Monday, August 2, 2010

Off-Limits: Things I Have Lost to OCD

So one of the things my therapist has asked me to do between now and my next session is to write down the things that I have lost due to OCD, the things that I am currently missing out on, and things that I could lose in the future if I continue to feed, through my compulsive behavior, this feeling that I NEED my OCD. 

Although I have always felt this way to a certain extent, I suppose this feeling that "I need the disorder to be me" has become one of the core reasons I now continue to engage in some compulsions, in addition to my original contamination fears and my version of moral scrupulosity with cleanliness.  My therapist warned me that this a dangerous path to go down - the idea of just resigning myself to OCD's demands because it is "my cross to bear" is a slippery slope that can easily lead to unnecessary loss.  With that in mind I thought I would begin contemplating the things that I have lost, continue to lose, or could lose in the future if I simply accept OCD as a burden I must live with rather than fighting it.

In my preliminary thoughts about this list, I realized one thing:  many of the things that I have lost, I don't really care about.  I can list a ton of things that OCD didn't allow me to do or still doesn't allow me to do, and yet I think, "yeah, so?"  I can think of things that I did because of OCD whose consequences I either don't care about or am even kind of grateful for.  So I have to dig deeper, because when I do continue the list I begin to notice things that I really would have liked to do that I didn't have a chance to pursue as a result, either directly or indirectly, of my OCD.

I am very accepting of my past.  I don't regret much because I am so grateful to have landed where I am today - to not only have discovered that I have OCD at this point in my life, but to have, by truly remarkable chance, ended up under the superb guidance of my therapist and to have access to the wonderful resources that the treatment center where he works has to has to offer.  In fact, it scares me to think that anything might have gone differently in my life that might have prevented me from ending up exactly where I did and when, because it honestly seems too good to be true.  Even putting that down in writing is slightly frightening because OCD says that spelling it out so explicitly will take that feeling away or somehow dampen how good it seems!

So perhaps instead of listing the things that have I lost to OCD, I will try to consider things that I might have had the chance to do had I found the treatment that I now have sooner in life.  It is easier to think of things that I would have liked to do, rather than things I would actually change, because like I said, it scares me to think about how I might have done anything differently because I am so grateful to have ended up where I am now.  I fear that had any number of things gone another way, I could have ended up somewhere else entirely, without the quality of help I needed or even without help at all. 

But say I somehow had ended up with the same resources I now have when I was might I have used that help to change and accomplish other things?  What do I hope to be able to do now that I know I have OCD and have outstanding treatment for it?  And finally, what do I hope to be able to accomplish in the future that just letting OCD take its course would undoubtedly jeopardize?  This is what I have come up with so far:

What I might have worked on or done in the past had I known about my OCD and gotten proper treatment:
  • Taken the chance of rejection and applied to Ivy League colleges.
  • Tried to get a job as an SI leader (a student who has done well in a previous college course and tutors others in that subject).  This is a position I secretly wanted but didn't see how I could ever manage with my self-doubt and inability to manage my time.
  • Taken advantage of my professors' office hours in college to ask the questions I really wanted to ask and learn from the knowledge they had to share.
  • Read, read, read...oh how I would read and devoured more books!
  • Might have gone for leadership positions in the organizations I was involved in (like band) - positions I wanted but was too afraid of going for.  I either feared being rejected and not getting the position, or getting the position and feeling like I was failing at it.  I was also afraid to pursue these positions because every last minute was taken up by the things I already had on my plate - things that took more time than they should have because of OCD!  I hardly had enough time to do the work I already had, much less sleep, eat, and relax on a regular basis!
  • Developed the autonomy and confidence to take the risk of pursuing what I wanted rather than what seemed like the right or most certain path - the path that was safe but not what I really wanted! (i.e. med school and "real" scientific research - these are the type of things that were "safe."  Grad school didn't provide the same sort of job certainty that pursuing medical school did, and the type of research I was more interested in, studies in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, weren't considered the MOST scientifically stringent form of research by others compared to more purely molecular biology-type work...the type of research I got myself involved in.)
Things I would like to do now that OCD either compromises or prevents me from doing altogether:
  • Date.
  • Read books I would like to read (especially those about OCD!).
  • Save money that could be spent on fun things or saved for the future rather than being wasted on things like soap, shampoo, body wash, laundry, laundry detergent, and replacements for the variety of articles I throw away because I think they are "contaminated" and many other things along these lines.
  • Treat my clothes with more care - since I wash everything on hot and more frequently than I normally would, my clothes are wearing out and shrinking faster than than usual.
  • Get a job or volunteer.
  • Do dishes and cook.  (I haven't cooked in almost a year - for a while it was just too hard to feel clean long enough to assemble a meal that didn't just involve nuking something.  Then I was afraid to wash dishes because they were so dirty, and when I did do them, it took me forever!  Now I still don't do dishes or use them, but while this and my resistance to cooking are still in part due to my fear of being contaminated or cleaning things "wrong" and having it all devoured by time-consuming rituals, it is also in part due to my fear of losing the sense of self that I have developed over the last year - I am afraid to feel too free, too "normal," too fast, after being out of commission for quite some time.  I am afraid that it will result in some sort of identity crisis.  So while I still have many rituals that hamper my enjoyment of life, I cling to them tightly out of fear of falling apart....but as with any fear, the only way to find out whether that fear is worth the compromised quality of life that it results in, is to do exposure and face it! To do the experiment and test the hypothesis!)
  • Have an income (and stop delving deeper into my savings to pay for my living expenses).
  • Actually keep my home clean.  This may sound paradoxical, since I have contamination fears, but I have a hard time cleaning because of OCD, and as a result things are often dirtier than I would like them.  If I could just clean without it becoming a huge, compulsive, and extremely onerous task, I could keep my home at least looking clean even if I felt that I had cleaned things "wrong" or "not well enough."  (I have always had difficulty initiating cleaning processes, even before I developed severe contamination concerns, because once I got started, it always seemed like there was more to was never good enough or clean enough, and I would just resign myself to occasionally performing long cleaning marathons.  Even then I would often still not feel like I had cleaned well enough, or if I did meet the constantly evolving cleaning expectations of my mind, I would be exhausted and frustrated by the fact that it it took me four or five or a million times longer than the average person.)
  • Enjoy being in my twenties and the freedom and flexibility I have at this time.
Things that I can do in the future if I overcome some of my OCD challenges and learn to better regulate my symptoms:
  • Channel my attention to detail and persistence so that I can use it for things that I want to accomplish rather than what I feel I should accomplish.
  • Go back to school and do it on my terms, not OCD's, and see if I can succeed and perhaps even do better and be happier without giving into the disorder's demands.
  • Get a cat (or two!) and be able to take care of it...I have always, always wanted a cat but have never had one.
  • Handle having kids (sometime very far, far, far in the future, if I have that wonderful opportunity).
  • Help others with OCD more effectively by having had, and by learning from, the whole first-hand experience of using CBT/ERP to overcome and conquer OCD challenges successfully.

And finally, I'd also like to mention a few things that challenging my OCD has allowed me to do thus far:
  • Start this blog.
  • Consider exciting job opportunities for the future.
  • Take the chance of remaining single and to consider pursuing new relationships.
  • Attend the OCD conference, where I learned more about OCD and had the wonderful opportunity to meet more sufferers like myself! 
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive and I'll probably develop it further offline, but these are at least some of the big highlights in the list of things I might have done had I gotten treatment earlier, things I hope to do soon if I can get my current symptoms under control, and things I want to do in the future that OCD, if left un-managed, could jeopardize.

These are the reasons that, at this point in my treatment, and with all the knowledge I now have about OCD and the methods used to overcome it, I should really start putting that knowledge into practice more consistently to help myself achieve the things I would like to achieve.


  1. That's neat that you listed out what you could have and maybe could do! I think I'll copy you and try that! Yeah, fighting the OCD gets tiring and sometimes I just want to... sleep forever. But that's lame. And if I can beat the depression enough, yeah, there's things I'd like to do. Yeah, there's things OCD has gotten in the way of - like degree choice and what I'm doing as my "career" for the moment. And there are the things I haven't lost yet, that I want to keep. So yeah, those are good reasons not. to. wash. my. hands. Oh, but just this time (and the next and the next etc) I want to wash my hands. I can't handle the anxiety this time. Next time (ha!) I'll be able to skip it... :)

  2. Ah, those words sound strangely similar to the OCD voice my head...

    I hope you find listing this sort of thing helpful. For me, every little thing I can do to motivate myself gets me that much closer to hearing the OCD voice and disregarding it anyway!

  3. "Actually keep my home clean." I don't let people come to my home anymore because it's a mess. It's not disgusting by normal standards, just a little messy, but it's disgusting and embarrassing to me. That and I worry that if people see my home, they will think "Well she must not really have OCD. If she did, her home would be spotless!"

    My home isn't clean for the exact reasons you discussed. I just can't seem to get started. I desperately want a clean home, but I can't bring myself to do it. Cleaning things means coming into contact with contamination (no thank you!) and once I start, it just seems like it will never end. No matter how much I clean, it will never be clean enough and even if I did somehow manage to get it clean enough, it would just be dirty again in a matter of minutes/hours/days.

    As for a cat. I think you should get one once you're ready! I have been around cats since I was born, so I can handle them. I think I love cats so much because (I'm convinced) they have OCD, too. One of my cats, if he has just bathed himself and you pet him, he will immediately start cleaning the exact spot where he was touched. It drives him crazy! Both of my cats are so particular with their daily routines. They hate messy litter boxes and will often hold it if it's too dirty by their standards and then they rush in really fast as soon as I clean it. Things have to be a certain times in certain ways (for instance, they each have their own side of the food bowl and they are both very insistent on being on the correct side). So yeah. I love cats, because I feel like they get me.

    I love the idea of these lists. I think I am going to make my own. I have, on occasion, thought about a thing or two I could have done if not for OCD. It'd be interesting (and hard) to make an exhaustive list. I just hope it doesn't hurt too much. But then that's where the can-do-in-the-future-IF list comes in and offers hope and motivation. Thanks for posting your lists!!

  4. I can certainly relate to this fear: "she must not have really have OCD" because she doesn't do x, and OCD people are suppose to do x. That's something that constantly makes me feel like people must think I'm a fake! Whether it's a spotless home or hands that are raw from washing, it's easy to think, "Wait! How will anyone know or believe that I have OCD without these obvious outward signs?!" or "I'm even failing at being OCD if I don't keep my home spotless because that's what people with OCD do!" They're all just more ways for OCD to try to get us to continue engaging in compulsive behavior so that it, as a disorder, can continue to thrive!

    Oh, and I love the description of your cats! How funny! I have always, always wanted a cat, but my mom was allergic to them when I was a kid and since then I haven't had time (or the ability) to take care of one. I definitely look at potentially getting a cat as a reward for working hard to get better...but then...I can't get one anytime soon either because they aren't allowed in the place I live! :( But perhaps a year from now!

  5. I don't know if this short list helps but these are the biggies for me in terms of what I have lost:
    never got married, never had children, losing being able to see friends or family.
    Thank you for describing the issue of "actually keeping home clean" I know exactly what that is. Keep up the good fight.



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