I don’t remember exactly at what age I realized I had anxiety. I’m not exactly sure if there’s a particular incident that sparked it. And I probably couldn’t tell you why I couldn’t escape it for so long, but once I learned to tell time, it undoubtedly began to destroy me.
I started to fill notebooks with lists from a very young age. The lists were particularly things I had to do – though in reality, the only obligations of my youth were to dress myself, learn my spelling words, and never miss an episode of Arthur. I thought nothing of this odd habit that I’d somehow developed, and it ended up sticking throughout all of grade school.
Years progressed and I still couldn’t escape the waging war between time and my mind. Though there was an eerie lull among my neighborhood, the kind that would hush any sane person back to sleep, my mornings began at 5:30.
“Shower, make breakfast, dry your hair, straighten your hair, put on makeup,
put on clothes, pack a lunch, pack your bag. Make breakfast, hair, makeup, clothes, pack. Hair, makeup, dressed, pack, leave.”
My mind was a chaotic yet orderly parade. My morning schedule ran rhythmically in my head like a drumbeat, and every time I’d finish an item, a new instrument would chime in. Soon enough, the noise in my head would drive me out the door and to my high school – ten minutes away – where I was at least fifteen minutes earlier than I needed to be.
Time wasn’t the extent of this compulsion though. Starting my junior year, I took an inventory of everything that I owned. I’d carefully calculated what I’d wear each day for the next month in effort to not repeat a single outfit. I’d stress myself out over things like whether or not my laundry was done because I refused to wear x cardigan with y tank top, or if my closet was out of order (which I arranged by sleeve length).
Before I opened my paycheck every two weeks, I’d know exactly how much it was going to be – and would already have all of it pre-allocated. My parents told me that I was being responsible, but this practice was deeper than just being money savvy. Numbers had never been something that sat well with me; math had always been challenging. But here I was – number crunching biweekly in hopes that gas prices stayed around $3.86 because the money I had designated to my gas tank had little room to fluctuate.
This is when I started to realize that my manic organization habits might actually be a legitimate problem. After self-diagnosing myself via the Internet, which drew me to a series of false conclusions (schizophrenia and depression being among them), I sought out a professional opinion. I had general anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, the anxiety subsided. Perhaps because I wasn’t living under eyes critical of my successes and failures; perhaps I took a huge step into the “grown-up” world which didn’t allow me time to constantly be worried about the smallest of details – maybe a combination of the two.
It wasn’t something that left me right away though. I still organized everything on my desk so precisely that I could staple an essay together, find the exact pen/pencil/highlighter color combination that I needed for each of my classes, or choose the correct size of binder clip for a textbook chapter with my eyes closed.
I still made weekly to-do lists every day, just to revise each day as I saw necessary. I’d allow myself fifteen minutes to walk to class, which meant I had to wake up at exactly 8 am. If someone was in the shower when I woke up, I had to entirely reevaluate my morning. But for the first time in a long time, I started “budgeting” time for myself. I’d give myself a half hour, maybe an hour out of the day where I had no self-induced obligation, and could do whatever I damn well pleased. I relished this time – moments where I could go to the river for some fresh air, catch up with a neighbor, skype a friend from home, or read a book that wasn’t required for a class.
Moments like these were when I completely forgot about my OCD; moments like these were when I enjoyed the effortlessness of being alive.
My second semester of my freshman year, I became swamped with my classes and working two jobs. My brain became so wrapped up in managing my time outside of my obligations, and it convinced itself that it was trapped. Trapped in the 168 hours in a week, 40 of which I was working and 16 of which I was in class, plus the 25 hours I allotted for homework. I’d give myself enough time for 6 hours of sleep every night but I’d toss and turn for most of them–stressed over how much time I didn’t think I had for the long list of things I had to do the next day. I considered the other 45 hours wasted if they weren’t doing something productive, even though I know that they were spent on the subway, waiting for elevators, laying in bed and enjoying the haze that is between waking up and sleeping, and having extended conversations with store clerks or the barista making my coffee.
I’d justify it to myself though. “That’s just how my brain works. I’m just a really organized person.” But once again, I had crossed the line between organized and obsessive.
Once the semester ended, I began to breathe again. I realized that the “me time” I had first semester could last more than an hour. It could last all day if I wanted it to. As long as I showed up for work five days a week, and did my laundry every once in a while, I could do whatever I wanted with the rest of my day. For as elementary as this was, the blissful indifference to the clock was something that I had seldom experienced within the past year.
Slowly but surely, I came to terms with my anxiety toward time and the havoc that it had wreaked on my mind. I stopped setting alarms, making lists, and timing every venture I’d take. For the first time in a long time, I started to write and read for myself and in turn, wrote some of the things that I’m the most proud of. I learned too late in life that you couldn’t schedule time to be creative – for imagination isn’t capable of following an itinerary.
Though I’m still learning how to meet every engagement that adulthood demands of me, I can finally say that I’m living for myself and not for the twenty-four hours in a day.
—article by KATIE SCHULTZ