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Aiming for perfection -- and not quite hitting the mark


March 06, 2017

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I haven’t had a business card since 2008. I oftentimes think about printing new ones that include not only my professional accomplishments, but also my various medical diagnoses, which have acronyms that mimic those of academic degrees and professional associations. Like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The most intense manifestation of my OCD has always been my commitment to whatever job I hold. At Whole Foods, I was a machine of a cheese cutter: neat, accurate and impossibly swift. I worked mostly when the store was closed, alone at 4 a.m. behind the counter in my chef’s coat, listening to audiobooks while I sliced and wrapped hundreds of wedges of soft, aged and pungent cheeses, arranging them in cascades or neat wheels along the coffin cases – whatever it took to make the inventory look most robust.

On the farm, I sharpened tool blades in single-digit weather, watching through my work goggles to be sure the newly burnished line of each tarnished blade was even. I measured twice and cut once. I had to be reminded to stop and drink water on the days we dug potato trenches for hours on end. I weeded so thoroughly the soil looked like chocolate cake when I moved on to the next row.

But I haven’t had a job I’ve taken home with me for years. The last was returning to the chicken house when it was my turn in the rotation to feed and water 50 hens (and a rooster or two) at 10 p.m., then 6 a.m. That was 2011.

Now that I’m teaching, scheduling a class in order to insure that the correct material has been covered by an assignment deadline, and that new units are not begun while students are still fixated on completing papers for the last unit, has proven to be a juggling act that takes all of my time and mental energy. I wake up and get started planning almost immediately, oftentimes from bed. I fixate on Folio, changing each section’s HTML several times a day to ensure accuracy.

I plan to the minute, keep my phone close by on timer mode during class so that we don’t go over on any one activity. Sometimes, quieter classes don’t meet that mark with conversation, while others plough through it so swiftly I don’t realize it’s happened, and I wind up with multiple trajectories for multiple classes. I underline, highlight, use bold and change fonts to help me keep up.

When people think about obsessive compulsive disorder, they often think about flipping a light switch a certain number of times before leaving a room, washing one’s hands repeatedly, or arranging things on a desktop so that they all point in one direction, or are perfectly aligned.

My OCD does not look like this. Yes, my dresses are arranged in my closet according to neckline, length, pattern and weight. Yes, I count my steps as a holdover from jumping hurdles in high school track. But you wouldn’t know those things if I hadn’t told you. In fact, there is always food on my clothing and I’ve never achieved a smooth ponytail in my life.

What people don’t think much about when they imagine a person with OCD is that we often make a lot of mistakes based on the tunnel vision of our disorder, the nature of which is to seek perfection. Because my brain is full of so much else, I crumple the toothpaste tube with my fist without realizing it, and almost never remember the replace the cap. I forget to lock doors, let ice chips melt on the floor, and I always, always forget to empty the kitchen sink drain basket after painstakingly completing a load of dishes. When I hear my partner cleaning up after my clean-up efforts, the self-loathing begins.

Likewise with education: sometimes, I provide my students with broken links, fail to cover important information, tell Monday/Wednesday classes that I’ll see them on Thursday, and provide syllabi with typos on the very first page.

In these cases, I have to answer to the most conscientious of students, who seem always to be at least one step ahead of me, despite all of my efforts. I panic then, because I can see them registering my fallibility, but these students are exactly the kind of scholars I hoped to have in my classes: attentive, accurate, and dedicated to their educations. They correct me for accuracy, not to prove any point, and I owe them humility as much as anything else.

 

If only I could apply my OCD to what would make me truly good at what I do: being empathetic toward and forgiving of my only-human self. The hardest thing about the drive to be perfect? I can’t be.


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