The Social Price of OCD
My first friendship started in the sandbox, where four-year-old me was making a birthday cake for my feet and a fellow preschooler asked to help. It ended six years later at a pool party, after a huge fight, where she ended up splashing with the popular group while I sat alone and made up stories in my head.
I didn’t know to question friendship until then, but I’d always questioned social interaction. I might not have had Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) about socializing before, but I knew there was something different in how I interacted with people.
I never knew what to do when interacting with other kids, and even if I tried the same things that worked for them, I’d get vastly different reactions. Even before the actual bullying started, I felt unsure about my role in the class, and honestly, I didn’t have much time to learn how to reframe my thinking.
I was learning different things: how to pretend to be interested in small talk when my brain was going haywire, how to hide my interests even if they were the only things keeping me sane, how to keep my conversation partners from noticing if I was doing a compulsion, or even how to escape a conversation to do a compulsion I didn’t want them to see. I didn’t have the time or mental capacity to learn social niceties when I was fighting so hard against my own head.
As a result, social interaction was never easy.
I never had many friends as a kid. Every time someone would make an overture, I would get so excited, even if it was something small that they were also doing with everyone else. I quickly and painfully learned that “best friends forever” did not apply to me and it was easier to talk to teachers and other adults because they were at work and couldn’t be rude to a kid. (Well, most of the time.)
It took until the end of high school to form my first friendship that’s lasted more than my first, doomed friendship, and I still question if I’ve made a mistake when my friends say they’re busy or otherwise unavailable. I try to find ways to make my friends feel special to me, to give them gifts and write on important days and make sure to say hello on ordinary days too.
Some people have called it sweet. I call it the legacy of my compulsions and ANTs, a way to try to ensure they won’t abandon me too.
With that mindset, it’s no wonder that I’m cautious, especially in new situations. Especially when I first moved to Chicago, when I was starting a new life in a new city and knew absolutely no one. I couldn’t make the wrong first impression, and so I followed my rules (mainly, be as normal as possible) and did my best to feel comfortable.
Slowly, I began to make friends. It took me months, and only now am I finally feeling comfortable with my friend group outside of my work and my coworkers and boss. But it’s still hard for me when I see other new people coming in who seem to have infinite social skills and get everyone around them to like them in mere minutes.
Sometimes I wish for that easy charisma, the way these people can just swoop into a room and get everyone’s attention and respect without anything stopping them. Even when I’m with my closest friends now, people I’ve known for such a long time that I feel like I can read their minds, I still analyze my interactions with them, sometimes to the point where I feel like I’m missing out on the lighthearted fun.
And when I encounter someone who seems to have it so easy, even when I know I’m unaware of what may be going on in their own heads, I find it all too easy to get jealous. I envy the way some people can start a new job and immediately feel comfortable teasing their coworkers and boss, to the point where they become accepted instantly. I envy being the person no one forgets is in the room and the one whose conversations don’t all revolve around an awkward “what are you doing this weekend” and the one who is always appreciated, always seen.
As I devoured book after book in my childhood, often sneaking them out to the playground at recess to keep me company, I found myself gravitating towards stories where the main characters somehow find themselves in an important position. In these books, people had to include - or at least speak to - the protagonist, even if it was merely due to a social convention. As a young girl, that mostly meant books involving princesses, which I clung to secretly because I didn’t like the way it made me seem shallow.
When I sat alone at the lunch table and in the carpool line, I dreamed of waking up one day and having something about myself that would make people care about me and show me the same respect they did to their peers; to forgive my overanalyzing and treat me like I was someone special. At minimum, something that would make people have to be nice to me, even if I did a compulsion or said something wrong, and even if it didn’t lead to true friendships, at least I’d feel included on the surface. In the stories I made up in my head, many of my characters took up these important societal roles, loath as I was (and am) to admit it.
Here’s what I loved, and still love: these characters have the same inner turmoil I do, and often, even more. But they’re respected and heard and loved by their peers no matter what.
Even now, I love books where a character goes from being ostracized, ignored, or bullied to having some sort of special role that makes everyone pay attention to them. From Harry Potter to The Goblin Emperor (which I am currently loving), I love reading and rereading the part where the people who treated them poorly are forced to respect them and they finally feel included for the first time.
Things have gotten a lot better now, and days when I feel like I need to cling to these stories are few and far between. I can see what triggers me now, and what gives me the impulse to pounce on the book and flip to the worn pages usually at the front where everything gets better. I know, even now, that tomorrow will be a better day where things go back to normal and I won’t feel so bad that my OCD-ridden childhood means I lack the confidence and self-assuredness to make these instant friends on my own.
But today, on the bus back home, I’ll give myself time to dream of my favorite stories, to sink into them and imagine what could have been.
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.