La Cañada High School

An inside look at OCD

“Box crayons, box crayons!” I grab my mother’s wrist and stare into her eyes.

“Peter, do you want another turn to play with your box of crayons? You can have it by earning 100 points.”

“Work, work,” I mutter. The words start tumbling over each other. I can’t get them out fast enough. “Work, crayons, work, work, wo, wo, wo…” I try not to grab my mom’s wrist too hard as I struggle to focus, or rather, defocus. Like a broken record, the words keep tumbling out, “Timer, work, box crayons, work, work, wo, wo, wo…” I tilt my face up to my mom’s. “Box crayons, box crayons!” I grab my mom’s hand and trap her thumb, clasping it with one hand while grabbing her wrist with the other. “No, I can’t hurt her. Let go!” I tell myself. I loosen my grip and let her hand escape. I desperately type instead, desperately trying to get a grip on myself instead of her. But where are the brakes?

What are box crayons? They are a crazy obsession I have. I collect boxes of crayons, break off their tips and line up the colors in ranks. It doesn’t make sense, but “Do it!” my brain commands. If I had them now, I would open the lid of the nice gold box I put them away in. I would take out all the tiny tips and touch each one to my lip. Then I would carefully line up each tip. Can’t repeat a color. Red, blue, green, orange, purple, black, and yellow. Then the next row. Maybe a different number, just can’t repeat the same color twice in a row. I go into a reverie of taking them in. My mind relaxes into the crayon colors, absorbing them, into a space without thinking except for the obsession. It swallows my mind, making it mumble in circles that repeat faster and faster. Is this resting? Joy, peace? No, it’s a trip, as if my mind were addicted to a drug, a trap, a treadmill, an endless cycle of anxiety that I have to obey. But the more I obey, instead of being satisfied, the obsession requires more.

I pause to stare into my mom’s eyes again and repeat, “Work, work, work.” I grab her hand briefly, but she offers me the keyboard instead. I type, “Box crayons, box crayons.” My mom gets me to type by offering me points to get the crayons, but the real goal is to shift my mind off the obsession, to shift the circuit into lower gear, slowing it down, as my upper brain starts to engage by having to write. I realize it’s working.  My breathing slows down, my palms stop sweating, and my legs stop shaking. I’m better.

Have you ever read Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”? It’s about this kid Milo who goes through a magical tollbooth into a wonderland of crazy characters. In one place he get offered “subtraction stew.” The more he eats of it, the hungrier he gets. That’s what OCD is like. The more you obey it and perform your compulsion, the worse it gets, the stronger it gets, and the less relief you feel.

Have you ever watched the Captain America movies? Captain America’s best buddy gets taken by Hydra. They implant a switch in his brain. If someone says a certain sequence of words, the switch turns on, and that someone then controls his mind, and he has to obey. Whoever wrote that story must have known about OCD. Some trigger flips a switch in your brain, and you have to obey and do your compulsion.

Right now, I periodically stop typing to grab my mom’s hand, stare into her eyes, and ask for “Box crayons,” over and over. When she says, “Do you want box crayons? Then work,” the switch flips and I can go back to typing. I have to hear her repeat those words, “box crayons,” before I can function. It’s weird. I don’t know what flipped the switch initially to precipitate the endless repetitive circuit, but now to get out of it temporarily, I need her to repeat the name of the thing I’m obsessed with. That’s yet another obsession, to have to hear those particular words! My psychologist Dr. Gwen would say to take a step, even a baby step, away from the OCD. So I will type one more line before I ask my mom to repeat those words again. And after that, I’ll go for another line. Line by line, step by step, I’m walking away from the grip of the OCD. As the distance grows, the monster shrinks.


Hey! I think I’m ok.

Writing breaks the vacuum seal between me and my OCD. Every line I write is like the spokes on the lower gear that brakes my mind.


Box crayons, box crayons, you belong in a sack.

You’re spinning around, encircling my head.

Box crayons, box crayons, you get off my back.


I see you lined up in a fresh yellow pack.

March out on my desk, to attention! instead.

Box crayons, box crayons, you belong in a sack.


So much better to be in a row than a stack,

Tiny tips up, pointy helmeted heads.

Box crayons, box crayons, you get off my back.


My brain can just taste you and give you a smack,

Lined up green, yellow, blue, orange, and red.

Box crayons, box crayons, you belong in a sack.


One tip out of line and my mind’s on the rack.

Yes, yes, just so, stay there or else I am dead!

Box crayons, box crayons you get off my back.


Timer goes off, this rank’s gotta crack.

Sweep up the troops and hide the box-bed.

Box crayons, box crayons, you belong in a sack.

Box crayons, box crayons, you get off my back.


(The poem is a villanelle about my “box crayon” compulsion, rhyme scheme: a1ba2  aba1 aba2 abaabaaba1a2. I give myself just half an hour a day to indulge in it, then hide everything away into a box I call my “box-bed” because I use it in my bedroom. I wrote the poem during a previous OCD attack, again to break out of it. OCD is a recurring battle. Thank God creative writing is a renewable resource.)