OCD and school

I thought today I’d write a few things about the ways in which OCD affected my time at school. If this blog gains traction it might be useful for teachers.

Early signs

One of my earliest memories is from when I was 4 or 5. I thought I had stared at my teacher. I knew that I shouldn’t stare at people, and as a result I got very upset and started crying (because I had done something wrong). I don’t believe this was fear of being told off, because obviously no one else noticed my staring, if anything the teacher was probably pleased to have attention from one of her pupils. For me it was more focused on the notion that I had done wrong, and I should not do wrong. This isn’t OCD in itself, but it could have been an early warning sign of OCD traits, such as inflated responsibility and rigid thinking.

Fear of copying and cheating

In high school I was very concerned about copying others. When I took exams I spent the whole time with my hand covering the side of my face so I couldn’t accidentally see anyone else’s answers. I wouldn’t let my parents help me with homework as I felt I should do it myself, otherwise it would be cheating. I would struggle for hours rather than accept help.

In my GCSE History exam I put my pen down a couple of moments after the teacher told us to stop writing. When I got my GCSE results they were very good (if I may say so myself!) but I wasn’t able to enjoy them because I felt that I’d cheated on the History exam. I went to speak to a history teacher and found that I was 14 marks past the grade boundary – this reassured me a little as it wouldn’t be possible to gain 14 marks in 2 seconds. But the overwhelming feeling I experienced when I received the best set of marks of my life (they remain my best relative marks to this day), was that it was undeserved and that the whole set of GCSE marks (from all subjects) was tainted because I’d cheated in History. Now I am proud of them and I know I didn’t cheat, though I couldn’t tell you how long it took for me to get to this view.

Another related way in which OCD affected my school work was in a piece I wrote for English. The options were to write a story or an autobiographical piece. I wanted to write a story, but some of my friends had chosen that option and I thought I would be copying if I did the same thing, so I wrote the autobiographical piece instead…

Moral fears and scrupulosity

This autobiographical piece ended up being a nightmare to write, because my OCD made me feel like I needed to write it as a moral example for my teacher (with hindsight this is somewhat comical). I suppose I was frightened of writing anything that might lead my teacher astray morally. This could be seen as an example of scrupulosity, a type of OCD which is focused on religious or moral obsessions. I ended up getting one of the worst marks I’d ever received.

OCD’s interaction with my future

Talking of bad marks, OCD really interfered with my A levels as well. I had an offer to study at one of the best universities in the UK, but I needed to get top grades to finalise the offer. I was desperately anxious during that time (for a range of additional reasons), and my OCD was a nightmare.

It is difficult to remember exactly what happened with this next example, but I think it was a mixture of things. Part of it was that I had spent so much time as a teenager OCD-checking things that I struggled to engage with the action of checking, as it caused me so much anxiety. I expect I also had bad thoughts about which words I could write without terrible things happening. And I wouldn’t allow anyone to help me with my work as that would be cheating. I vaguely remember trying to print the piece of work and being scared to even look at it as it was so important that it was a huge target for my OCD and I could barely cope with the anxiety of handling it. [Writing this 12 years later I’m actually proud of myself for working so hard in the face of almost total panic].

This culminated in me submitting work with an obvious mistake in the title, and I ended up getting a D. I desperately needed an A overall in order to take up the offer I had from university, and this was a big blow to that. Eventually I told my teacher about my OCD and she advised me to exercise. She had no idea how ill I was, which I suppose was partly because I had been hiding it somewhat, but also because she didn’t know about mental illness. Her strategy (as I experienced it) when I struggled was to put more and more pressure on, and my grades got worse. I was also spending so much time on this subject that I didn’t have as much time to devote to Maths, which was the A level that I was least naturally suited to.

On results day I was woken up by my heart beat. My place at the top university had been declined because my grades were ABB. I rung them up and asked if they had considered what I had told them about being mentally ill, and the woman said they had thought about it but they had ‘sticklers for grades’ who would complain if they let me in. Two days later my first boyfriend broke up with me because I didn’t get into the university like he had done.

A happy ending (for a change)

School interacted badly with my OCD, partly because the teachers didn’t recognise that anything was wrong, and partly because I was adamant that the teachers shouldn’t know about it (until the very end, when it was so obviously harming my work that I felt that telling them was the only option). I’m trying to remember why I was so resistant to the teachers (and my GP) knowing – it was probably a mixture of not wanting to accept how ill I was (and still hoping I could get better on my own), self-stigma, fear of being treated differently, and not wanting to accept that attaining academic perfection might not be in my reach anymore, given how bad my OCD was.

But to the happy ending… if I didn’t have OCD I might well have got over the line on the grades, and gone to one of the best universities in the UK. But I was still able to go to a good university, and I’m at a similar place career-wise than I would have been if I’d gone to the other university – maybe a couple of years behind, but that’s ok. Most importantly I met my partner at the university I did attend, so whilst OCD won the battle for my A levels, I ultimately ended up better off as a result.

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