One of my most visceral memories from Willow Landing Elementary School in Barrie, Ontario, is from fourth grade. I was standing in a cluttered music room utility closet with my younger brother Greg, wiping his arm with a microfiber brush. I watched as he took deep breaths with every swipe. A school counselor hovered nearby, waiting to send us back to class once my brother's compulsions were satisfied. There, beside a stack of half-broken recorders, Greg stood wearing his favorite pair of athletic pants and red and white Nike t-shirt—as he did most days—because he said they felt "just right." My mom had to wash the outfit several times a week.
That was back in September of 2002—my first memory of my brother's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A few weeks earlier, his psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin, suggested that my mother and I try using the microfiber brush daily as a way to curb my brother's sensory compulsions, which were a part of his OCD. His compulsions were made up by his incessant need to feel "just right" about everything he wore and owned, in how organized his room was, how he wrote his notes in school, and how he counted his steps in sets of eight.
For the most part, I didn't really understand what was going on in Greg's head during those situations because he always seemed fine to me. His habits were nothing like the way other people described OCD. He wasn't just cleaner or neater. With every cautious step, however, he was distracted by his clothes or his hair. It was like with every "regular kid" step he took, the obsessive part of his mind would yank him back into an irrational thoughts. Like two brains were fighting for one skull.
Thirteen years later, Greg is starting college for the third time. So far, he's tried sports management, a transition to a university psychology program, and now an environmental sustainability course. As he's gotten older, Greg's OCD seems to have taken different shapes. He's not without his obsessions—he takes and retakes notes and focuses on every small procedure, like printing lecture slides and correctly formatting his assignments. But lately, he's also become entrenched in the idea of who he'll be when he finishes school.
OCD is a mental health condition that affects approximately two percent of the world's population of various age groups. It takes hold when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions that usually manifest themselves through cyclical thought processes, physical tics, or mental fixations. And these obsessions don't come around when it's convenient. They are unwanted, intrusive and can supersede the day's most important thoughts. The severity can range but the first hints often pop up during early schooling years, as students learn autonomy and take the first steps to learn how to prioritize their lives.
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OCD is not a "thinking malfunction" that can be considered an advantage for workaholism. It can be a life-controlling, neurological problem that requires calculated and subject-based responses. For 23 years I've observed my brother's excruciating ticks and repetitions, which have manifested in his attempts to get through his first semester of college.
The key characteristic to understand is just how diverse these sets of fixations and triggered reactions can be. Justin Tanas, a 34-year-old Toronto native who also lives with OCD, says this is exactly what he wishes he could tell people that don't understand the disease. Tanas' constant worry is a hyper awareness of the seemingly miniscule chances he could hurt someone near him. When he walks down the street, if he so much as sways, he turns and checks his vicinity for at least 15 to 30 seconds to ensure he hasn't knocked someone into the street. "My normal brain knows it's ridiculous," he says, "but my OCD brain doesn't care."
"I remember once going over to a friend's house for a beer. Everything was fine until I got home," Tanas says. After returning to his apartment for a couple of hours, he began to dwell on whether or not to call his friend. After a couple of hours, he gave in. "Hey man," he said. "I know this sounds ridiculous but I need you to do something for me. Could you just go make sure there's no broken glass in the sink? We clinked beers earlier and I don't want you to get hurt."
Other popular examples that exist outside the sphere of personal cleanliness and organization are characteristics like a fixation with the potential of being homosexual and not knowing it. This is a common worry that isn't rooted in bigotry. Rather, it shows up in someone who knows he or she is heterosexual but is concerned when surrounded by people of the same sex that he or she is gay without knowing it. Others are extremely focused on not offending god, personal security, or their breathing patterns.
OCD treatments aren't as simple as visiting a doctor and picking up a bottle of pills. With every set of obsessions and compulsions being different, each patient must find what's right for them. Those with OCD often say that finding the right way to treat the disorder is the most difficult part of the process. My brother has been taking pills designed to lessen his anxiety and suppress the intensity of the triggered reactions to his fixations. Throughout his life he's gone up and down in dosages and even the time of day he takes his medication.
For Tanas, medication was never an option. He doesn't like taking medicine—a belief he admits might be stemming from his preoccupation with personal safety, which stems from his OCD, ironically. A psychology major in university, he has had success with Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), where subjects face their fixation head-on. They try to force themselves through triggered reactions without giving into their instinctive compulsions. The idea is that he engages with his obsessions so often that it becomes the norm for him.
It's hard to pin down exactly how growing up alongside my brother affected me. Living with and supporting someone with OCD is like your first slow dance in public school. You have to play it cool, act like you're not paying attention and let things carry on like normal. But at the same time never take your mind off your actions, where your hands are, how your feet are moving and what your next move is going to be. They have to know you're there, and you better be paying attention, but don't you dare treat them differently.
My brother paces around our bungalow in Peterborough, Ontario, during his first attempt at college. We just moved here from Barrie, and the move has done things to his OCD I've never seen before. "You know, I'm not sure if I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I'm learning a lot," he says to me about his classes. And the next day, "I don't know if I can do this marketing stuff forever, but my communications class is great." He walks through the door after school to the kitchen at the back of the house, and the cycle begins again. He eats a bagel while telling me about marketing. He organizes his room, he makes dinner, and then he cautions he may not have chosen the right course.
It was during this eternity of a month that I was convinced my brother's OCD had gotten worse. He'd fallen into this cycle where his homework and thoughts of the choices he'd made about school had become a new obsession. The way he acted to null those triggered fixations was simple yet night-encompassing—he'd talk. He'd talk to me, he'd talk to our mother or my dog Sadie, anyone who'd listen, about whether or not he'd made the right decision to take sports management. He did. And then he dropped out a month into the course.
In late October 2016, about four years later, my now 21-year-old brother Greg comes to visit me at my house in Kensington Market for a few days. Greg needs help organizing himself. He's in the middle of his third attempt to finish his first semester on a new campus. The first hour of work we do together, I mostly just watch him from my chair in my dimly lit basement bedroom while he's sitting on my bed. He moves his MacBook to the left, then the right and back again. He dusts it off. He adjusts the pillow for his back. He walks upstairs to the kitchen, ducking his head to make sure his six-foot-three frame won't bump the low ceiling above the basement stairs.
To others, Greg looks like a regular student—maybe even a lazy one. But when I watch his fingers graze over lined paper as he spends dozens of minutes deciding how he wants to design his notes, when I notice every time he pulls on his pants and ruffles his hair—when I see his intense focus on the imperfections that nobody else sees, I know he's not regular. After all these years of school, Greg says his biggest struggle is getting his instructors to understand why he's not okay. "They think I'm fine because I act normal," he says. "But I know it's not the real Greg inside my head."
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