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Me, OCD, and a lot of “Ladybugs”

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I have OCD.

It doesn’t rule my life, but it used to. Knowing that I have the capacity for that kind of thought is exactly why it doesn’t rule my life like it used to. I’m perfectly aware that I’m going to have that capacity forever, as studies have shown that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is genetic (if you have a parent with OCD, as I do, you have a fifty-fifty chance) and is caused by abnormal brain circuitry, which means you’re stuck with it. And I am okay with that. I’ll survive. Recently, readers have asked me a lot how I learned to control it, so this is my story.*

*with the obvious warning that I am not a therapist and you are not me and I am not you and this is just my story your mileage may vary.

I was an anxious child. OCD and anxiety play very well together, and back then, I didn’t really know what was happening. I was a twitchy creature of secret rituals.


The first thing that helped me was when I realized that my obsessions weren’t normal. Not everyone felt this way. And not all thoughts had to feel this way, either.

The second thing that helped me was realizing that OCD didn’t really look the way it looked on television. Obsession could be about germs or cracks in the sidewalk, but really, it turns out that I can obsess about all kinds of things.


The third thing that helped me was figuring out that my compulsions weren’t always straightforward. Sometimes they were directly related to the obsession:

Tags in shirts —–> change clothing eleven times a day

tweets —–> refresh the screen every twelve seconds

Some of them were less so:

Dying before making a mark —-> replacing all other activities like eating and sleeping with research, acquisition, and practicing of a new musical instrument

Datsuns —-> i don’t even know how i ended up with a datsun but i resent that entire chapter of my life

When my OCD was in control of me, it changed the way I looked at the world. Example. Here is life:


Life is always full of both bad and good things. Also trees. There will always be disasters and miracles happening in tandem. Mental illness changes the way you see it, though. For instance, a depressed person:

ocd 1

A content person:

ocd 2

The good or bad things don’t go away. You just point your gaze in a different direction. You are able to minimize some things and expand on others. When I got obsessive thoughts, they shifted my gaze onto something and held it there. It didn’t have to be something huge. It could have been about if my hair was dirty, or if I had said a prayer correctly, or if I had the precise same amount of air in each of my car’s tires.


In my head, the thought, whatever it was, became all encompassing.


It didn’t matter what else I tried to do, my mind would return to it. It became everything, my whole world, looped again and again and again.


I don’t even know if those are what lady bugs look like. I guess that’s okay. It’s a metaphor. They are only what I imagine ladybugs to look like, and my obsessive thoughts are not real thoughts, either. They aren’t really me. They are something my brain does to process stress and uncertainty and decision-making.***

***this took me a long time to figure out. More in a bit.

My personal breakthrough came when I decided that I would give myself rules. I was a champion with rules. I was a champion with rituals. I was a champion with things that involved numbers and counting and generally being compulsive. So my rule was that if I caught myself thinking about something obsessively, the timer began.


I would tell myself I could obsess for a certain number of minutes, and then I had to do something else until a designated time when I was allowed to obsess over it again. I could obsess for ten minutes. Then I had to put it down completely for thirty minutes. Then I could have another ten minutes. Then I had to put it down for two hours. Then I could have another ten minutes. I wasn’t allowed to act on any of the thoughts, either.

I told myself a rule was a rule. I couldn’t cheat on the time. And when I put it down, I had to really mean that I was putting it down. Did I want to be free or not?

And it began to work. I began to be able to reward myself with less and less obsessing time.


And then the really amazing thing happened, the thing that changed my life. Once I had spent enough time discipling my obsessive thoughts, I realized … they weren’t really my thoughts. They were markedly different in character from my ordinary thoughts. The further I got from them, the more I realized that they were mental illness, not me, and moreover, that I could be free of them if I wanted to be. All I had to do was identify a thought as obsessive when it first appeared:


And then give it the time it deserved:


And I got better and better at it. I still sometimes have to give myself three minutes, especially when under stress. I still have to sometimes remove myself from a physical location to give myself those three minutes. And sometimes I still end up with a Datsun. But mostly, I just live my life, and it’s invisible.

So much of it is knowing that it’s the place your brain goes to under stress. Knowing that you can be out from under it. Knowing that ladybugs don’t really look like that. I just googled them and it turns out they have an entire additional segment in front of that black bit where the head goes which means I just drew an entire flock of headless ladybugs.

Well, all the better reason to avoid them.

  • Mainer122

    Thanks for this. Your timer trick is actually something I’ve seen suggested for anxiety, where you create a Worry Time each day, so you get it done and move on. For myself, it helped a great deal to simply make a rule that I can’t worry in my room.

    And I love that breakthrough of yours. Mine came when I was rearranging a pile of sticks (’cause if I didn’t, something bad would happen), and I finally realized there’s nothing wrong with the sticks – what’s wrong is what’s in my head. That’s what needs to be straightened out.

    And in the same way as you did, I learned to question those thoughts and begin to loosen the knots. And like you say, with practice it becomes easier. Till you can click off that station as soon as it comes on, like brushing away a nervous ladybug. ‘Cause there’s better songs to tune in to and have playing in your life.

  • Shawn Gilbreath

    That car ruined my life. Would love to get back to it.

  • mohadese

    Dear Ms Stiefvater

    Hi. I am one of your fans. I read The wolves
    of Mercyfalls trilogies and I loved it. So I am writing to get a
    permission from you.

    About 3 or 4
    years ago, someone started translating The wolves of mercyfalls, she finished
    the first book and the first 25 chapters of the second book and then didn’t
    continue. Of course she did it for free. A lot of people liked the books at the
    time, and they really got disappointed when it was left unfinished.

    So I was
    wondering will you allow me to finish the series? I will publish it on Internet
    and for free. I am translating them into Farsi, and I really hope that you give
    me the permission to do it. If not for any reason, I hope at least you give me
    the permission to finish the second book, linger.

    I look forward to hearing from you.


    One of your

  • Virginiana

    Ms. Stiefvater:

    So, Amazon says The Raven King will be released March 29, 2016. Baker and Taylor says April 26th (school librarian here, with a few crazed fangirls dying to know if they find Glendower and if Blue and Gansey will ever kiss and if Gansey will actually die. One of them might just possibly be myself.)

    SO: Which is right?

    And why why WHY is there no announcement about The Raven King on your website? Do you need to run over your webmaster with a Camaro?

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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Copyright 2012