Welcome back to You’re Not Alone: A mental health series where we aim to highlight mental health conditions that affect people’s day-to-day lives, and what products, apps, and services they use to make each day easier. This month, we hear from Cindy Jenkins (as told to Natasha Burton), a writer and educator with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
This article discusses feelings of obsessions, compulsions, attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, depression, and trauma.
If you’re thinking of hurting yourself or are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
You can also call 911 in the case of a mental health emergency.
A particularly stressful period of life prompted Cindy Jenkins, 43, to search for answers about her mental health.
Cindy, a writer, educator, and educational counselor, had dealt with perfectionism, difficulty finishing projects, compulsive list-making, and thoughts spiraling for some time. However, things came to a head when she and her husband moved back to Orlando, Florida, after a 2-year stint in China for work, and all got COVID-19 around the same time.
“I did some really irresponsible things — like leaving the oven on longer than I should have — and so that’s when I was like, ‘OK, listen, I have to figure out what’s happening,’” she says.
At first, she suspected she had attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
“I had happened upon a few videos that felt very in tune with the way I approach the world,” she explains. “But in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to look at a meme and self-diagnose.”
That being said, she did know that she had a hard time finishing tasks: “I wanted to figure out how to fix what I call the ‘doorframe syndrome’: you know, when you have one thing you’re going to do and then you walk through a door frame, forget about it, and see something else,” she says.
“That just happened all the time. I would be like, ‘I’m gonna go do the laundry. Oh, wait, before I do the laundry, I need to clear off my bed and make the bed so that I can fold all the laundry. And then, on the way to doing the laundry, I want to clean the living room.’ But I just never did any of it.”
Cindy was able to see an online psychiatrist who helped her clarify what was going on. In that first session, the psychiatrist asked why Cindy wanted to see her.
“I held up my notebook — four pages of single-spaced notes that I had made before I talked to her,” she says. “One of the things that she said that first meeting was, ‘So I’m assuming that you have a planner, and you detail everything that you need to do down to, like, pick up the pen in order to write this down in the planner.’”
When Cindy said yes and went into detail about how detailed these lists were, the psychiatrist diagnosed Cindy with OCD and ADD, explaining that these conditions are like two sides of the same coin. She also advised that Cindy stop using paper planners and super-detailed lists.
“And the first couple of days, I was a blubbering mess and felt very unanchored,” she explains. “I literally lived my life by lists and daily planners, and what I needed to do when.”
From there, Cindy began to unpack some of her so-called “quirky” habits — the aforementioned doorframe syndrome, her perfectionism, and her penchant for detailed list-making — to better understand her diagnosis and work toward breaking the patterns that weren’t serving her.
OCD is a chronic mental health condition that involves obsessions, compulsions, or both. According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 2% to 3% of people in the United States have this condition and
OCD involves two main types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. While many people living with OCD experience both obsessions and compulsions, some people only experience one or the other.
Obsessions are defined as intrusive thoughts, while compulsions are the behaviors in response to those intrusive thoughts. For instance, someone with an obsession with germs or illness may have a compulsion to wash their hands and sanitize their home.
Some other symptoms of OCD include:
- stress or trauma
- certain personality traits, including difficulty handling uncertainty and perfectionism
- abuse or trauma in childhood, like bullying or severe neglect
- traumatic brain injury
Usually, treatment for OCD will depend on the individual. Some can benefit from a combination of medication and psychotherapy, while others may prefer exposure response prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy.
For Cindy, OCD didn’t just affect her, it also affected the way she interacted with her immediate family. She says that becoming a mom made her conditions harder to live with, since being a parent is a constant job and she wasn’t always able to take breaks as needed.
When her kids were younger, for example, she had a hard time with getting them ready for school.
“I had an order in my head of how things would go. And if they wanted to put on their shoes before they brushed their teeth, that would prompt me to yell at them,” she says. “And my husband would often say, ‘Can I tap in for a second because you are overreacting?’”
She also realized that school was a trigger for her. “I have not gone into therapy for this, but looking at what causes OCD, it’s often trauma,” she explains. “And it wasn’t until I realized that being bullied in school was trauma [that I understood how] I have the OCD tendencies of ‘how can I control this?’ with anything having to do with school or anything that might possibly get my kids made fun of.”
Her planning and list-making even became a pain point in her relationship with her husband.
“When I told him I needed to stop making lists, I was kind of joking about it, but he started crying because my planning stresses him out,” she says. “He has a very different way of organizing things, so I always thought I had to overemphasize the planning, almost to compensate for his lack of writing things down.”
He also expressed overwhelm with how Cindy’s planning was holding her back: “A huge part of our attraction in the first place was our creativity and our respective projects,” she explains. “I was planning so much but then he wouldn’t see me finish projects that I cared a lot about. It was very, very frustrating to both of us.”
Today, Cindy has found tools and her own awareness to manage her OCD, the most important of which is medication.
“Almost immediately, the psychiatrist put me on low dose Wellbutrin. It’s an antidepressant, but it triggers the same hormones that I need,” she says. “That worked great. The first time I really thought it might have kicked in, it felt like I have a new prescription for eyeglasses — it allows me to pull back a little, stop the perfectionism, and set parameters for myself.”
While she used to have spiraling flare-ups of remembering shameful times or mistakes she’s made, those are much better now, too.
She also allows herself to take breaks when needed, whether it’s laying in bed, reading a book, or watching something mindless on TV.
“This gives me the perspective of, ‘it’s OK that I needed this hour,’” she says. “My mind needs that rest or else it’s not going to be able to have that awareness to stop me from having a panic attack.”
Cindy knows that her OCD and ADD aren’t going away, but she’s getting more in tune with being mindful of her flare-ups and triggers, and then forgiving herself.
“It’s constant. There’s no cure,” she says. “There’s just my awareness, and I have to do quick forgiveness in order to not see it as like a character flaw, or something that’s been wrong with me. It’s just continually managing and forgiving.”
For Cindy, medication and breaking unhelpful habits are key for managing OCD. But she says that the following things have also made a difference in her day-to-day management of her mental health.
Cindy realized that her paper calendar planner was more of a crutch and not actually a helpful tool for managing her daily life. While it took time to make the switch over to digital, she now happily uses Google Calendar.
“I can color code, which I love. I’ve allowed myself that little joyful obsession,” she says. “A lot of my friends use it, it’s compatible with the apps I use for different work clients, and my husband uses it with Outlook so we can coordinate family stuff.”
To stop her brain from spiraling while taking walks, Cindy likes to listen to this weekly podcast where the hosts discuss new book releases.
“It’s just two people talking about books and, while I know they have a structure, it just feels like a conversation, and I can tune in and out as I’m interested,” she says.
Hosted by brothers Hank and John Green, a musician and author and young adult author, respectively, this popular comedy podcast focuses mainly on answering listeners’ questions.
“I really like listening to them talk,” Cindy says. “They are two creators who I admire in the way that they treat their audience and look at the world complexly without losing sight of what’s good in the world.”
She says that the podcast helps her feel more self-motivated. She also admires the way that John Green discusses his own mental illness, which is helpful in feeling less alone as a fellow creative person.
Medication and self-awareness have gone a long way to helping Cindy manage life with OCD. When she’s working on a project these days, she can often pull back and realize that she doesn’t need to do things perfectly in order to see them to completion.
“Whereas before I would get entire drafts of a book done, and be afraid to show it to anybody, now I can say ‘this is as good as I can do, and that’s fine.’”
Natasha Burton is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Livestrong, Woman’s Day, and many other lifestyle publications. She’s the author of What’s My Type?: 100+ Quizzes to Help You Find Yourself ― and Your Match!, 101 Quizzes for Couples, 101 Quizzes for BFFs, 101 Quizzes for Brides and Grooms, and the co-author of “The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags.” When she’s not writing, she’s fully immersed in #momlife with two kiddos and a fur baby.