Never Enough: OCD and Perfection

by Anna Hiestand

Take a 30-minute shower. Wash my hands. Take a sponge-bath. Wash my hands. Brush my teeth, floss, brush my teeth again, again, and one more time. Take a sponge-bath. Take another sponge-bath. Get dressed. Put on lotion. Wash it off. Splash my face, 40 times. Comb my hair, put on more lotion, then wash it off. Wash my hands. Comb my hair again and put on more lotion. Wash my hands.

Having finally completed my internal checklist, I glance at the clock—and realize I am going to be late for the first day of class. Exiting the safety of my dorm, I jog through the campus grounds to reach the University Academic Center. The passing students are like minefields. Whenever one of them coughs, I duck my head and hold my breath for as long as I can. I pick up my speed as I reach the building, using a clean tissue to open the doors. By the time I reach my classroom, the professors have already started their lecture on storytelling. As a cinema major, I expect this topic to enthuse me, but the only emotion I feel is anxiety. Lately, writing has been as much of a chore to me as getting dressed.

As you may have guessed, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD. In our society, people with perfectionist tendencies sometimes joke that they are “so OCD,” but real OCD is more complicated than that. People with OCD obsess about certain topics, such as germs, symmetry, or religious piety. We mitigate these obsessions by continuously performing compulsions—washing our hands, organizing, praying, etc.

As WebMD puts it, “OCD isn’t about habits like biting your nails or thinking negative thoughts. An obsessive thought might be that certain numbers or colors are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A compulsive habit might be to wash your hands seven times after touching something that could be dirty. Although you may not want to think or do these things, you feel powerless to stop” (“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [OCD]”).

Performing these compulsions adds fuel to the fire, increasing the obsessions and demanding more of the compulsions. People with OCD are not foolish; the logical part of our brains know that these compulsions are not necessary. However, the compulsions seem to be the only antidote for our severe obsessions.

My obsessive fear of germs started twelve years ago when I developed septic tonsils. My tonsils did not look swollen, so no one knew that they were poisoning my entire body. I could not control anything else in my life, but I could control my exposure to germs. All I could do was avoid germs as much as possible. After two years of hospital visits, a doctor discovered the infection and removed my tonsils. I recovered, but my compulsions continued to grow out of fear that I might get terribly sick again. Slowly, OCD began seeping into other areas of my life. I started to worry that I was not a true Christian. I feared—and still do—that I could say the wrong thing to someone and turn them from Christ, causing them to go to hell. I know this is not rational, but the thought is so overwhelming that I cannot ignore it.

Now, OCD is affecting my greatest joy—writing. I agonize over my works, hating myself whenever I write anything less than perfect. As my passion for writing dissipates, I begin to lose my drive to write for media.

For better or for worse, media has increased the world’s awareness of OCD. Some shows, such as Monk, feature characters with this disorder as a source of comedy. Monk is quite funny at times, but I would like to remind viewers that real-life OCD is devastating—both for the sufferers and for those that love them. In the series, Monk’s OCD contributes to his obsession with solving his wife’s murder. Ultimately, Monk does so, perhaps in part because of his OCD. 

Other media has also suggested that OCD can be beneficial. For example, the 2004 film The Aviator is based on the life of Howard Hughes, who was an entrepreneur, director, and pilot with OCD. In the film, Hughes’s obsession with making a perfect movie motivates him to recut The Jazz Singer, resulting in critical acclaim. Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Hughes, has slight OCD. He allowed his illness to worsen while on set, resulting in a realistic performance that contributed to the success of The Aviator (J.H.).

So, to deal with OCD, should one embrace it, allowing it to influence their art? Personally, this has only hindered my ability to create. I focus so much on making things perfect that I cannot accomplish anything. Remember, Monk is a fictional character and DiCaprio’s OCD is much milder than that of the real Hughes. Hughes’s condition worsened as he aged, leading to severe mental decline.

New York Times best-selling author John Green says that his OCD can overwhelm him, making it impossible to write, think, or notice anything outside of his obsessions. He cannot control these intrusive thoughts, which debilitate him if he goes off his medication. In his novel Turtles All the Way Down, Green wrote of an amateur detective whose OCD impedes her investigative skills. Rather than glorifying OCD as a “superpower,” Green offered a realistic view into the life of someone with this disorder. Green’s brother, Hank, admitted, “Even having a brother who deals with OCD, I never really got it until I read the book” (Alter). Similar to Green, I want to explain the realities of OCD in my writings. 

But now, as I sit in my Art of Storytelling class, I feel my illness stifling my creativity. As the class ends, the professors announce our first assignment: in a short time, we each have to submit 250 original loglines, which are one-sentence story premises. Dread sinks within me. Nowadays, I cannot come up with a single good idea, let alone 250 of them!

“Most of your ideas will be awful,” our professors tell us. “That’s all right. Your grade is dependent only on your ability to submit 250 original ideas.”

I feel a flicker of hope. For once in my life, I do not have to worry about perfection. Instead of obsessing over each idea, I can refocus my OCD into a singular goal—completing the project on time. To do so, I open my mind to imperfect ideas. It seems like a contradiction, but the result is both freeing and effective. Back in my dorm, I write down every concept that comes to me whether it is good or bad. To my surprise, I end up liking many of my ideas—and my professors do too! I later have to develop eight of my best loglines into story pitches. With limited time, my perfectionist side has to give way to my messy creative side. Once I complete my drafts, I permit myself to edit them. I believe in always doing my best, so I still try to achieve perfection, but because I need to meet a deadline, I manage to refine them without going overboard. For the first time in a long time, I feel passionate about my stories.

In my spare time, I decide to use this approach to improve my cartooning skills. Without a deadline, I find myself slipping into my old ways. I spend hours trying to flawlessly shape the lines and circles that constitute my favorite cartoon characters; when it is time to draw the actual characters, I am too frustrated to do well. Unwilling to give up, I lean back in my chair and look at a reference photo I have saved of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had once hoped to write characters as intricate as him, but I am not good enough for that. As hard as I try, I can never be perfect. I cannot get clean enough, I cannot be a flawless Christian, and I cannot create anything worthwhile at first try.

Finally, I accept that. Out of pure appreciation for Zuko, I just…draw him.

And it looks good! Shocked, I sketch more pictures without trying to get a good first result. Over the weeks that follow, my art improves and I begin to draw original characters. I love them so much that I start to write stories about them again. This time, I set my own deadlines. I still make my projects as excellent as I can, but I no longer feel stuck in an eternal loop.

Now, I am applying the same methods to write this article. I focus on the bigger picture, allow myself to write a disorganized first draft, and set a deadline so that my strive for perfection will not turn into an obsession. While looking up information for my article, I learn that YouTuber JerrysArtarama applies a similar technique to prevent his OCD from overpowering his art. “It is important to make a space that you dedicate to being messy,” he says in a video. Like Monica’s untidy closet in Friends, this area can offer a safe place to unwind while remaining separate from one’s methodical life (JerrysArtarama).

The techniques I have mentioned are beneficial to all. Everyone has mental roadblocks; the first step to managing them is acknowledging that they will never completely disappear. As Green said in an interview, “OCD is something that is an ongoing part of my life and I assume will probably be a part of my life for the rest of it” (Flood). 

I will most likely always obsess over germs and religious thoughts. However, if we take strides to define OCD as a real disorder rather than a quirky superpower, we can encourage sufferers to acknowledge their illness and begin taking steps to manage it.

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “John Green Tells a Story Emotional Pain and Crippling Anxiety. His

Own.” The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/books/john-green-anxiety- obsessive-compulsive-disorder.html

J.H. “Leonardo DiCaprio’s magnificent obsessive.” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3632803/Leonardo-DiCaprios-magnificent-obsessive.html

JerrysArtarama. “Artist Problems—Art for People with OCD.” https://www.youtube.com/watchv=69MYa1WeN-M&t=138s

“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).” WebMDhttps://www.webmd.com/mental-health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder#1

Anna Hiestand is a cinema student at Houston Baptist University. She loves God, storytelling, hiking, and dogs.

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