstrates perfectionism that hampers with completing tasks;
  3. is extremely dedicated to work and efficiency to the elimination of spare time activities;
  4. is meticulous, scrupulous, and rigid about etiquettes of morality, ethics, or values;
  5. is not capable of disposing worn out or insignificant things even when they have no sentimental meaning;
  6. is unwilling to pass on tasks or work with others except if they surrender to exactly their way of doing things;
  7. takes on a stingy spending style towards self and others; and
  8. shows stiffness and stubbornness.

Or The World Health Organization (WHO), which defines it as a subset of the Anankastic personality disorder, and requires at least three of the following symptoms –

  1. feelings of excessive doubt and caution;
  2. preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization or schedule;
  3. perfectionism that interferes with task completion;
  4. excessive conscientiousness, scrupulousness, and undue preoccupation with productivity to the exclusion of pleasure and interpersonal relationships;
  5. excessive pedantry and adherence to social conventions;
  6. rigidity and stubbornness;
  7. unreasonable insistence by the individual that others submit exactly to his or her way of doing things, or unreasonable reluctance to allow others to do things;
  8. intrusion of insistent and unwelcome thoughts or impulses.

The Long Walk

Why am I telling you all of this?

In case you don’t know, I’m traveling the world for a year. I’m about to be confronted with thousands of new people and cultures and customs and ways of life, not to mention millions of germs and bacteria on hundreds of forms of transport (something that already invokes heightened anxiety, manifest through motion sickness). I’m about to have my social structure completely stripped, replaced by people who don’t know what I’m going through, or why I behave a certain way. In America – the land of the infinite individual – such quirks are considered … quirky (in a matter of words). They might bother some people, but most just live their lives, not bothered to care until it adversely affects them. Plus, people like quirks – I just watched Moonrise Kingdom, a movie about two extremely bizarre 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away together. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, the latest in a film empire centered around characters who defy social conventions in a hilariously earnest series of ways. Everyone laughed when they were supposed to and ‘aww’ed at the appropriate times, normalizing abnormal behavior.

But on the road, I won’t be able to organize my clothes on color-coordinated hangers. I can’t wash my hands whenever I need to, or reorganize my living space, or retreat into witty pre-screened culturally-sensitive streams of dialogue when I feel uncomfortable. I logistically can’t be frugal, so I’ll be constantly concerned about my budget. I don’t know all of the rules or social customs, so I can’t adhere to them; I don’t know what’s “right,” so I can’t avoid being “wrong.” And to someone who doesn’t have a crippling personality disorder, these all sound like terrific, character-building exercises.

Who knows? Maybe it will be. Maybe I’ll come home with a renewed take on life, the weight lifted from my shoulders and the perpetual wrinkle in my forehead forever vanished. I do hope for this. But I know that sometimes I’ll need the people who know me best, and they won’t be there.

I learned this the hard way at Lightning in a Bottle, a festival I attended alone. Of course, with festivals, you’re never really alone, and I met an amazing wealth of beautiful, warm, loving people who took care of me in my times of need and whom I hopefully enriched in return with my humor and kindness. But I had two significantly difficult moments – one emotional and one physical – when I would have done anything to have someone who understood my condition and my past and who would know me well enough to stay with me until I got through it.

I guess the lesson is that I got through it regardless, and I’ll have no choice but to get through all of the obstacles that will confront me in the coming year. But sometimes I really wish someone were coming with me – if not just for company, for the sanity and peace of mind.

My advice to everyone: Mental disorders can be just as hard as, or worse than, physical disorders – it’s important to remember that, give yourself a break, and never feel ashamed to ask people for help. You’re not going to get better overnight, but you might as well accept that you can’t do everything yourself and let someone else take care of you every once in a while. You can’t always tell, but there might be someone who knows exactly what you’re going through, and just knowing that makes it a bit easier.

Around the Bend

* The phrase is “to have OCD,” not “to be OCD.” Grammatically, that doesn’t make any sense.

Note: if nothing I said made any sense, read more on Wiki: