Reducing Your Conscience: Living With OCD

A personal narrative about living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.


Illustrated by Caitlin Hsu.

Caitlin Hsu, Contributing Writer

You arrive at CVS armed with Alex’s five dollar bill and yours. He’s in class, so you set off alone to purchase a 10 dollar bag of trail mix to make up for the one he and you had leeched off of his roommate. 

You quickly zero in on the snack aisle. 

Trail mix: $8.99. 

The cashier hands you back one dollar, which means you now owe Alex fifty cents.

Six years ago, on the last day of your trip to Chicago, you bought a bag of Sour Patch Kids at the airport. Your father had bestowed upon you the privilege of paying for your own candy, but unfortunately, he had not bestowed upon you the right amount of cash — you were five cents short. The cashier, a middle aged woman with kind eyes and blonde hair in a ponytail, reached into her own tip jar for a nickel. 

“It’s okay sweetie, I’ll cover it.” 

Your stomach instantly plummeted. You spent the plane ride home in a guilt-ridden stupor, convinced you were now eternally indebted to a woman you would never see again.

You were ambling through the teen fiction aisle of Barnes and Noble, browsing for something new to read. Your nose started to itch, and naturally, you rubbed it. You found a sci-fi novel with a mildly intriguing cover. You reached out to grab it. The moment your fingers touched the front cover, a shockwave jolted through your body. You dashed to the bathroom to wash your hands, yanked a handful of paper towels out of the dispenser and bolted back to the teen fiction aisle to furiously wipe the book down. 

Another shockwave coursed through you as you realized dry paper towels might not be enough to eliminate the filth you had spread, and you ran back to the bathroom for a fresh batch of paper towels, which you dampened at the sink. You broke out into a cold sweat as you realized the water would only damage the book’s paper cover. The wet towels dripped from your clenched fists as you stood helplessly in the middle of the bathroom floor, at a complete loss for what to do. 

Illustrated by Caitlin Hsu.

You were walking through a parking lot in Chinatown when something on the ground caught your eye: a small, round, white pill, bright against the stony gravel of the pavement. Not thinking much of it, you kicked the pill into a sewage drain and kept on walking. 

Only later did you pause to wonder if the pill might have been important, if it might have been part of someone’s vital medical regiment. You tried not to imagine a withering old woman scouring the parking lot for her pill, struggling to breathe, clutching her chest, collapsing on the hot concrete. Doctors struggling to revive her, as the family members held on to each other for support. And the capsule that could have saved her life, dissolving in the sewage water. 

All because of you and your carelessness. 

You were at home, sitting on the edge of your bed with your hands clasped together and your face pointed towards the sky. 

A day ago, one of your cats had passed away. 

Death had always freaked you out, but this one had been distressing in an entirely different way. You had stroked his matted fur and struggled to keep your mind blank, terrified that a single negative thought could influence whether his soul went to Heaven or Hell. Now he was gone, but you still worried — your aunt had told you that the spirits of pets stick around for a day before ascending to Heaven, to watch over their families. 

You squeezed your hands tighter as you begged God to take pity on Lucky. You fought to keep the bad thoughts out of your head, but they kept coming, flooding your mind relentlessly until you were curled in a fetal position at the corner of your bed, clutching your pillow, sobbing with such force that your nose started bleeding, certain you had just condemned your pet’s soul to eternal damnation. 

Six years ago, you realized something was wrong with your brain. The therapist had finally put a name to the strange, repetitive mental quirks that had been riddling you with anxiety for months: You had OCD. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

It was the reason why you washed your hands countless times a day, why you were so scared of germs. It was the reason why you had a strange fixation on religious and moral values. It was the reason why you were afraid to speak in absolutes, to make exaggerations, to say anything that could be misinterpreted. It was the reason you constantly had bad thoughts in your head that you just couldn’t ignore. 

Despite all of this, you refused medication, unwilling to let artificial chemicals influence your thought processes. Sometimes medication is the solution, but sometimes time and your own sheer stubbornness do their work. 

Half a year later, you sat in English class, discussing a character’s motivation in a book you were reading. Somebody mentioned that the character behaved in a certain way because he wanted to avoid painful experiences. You nodded in agreement. 

“Nobody likes pain,” you chimed in. 

An absolute statement. Something you hadn’t made in a long time. 

You considered hedging the statement with qualifiers such as “Well, some people might like pain” or “I’m not saying every person in the world hates pain, I’m just saying most people don’t,” like you would have done a month ago, but the conversation had already moved on. 

You figured it was probably okay. They knew what you meant.

A couple weeks later, you exited a convenience store with your friend, who had just bought a box of cookies. She handed you a cookie, and you hesitated, wondering if you should go to the bathroom and wash your hands before eating it. But locating a bathroom and getting an employee to unlock it probably would have taken a lot of effort, and you were simply too lazy. 

So you took the cookie and ate it. 

It didn’t kill you. 

Three years later, your father asked you if you had deleted the inappropriate text messages to your boyfriend that he had found on your phone. Without thinking, you lied and said you had. Lying went directly against the Ten Commandments and was totally immoral. Sending inappropriate text messages to your boyfriend was also totally immoral. You felt a slight twinge in your conscience, which you quickly dismissed. It wasn’t that big of a deal.  

Illustrated by Caitlin Hsu.

Six years later, you exit CVS with a bag of trail mix in one hand and one dollar in the other. Four quarters, two of which do not rightfully belong to you. You briefly wonder if perhaps you should pay back your friend. Then, you pocket it. He won’t miss it.

Email Caitlin Hsu at [email protected]