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Buxbaum ’24: What OCD has taught me about moral purity and embracing the present

When I was 11, I was terrified of sour cream and onion chips. Every day, I glanced at the lunch menu in fear that it would be the day everyone had sour cream and onion remnants on their hands, and I would have to shut myself in a bathroom stall and cry.  

I knew I had obsessive-compulsive disorder when I became obsessed with “contaminants” in fifth grade. One day, while in the bathroom, I took the “WASH HANDS FOR 20 SECONDS” sign too seriously. As 20 seconds turned into six minutes, I vowed to keep my inner world of rituals a secret. I recalled when my sister shared her fear of animatronics with the family, and my mom started taking her on routine trips to Chuck E. Cheese for exposure therapy until she was ready for any birthday party. I did not want help and especially did not want to be forced to go to a sour cream and onion chip factory every day after school. So, it was settled: I would keep the world clean and keep it to myself.

One day when I was 12, just as I was about to begin my hand-washing ritual in the bathroom, I was interrupted by my mom’s voice from downstairs telling me we had to leave the house. There was no time for my six-minute ritual, so I begrudgingly reached for hand sanitizer instead. For a moment the world stopped as I wondered if this pump of disinfectant would be enough, if it would satisfy my obsessive thoughts or if I would break down. I awaited my brain’s upset response, but I was pleasantly surprised it never came. The world was just as it had been before. Almost miraculously, I was free; I seemed “cured.”

But of course, being “cured” of OCD was not that easy. I still cycled through a series of obsessions through the years — this time, all Pure O, or “purely obsessional OCD,” in which the obsessions and compulsions all occurred in my head. An insistence on clean hands was replaced with ruminating over a clean conscience and perfect decision-making.


“What if I just said something hurtful?” “No, it’s fine. I looked it up online.” “What if I thought something immoral?” “I would never think that.” “What if I chose the wrong path?” “I’ll make sure everything goes perfectly.” 

The questions are the obsessions. The answers are the compulsions. What makes these questions obsessions is that they always come back, never satiated. After finally telling my parents about my OCD in high school, I started seeing a therapist who taught me how to respond to these voices in my head. Instead of just Obsessive and Compulsive voices, I could have a third, balanced voice — “Wise Mind.” Instead of reassuring me that I am not bad, creepy or prejudiced, Wise Mind says, “What if you are?” or “Maybe that’s true.” Wise Mind looks Obsession in the face and shrugs. 

My therapist’s strategy was useful, but only to a certain extent. Wise Mind’s voice can sound an awful lot like Compulsions. Once you’ve said “Maybe that’s true” five times in a row, you haven’t dug your way out of compulsions — you’ve invented new ones. 

“What am I supposed to do then, if anything I do in response to an obsession could become a compulsion?” I asked my therapist. Her answer: do nothing. Be mindful.

On my quest to discover what this mindfulness looked like, unsure of whether it meant sitting in silence after every intrusive thought or clearing my brain of all thoughts, I encountered a podcast about Taoism. I started listening to it every day between classes. Although, admittedly, I did not become an expert on the long history of the Chinese philosophy, I did resonate with the Taoist idea that there is an inherent value in living in the present moment. Rather than milking moments for productivity or absolute certainty, I started to make the extra effort to appreciate being in the present. 

One day, I found myself in the shower unable to stop smiling at how beautifully the light hit the drops of water. At that moment, not by ridding my mind of any thought at all, but by being completely appreciative of the present — I was mindful. 

Like with my hand sanitizer breakthrough, this moment in the shower felt like another milestone, a light at the end of the OCD tunnel. When I studied abroad in Ecuador, I even told a new friend that I “used to have OCD.” That makes me chuckle now: Looking back on the trip, my OCD didn’t just disappear in the rainforest, though all of our time spent in nature certainly helped me embrace the present moment and avoid my obsessions. Even amid all of the natural beauty, I found myself feeling so overwhelmed by self-critical thoughts related to the social justice concepts of our program that I had to splash myself with water to pull myself back into my body. 

As I continue my journey with OCD, I have learned that while there are coping strategies that I can leverage to navigate it, I will never fully be “cured.” By acknowledging and even honoring that reality, I can wink and smile at my intrusive thoughts, knowing they don’t define me. I can be free because I know I never 100% will be.

There’s a lot in common between my journey with OCD and the idea of creating a more just society. My OCD insisted that I find out if I was a good person — if I was morally pure at all times. Living with my OCD means saying “maybe” to intrusive thoughts that tell me I am imperfect. It means asking myself if there’s something concrete that I can do about the situation and, if there isn’t, then to stop obsessing over it. We can all use a bit of “maybe” in our lives, whether we have OCD or not. When processing whether we are “morally pure” with respect to racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, etc., perhaps eradicating any doubt that we might be able to cause harm shouldn’t be the goal. We’ve all heard of the “nice guy” trope: The man who insists so firmly he isn’t sexist is blind to his power to harm. By first accepting that we do all harbor some harmful ways of relating to one another and that we may always struggle with them, we may work toward collective freedom by acknowledging that we will never fully reach it. As with my OCD, there will always be more work to do. 

Marielle Buxbaum ’24 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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