An Unreliable Mind: Being OCD in the Academy

Clare Griffin I am writing the first draft of this on a flight home, feeling emotional after a crappy connection. Is it a good idea to start writing this now? Is it a good idea to write it at all? To publish it, where anyone could read it? What do I hope to achieve by this? How much will it hurt me to publish it? How much good could it possibly do? For me, or for anyone else? Do I mean everything I am saying? And will anyone believe it?

This, and a thousand other worries come to me on bad days, when the OCD I was diagnosed with a few years ago takes over. At some points in my life, all I had were bad days. Now, I have a lot of good days, and still some bad days, and the bad is manageably bad.

After much treatment, and much help, life is easier. Easier is not the same as easy. But some days, easier is everything.

My OCD rewrites the world for me. It pushes me into false certainties where only uncertainties lie. If a friend doesn’t reply to me, they must certainly hate me; yet I can only be uncertain as to the motivations of others. My mind can be unreliable, yet my work, my career, my life, rely on my mind and on my judgement. How can an unreliable mind be an academic mind? If I can’t always trust my judgement, how can anyone else?

My OCD gets me praise. If I have scrutinised every detail of a piece of work or of an event, my OCD will still have me check again, and again, and again, and again. I am early for deadlines, always there for meetings and the most reliable collaborator – until I’m not. Until the compulsion that drives me to check, and recheck, and check again, pushes my brain too far, and I have to lie in the dark to try to make it stop. How can I feel well in an Academy where other people look at pain and see productivity, see the shadow on the wall cast by a pathology and declare it a work ethic? How can I function here? How can I function anywhere?

And yet I know for certain – with actual certainty, not the false kind the OCD sends – that people with mental health and neurological problems are valuable, intelligent people. I know for certain that academics with these conditions make major contributions. I know for certain that those people who have been open about their conditions, and their problems, have helped me. Cartoonistswriterspresenters, literary studies scholars, and historians have all made important and beautiful works out of their pain. If I can unquestioningly accept the value of the intellectual work of other people – other creators and academics with problems like mine – can I accept the value of my own mind? Can I believe that other people will?

Why did I decide to write this? Is it to free myself from the prison of shame that keeping medical conditions private can create? Is it to find sympathy? To aggrandise myself or pity myself, or hurt myself? To martyr myself? Will I cause myself too much pain with the vain and self-important idea that I will help others by writing this? Will people react negatively to this? Or will they not even notice it? Have I disclosed enough to help people? Or have I exposed myself by sharing far too much? The reality I must live with is – I just don’t know.

About the Author

Portrait photo of Clare who is dressed smartly and facing the camera in front of a plain background.

Clare Griffin

Clare Griffin is a historian of early modern science and assistant professor at Nazarbayev University, Republic of Kazakhstan. Her work focuses on global exchanges, practical knowledge, and translation, especially as this relates to the early modern Russian Empire.

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