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  • Writer's pictureThe OCD Catholic

My Academic Battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Tis the back to school season. As you get ready to go back to school in person or online, it’s a transition you either love or hate. Or maybe both. I love school and learning and the classroom setting. I’m in school to be a teacher, and so there are few things that get me as excited as a new class schedule, blank planner pages, and reading lists for the semester. But, the school year is often one of the most difficult things for me as someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So today I’m going to share a bit about my experience as a college student with OCD and scrupulosity and how that can change my educational experience.



Background

When I was first noticing that my symptoms might be OCD, I was in my 2nd year of my undergrad. I was studying Political Science at the time, and was getting ready to transfer to a four year university from a community college.


During the Fall semester I was taking English, Biology, Computer Technology, and Math. I was studying on two campuses and was involved in several different extracurricular activities. So I was driving around a LOT and trying to balance a lot of different things. The two classes I really struggled to cope with were my math and science classes. Biology was where I had the most trouble. I am not a science person by any means. I have very little talent for it, and it is just not my gift. I am a social studies and English person. That is where my gifts are academically.


Exams

Anyway. This Biology class was an 8AM lecture Tuesdays and Thursdays with a lab on Friday mornings. The lecture professor was kind, but not a great public speaker. One morning, we had an exam. I sat in the front row, per my habit, and was taking my exam. The protocol was to bring your scantron and exam up to the front, turn them in, and leave when you were finished. As I was struggling through my test, one of my classmates walked forward and turned in his exam. I was focused on my paper, but I could see his scantron out of the corner of my eye. Immediately I was filled with guilt and thought I must have been cheating. For the rest of my exam, I was focused on making my answers the opposite of what I thought I had seen on his paper. Panic had taken over. I think I cried. Not audibly, but still. My thoughts raced. I would have to go to Confession. But that was a nightmare to cope with. Would I get expelled from my school for cheating? It was all I could think about. Even thinking about it now, I can feel my body tensing up and getting anxious. I eventually turned in the test and left and went to my next class at a campus across town.


The scenario I described above became standard operating procedure for multiple choice exams. I thought it would be cheating to know the answer on my own because my professor had stood and told us what it was in a lecture. I had to pull the answer out of the air for it to be correct. Even that was hardly acceptable. Any time I thought I saw a classmate’s paper, I was in a living Hell. I just wanted to get out of the exam room as fast as possible so I could move on with my life. I would give the wrong response to questions I knew the answers to- that was how bad the OCD had gotten. Often I would cry during and/or after an exam because it was so mentally and emotionally taxing.


This continued, and I had no way of effectively coping with it. Being in an exam room with other students was torture not because of the exam, but because of the fear of cheating. And honestly this still goes on. To a lesser degree more often than not, but it still happens.


Papers

As any college student has to do, I have to write papers. They’re not very fun, and when you have OCD, it can be a torturous process. As the Fall of 2017 turned into the spring of 2018, my OCD only got worse. I was anxious and sad. It didn’t help that on the day of a Comparative Government midterm, I was in a car accident that, while just a fender bender, was terrifying. One of the worst parts of that day was knowing that my professor for the class whose midterm I’d missed would require me to write an extra term paper, per his class policy. I already had one paper to write for that class, and could not for the life of me think of a topic. So now, having to think of two topics, I was stumped. I couldn’t possibly write these.

As time dragged on, I continued to draw a blank for my Comparative Government papers. Making matters even worse was a term paper for my Religion class that was giving me extra anxiety, because, as I was writing about the Eucharist, I didn’t want to write anything heretical.


However, these weren’t the main issues keeping me from writing these papers. Plagiarism was. I knew there was nothing I could write that would be completely original. I was terrified at the thought of inadvertently taking credit for an idea that wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to be brought before an honor board for a potential honor code violation. This had never happened to me before, as all my work was honest and painstakingly cited, but professors talked so much about it that it got to me. My Comp. Gov. professor was an authority on recognizing plagiarism and gave seminars on it to other professors. The anxiety about cheating grew worse and worse and worse.


I remember the night before my Religion paper was due, sitting down to my laptop to try and write it. The hours dragged on, and I couldn’t even get a full page written. The more I sat there, the worse and worse it got. I couldn’t do this. I was so anxious that my throat began to close up and it was hard to breathe. I was crying and trying to take a breath, and eventually I had to call it quits. I wouldn’t be turning it in. I wouldn’t be turning any of them in. It was hard for me to do this, because I was a good student who generally turned in work on time and bent myself over backwards to get it all done. That girl was gone. In her place was a sobbing, snot covered, mess of a girl who could barely write a sentence, let alone breathe. It was in that hours long moment that I realized I needed help.


When professors reached out to see why I hadn’t submitted my work, I came clean that I had had a rough semester of dealing with severe anxiety, and wouldn’t be turning in those papers at all. I knew that I would fail my Comp. Gov. class, and hoped that my high scores up to that point in Religion would keep me afloat in that class. They did. But it was a small consolation compared to the year of suffering I’d gone through up to that point.


Coping

I wish I could honestly say that I have found the secret formula to cope with OCD in a school setting. I haven’t. Taking my medication has helped some, but the obsessions and compulsions that come with writing a paper or taking a test still remain. Some days, they’re barely there. Others, I take the loss and move on. Because sometimes that’s all I can do. It isn’t easy. There have been so many times that I have contemplated dropping out of school and seeing what I could do without my degree. But I am VERY stubborn and am determined to get my degree, even if I have to take it one class at a time.


So now how do I cope with my OCD when it comes to school now? Well, it’s a bit of a battle some days. Some days I need to just power through and remind myself that it’s all going to be okay, and that I am not going to be called out for cheating when I’m not. I make sure to cite as much of my work as possible in papers, and include as much of my own thoughts as I can at the beginning of the writing process before adding in other sources. I also make sure to continue having therapy and to be on top of taking my medications. Some people reach out to the disabilities office at their school to see if accommodations can be made for them. I haven’t done that myself, because I know that can feed the OCD. If my doctor and I felt that it was necessary or might be helpful, I would do that. Honestly, every case is different, and what works for me might not work for you, or vice versa. It’s up to you and your doctor(s) and maybe even professors to determine what might help in your specific case.


If you struggle to battle your OCD in school, know that you are not alone. It sucks, but it can be combatted. It’s just a matter of finding what works best for you.


I am praying for you all.

St. Therese, pray for us.

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