Crossing The Line

Compulsions, for me, were a blessing and a curse.

It was a pain to have to touch a thing a certain number of times, or whisper certain words under my breath, or cough when I was near a sick person. But it was easy. My brain told me exactly what I had to do to get the anxiety spike out of the way, and when I did it, it worked - at least until the next obsessive thought came around.

But when I started to grow out of my compulsions around the time I went to college, I didn’t quite know what to do.

For the most part, I didn’t have to do much of anything. I was enjoying life. Even the transition from living at home to living in a dorm when I’d never even been to sleepaway camp was going better than I thought. But then, Parents Weekend rolled around. I saw my parents for the first time in ten weeks, loved every minute with them - and then they left.

I sat alone in my room with no clue what to do. Anxious and sad, I started unpacking a few gifts my parents brought me. I found a large bag of Chex Mix and dug my hand in, enjoying the feeling of eating more than the taste. I wasn’t even hungry, but I finished the whole bag. And I felt better.

Food quickly became something that worked. Any tiny stressor became an instant excuse for heaping piles of pasta and ice cream cones. Even the fact that I was gaining weight didn’t bother me, because I had something that worked no matter what.

And then I got sick.

When it turned into depression, I was completely in over my head. Obsessions I’d long forgotten resurfaced, mutated, and grew into something truly horrible. Lost in this sea of desperation, I tried to use the coping mechanism that had worked since my first year of college, but my body wouldn’t even let me eat. I needed something new, and I needed it fast.

That summer, I learned how obsession can cross the line into addiction, how even the smallest and simplest things can spiral out of control when they become too much. I learned this when I tried to think of hobbies that made me happy in my youth, and returned to Pokemon cards.

I bought myself a pack of Pokemon cards that soon spiraled into buying cards constantly, ordering them to my campus and tearing into them with great hunger. When I was in the process of opening them, I was happy. It soon progressed to the point where I couldn’t be happy unless I was thinking about the next set of packs I’d open and the next cards I’d get.

When I managed to claw myself out of the depression thanks to therapy, medication, and CBT, I put the cards I’d bought in a box and hid it well. So well, in fact, that when I recently tried to inch my way back into the hobby with some new friends of mine in Chicago and asked my mom to bring me the box, she couldn’t find it in the maze I’d set up to protect my secret.

When I went home last weekend, I was determined to find it once and for all. I found a mountain of boxes that all looked the same, and started sifting through them. And, finally, there it was - a beat-up old Elite Trainer Box from the Plasma Storm set in 2013, placed carefully behind lookalike black boxes filled with common, inexpensive Magic: The Gathering cards that I’d hoped would be enough to fool my parents if they decided to go looking.

The box was so crammed full of cards that I could barely open it, and the first one to greet my eyes was the one I remembered most and was most ashamed of: Flareon gold star.

I’d bought that card after buying an extremely expensive booster box of a vintage set called EX Legend Maker, trying to get a card with a gold star on it. The odds were one in three boxes, and as I tore through the first box, I recall praying that any of the packs inside would contain what I was looking for and thus justify the huge expense, tossing all other cards aside. When I didn’t pull the card I wanted, I cried while ordering a second booster box, and I got no joy out of the second opening because there was no gold star card in there either. Eventually, I went online and bought that flareon card to stop myself from buying a third booster box and trying to even the odds.

Behind the flareon was a base set Charizard, the most valuable card from the first-ever set of pokemon cards. I had no recollection of buying it.

Nor did I remember buying the Japanese Dark Charizard behind it, a card that I’d missed ever since giving my collection to a “friend” who never gave it back. I was so desperate for friends, then, that I was willing to give away my favorite card, plus an almost-complete set of Base Set cards worth a great deal of money now. When I begged for the cards back, starting on the next day, she told me she had lost them.

That one, I wasn’t embarrassed about. I could justify that card. But as I continued to go through the box, I saw all over again why I’d hidden it so well. There was no way to justify a Jungle Jolteon or a first edition Fossil Articuno, expensive cards I had no emotional attachment to. There was no way to hide that I had spent a lot of money on a Japanese golden Reshiram and a crystal Ho-Oh. There was no avoiding the Ziploc baggie filled with rare and expensive packs that I wouldn’t dream of buying even one today, from EX Dragon Frontiers to Fire Red Leaf Green.

It was overwhelming, mind-blowing, how deep my addiction to purchasing Pokemon cards had become. I excused it at the time, considering the battle I was fighting in my head, but when I found the box, I discovered what it looked like to a clear mind. Without that battle, the heap of expensive cards looked scary. It looked like I was someone who had no self-control and no respect for money. There were also plenty of things in and around the box that didn’t make any sense no matter how I looked at them:

There were eleven theme decks that I never played, because I didn’t have any friends to play with.

Some of the most expensive cards were stuffed in sleeves too small for them, some in doubled-up sleeves that I hadn’t even noticed.

Most of the cards were thrown in the box haphazardly, not organized in my preferred system or any system at all.

Spreading the cards around me felt like a look inside a diseased mind - disorganized, frenzied, leaping from point to point and sticking to the smallest of things that could make me happy for the briefest of moments. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing what I was like then, in the time when I felt I had no control over myself or anything at all.

It might be hard to comprehend why, years after my recovery from depression, I am occasionally buying packs again. It was a tough decision to make, and one that I didn’t make lightly as I bought myself a Detective Pikachu tin to celebrate seven years since my initial hospital stay. It was tempting, when I first saw the new cards, to start buying everything I missed out on from the years between when I didn’t play at all. But I knew myself, and I knew I needed to come up with a way to engage in this habit healthily.

Now, I have rules: I buy packs only at prerelease tournaments, which only happen a few times a year and have a set price point. If there’s something in particular that I really want outside of prerelease boxes, I allow myself only one product per month. I watch YouTube videos to see what the odds look like for different kinds of packs, so that I don’t repeat my EX Legend Maker mistake. For example, in April, I bought a $20 box of GX Ultra Shiny in Korean for 1/6 the price it would have been in Japanese, and only after determining that every single box has a minimum of two cards I wanted (I pulled three). I try to celebrate whichever cards I pull and actually use them in building decks, and I take care of the cards I pull no matter their rarity.

Most importantly, if I have a mistake or a moment of weakness and buy cards I shouldn’t, I tell myself that I’m not a bad person and it’s not a slippery slope to where I was. Whenever I resist buying cards I like at the store, I praise myself, which can be hard to do. I’m trying to be more open with people about what happened with my obsessive habit, and I’m working on finding new coping mechanisms like video games, reading, talking to friends, and more that don’t involve overeating or overspending.

Developing new coping mechanisms that don’t rely on my childhood compulsions has been one of the harder parts of moving into adulthood with OCD. It can be easy to have bad days and think everything is lost if I buy a few packs of cards or eat too much deep dish pizza.  But with proper precautions, I can enjoy these hobbies like anyone else - and I can be proud of my newest special card, a rainbow Eevee and Snorlax GX, as a sign that things can change and I can turn a weakness into a strength.

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.