UC Berkeley perfectionist

Off the Beat

I was raised by my grandmother — a single mother of four and an immigrant from Colombia. She worked long hours to provide my aunts, my uncle and me with everything we needed to ensure we were taken care of. But as a result of her commitment to our well-being, she could often be overprotective and overly cautious. As a child, I paid frequent visits to my doctor for things others might just have waited out.

This may be too much information, but I remember one time when my grandmother took me to the hospital after I had been constipated for a couple of days. During my appointment, I was introduced to suppositories and instructed to keep a journal of my bowel movements so that the doctor could reassess things during our next visit. This was the start of me overanalyzing things most people wouldn’t think twice about.

I used to carry a green book with me wherever I went in which I basically tracked all of my movements and thoughts of the day. I would cover the pages with lists of things I needed to get done, and I would even go back through the pages if I had forgotten to write down something I had completed a few days prior. I would write the time I woke up, the number of bites it took to finish my breakfast and the size of my orange or the precise number of grapes I had eaten for lunch. And I continued to note the time of day when I had a bowel movement — something that stuck with me from my appointment as a child.

But the downside of the lists was that once something was written down, it needed to get done by the completion date and time I had assigned to it. Because if I didn’t get it done, I couldn’t mark it off the list. And if I couldn’t mark it off the list, I couldn’t go on with my day. The only remaining option would be to lie with my back on the floor and legs elevated against my bed until I fell asleep and could start over the next day.

Before I actually knew I had it, I attributed my attention to detail and work ethic to what I assumed was obsessive-compulsive disorder. Co-workers, supervisors and peers always commented on my particularity, but since it seemed like a compliment, I failed to notice any of its negative effects. Nonetheless, it came as a shock to me when I visited a psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed. I was 22 when I was first diagnosed with OCD, and a few years older when it was suggested to me that my symptoms fell more in line with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or OCPD.

OCPD isn’t always generalized as something entirely bad, since its main characteristics are perfectionism, rule-orientedness and orderliness. I had previously valued these tendencies for the advantages they afforded me: At work, I received special recognition and promotions, and at school, I was able to juggle a heavy workload. But all of this was at the cost of interpersonal relationships and my own mental sanity. It became increasingly difficult for me to develop or maintain intimate relationships with friends and family, and I felt myself becoming distant from those I considered closest to me. My priority became my work, and even when I didn’t have any work, I would create lists of tasks to fill all of my spare time. My excessive fixation with lists, perfectionism and rigidity had consumed me.

If there was any time in my life when I had a shortage of space in my schedule to address my mental health, it was during my time at UC Berkeley. Ironically, it was here that I made my mental health a priority. I started feeling the effects of impostor syndrome, and my anxieties were finally leading me to a breaking point. No matter the reason, I’m happy I started taking care of my mental health when I did.

Despite feeling convinced that I owed my admission to UC Berkeley to my OCPD, it is certainly not the reason for my success. I attribute my ability to exceed in classes while tackling my mental health issues to the support I’ve gotten from others while at UC Berkeley, which I wouldn’t have had if I had continued to view my OCPD as insignificant. I’ve been able to vocalize my obstacles instead of hiding them, and myself, from others. I’ve come to view therapy as a routine appointment, like a dental cleaning or a physical. And I’m totally fine with that.

I just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English, a minor in journalism and a position at The Daily Californian without obsessing over things in the manner that I once believed was required to excel. You don’t have to be a perfectionist to get through UC Berkeley. What is more important is that you don’t sacrifice your sanity in order to succeed.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.