Aleena Ahmad

Don’t get me wrong. I love jokes. It feels great to laugh, to smile, to feel joy. However, some jokes go too far, and it happens more than it should. I’ve heard jokes regarding taboo topics—race, school shootings and some other things, and then I’ve also heard things about mental disorders, which hits close to home for me. I started hearing them around the same time it became a particularly sensitive topic, and after my struggle ended, I even heard my parents throwing it around casually and jokingly. I’ve also heard people say that my mental disorder wasn’t a real thing that people actually had.

When I was twelve years old, I began noticing things. A teacher would lick their fingers to turn a page, or some kid would bite their pencil bag for who knows what reason. People would walk out of the restroom without washing their hands.

It disgusted me.

I learned (and I believe most people did as well) to wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t put your hand in your mouth. Be a good child and wash your hands. It’s also simply good to be clean. You get rid of germs. You lower your likelihood of getting sick. Washing your hands takes hardly any time. Everyone wins. It was simple logic: be clean. It’s good for you, and for everybody else.

I never asked any teachers to stop licking their fingers, or told any students to wash their hands, or told anyone to stop putting random things into their mouth. I simply avoided the “germy” places. If I got a worksheet from a teacher, I would mark the place where they touched it, and dab the paper with soapy water once I got the chance. If I saw a dead cockroach on the carpet, I’d make a habit to avoid that one tiny spot.

It started simple. It made me feel better to wash the small, unclean things.

No one noticed. I said nothing. However, my mind then pushed me a step forward. It came to me: germs spread very easily. If you dip your finger in mud and wipe it on your pants, you’ve spread the icky mud. You could say the exact same thing about germs. If I got a paper, the entire paper could easily become contaminated, especially if it went through multiple hands, as it commonly did when handed back through the row of seats. I began washing the entire paper, front and back, all pages. If the paper touched anything else, such as the desk, it could become “contaminated”. Those classes with those teachers became anxiety-inducing for me, even if I enjoyed the class.

The next step came when I realized that the germs also spread from those classrooms to everywhere else. To the hallways, to other classrooms, to my house. They all became contaminated. Anything and everything was contaminated—the door, the walls, my seats, the floor, the desks, the counter, paper, everything—since no one else did things the way I did. After that, I couldn’t touch anything that didn’t belong to myself. If any of my things touched anything else, then I’d wash it. I couldn’t even trust my own cleanliness. Parts of me—my back, the outsides of my arms, below my knees, the back of my legs, the inside of my left elbow, part of my left thigh, and even the bridge of my glasses—were always considered dirty to me, because I had to lean back, brush up against people, sit, cross my legs, cough and push my glasses up my nose when I nursed unclean hands. It meant that, whenever I would go into my bedroom, I would take off my socks, change my pants and take off the sweater, which I began wearing every day, all the time, even if it was ninety degrees outside. I considered the entry of my room to be “dirty” for the purpose of an unclean entrance.

People at school began noticing small things.

“Why are you acting like you’re wearing henna?” one of my classmates once asked me.

It was true. As with henna that hasn’t quite set yet, when you don’t want to smear it, I was not using one of my hands to pick up any of my school supplies. I kept it limp and useless when handling “clean” things with “contaminated” hands.

Around that time, I decided to tell my parents, though I didn’t do it directly. I wrote a note to them, taped to the top of my closet door explaining my issue. Recently, I had been roaming the Internet, and I came across a quiz entitled What Mental Disorder Do You Have? I decided to take it, just for the fun of it, because why not? After I took it, I looked through the results, and came across one that sounded eerily like my condition, which I knew was a problem.

Though the creator disclaimed that they were not a professional and not to take it seriously, I looked into it on a reputable website, and I found that I seemed to display many symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD. I wrote to my parents that I believed that I may have had OCD. They had begun noticing my odd behavior as well, and they agreed with me.

They respected my preference for them not to touch myself or any of my possessions. It felt better to have them know that I struggled.

A turning point in my parents’ perspective came when we went on a ski trip over winter break. We were cramped in a two bedroom rental space with my mother’s cousin’s family. Ski gear and toy blocks for my two baby brothers were always strewn everywhere. I began panicking in the bathroom from time to time, distressed by sitting down, by sleeping in a bed with two other people, by putting on my gear, by using utensils. It ruined skiing for me.

Perhaps the bigger thing that changed their thinking was that I refused to let my nine year old brother read my books. I didn’t want him to “contaminate” them, or else I’d need to wash the entire book, and it would take much too long. My brother got angry, and even at his level of resentment, my anxiety and anger outmatched his.

Washing and cleanliness had become an uncomfortably large part of my life. My knuckles grew dry from washing away the natural skin oils all the time, and my fingers became commonly pruned. I always stuffed my hands into my pockets before I went anywhere. Sometimes, I didn’t wear my seatbelt after someone sat in my “clean” seat and used my “clean” seatbelt. I even washed electronics, which lead to me needing a replacement phone.

My parents had weakly tried to convince me that it was fine to touch things. “We evolved this way, to survive these germs,” my father once told me. “We haven’t always had soap.” Even though logic got me into this, logic couldn’t get me out. So, they decided to take me to a therapist.

Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure. We tried slowly going through the issues, small to large—touching the cafeteria tables, for instance, was a small one. Getting comfortable with using whiteboards in math class, on the other hand, ranked as a biggie.

By some coincidence, that same day that I had my first appointment, I had one of my worst points of OCD. I got into a fight with my brother, and he ran into and through my room and the Jack-and-Jill bathroom that connected our bedrooms. Whatever anger I had felt over our scuffle vanished and was replaced with another kind. I began screaming at him, hitting him.

Don’t go into my room!

Don’t touch anything!

What did you touch?

Where did you run? Did your hand brush up against anything? Are you sure? Absolutely, one-hundred percent positive?

I stormed into my room—after changing into “clean” clothes—and carefully avoided the probable path of his running. I washed my hands, then got them soapy to begin cleaning my room. I washed the bathroom mat, the tile, the doorknobs, the carpet, and the edges of my bed just in case he touched it too. The carpet was damp once I’d finished, and the thought made me cry. Half the time, my possessions had a dampness to them, getting washed or doused in hand sanitizer so often. I had wet homework worksheets, damp pencils, and pruned fingers. My room had been a safe haven, the clean away from the “contaminated” world. I could freely touch things and be normal and carefree. However, because my brother ran through for a few, minuscule seconds, it was just as easily contaminated, and it opened up another cluster of awful thoughts. I washed my carpet again later that day when my mother came in. I had been alright with this up until that point. I then began washing the bed where she sat after she left.

Whatever doubts that my parents may have had vanished. Nothing that I tried seemed to work. Therapy didn’t seem to do much. My therapist offered medication for anxiety to try and lower my compulsions. “No,” I told her.

“Why not?” she asked

“Because… it’s unnatural,” I responded, shuddering internally.

“This is unnatural, too.”

The therapist also thought that I wasn’t motivated enough to try to get over OCD. She told my mother, who told me, and I assured her that I hated it. I hated how it sucked up all my time, how every waking moment was only half-enjoyable. However, logic got me into this, and I grudgingly agreed with it. Things touch things, which touch other things, which get dirty. I didn’t know how it could be false.

One absolutely random day changed everything. One random memory from three years prior changed it. One small factoid and one small children’s saying changed my condition. I was walking to the dinner table, and my hand brushed against a column. It wasn’t much, hardly anything at all, and I could barely feel it. However, compulsions forced me to go to the kitchen sink and wash my hands. As I sighed, for some random, unexplainable reason, my mind told me, “five-second rule.” I froze as though it had been spoken aloud and not a random, throwaway thought.

That childhood saying was a blessing, planted from an early age. Everything was clean for five seconds if you dropped it on the ground. It applied to my situation too. It also prompted a memory from fourth grade, when I was nine years old, three years prior to developing OCD. My science teacher would hand out candy at the end of class if we were good children, and many of us collected it. A girl had dropped her sizable bag of candy at the end of class one day, and was picking it up off the ground. The teacher was helping her.

“Isn’t it dirty?” I asked. We walked all over the ground in our shoes.

“No,” she told me. She then briefly explained that some college students had conducted an experiment, and remember that five second rule that we were taught as kids? It was actually the thirty-second rule.

This came back to me when my finger just oh-so-slightly touched that supporting column three years later. It was a light against the darkness that OCD had enveloped me within. I hopefully, but cautiously, began shining it to see how well it would hold back the dark, and it worked. It worked amazingly well. It worked beautifully. This small factoid encouraged me to do simple tasks: open the door with my hand instead of my elbow, pour myself some water without washing my hands. I did small steps at first.

The small memory provided me with something to counteract the obsessive cleanliness thoughts, and it was something that had been drilled into me for years. If I got the same awful, repetitive thought—clean it, it’s dirty, don’t touch it, I have to wash this—I could respond with an alternative mantra—thirty seconds, thirty second rule, has it been less than thirty seconds? It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.

Emboldened by this, I set a date for myself to get over ninety percent of my OCD—my thirteenth birthday, which was in a couple months. I tested what I felt fine with, and what I still felt uncomfortable with. I could touch things for short periods of times—feel comfortable with serving myself dinner, picking up my little brothers’ toys—and then progressing to things beyond thirty seconds. I moved to giving my little brothers piggyback rides, and then I began allowing my brother to read my books again. Other than a few things, I achieved my goal, and I was pretty much back to normal.

The light was oddly powerful, and in a matter of months, my OCD had nearly disappeared.

My OCD developed in the fall of 2017. I got over it by July of 2018. There are still places where OCD can snatch me, dark corners that I’m learning to avoid, and then someday, conquer them too. I still feel uncomfortable when my little brothers put their hands in their mouths, for example. Water is still an issue; I feel that germs could spread rapidly among it when everything flows freely, and so if I spilled some, it would “contaminate” whatever it touched. For instance, I did a few months of after school swimming in the fall of 2018. It made me uncomfortable, but I did it. I avoided touching things as much as I could after I got into the pool, though it was unavoidable. However, I hadn’t yet panicked until one day in November. I got out of the lukewarm pool, shivering in the autumn air as I walked towards my possessions. I picked up my jacket and my tennis shoes, and my two backpacks—one for school and one for swimming.

I don’t know why it got particularly bad that day, but with all the things piled on me as I walked to the carpool line, on that day in particular, I didn’t want to touch my things, but I had to. I started crying, and the compulsions to clean came once more.

This is so stupid. Why do I have this stupid jacket? Why do I need it? Wash it. I hate this jacket, it’s crusty, it’s dirty, burn it, burn this stupid thing, wash it, wash it, I don’t need it, this is stupid, wash it, wash it, the pool is so disgusting, wash it, wash it, why do I have so many things, wash it, wash it, stupid, stupid, wash, wash. Wash it now, wash it now, it’s dirty, wash it now, wash it now, clean it, clean it, wash it, wash it, wash it, wash it, wash it. For goodness’s sake!— wash it now, wash it now, wash it NOW.

A little hope died inside me that night.

It made me realize that, sure, I’d gotten rid of most of my OCD, but would it ever truly, completely disappear? Maybe, maybe not, and yet, it’s still enough for me. OCD was still there, but it didn’t invade everything.

Besides pools and a few other things such as toilet paper and bathrooms and the occasional nagging thought in the airport, I’m fine now. I’m mostly over OCD, and though I’m a bit more clean than other people, I’m fine with that. I stand by the few things that I still believe to be unclean. I, however, am a lucky one. My time with OCD lasted about ten months. Others go for years without being helped. I can hardly imagine living with OCD or other disorders for years, and the experience with OCD had made me much more aware of other mental issues. When I hear a joke regarding a mental disorder, it makes me tear up and grind my teeth and want to scream at them, “You don’t know anything about it! How dare you make fun of it! You—” and let out a stream of insults and curses.

At for that, I am thankful that I had my eyes opened. Yes, it plagued me for months and it will stay with me, throwing little issue at me in the years to come. However, it has opened up a new world of mental health and the issues it makes. I’m now interested in psychology, and I’ve researched and written a paper for school on the lack of mental health treatment in the United States. I feel much more sympathy when I hear anything about mental issues, and so my biggest pet peeve is not having people take it seriously or only seeing the stigmas about it.

Having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder undoubtedly changed me. I see everything differently, and I feel sympathy for people who have other mental issues, as well as other problems that they may be fighting, whether common or unique or simple or complex or an easy fix or a true, full-on battle. Struggles like mine open eyes and change lives.

Aleena Ahmad is a thirteen year old girl who lives in San Antonio, Texas, but she was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys reading, writing, and doing arts and crafts in her free time. She primarily enjoys reading and writing fiction and fantasy, as well as critiquing them. She has not been previously published in anything, although she does not enter frequently. She battled OCD for about ten months when she was twelve years old, and it made her reevaluate the world.

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