by Madeline Laughs
When you look up Obsessive Compulsive Disorder online you find the most extreme case descriptions. You see pictures of people huddled in corners fearing for their lives. You imagine Sheldon from the hit sitcom Big Bang knocking three times on Penny’s door or someone who washes their hands every time they enter a different room. Having full blown OCD can be a problem if you don’t seek treatment, but having a touch of OCD can be managed quite easily on your own.
Not everyone that has a touch of OCD is a head case.
In today’s “let’s get organized and never be late for anything” society, we are breeding brand new kinds of OCD all the time. In the late 90’s who do you think opened up all of those adorable Home Organizer businesses? That’s right! People with OCD. No one is more organized than someone with OCD.
One of my friends ran a successful home organization business back then. She was all the rage too because she was really great at her job, but what her clients didn’t get to witness were some of the things her friends knew and understood.
We got to watch her reorganize her purse at the dinner table if she looked inside and her wallet wasn’t in the perfect spot. Everything had to come out of the purse and onto the table. She would be so completely focused that the rest of her surroundings completely disappeared, until her purse was back exactly as she needed for it to be. Then she would give all of us one of her beautiful smiles and we would go back to having a girl’s night out.
Was this behavior something she could control? Of course it was. Did she feel she had to control it in front of her friends? Absolutely not. Especially in front of us because all of us suffered from some form of OCD and we all openly discussed it on girl’s night out.
I have a touch of OCD. Mine is not so overwhelming that it turns me into a fearful, corner loving jellybean, but it can and does rile my temper if I’m not careful about it.
I make lists.
Oh I know what you’re thinking! You’re thinking that everyone makes lists, even you! That’s true. People do make lists and they do it everyday, but my lists are a different kind of special.
I buy special notebooks. They have to be the perfect size, not too big and not too small. They must be lined, but the lines can’t be too close together. I like college ruled, but sometimes I have to settle for what I can find.
Target made the perfect notebook for a long time and every time I went I would buy two or three of them at a time. Then suddenly they just stopped carrying them and I couldn’t find them anywhere. I went through a huge process, buying several notebooks that kind of felt right. I would take them home and try to make my lists in them, and just couldn’t. They didn’t feel right. They weren’t the same. They were NOT my perfect notebook!
The pile of unused notebooks kept piling up until one day I forced myself to start using one of them. I had to get over the fact that my perfect notebook was a thing of the past now and I had to adjust.
Are you with me so far?
Still think this is about normal list making?
I put everything on my list. I plan menus, playdates, appointments, cleaning rituals right down to the details, lists for the market, the department stores and the post office. Someone told me once that I should start using a PDA to keep track of everything. I knew they just didn’t get it. It’s not about the list. It’s about how the list gets created and managed.
I like the act of writing it down. I like seeing it written out in my own handwriting. The best part of the list is being able to take my pen and scratch it off once the task is completed. Even better is being able to see a list completely finished. Then I get to tear it out of the notebook and throw it away.
What about the stuff that doesn’t get accomplished that day?
I circle those tasks and then transfer them to the next day. You could assume this might cause me a bit of anxiety, but you would be wrong. I actually enjoy transferring my tasks to the next day.
When a task has been transferred several times I have to give it some serious consideration. If I have put it off for this long, is it really important to me? Most of the time the answer is a resounding no, so the task gets eliminated from the list, never being accomplished. I’m okay with that.
One of my OCD friends and I were at the supermarket in Ecuador shopping for dinner. This was definitely an adventure since I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was game. Each of us had our list and we separated in the store, deciding to meet up again when we had found most of what we could on our own.
When we met up I showed her my list. There were some items I just couldn’t find. She laughed and showed me her list. The items I couldn’t find were circled and hers had neat squares drawn around them. Kindred spirits!
You see, it’s not what’s on the list, so much as it is about making the lists and managing them.
I understand this about myself.
It’s my thing.
But what about the people out there making the OCD lists that don’t understand what they’re doing?
What about the people that make these impossible lists for themselves and then start making impossible lists for other people too?
Do you realize the recipe for disaster when someone with OCD starts making a list for someone that doesn’t have OCD?
I’ve done it. Oh yes! I’ve made lists for other people. It has never gone well at all. It never turns out to be a satisfying experience for them or for me. It is a compulsion I resist now.
There are days when I just give in to that drive to make the other list and I make one, but I have learned not to enforce it and to never have expectations that anything on that list will ever get done. I have taught myself that if making the list will take the edge off of my anxiety for a little while, then I make the list. I make it and put it down in a spot where it will be seen. I leave it there for a few days and then I throw it away. Anything on that list is already on my list too, so it’s not like I’m losing anything.
Never make lists for other people.
Some folks claim that when someone makes a list for you to complete it’s about wanting to control them. I can tell you that this is not even close to being true. A person with OCD that makes a list for you is not trying to control you, but they are trying to tell you something.
No, list making is not about control, but when someone with a touch of OCD makes a list for you, it can be perceived that way. Even if the person fulfilled every task on the list, it’s not really about the tasks. Truthfully, no one could fulfill the tasks on my list because they will never be able to do them exactly the way I want them done. To the nth degree!
It’s not about what’s on the list.
It’s not about telling that person they aren’t pulling their weight, or doing things fast enough, or often enough, or well enough. It’s about letting them know they have inadvertently caused this anxious feeling you’re having and rather than expressing it in a normal way, you have made this list that has nothing at all to do with how you really feel.
It’s almost like setting them up to fail. You set them up and when they are unsuccessful, then you have permission to really let them have it! You can let all of those insecurities and misgivings fly like throwing shit into an electric fan because THEY DIDN’T DO THE LIST THE WAY YOU WANTED IT DONE!
That’s what happens when someone with OCD, but doesn’t understand the ramifications, makes a list for someone that is not OCD.
I taught myself years ago to let go of imposing my OCD list making compulsion on other people. I taught myself to be happy making lists just for me. There are days I backslide, but I have learned to ask myself what it is that I’m really feeling and I taught myself how to communicate these real feelings, rather than taking the easy way out by making a list.
The level of frustration and the feeling of total impotence in my life has dropped exponentially by addressing the disorder with myself, rather than taking it out on the people around me.
How can you learn to apply this to yourself?
It’s not easy, but it is worth it.
The first rule of List Making Club is you never make a list for someone else. Own your lists. Own what’s on your lists. Your list is your list.
Know what’s important.
Your list and what’s on your list is only important to you. No one else really cares what’s on there except you. Other people have no idea the weight some of the items carry for you and you can not expect them to.
It’s important to me that the lawn gets mowed in a timely manner, but my husband is a busy man and can’t always get around to it. Mow the Lawn is always on my list when Spring comes around. It’s going to be on my list all Summer too.
After I have asked for this task to get done several times and it still sits unfulfilled, I start to get anxious. It’s not about the grass becoming a jungle either. It’s about not being heard. It’s about not doing something I have asked him to do repeatedly, ad nauseum. It’s about feeling like a nag and being angry that I feel like a nag.
Can you imagine how this could be a potential pressure cooker?
The simple solution is to just do it myself and I have done that. The problem is that when I have given in and done the task myself, I do it with anger and resentment. That’s not helping anyone. Now I’m bitter because I feel he’s not listening to me. He’s happy because now he doesn’t have to mow the lawn, but he has no idea of the black hole I created in myself the whole time I’m pushing that lawn mower.
To him, it’s just the grass needing to be mowed. To me, it’s a whole other ball of wax.
This is where being self aware is very helpful. You have to know when to let some things go, but even more important is knowing what IS more important to you.
Is it important that the grass gets mown? Yes, it is.
If he doesn’t mow the grass, does that mean he doesn’t love me? No, it doesn’t.
The most important thing to realize in this situation is that my marriage and my relationship with my husband is much more important to me than the lawn is. He doesn’t even consider that not mowing the lawn when I think it needs to be mown is a personal attack on me and why should he? That’s irrational and untrue. But a person with OCD doesn’t see it that way.
Since I already know that mowing the lawn myself is going to make me angry, why put myself through it?
Why not hire someone to come over and mow the lawn?
My husband is busy, I’m busy, we are both working and we can afford to have someone mow the lawn for us. Even if we couldn’t afford a yard service on a weekly basis, it’s worth it to me to have someone come occasionally to do this for us. That way the times when my husband mows the lawn, it’s great. The times I mow the lawn, it’s great. It’s great because I know that anytime I am overwhelmed with those feelings of anxiety about not being heard, I can always just call someone to come and mow the lawn, instead of stewing about not being heard. And my husband doesn’t get nagged about something that has no meaning to him other than a chore that he’ll get around to when he has time.
You see, it’s not about what’s on the list. It’s about how you feel about what’s on the list when it gets infected by OCD. Making the list is not about everyone else around you. Making the list is only about you and you are the only person that can manage the list by managing yourself and your anxiety.
There are so many other healthier options you can choose from. Just pick one of those to put on your list and leave the anxiety and the frustration behind.