Creating the “Perfect” Apartment Was Impossible with OCD — Here’s How I Coped

published Jul 21, 2022
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Credit: Sophie Bress

When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. 

OCD is a term that is somewhat embedded in the cultural lexicon, often used as an adjective — and often used incorrectly. It is not, as many people think, the feeling of joy stemming from organizing pens by color. It is not simply liking things to be neat, or enjoying using a label maker, or keeping a clean kitchen. 

OCD is a mental illness characterized by a cycle of recurring intrusive thoughts (obsessions) paired with actions aimed at assuaging the thoughts and the negative emotions that come with them (compulsions). The thing is, compulsions only relieve the distress temporarily. When the thought returns, you have to do them again. And again. And again. 

When I was diagnosed, I would spend all day, every day, performing an elaborate ritual of tapping, jumping, and turning just so I could make certain I would be able to fall asleep at night. Because it didn’t “feel right” not to, I had to do my pirouettes in ballet class on both sides, in exactly the same way. I felt an overwhelming need to confess any perceived personal shortcoming due to an immense, pressing guilt that was always weighing on me.

As an adult, OCD has taken many forms, always attaching to what I care about most: my relationships, my safety, my perception of myself as a moral, kind person. It has also given me an often overwhelming need to make things feel “just right.” This, in part, has manifested through an intense urge to control the space around me. 

After college, I moved into my own apartment for the first time. At first, I took joy in the decorating process: hanging my own pictures, picking out new furniture, and making the space just how I liked. But soon, I found that I couldn’t relax at home. Settling down on the couch to watch a favorite show or read a new book became increasingly difficult — and always took the back burner to my compulsions: straightening the trinkets on my shelves, wiping the kitchen counters “just one more time,” or rearranging the bookshelves until they were “perfect.” 

Somehow, all this straightening, color-coordinating, and dusting opened the floodgates for the relentless pursuit of perfection in all other areas of my life — and for beating myself up when I inevitably fell short. 

About a year and a half ago, I enrolled in an intensive program to learn to manage OCD. The disorder had taken over my life in all ways, affecting my social interactions, my ability to regulate and handle my own emotions, and my ability to care for myself.

The program I attended was rooted in Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, which is considered the gold-standard treatment for OCD. In the nearly three months I was enrolled, I worked with a therapist every day to design and perform “exposures,” which specifically introduced me to the things I was afraid of and challenged me to face them without compulsions. ERP’s ultimate goal is to retrain the brain so when OCD is triggered, instead of doing a compulsion, I can use more effective methods to ride the waves of my emotions instead of hiding from them. 

Credit: Sophie Bress

In my own space, this meant I had to give up the idea of perfection, instead working towards creating a cozy home that I can really live in. Now, to challenge myself, I’ll throw my shoes off at the door instead of lining them up parallel. I’ll leave the dishes out sometimes — if I don’t have time to do them or just don’t feel like it. I’ll leave my backpack in the “wrong spot.” After playing with the dogs, I let the toys stay on the ground for awhile, always leaving out a bone or two. Before, all of this would have seemed impossible.

Sharing the space with my boyfriend has also precipitated even more changes. Though OCD makes it difficult, I respect his space and belongings — and where he wants to put them — and when he helps with organizational projects, he has input into where our possessions go, instead of putting them in a spot that “feels right” to OCD. 

OCD recovery is anything but linear, though. Even still, I’ll find myself straightening things when they make me feel anxious or out of control, or getting frustrated when my boyfriend puts his things somewhere that OCD has deemed “wrong.” When I clean, sometimes I work myself into a panic, spending hours trying to get everything “perfect.” 

I’m continually pushing back against this disorder, though, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve learned that because of the way my brain latches to perfectionism and my space, my perfect apartment will always have to be imperfect. And I know that even though OCD makes compulsions feel like the most urgently important thing I need to do in my day, as long as I’m working at it, I can get back to what I really should — and want — to be doing: living.