OCD makes me who I am, for better (star prosecutor) and for worse (garbage bag shoe model)

I've come to realize that one of the keys to a happy life is accepting some of the quirks that many of us spend most of our lives trying to beat down.

Michael J. Stern
Opinion columnist
Former federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern on MSNBC on Dec. 26, 2019.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a bitch.

Earlier this month, I suffered a harrowing event that simultaneously left me distraught and my partner laughing so hysterically at what I recounted that I was forced to hang up on him.

I forgot my flip-flops when I went to swim laps at my gym. Having once spent two years battling a foot wart that I had picked up in a locker room, there was no way I was going to allow my feet to come into contact with the slimy floor of my less-than-sanitary health club.

I’ve prosecuted everything from murder-for-hire to international heroin trafficking, but I’ve always felt that men in Speedos and tennis shoes were deserving of at least a misdemeanor conviction and a 30-day sentence to remedial fashion school. That said, my tennis shoes allowed me safe passage to the pool. 

But then I spent the entirety of my swim plotting how I could shower without letting my feet touch the floor, and without soaking my tennis shoes by wearing them in the shower.

Never spray your body with sanitizer 

Leaving the pool, I wiped my feet, got into my shoes and headed to the nearby garbage cans. In my old office, the cleaning staff would put fresh bags at the bottom of the can to use when the full bag was removed. I figured I could tie garbage bags to my feet, to protect them from the petri dish that doubled as a shower stall.

Note to self: People will stare at you like you’re crazy if you pull bags of garbage from the cans, while dripping wet in a Speedo and tennis shoes. Worse, there were no clean bags at the bottom of the can. There was, however, a brownish-green liquid that oozed onto my shoes from a tear at the bottom of the bag. I’ve convinced myself it was the remnant of a protein shake; that’s the only scenario that will allow me to sleep at night.

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After some hunting, I found the maintenance closet, tied two garbage bags to my feet and headed to the shower. But here’s the thing – if the plastic bags you attach to your feet are not tied tightly at the ankles, and you submerge them in water, they will fill up like water balloons and pop. And if you try to run back to the safety of your shoes, before whatever viral culture you’re standing in can seep into your bloodstream through the cracks in your feet, you will slip on the wet garbage bags and end up spread out on the floor, like a sponge soaking in a greasy lasagna pan.

After picking myself up, things went from bad to worse. I will spare you the degrading details, except to warn that if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, do not spray your entire body with the travel-size bottle of sanitizer you carry with you. Ninety-one percent isopropyl alcohol stings like acid when it lands on certain mucous membranes, and the screams it prompts will only exacerbate the spectacle you have already made of yourself.

OCD spins simplicity into disaster 

I’d like to say this incident was an anomaly, but it’s not. It’s one of countless life episodes in which I’ve watched my OCD take a simple event and spin it into a disaster. Like when I was a young photographer and my endless revisions in contrast, color saturation and exposure resulted in me being banned from the best professional photography lab in Detroit. 

Like when I paid my floor guy to refinish my floors twice in two weeks, because I could not tolerate a few tiny imperfections the first time – and the second time brought more defects and an 8-inch glob of polyurethane that he spilled in his rush to finish a job that was taking way too long.

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Like when I became obsessed with jam and ended up throwing away most of 37 jars, because they had long expired before I could eat them. 

Like when a federal judge ended a sentencing hearing with: “Mr. Stern, despite your best efforts, you cannot chase every rabbit down every hole.” 

Then-federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern receives the Directors Award from then-Attorney General Janet Reno in 2000 in Washington, D.C.

Or like when someone I cared about ended a friendship after telling me that it’s too emotionally exhausting to constantly be asked questions that “drill into my soul.”

I know that much of what I do verges on madness. But OCD makes me feel like I can’t help it. I hate saying that because it gives me no control over my own life, and one of the things I believe in most strongly is that we should all play a starring role in our own destiny.

The good OCD has brought to my life

I’ve been referring to my OCD as a thing that’s separate from me –like Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll. But those of us who struggle with OCD know that it is a twist in our DNA, and recognizing the unhappiness it brings does not make it go away. 

Despite years of therapy that failed to unlock the secret to extinguishing my OCD, I’ve come to realize that for all the anguish it’s brought, there has been some good.

It’s the OCD that made me spend two grueling years, which threatened my relationship with the man I love, doggedly working on an FBI investigation that brought down an organized crime leader who was terrorizing his community.

The vine-covered wall

It’s what made me go back 12 times to the same vine-covered wall to get the perfect angle and exposure for a photograph that hangs in my home and brings me joy every day.

And it is what made me hound the inventor of an experimental imaging machine until he agreed to take on my mother as a patient … to make sure that the surgery that removed the lump in her breast got it all.

Connie Schultz:My brother died by suicide two years ago. I am not who I used to be. And that's OK.

As the years tick by, and I see more in the rearview mirror than the windshield, I’ve come to realize that one of the keys to a happy life is learning to accept some of the quirks that many of us spend most of our lives trying to beat down.

I still work to control the times when my OCD makes me unhappy that I’m spinning my wheels and going nowhere. But I refuse to spend between here and gone at war with myself. And so, I’m making a commitment to appreciate that my obsessive compulsive disorder is both a blessing and a curse … and that I am both a jumbled mess and uniquely special.

Michael J. Stern (@MichaelJStern1), a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles.

For help with obsessive-compulsive disorder, check the International OCD Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.