How poetry has eased my Pure OCD
This article is a double debut, both in discussing my OCD as a journalist, and writing about the disorder in relation to my poetry. Creative writing has eased the traffic of my congested mind when Pure ‘O’ feels overwhelming, and I hope this piece shows how writing poems can be both a joy and an effective coping mechanism.
I remember the day as clear as glass — well smudged glass — because it’s hard to remember some things clearly when one of my OCD symptoms is ‘false memory’. Overused examples of someone with this symptom tend to fall on the obsessive worry of not locking a door. However, false memories expand to all kinds of situations, where events or conversations replay like fuzzy recordings, always keeping you guessing.
I was walking back from a day at Sixth Form, the sun stinging my eyes, my mind dark with thoughts, going over situations in class, with friends, and family, trying to remember what I’d said and done. Slumped on the sofa when I got home, I trawled through online advice with no luck, but I eventually found a forum with people discussing unwanted images, thoughts, and how they related to their personhood. I don’t remember details, but I’ll never forget how my smile stretched to reach the edges of hope.
I would never recommend informal online discussion as the only form of help, and it can be really harmful and counterproductive if seeking reassurance or hoping for a ‘quick fix’ or simple diagnosis. However, as a teen struggling with endless worry, I realised in the short snippets of feeling on the forum, both the potential of writing and that I had what I didn’t yet know was termed Pure ‘O’. Now at 25, poetry lets me extract my thoughts, helping me as a journalist, and encouraging me to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing.
More broadly, OCD is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions)”. However, Pure OCD (or Pure ‘O’) is a type where the person predominantly (but not exclusively) experiences mental obsessions or mental compulsions (e.g. intrusive thoughts or checking and repeating thoughts).
This past pandemic-stricken year has placed my Pure O symptoms in fast-forward mode. With the claustrophobia of multiple lockdowns, the daily time-loop of repeated routines and places has recharged my symptoms in the morning and night. However, writing has helped me accept the feelings, and being in a private space has let me see poetry not as a measure of success, but as an achievement for myself. As Anna Maria Di Brina writes, poetry in a pandemic can bring different meanings to what we think we know.
Poetry and OCD blend into one another. They are both a mix of the real and the imaginary, often seeming absurd or outlandish. With OCD, you can have different ‘categories and themes’; for example, contamination or intrusive thoughts are categories, and themes such as harm or perfectionism can cross over between categories. There is a lot of stigma around what OCD is, which can prevent people from getting the help they need. This is similar to the expectations around writing, where curated school anthologies teach you to dissect poetry in a quantifiable way.
For me, poetry is like music, it helps create a timeline of feelings that show you things can change. Similar to when you listen to a song that evokes nostalgia or bittersweetness so strongly it kneads into your skin, writing a poem lets you weave through multiple feelings. It is therapeutic to be able to travel back in time to poems written in distress, and look at them from above, knowing your future self could feel better.
OCD organisation Made of Millions says “When a Pure-O sufferer’s brain lands on a thought or question that is unacceptable to the person having the thought, the fear network of the brain is alerted that something is wrong and needs to be done about it IMMEDIATELY”. This sense of immediacy has been exacerbated by delays in therapy and a lack of access to support systems this past year.
The feeling like something is ‘wrong’ and needs to be made ‘right’ affects many OCD sufferers, but presents itself in different ways. For me, it feels like there is something sticky in my brain, like when you have jam on your fingers that you can’t rub off. The gooeyness of writing about feelings always put me off, but when the ‘stickiness’ of OCD developed, I found that letting the thoughts and feelings stretch onto the page made the imagery of something ‘wrong’ slightly fade, particularly when this year has been marked by so many things actually going ‘wrong’.
Research has shown that those with OCD tend to have a high response to ‘error’ and too few ‘stop signals’. So even if you know what you’re doing or thinking makes little sense, you do it anyway. Reading poetry has let my emotions bump into those of others, diluting this idea of ‘wrong’.
In the poem “The Visitor” from a collection called The Carrying, poet Ada Limón writes:
“This might be what growing older is. My problem: I see all the angles of what could go wrong so I never know what side to be on”.
— ADA LIMÓN, THE VISITOR
This felt like it was written for me, and showed me how poems move off the page.
At times when I feel like work or study seems pointless and tasks feel arbitrary, instead of poetry being just another task, it has let me move through the different types of feelings. I can now see how poetry and OCD are intertwined, and this has given me both a coping strategy and a life-long passion.
Here is a poem of mine called “writer’s block”: