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The Thrill of Routine

For many people, routine is boring, something that they look forward to getting away from on a vacation. But for me, my favorite vacation each year is one that is choreographed from beginning to end, with only the slightest variations.

 My parents and I will leave the house early in the morning, and I’ll take a Ziploc baggie of cereal in the car’s cupholder for later. We’ll pick up my Nana, who will bring her breakfast in a leftover goody bag from my bat mitzvah, and then I’ll eat and nap, probably until we stop at a Subway in the middle of Alabama for lunch. I’ll stand in the sandwich line with Dad and get a custom veggie sub and have an internal debate about whether or not I should be eating potato chips. We’ll drive the rest of the way, and I’ll know every road, every rest area, everything between home and the small town in Florida where we’ve spent a week every year for almost half my life.

We stay in the same condo. Our mornings begin with the same walk on the beach and gruesome discoveries of dead jellyfish. Our afternoons are divided between a number of places we’ve visited for years, and the only thing I don’t know is which place we’ll visit on which day. In the evening, we go to one of our favorite restaurants where none of us even need to look at the menu, and one night we even go to my favorite French fries place I’ve ever experienced. (No one there minds that I eat them with a fork, and I even get a toy alligator just for showing up!) I collect the alligator toy and buy the same thing from the gift shop and after, I go with my family to bookstores and other calm places before we eat at our favorite ice cream place.

The trip is extremely predictable. I haven’t even left yet and I could give names and locations of everywhere we’re going and everything we’re going to do. And I absolutely, positively love it.

I didn’t realize these traditions were intrinsically tied into my OCD until we had to make some major adjustments to the vacation this year. It was really hard to delay it by two and a half months - we usually go the week of Christmas, and there are several traditions like cooking when the restaurants are closed and looking at light shows and shopping at holiday sales that we won’t get to do this year. I felt down all that week, thinking about where I should have been as I spent my holidays alone.

I was only just starting to acclimate myself to that change, promising myself the same vacation but a couple of months later, when my parents suggested shortening the trip by a couple of days. Without even a moment going by, I burst into tears, thinking the trip was really, truly ruined.

After figuring out vacation days with Dad, we were both able to take the time to do the trip I wanted. I’ll even be coming home a day early to spend time with my sweet dog. As much as I could, I took what I could get and am now counting down the days to the trip that I already know head to toe.

Once the plans were booked, I spoke to my parents about it, and realized they were a little surprised about my reaction to the changes. After all, I’m in my 20s, and I just moved across the country to a place I’d never even seen to start a new job without knowing anyone in Chicago. I even managed to go far away for college after never having lived away from home as a kid, not even for summer camp.

I’ve made major changes in a lot of areas in my life, and yet, there’s still something in me that needs some things to stay the same. It’s why I feel comforted when I’m watching my favorite movies, the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy - I know every bit of music, every line, everything that’s going to happen, and I take comfort in that stability.

There was definitely a part of me that knew that we could have cut the trip by a day or two and nothing major would have changed - we would have done our same things, and we wouldn’t have had as much time laying around and maybe even getting bored. But at the same time, I needed it. I didn’t know how to express that it was an OCD thing, or maybe I was just too ashamed at the way I got overwhelmed so fast at just the thought of cutting the trip short. I don’t need the comforts I did as a kid, like asking the same question over and over to hear the same reassuring answer. There are a lot of OCD-related things I’ve given up as I’ve gotten older, but some of them, like my need to keep certain things the same, will probably always stay with me.

At a time when I’ve had a lot of changes in the last few months, I take comfort in my favorite music, movies, and books. I’m trying to accept this part of myself and minimize my shame, but it’s hard to do in a world where mental illness is seen as bad, weird, and just plain undesirable. But it is an undeniable part of me, and it also gives me a ton of joy on trips like our yearly Florida vacation. I don’t get bored of seeing the same things; instead, it gives me new pleasure every time, as well as a warm and comforting sense of home that’s hard to get at a time in my life that’s full of changes. For me, learning to see that positive side of things is what has helped me get rid enough of the shame to share this story with you, and hopefully to work on sharing more. It’s only in a world where misunderstood behaviors are understood that people like me will really, truly be accepted.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.