Watcher Within, Watchers Without: My Black OCD Story

When I was a child, I directed and starred in my own films. Long before reality TV or iPhone movies, I was cast member and cinematographer in a never-ending documentary. That is, in my head. Yes, as a girl I imagined a camera (that was me, and not-me) following me around everywhere—an eye that never shuttered while I ushered fireflies into Coke bottles or searched fruitlessly for four-leaf clovers in the front yard. This omni-camera even captured me in contemplative moments—when in that same yard I decided that adults couldn’t be trusted because they called dandelions “weeds.”

No matter what I was doing or thinking, unceasing “voiceovers” were a constant in these me-movies. The voice in my head narrated everything that I did. My every gesture had to be precise, intentional, and even ceremonial because it was being filmed and narrated. I was always levitating just above my skin, the watcher and the watched. This self-surveillance was utterly unself-conscious; this is the way of a child, before it all changes. I shared it with no one because it belonged to the guileless country of childhood, a privacy that even doesn’t know itself.

Cut scene: Hallmark store in some bland shopping centre. I’m ten years old, browsing through the shopping rack of cheap buttons at the back of the shop. Maybe something to put on my backpack. Not seeing anything I liked, I head to the exit so I can meet up with my mother, who had probably been grocery shopping elsewhere in the shopping centre. I’m almost at the door, remember it’s slow-motion, this is being filmed. That’s when I hear, “Don’t you think you should pay for that?” It’s the white woman cashier to the left of the door.

“Pay for what?”

“That button you stole.”

“What button?” I am incredulous. I didn’t have any Hallmark merch on my person at all. Since I thought—then—that racism withers before reason, I stop in front of the cash register to turn all of my pockets inside out. I’m game. Look, no button.

The store employee is not convinced. She insists that I have slipped a store item somewhere—somewhere on my Magical Negro body, invisibility cloak and all—and that I need to pay up.

I remember the button was only a dollar. I remember having that in my pocket, at least, and giving it to her. I remember heading (slowly, because the camera is still rolling) to the car with my mother in it, and her shock that I had paid, that I had not come to get her to argue on my behalf. I remember that I had never been told, anywhere, that I could stand by my script when it diverged from a white woman’s. I remember my mother made a point to never shop there again, even after the store changed hands.

Is that when I stopped making movies in my head? Seems too pat to say that the white gaze dimmed my own, but it did. It did.

Fast forward some decades. The cinematic narration of my youth has turned into intrusive, harassing thoughts that won’t let up. What if I hit someone with my car? Those movies are now reels of ruin. What if I slap this stranger? I rehearse disaster, and check and check and check and check to make sure I’ve done everything I can to keep that disaster at bay. I check the stove to make sure it’s off so much that now I might miss the bus. Is the iron off? Check, check, check. Did I lock the door? Lock, unlock, lock, and unlock like a robot. I surveil my surroundings—for rumours of fire, infestation, unsecured doors—and I surveil myself, my thoughts, any wisp of weakness, any mistake waiting for me in the wings. All of this happened in darkness; I was known as watchful, careful (full of care), observing the best of psychic hygiene, ever-mindful of boundaries, consent, etc, etc—but not even my closest friends knew about my secret rituals or the endless ticker tape of calamity scrolling through my mind. One friend said that I was “beautifully maladjusted.”

But until recently I never got confirmation that some of my idiosyncrasies were a suite of symptoms associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A specialist diagnosed me after a few assessments made it clear that I was a classic, even a “bad,” case. I stand sentinel with myself and my habits, consumed with being without blame or blemish—so the irony is that a part of me never saw an official OCD diagnosis coming. I knew that I felt alone with the voices in my head, bullied by the hamster wheel of my obsessions, but I had no idea how alone I actually was. Most people didn’t suffer this way, I came to realize, and the ones that did are my OCD compatriots.

I am usually suspicious of the Western industrial therapeutic complex, but I decided that OCD is a mythos of a certain time and place that I can use as far as I find it helpful.

But some of my aloneness remained. Although getting a diagnosis was validating, being Black with OCD is very isolating. According to research, Black people are under-diagnosed (I prefer “under-supported”) when it comes to OCD. And I am curious about how anti-Black oppression and trauma heightens the hypervigilance of Black folks who already deal with anxiety disorders.

Scenes: my partner and I park in a tree-lined, majority-white neighbourhood to enjoy our lunch in the shade. I gobble down my food, worried that at any moment the police will be summoned because of course we don’t belong here. I can hardly enjoy my meal. But police did follow a previous partner and I when we were eating lunch in a park.

I walk into stores, making sure the shopkeeper can see me at all times; I avoid going to the back of the store, or just breeze through, not browsing as I’d like to. But too many store employees to count have accosted me when I have strayed out of eyeshot. While on a study tour in Ireland I simply stop going in stores altogether.

In the Lyft I am careful not to rummage through my purse for my keys, my wallet, because of course, I like to check (and re-check) if I have everything with me. I don’t want to make the driver uneasy; I brace for correction whenever I make a “suspicious” rustle from the back seat. But when my car broke down in rural Pennsylvania, a cop asked me to stop riffling through my bag as I sat in the back seat of the police car—all because he worried I was fishing for a weapon.

I see police waiting for lunch at the pizza joint, or standing by the door of the grocery store, and I can’t breathe. But I did have two police officers train guns on me and a friend when we got lost too close to a “sensitive” government building.

So when does the neurobiology of OCD end and the adaptive hypervigilance as a Black person begin? I cannot speak for other Black people with OCD, but for me, race colours my OCD experience; my Blackness and my OCD are indivisible.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois called it “double consciousness” when a Black person is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of white supremacy. Seeing double, I ingest and internalize the overseer; fully metabolized, my inner-over-seer frets that I am lazy, that I harbour some secret degeneracy. I am watched and found wanting. On the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale, I score for “checking for harm to others” and “checking for mistakes.” But what does it mean for a Black person to obsess about if they have harmed others? So many of us try to neutralize ourselves so that white people aren’t “threatened” because we know white fear spells Black death. So testifies the massacres of Tulsa, Rosewood, Elaine, and so many others. The “I was afraid for my life” armed white cops and their extrajudicial executions of unarmed Black folks. Pierre Coriolan, murdered by Montreal police at the one of the deadliest intersections: Black and mentally ill. Glenda Moore, and Brandon and Connor: a Black mother and her children turned away from shelter during Hurricane Sandy, resulting in her young boys’ deaths. As a Black friend told me recently, “We all centralize white comfort.” So how does it damage our mental health and psychic wellness when we centre white safety, and not our own?

As a Black person with OCD, and generalized anxiety disorder, I watch myself and watch the white gaze watching me; per 2pac with “all eyez on me,” it’s all just too fucking much. And checking for mistakes? Charles Murray and other racial superiority hucksters—their names are legion—assert that Black inferiority is an inevitable inheritance. Blackness is mistake, according to white supremacy. Our perfectibility is always possible, while at the same time always just out of reach. Every Black person has to negotiate with the spectre of Black failure as collective, even genetically ordained, failure: it is either absorbed into the skin or cast out, but no Black person is unaware of this reckoning, whether it is soundly rejected or not. Under an anti-Black surveillance culture, Black folks know that our fuck-ups (read: the ways we are but human) are expected, and even ardently anticipated.

Perhaps that is, in part, why I keep checking, checking, and checking; I am Black Orpheus, compelled to keep watch over and look back for any errancy, sealing my fate.

Fretting about my own laziness is one of my obsessions. Surely that some relationship to the fact the foundation of the West = eternally labouring (yet imperfect) black bodies, never at rest but never instrumentalized enough. There is always more labour to be squeezed from a superhuman yet subhuman black body; the extraction and expectation has no end.  

Another scene: On a manual labour gig I notice that if I stand with other Black workers while we wait for the equipment to arrive, a white worker (not the supervisor) deputizes himself to come over and harass us—because the sight of Black “idleness” is unbearable to him, although all of the white workers are also standing around, waiting for the equipment to arrive just as we were. So I learn to stand apart from most of the other Black workers, so I don’t get super-scrutinized, harassed. Is this OCD-flavored, overcorrected vigilance? Or is this what it means to protect one’s Black self and soul?

This racist preoccupation with Black instrumentality is behind the enforcement of loitering laws, the legacy of sundown towns, and the stop-and-frisk program, to name a few. It’s about disciplining black bodies—and Black daydreams, for what is loitering but daydreaming in space and in motion? Part of my Black OCD experience includes hyper-bracing for any accusation that I am “out of place,” whether that’s taking my too-sweet time browsing in a Target aisle or uneasily walking through a park that seems pointedly absent of any other Black people. We’re not allowed to linger, but my OCD sometimes means rituals that take time and look like “suspicious behavior” under the surveilling gaze.

But how can you call Black anxiety maladaptive?


What is the opposite of surveillance? Perhaps it is loving witness. Perhaps it’s when, with my consent, my partner observes my OCD rituals—which I still enact somewhat slyly, out of habit—and asks me what I am doing. Checking on me, and not checking “up” on me—reminiscent of the French etymological root of “surveillance,” meaning “from above” (sur) + “to watch” (veiller). Surveillance is, after all, inescapably about distance and power-over. With her keen, gentle observation, the shame and isolation begin to vaporize. Love cannot live where surveillance is present.

A few months ago I attended a showcase of Black women experimental filmmakers. One thing struck me while watching the wildly different shorts: the eye of the filmmaker lingered. Each scene limned with a leisure too rarely afforded Black folks—because of overwork, the insistence that black bodies never tarry or loiter or sit for a moment in the car in the “wrong neighbourhood” without being harassed by police or deputized white folks, period. The camera caresses, intimate with every pore in Allana Clarke’s work. In Corinne Spencer’s video-poem, This Eternal Thread, a Black woman pulls an endless thread from a darkened doorway; time pools like sunlight at her feet. Watching these languid Black subjects with a meditative camera felt subversive, even erotic.

When viewing is an act of solidarity and sensuality, it is healing for Black mental and psychic health.

In the ending words of another one of Corinne Spencer’s films, we were swallowed and then held there, like muscle holds the bone. Be held, beholding: Blackness.
Art by Meskora Amoussou, whose work can be found on Instagram; Facebook; via email; and on patreon