Wednesday, March 31, 2010

OCD and Pens

Sitting in a room of 300 desks, math class in college - "Math for the Liberal Arts" for those of us who haven't used a quadratic equation since high school. I'm a Freshman at 21 and taking a full load of courses. I'm trying to keep everything perfectly organized. For English Composition class I have a green folder, green notebook, and use a green pen. For Leadership Skills it's purple; for Literature it's black. In Math it's blue.

We've gotten through voting methods and now we're on Euclidean circuits. I'm struggling to keep up with the TA's writing on the chalk board. Dammit! My pen is out of ink. I scrounge through my purse, through my backpack, through my coat pockets. Shit shit shoot! I'm pulling pens out of everywhere, but none of them are the right pen. I've got a No 2 pencil for test days, black pens, red pens, green pens, purple pens - no blue pens. My heart is beating faster and it's getting hard to breathe. The TA is filling up the third board and soon he's going to be erasing the notes I was trying to get down.

A girl beside me asks, "What's wrong?" I whisper back, "I can't find my pen!" She looks at me oddly, and as her eyes take in the office supply cache on my desk they widen. "Oh." I keep ripping through my purse, over and over, even though I've been through it already. I dump the contents on my desk. Cigarettes, hairbrush, caffeine pills - Dammit where's my PEN?? I start to cry. It's soft at first, fat tears rolling down my cheeks and landing on my notes, smearing them and making them illegible. The TA erases the first board and the second, and begins writing out a problem two or three ahead of me. I start to hyperventilate, knowing I can't catch up now.

Full of concern, the girl beside me raises her hand, "Uh sir? I think Angie needs to go to the counseling center." He sees me, falling apart, head in my hands, my racking sobs becoming audible now, and motions her to remove me from the room. She grabs fistfuls of pens and shoves them back into my purse, takes my notebook and text book and puts them in my backpack. She packs up her own things. "Come on," she tells me, "It's time to go." Blindly following her through the film of my tears, I let her lead me out of the room.

She walks with me out of the Mathematics building and over to Student Services. We take the elevator to the second floor and go through the double doors reading "Counseling Center." The woman behind the low wrap around desk in the lobby hands me a clipboard with a five-page checklist of common problems. I mark off more than I leave blank.

The girl who's name I don't know leaves me there, and I read and re-read the checklist, over and over again, making sure I haven't missed anything. My breathing is more normal now and my heart beat is beginning to slow down. Finally, after about half an hour, a counselor comes to see me.

We talk for about an hour, and I cry and choke and struggle to explain why exactly I had such a spectacular breakdown in the middle of class. "I didn't have the right pen," I keep saying, knowing by now how stupid it sounds. She roots around in her filing cabinet, and pulls out another checklist.

"I'm going to come back in a few minutes, but I want you to fill this out while I'm gone," she tells me. Again, I mark off more than I leave blank. She returns to the room, looks over my list and says to me, "You have obsessive compulsive disorder."

All my life I'd avoided getting a medical diagnosis - avoided hearing any "words of death" spoken over me that would give power to the demons, yet once she has said them I don't feel terrified; I feel relieved. There's a NAME for this? Other people know what it is? Counting "1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6" isn't normal, but neither is it so crazy they don't know what it is?

She sends me off with a pamphlet and a note excusing me from the classes I've missed. I walk around campus, reading and thinking. "I'm not alone!"

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