Sunday, September 26, 2010


It's amazing how fast things can go sour.  One minute I'm at least considering compliance with my homework and exposures, and the next, I have given up completely.  Annoyed and frustrated, feelings which I am starting to recognize as signs of my "anxiety," I rebel, furiously scorning any further attempt at cooperation with my therapist's recommendations.  I am angry.  Angry and frustrated.  So I metaphorically throw my hands up in the air and basically say, "Fine OCD!  Fine!  You win.  Are you happy now? Huh?  Are you happy now?!  I give in.  I'm done fighting for the day.  Congratulations.  Look! I'll give you everything you wanted and more."  And that's how I end up compulsively showering, washing my hands, re-washing clothes, or sleeping on the floor.  Push me a little too far and over the edge I go.  Tonight I'm already off the cliff.

My therapist would tell me to fight back.  To use that anger not against my self in compulsive OCD-fulfilling self-punishment, but against the OCD.  But somehow that doesn't seem to be how it works.  When I fight back, the anger at myself escalates even more until I can't take it anymore.  Giving in to the compulsions, the avoidance, brings down the anger and the lashing out at myself.  It calms me.  Even if it's just avoidance, it appeases the anger inside instead of feeding it even more.

I should fight back.  I know I should.  But I am just so done for the evening.  I don't like to make such explicitly negative posts.  I like to at least end on a somewhat positive note, an attempt to solve the problem at hand.  But tonight, I am just overwhelmed.  I am done.  I'll start fresh tomorrow.  OCD, I surrender, you win today.  Are you happy??

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Fear of Overcoming My OCD

I have a fear of overcoming my OCD.

Like a shadow, OCD will probably always be following me,
changing in shape and size over time.  I can choose to
fight it, to attempt to chase away the discomfort it causes,
but it's not going anywhere.  There will probably always
be different OCD fears that come and go throughout my life,
and the less I fight those fears, those obsessions, the less
likely they are to bother me, including my "fear of
overcoming my OCD."  The less time I spend trying to make my
shadow go away, the less I will notice its presence.  Or,
conversely, the less time I spend making sure it is still
there, the less I will fear losing it.

Wait what?  No, that's right.  I'm actually afraid of losing my OCD sometimes.  And I feel bad about this because so many people would probably love to be rid of their OCD and would be quite content never to see it again.  What kind of person "chooses" to keep a mental disorder?  "Choosing" implies that I am voluntarily keeping OCD when I could easily be rid of it if I wanted to, which makes me feel, shall we say, ungrateful?  Guilty? Unappreciative of the un-encumbered mental state I could supposedly have if I just "decided" to stop keeping my OCD already? A mental state that most would probably love to have and that is within my reach and yet remains ignored?

The problem is, the fear of overcoming my OCD is slowly becoming the very focus of my disorder.  Exposure to this fear is simple - I just have to do my homework designed to address my other OCD issues and there you go - two birds with one stone.  I do my contamination exposures and voila! - I feel dirty and frighteningly non-OCD at the same time! 

OCD is like the abusive significant other.  I acknowledge that he is no good, that I really, really need to stop hanging out with him.  I am aware that he is making my life miserable and is in general, unhealthy for me, and yet, I'm afraid to leave him because he is what I know.  I've been with him almost my whole life, and this past year, he was my life.  OCD took precedence over all else.  So although I hate him, there is comfort in his presence.  I fear what I will become without him, yet I need to find out.  I will never know unless I take the necessary leap of faith to leave him behind.  If I find out that life without him isn't so great, well then I can come back to my crippling, but familiar friend.  But staying with him out of fear of finding out that there is nothing better, that there is no better way to live, is to give up without even trying.

But it's precisely that fear - the fear that life without OCD may be no better - that makes challenging my OCD difficult.  The knowledge that I don't want to live this way forever is both what motivates me and what holds me back.  On the one hand, there are many things that I would like to able to do that OCD currently won't allow.  I would like to be able to enjoy those things, to live my life freely without unnecessary restraints, and yet I am afraid of discovering that the OCD-free life I seek is no better than the one I am currently living.  And that, in and of itself, is frightening.  As unlikely as it seems that life without OCD could be worse, I am afraid that I will never really adjust, that I will be free but no happier.  I am afraid to discover that, to be what I want to be, this is the way I have to live - that I need my OCD.  And sure, right now, I sometimes think, "Why bother fighting?  This life isn't that bad.  Sure there are things I am missing out on, but I will be able to do them someday.  I'm just not ready to let go of my OCD quite yet."  So if I am happy like this, why would I be afraid of finding out that life without OCD is no better than the "happy" life I supposedly have now?

I think I am "happy" now, even with the restrictions OCD mandates, not because living this way is so great, but because there is hope of change, that I won't have to live this way forever,  that life can be better.  If I try life with minimal OCD and find out that it isn't better, or if, after freeing myself, I discover that life with OCD was the best I could do, then that hope that has kept me going despite the OCD is dashed.  I'm back to living life with OCD without the hope of something better to keep me going.

But using this logic is also kind of like repeatedly slamming my head into a brick wall, not liking it but continuing anyway, because I am afraid that, if I stop, I will find out that slamming my head into said brick wall is the best that life has to offer.  As much as I hate doing it, if I don't stop, then I won't have to risk losing the hope that life doesn't have to be that way.  But perhaps taking that risk is worth finding out if the the pain I am causing myself is unnecessary.  And if I take into account the fact that most other people don't do what I'm doing, that most people are saying, "Stop!  Hitting your head repeatedly against a wall (so to speak) isn't necessary!  It's doing damage to you and your life," chances are, the odds are in my favor.  If I also take into account the fact that my behavior is considered "disordered" and that people devote their lives to studying and helping others free themselves from their "disordered" ways, the odds are even better.  It's not without risk. There is the slight, but highly unlikely possibility that I will discover that this life, as painful as it is, is less painful than life without hitting my head against a wall.  But the the likelihood of gain seems to far outweigh the unlikely, but possible, risk of finding out there is nothing better.

Past history only further favors taking that chance.   My own experience has been that, as I overcome various OCD fears and eliminate the associated compulsions, I am happier.  I look back now at the many different permutations OCD has taken throughout my life, many of which no longer haunt me, and am SO GLAD that I somehow got past them, that I somehow pulled through to the other side despite the fact that it sometime seemed like that other side couldn't possibly hold anything good.  It takes a leap of faith to get there.

Even now, despite my lingering OCD problems, I would say that I am probably happier than I have been in a long time - in part because, since finding out that I have OCD and that I don't have to perform a lot of the other rituals that were scattered throughout my life, I feel freed of an unnecessary burden that I hardly knew I was carrying, a burden that I couldn't recognize though it frustrated me and weighed me down.  Again, this is only more support for taking the risk of getting better, to continue onward in overcoming my OCD, so I can shed even more of the unnecessary rituals and hopefully continue to feel better as I lighten my load.

On that note, I am so much better than I was this time a year ago (it's hard to believe that it has almost been an entire year since I started treatment!), and the form of my OCD has changed a lot since then.  What I thought was just a fear of chemicals, I soon realized was part of a bigger pattern in my life, a pattern of fears changing over time, waxing and waning in severity.  Even over the past year, my fears morphed and glided from one to the next.  What was originally a fear of chemicals then became a much broader fear of contamination, the fear of being a fraud and pretending to have OCD, the fear of feeling dirty, the fear of realizing that all the OCD things in my current life and in my past were not OCD at all, the fear of realizing I was an innately dirty and lazy human being, and the fear of losing my OCD itself, just to name a few.  As I have gradually gotten better, OCD has agilely jumped from one thing to the next to justify its existence.  And now it clings to itself, claiming that life is better with it around.

But this last fear is just one more added to a long list, a list that extends back more than a decade and that will probably continue on into the future in ways I cannot yet foresee.  As much as OCD would like to say as usual, "No, this time is different!" it's not really.  It's just the next part of a continuum that will probably head on into the future.  And perhaps I can find some sort of twisted comfort in this - that even if I can overcome this last fear, it is not necessarily the "end" of the battle.  The enemy I am so fond of will likely be back - like the flu or a cold, it is constantly mutating so that even if I overcome one form, there will always be more to "catch."  But with each fear I leave behind, I have one more example of how life without that particular version of OCD is better.  And now that I am in treatment, every fear I overcome strengthens my ability to overcome the next.

Fighting my OCD is something that will probably never completely "end."  If it weren't "the fear of overcoming my OCD," it would probably be some other fear, some other reason not to get better.  The possibilities are infinite.  But past experience suggests that life gets better with less OCD, so I suppose I should try to go forward despite this latest incarnation of my disorder.  If I find out that life without OCD isn't as good as I was hoping, well I can address that then.  But as long as cling to my disorder, I won't have a chance to find out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Feeling a Little Bit Sad

I'm not exactly sure why, but I've been feeling a bit sad now and then lately.  Nothing in particular causes it - in fact, things have been going fairly well, for the most part.  But sometimes my feelings slosh around freely - up and then down, down and then up - without any real rhyme or reason.  But I know if I get up and make myself busy, if I engage my mind in things I want to get done, my mood will lift.

There was a time in my life when I couldn't depend on such things to bring my spirits up.  Though I wasn't diagnosed, I really believe that I suffered from depression as a child and then later, in early adolescence, as well.  I also suspect that the depression that set in was related to my then undiagnosed OCD.  At that time, I didn't have a name for the fears that swam around in my head, the irrational worries that made me feel sick to my stomach and very, very alone.  It was only when I felt like I just couldn't go on anymore that I would finally break down and admit to my mom some of the things in that were happening in my head.

Whenever these break-downs occurred, I experienced so much embarrassment, so much shame.  I hated having to tell even my own parents about my fears, and in fact, I usually only confessed such things to my mom, though I'm sure as much as I disliked the idea, she probably shared some of it with my dad.  I hated compromising my independence.  I hated having to give in and finally let them in on what was going on in my inner world.  I can't really explain why, but it just felt awful.  Maybe it was because I thought they might see or treat me differently - they might coddle me, they might look at me like I wasn't alright, they might ask "How are you feeling?" with an air of weighty significance and looks of concern.  Of course, none of these things are crimes in any way, shape, or form.  And I knew even then that my mom and dad were just being loving, caring parents, but I still hated it, and it was only when the agony of holding it all in eclipsed the agony of letting it out that I would finally confess that something was wrong.  And I have to admit, it did feel good to tell someone.  I just sometimes wished it didn't have to be them that I told.

On top of that, I often felt a lot of guilt, too - guilt for excluding my father from much of this.  There were times when I would have these cathartic heart-to-hearts with my mom, and I think after an hour or two my dad would realize something was up, but as soon as he entered the room, I no longer wanted to talk.  I just really, really wanted him to leave.  And I hated myself for feeling that way.  I wondered if he felt excluded, and that saddened me.  I didn't want him to feel left out, and I wanted to include him, and yet, as soon as he came into earshot of our "private" conversation, I felt the strong desire to make the discussion more vague or to steer it from the topic of my fears completely.  I wanted to immediately act like nothing was wrong, to deny, deny, deny that anything was up if he asked.  I just wanted so desperately to pretend that my mom and I were chatting casually, nothing more.  It felt terrible to share with him but it also felt terrible to leave him out. 

I suppose it was hard enough admitting my inner worries to one person.  Having my dad enter in the middle or near the end of the conversation, when I was already starting to feel better, made it even more difficult.  Once I felt the relief of having admitted all my struggles and fears to my mom, I kind of wished I could take it all back - that I could have obtained the same sort of relief without having revealed all my inner secrets.  As soon as I felt better, I no longer felt a need to share with anyone else.  In my mind, it would have been better if, once I let it out, we just all pretended that nothing had happened.  That everything was "normal."  The fewer people who had to know, the better.

I think my mom sensed my hesitation to share these things with my dad, too.  I'm pretty sure I sometimes even asked her not to tell my father despite the fact that I felt horrible for doing so.  Not only did it seem unfair and selfish to demand my mother bear the burden of my mental struggles alone, it again seemed wrong to exclude my father.  I always wondered if my preference for sharing my thoughts and feelings with mom bothered my dad - if he really did feel left out or if he just chalked it up to some sort of mother/daughter connection.  I wanted to want to share with him, but somehow it was almost always easier to overcome the lump in my throat and put my struggles into words when I was with my mother.  I was just more comfortable and less self-conscious when I was around her.

I remember receiving this doll as a gift
during one holiday season that was part of a
particularly rough time for me.  Most of the
"emotional contamination" that I once attached to
certain objects has long faded, but there was
a time when I would avoid certain toys/places
that were associated with previous
periods of depression/OCD flare-ups, fearing
that prolonged exposure to them would
somehow suck me back in.
Even writing this now I start to feel bad, perhaps because it makes how I felt and acted back then seem even more real, more tangible, more true.  But putting into writing my memory of those times doesn't change what occurred - it doesn't make it somehow worse.  I guess it just brings back memories of moments that were certainly not easy nor pleasant.

Sometime I want to write more about my struggles with OCD when I was younger, but I'll save that for another time.  I suppose the point of putting this all into words was just to reflect on how hard it was to deal with my OCD when I was a kid, how much more embarrassed, ashamed, and self-conscious of my problems I was then, and the depression that those feelings caused.  I am so grateful that I no longer feel the same sort of stigma surrounding my mental health issues as I did back then.  Don't get me wrong - it's still something I prefer not to share with the world, but it no longer leaves me feeling so isolated, so alone, so different.  It no longer does the same number on my self-esteem that it did back then.  And for that I am so grateful.  My most recent descent into full-blown OCD has certainly been the most disruptive and debilitating episode overall, but sometimes I still look back and think that I experienced some of the most acutely and emotionally painful flare-ups when I was a kid - when to the outside world it probably seemed as though nothing was wrong.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

OCD and the Futile Fight Against Disorder

Ever since I learned about the concept of "entropy" in my high school physics class, it seemed to sum up nicely the enemy I faced - the tendency of the world to move towards lower energy states - aka disorder and disorganization - in the absence of outside influence.  OCD is all about demanding order, certainty, finality and completion; thus, this concept, entropy, is really OCD's arch-nemesis.  The world isn't meant to be perfectly ordered and complete.  Things naturally move towards messiness - dust collects, dirt and grime build up, things come unsorted, messes get made as the world gravitates towards lower energy states.  It's only through the constant investment of additional energy to keep things "in their place" that we manage to temporarily stave off the crumbling of our highly ordered lives. As soon as we stop our energy-taxing efforts to keep things organized, that natural process seems to take over again.  It's only a matter of time.

Okay, so I realize this is a pretty dismal view of the universe we live in, but sometimes this is how it feels to me.  It's as if I am constantly pushing a boulder up a hill.  Sure I can push it everyday a little bit more, but as soon as I let up, as soon as I stop for a minute to catch my breath, down the boulder begins to roll again.  The dirt builds up, things become disorganized, and chaos and clutter ensue.  It feels like it's a constant fight.  I'm tired.

The funny thing is that, in typical OCD fashion, the harder I try to push, the more that boulder seems to roll back on me.  The more time I spend cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, organizing, sorting, filing, etc., the more there seems left to do.    OCD wants me to push that boulder all the way to the top in one go so that I can, at least for a moment, have everything that needs to be done, done.   So that, for just an hour, just a day, everything is "perfect."   

So I can at last feel a sense of completion.  So that I can finally feel "caught up with life."

But it's not a fair game, because every time I reach what I thought was the top of the hill, I discover that there are new heights to be reached.  As soon as I start cleaning one thing, I suddenly see all the other things that need to be cleaned, as well.  It seems like the more time I spend trying to keep things neat, the longer my to-do list gets.  The more work I do, the more work there is to be done.  I can never quite seem to catch up - because OCD keeps raising the bar one more time.  So working at these tasks with the goal of getting everything finally DONE really isn't a feasible goal.  Try as I might, I can't do it all.  And when I do try (and trust me, I have), by the time the I finish the last item on the list, the first item needs to be done again, and so it all starts over.

OCD's definition of completion is impossible to reach because the measuring stick just keeps on going - it never stops.  And the harder I try to get it all done, the faster I run, the harder I push that boulder up the hill, the farther away the finish line seems to get.  OCD is always one step ahead finding new tasks to put on the list.

Sometimes when I stubbornly try to push that boulder to the top of the hill, certain that this time I can make it, I become exhausted and frustrated.  And that frustration leads to burn-out induced surrender, the long-period of avoidance that comes after an extended, but fruitless effort to catch that elusive sense of being finished.  As funny as it may sound, that avoidance is what I want to avoid - because then the boulder really does start rolling back down the hill.  The laundry piles up, the trash starts overflowing, the piles on my desk start to litter its surface until I can no longer take it.  I snap and try to undo it all at once to purge myself of the over-whelming anxiety and self-hatred I feel for letting things get that way.  I pay penance to the OCD gods by bowing down to them in a cleaning marathon, and then I am again burned out, and I avoid all these things again for days on end.  At that point, the work that needs to be done just seems so daunting, not only because so much has accumulated after several days of avoidance, but also because OCD insists that these tasks be done in a very specific ritualistic way, which is even harder to fight if I have been cowering in fear for some time.  The avoidance increases my anxiety, and my burgeoning anxiety increases my avoidance until I find myself in a compulsive frenzy.

This is known as "Balancing Rock" (though personally I think
it looks more like "Lizard Rock").  Someday erosion of its
pedestal will allow it to topple from its post and roll down,
down, down the hillside towards the trail/hikers beneath - but
supposedly this won't happen during our lifetime...
or will it?? ;)  Watch out for the rolling lizard boulder!
So how do I work around this?  How do I avoid looking at life as an exhaustive series of never-ending tasks?  How do I keep from swinging back and forth between draining energetic outbursts and burn-out induced surrender?  How do I learn to pace myself so that I'm not constantly going from full-on sprint to halted defeat? 

As with all things OCD, the only thing that I have really found to work for me is setting pre-determined limits for myself, so that once I get started, I'm not waiting for that elusive "that's good enough" feeling to indicate when it's time to stop.  That sense of completion often doesn't come until I have already invested too much time and energy in a particular activity - washing my hands, doing chores, and now that I think about, writing posts for this blog - and sometimes it never shows up at all.  I have to rely upon more quantitative parameters to gauge when I am done, parameters set ahead of time, because as soon as I get started on something, it all too often becomes apparent that my internal completion meter is all out of whack.

When I am on top of things and mindful of my tendency to go on and on and on and on, I decide ahead of time what is "enough," when I will stop even if I feel like I really could or should do more.  In addition to setting limits for specific tasks, I also sometimes plan ahead what I would like to get done for that day, a realistic set of goals that can be accomplished.  If I can get those things done, then I am done.  And, if I am lucky, I even feel "done," too.   But waiting for that feeling is dangerous, because it often appears to be just one step further...and then another...and another...and another...and so on.  It can go on infinitely.

So I'm learning not to wait, not to keep going until I have that sense of being done.  But all too often I forget, and I find myself in endless repetitions until it dawns on me what I am waiting for - that feeling, that certainty that I have satisfactorily completed whatever task is at hand.  However, I occassionally catch myself before it goes too far, remembering that, for whatever reason, I have a hard time obtaining a sense of completion, of having done "well enough," and I regroup.  I redefine the point of completion based on pre-determined limits rather than a vague feeling.  And in this way, I can get back on track.  But it's definitely a work in progress.

As for the avoidance of tasks that comes from the fear of getting stuck, like I said, I try to do a little bit each day, so that I don't become overwhelmed with anxiety and feel the need to do these chores in the most compulsive way possible to calm myself.  Slow and steady rather than all-or-nothing.  I try to keep a even pace, whittling away a little bit more each day, and with the help of pre-determined limits, I do so more successfully and with a greater sense of productivity.  I can keep the boulder moving upward rather than letting it roll back over me - all the way to the bottom.

How do you gain a sense of completion, of productivity, at the end of the day?  When you can never truly be done with everything?  How do you gauge when you have done "enough?"  How do you avoid feeling like life is a never ending succession of more tasks to complete?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Recovery Pains

Earlier this week I tried to write a few posts but never ended up finishing them.  I'm not sure if I was just feeling daunted by a growing need to feel "right" in order to write, or if I have just been busier lately and have had less time to think too much (which translates into less time to write too much).

But things are beginning to seem different these days, so I thought I'd reflect on that a bit here.  I feel like as I gradually come out of the OCD haze that I've been living in for a year and attempt to re-enter the "real" world, there is a certain amount of pain that comes with it.  There's the pain of trying to figure it all out again.  There's the pain of real life concerns rediscovered, pains that have laid dormant for quite some time as the angry wrath of OCD made caring about such things impossible.  I was too spent on just getting by, on just navigating the requirements of everyday life.  Just managing to shower, eat, and take care of the things that HAD to be taken care of was hard enough. I didn't have the emotional energy to worry about anything else other than just keeping  myself going as I tried to find a way out.

There is also pain that comes as I once again regain my ability to appreciate some of the things that I've missed out on.  I didn't have the chance to really enjoy some of the opportunities someone my age and in my place in life might normally enjoy.  I would occasionally go out.  I would occasionally hang out with friends.  But a large part of me wasn't there.  I wasn't enjoying these things, and I didn't care.  I was too busy thinking about what I had touched when and figuring out how I was going to make it through my day.  I didn't care that I was missing out, because I didn't really want to be there.  Doing those things often seemed more like an exposure than something to enjoy.  It was just added stress to my day when I could be at home safely guarding myself from contamination.  I wasn't sad about it then, but as I regain an appreciation for those things now, it does come with a sense of sadness and loss, a sort of "recovery pain."

Sometimes engaging in more "normal" activities and starting to get back into a more "normal" routine also seems to reveal that there is still a ways to go.  I suspect that there will be a certain amount of readjustment required to get used to living a "normal" life again.  I'm certainly not there yet, but as I begin to give less time to OCD and more time to other things (like applying to and interviewing for jobs), it seems like a little bit more of a reality that I will make it out of this.  I always expected to get over this episode of OCD in my life, but it always seemed so far away, so distant, so unreachable.  It was always - "I will get better, but not yet.  I'm not ready to take on additional responsibilities.  I want to break free, but I can't do what it takes.  Not now. Not yet."  But these days "normal" life is getting closer, and as it nears, I suddenly start to realize how wrapped up in my own little world I have been over the last year.

It sort of reminds me of the pain that comes with working out after a long period of going without.  What was once natural and easy is no longer so.  Muscles left unused strain as you push forward and then tire easily.  And the next day, the work you did the day before leaves you aching.  What would probably be a very easy and light schedule for your average person is somewhat stressful for me.  How will I still get everything done?  How will I still manage to quell my OCD urges and do the things that I actually need to do?  How will I manage to keep it together with less time for rituals?

It is also strange because the world I am re-entering is not the same one I left a year ago.  At that point I was fresh out of school - the first time in 17 years I wasn't going to have class, and homework, and exams.  It was an odd and difficult transition even without the OCD meltdown, and I suppose it didn't help that I still worked at and lived near the same campus where I attended college.  I was still surrounded by it, which I thought would make it all easier, but it was a constant reminder of something I was no longer a part of - something that I had formerly devoted all my time to, in part because I love school and in part because my study habits were riddled with OCD through and through, which meant I was never done, never caught up, never "finished" with anything until I absolutely had to be, and sometimes not even then.  I spent so much time burying myself in school work that I didn't know any other way to define myself.  Without grades and homework and exams and essays to act as proxy for my sense of self (and to absorb my OCD tendencies), it's not surprising, looking back, that full-blown OCD found a welcome home amidst my stress and newfound free time.

But now just a year later, school seems a lot more distant.  I don't miss it the way I used to.  I am no longer working where I was before (a casualty of my OCD and resulting inability to perform my job), either.  I am forging a new (and healthier) path, looking for jobs that suit my interests but that I didn't have the self-confidence to pursue before.  I am trying my best to go for the things I want, even if I fear that I am not good enough in one way or another to do these things, even if I'm not without a doubt certain that I will succeed.

Settling for the "safe" option without even testing out other possibilities left me feeling trapped and stifled.  So with my "old" life, in many different ways, no longer available as an option, I move ahead, hoping to be healthier and happier on the other side of all this.  I've carried around a warped way of responding to problems in the form of OCD for many, many years, so in a way, learning to live without so many compulsions is also a new experience for me.  I am excited to have so much to look forward to, but it makes returning to the "real world," after being immersed in OCD-land for a good year, an even more complex transition.  I feel like I am learning to live a new and different life in so many different ways.  It's exciting, but there is so much to learn.

So as I gradually emerge from my long hiatus to re-integrate myself in the "normal" world, there is sadness that comes once the daily tyranny of obsessions and compulsions is no longer there to make all else seem unimportant.  Awakening from the long hard winter, my rekindled interests, interests in things other than the focus of my OCD, tentatively sprout through the frost, brought to light after a long season of darkness.   Fragile yet inquisitive, they spring up from the desolation and fight to survive in an environment that is not yet ideal for them.  But it's getting there.  All the time the world seems to be becoming a less threatening and more habitable place.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

If You're Going Through Hell, Stop It

 "If you're going through hell, keep going."

Someone in one of my support groups mentioned this saying recently in reference to OCD.  I get the point (or at least I think I do) - if you are resisting a compulsion and experiencing the anxiety that it causes, keep going.  Face it, and don't try to undo it if you want to come out on the other side.  To engage in compulsions is to head back and ultimately detain yourself in OCD hell.  Trying to escape may seem like the best thing to do in the moment, but pressing onward through the anxiety is ultimately the better option.

I've heard this saying used in this way before, and I have issues with it, along with the idea that learning to deal with OCD is learning to "better tolerate feeling shitty" because its an inevitable part of life and you can't escape feeling discomfort.  Maybe it's because I still struggle with this, but I really, really don't like this point of view (and it is a point of view I have heard espoused by someone who has treated OCD professionally for years).  I find it depressing.  And it makes me feel like a failure - or like I am somehow weak and can't "tolerate feeling shitty" as well as I should be able to or as well as everyone else.

I don't like the whole "if you're going through hell, keep going" ideology because it's exactly the sort of reasoning I use to torture myself, to push myself to continue on with compulsions even if they are hellish.  I continue on precisely because I want to prove to myself that I can endure as much as anyone else, that I can tolerate "feeling shitty."  OCD is there saying, "Hey keep going.  Don't stop now.  Other people with OCD have endured worse.  Why can't you try as hard as them to do things 'right?'  Keep going.  Push through, no excuses.  Prove that you can tolerate such sacrifices, such lengthy rituals.  Prove that you can endure hell and continue onward.  And once you prove that, then maybe you can stop."  So I feel a magnetic-like pull to keep going, to push through to the end until I have performed my rituals perfectly.  Each time the option to perform a compulsion arises, it feels like a new test of my strength to punish myself, my ability to self-deny and force myself to do something no matter how much I don't want to do it, no matter how terrible it feels.

For me, a better mantra would be "if you're going through hell for no other reason than to prove that you can, STOP.  LEAVE. DON'T KEEP GOING. TURN AROUND."  In one word:  NO.

If I'm trying to prove that I am capable of enduring hell, next time just continuing through it to the other side won't be enough.  Next time I'll have to do something else to prove that I can endure even more.  Going through hell won't be enough.  I'll  have to find a way to make it more tortuous each and every time I face it.

When someone tells me me that I need to learn how to better endure the unavoidable "shit" that life brings, it's painful.  Because OCD says, "See you have failed!  You need to learn how to endure more!"  Better advice might be:  learn to stop forcing yourself to endure for the sake of proving you can endure.  It is pointless suffering that has no value.  Learn how to see the shit you could force yourself to put up with in the most difficult way possible, turn around, and go the other direction.  No really. Don't test your ability to endure pain and self-denial for no good reason.  Resist.

Anyways, I think I know what is meant when these maxims are used, but they bother me.  They trigger a touchy subject for me and my OCD, because they are already part of an approach to life that I use against myself. That I don't want to feel like I have to endure.  I feel like these sayings should be used with more discretion, and with more of an emphasis on "forgive yourself for not putting yourself through unnecessary pain."  OCD is already cheering me on, encouraging me to continue onward through my self-made hell.  I don't need more encouragement in that direction.  The last thing I need is someone saying "you aren't trying hard enough" or "you need to learn to endure pain better" because OCD scoops up these words and uses them to its advantage, to goad me on in the performance of rituals.

More often that not, I don't need to try harder.  I need to try less.  I need to learn to relent and ease up, not do the opposite.  Rituals don't make me feel 'good' for say, but they make me feel like I might be 'good enough' because if I can get through them, they make me feel I am capable of enduring hell.  The kind of "discomfort toleration" these points of view are meant to promote is actually the opposite of continuing onward in my trek through hell.  I have to learn to tolerate the discomfort of feeling like I have failed by choosing to NOT keep going, to NOT force myself to endure, to NOT consider each and every option before allowing myself to move on.  And that kind of discomfort isn't really like going through hell at all, at least not compared to going through with the compulsions.  It's like learning to resist a temptation - a temptation to see how much hell I can stand.  And when I can manage to resist, it's nothing like hell.  It's the opposite.  It's peace of mind.  It's comfort.  As long I can resist the desire to pull myself back in, to punish myself for my self-liberation, it's freedom.

Monday, September 13, 2010

For Better or For Worse

I probably think too much.  In fact, I probably think about thinking too much, too.  But amidst all those thoughts about thinking, I also wonder:  Where do I end?  Where does OCD begin?  And then I think about thinking this thought a little more and...okay, maybe I do have OCD.  At least I think I might...

But this question does have some value - where does the boundary fall between me and my OCD?  It's at least interesting to ponder, anyway.  I am always mystified by those who say that they "suddenly" developed OCD one day and never had it before, that they were suddenly overwhelmed by strange thoughts accompanied by urges to do things to relieve the anxiety those thoughts caused.  And I'm left thinking (yes, thinking, who would have thought?  Me?  Think?  Never!), "Wait.  So one day you just started processing everything in this new, disordered way?  As if something foreign had swooped in and somehow noticeably changed the way your mind worked?  Like catching a cold?  Except, well, instead of causing a runny nose and sore throat, it changed the way you mentally saw and addressed the world in very distinct and defined ways?"

This, for me, is somewhat difficult to comprehend.  At various times, I've had certain fears and the desire to perform compulsions pop up in my life in way that seemed sudden, but this has only been within an approach to life that, looking back, seems laden with compulsivity.  Of those people who can remember a time "without OCD," I would love to ask (and have occasionally when the opportunity presented itself), "What was it like 'before?'  How is it 'different' now?"  Because, really, I feel like I don't have much to go on.  In my head, this question is a jumbled mess where OCD looks like my thoughts, and my thoughts like OCD.  And as soon as I begin to convince myself that maybe, just maybe, this or that part of my life has been influenced by OCD, the voice of doubt says,

"Stop that!  Stop blaming everything on OCD, already!  You're wrong.  There's no way to really know if that's OCD or not." (Okay that part is kind of actually true...) "Except for the most obvious exceptions, the things you think and the way you approach life in general don't have anything to do with OCD.  Stop applying the disorder to everything so liberally.  You can't fix it all.  Some things are just part of life - you have to deal with them and you know it.  Stop labeling things as OCD just because you don't want to believe that that's just the way life is!"

The fact that I have this internal discussion with myself is probably a pretty good sign that I have OCD in the first place (or maybe having an internal discussion with myself is just a pretty good sign that I'm actually crazy...).  Anyways, back to my point...

Sometimes I wonder, where do I begin?  How much have I come to know as me or "my way" of doing things that is actually OCD or the "OCD way?"   Sure there are some things that are glaringly obvious.  Take, for instance, most of the physical washing compulsions I have adopted over the last year.  I didn't ever feel the need to do those things before.  I knew that they didn't "have to" be done in a particular way to be "right" or for me to feel "okay."  These recent changes in the way I do things stand out as being OCD.

Even so, I have managed to question myself so much that I am actually confused about what is "normal" vs. "OCD" sometimes.  I want no margin of error.  I want to know for sure that I am not washing "incorrectly;" I don't want to assume that something is a compulsion and then find out that really it isn't, that really it is an "appropriate" time to wash when I assumed it was compulsive and didn't.  But as much as I wish I didn't have to accept this particular risk, it is a chance I have to take to get better.  I might even have to intentionally (gasp of horror) commit what my OCD mind has labeled as blatant washing sins, if I really want to break free.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that's in the mix...but let's not think about that...yet.

Anyways, these obvious rituals aren't really the compulsions I'm referring to when I wonder where the border between me and OCD lies.  The compulsions and the style of thinking that I'm referring to are broader and more subtle.  It is more about a general approach to life than specific compulsions that have cropped up at one time or another.  The longer I spend in therapy, the more I see how thoroughly OCD has woven itself into the fabric of my life.  What may have started out as a crude stitch that stood  out from the rest has become a finely camouflaged work of art over the years, a masterpiece in deception and furtive influence.  The weed has grown among the natural foliage to the point where it's now hard to tell which is the original inhabitant of the flower bed and which is the one that invaded, gradually took root, and now stands deceptively hardy despite the fact that it is, well, a weed - an unwelcome intruder that takes nutrients from the soil and blocks the sunlight, preventing the natural greenery from thriving as it might.

That said, I tend to vacillate between seeing enormous hope for the future - all the things that I could do, all the ways I could be more productive, if I didn't blindly and without exception, apply incompatible and inflexible rules to my life - and fear.  I fear that there are no such possibilities, that what I believe to be OCD is instead just part of life, something that must be endured.   But then I have to remind myself, nothing "has to" be done in a certain way really.  If there is something I don't like about my life that I would like to change, it doesn't mean that it can only be solved if it's an OCD problem.  I have to give this OCD treatment business a serious shot so I can see if it brings me the freedom I seek, the freedom that makes me so excited to have finally discovered my OCD and found good treatment for it in the first place.

If I cower within the confines of my OCD restrictions, it's true - I won't have to risk the possibility finding out that life without these rules is no better, or somehow even worse - that those things I thought were OCD really are just something that has to be endured.  But I also won't have the opportunity to find out if life could be better, if there are things that I am missing out on or have never had the chance to experience because I resist trying any other way.  I know what's on this side of the bars, and though it sometimes feels so warm and welcoming, the flip side is that it's also incredibly debilitating.  I can't enjoy things that I once enjoyed, I can't move freely about my life, because I am always held back, tethered by the ever shortening leash that OCD has me on.  It may feel safe, but at what cost?  Which is worse - finding out that life without OCD isn't all that much better?  Or never finding out that life can be better, if it can be?

I am not fulfilled by the life I am currently living, so I suppose I don't have much to lose.  I'm taking a stab at freeing myself, despite my fear of what might be on the other side.  Though I am afraid of discovering that this life, my OCD-infested existence, is better than anything else, at this point that's a risk that I am willing to take.  And somehow, I suspect that I won't be all that disappointed :).  Guess we'll just have to see...and if the grass isn't greener without OCD, at least I won't have open sores between my dry, cracking knuckles.  Because, you know, that sort of thing is usually a plus, right? ;)   I just might have to find out...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Delayed Gratification, "Memory Hoarding," and Constantly Preparing for a Future that Has Already Passed

(Yes this a picture of my toilet - well my former toilet in my previous apartment.  And yes, I did intentionally take said picture.  And there is, believe it or not, a reason it's here, right now, as part of this post...bear with me, it has a point, I promise!)

So I was reading a post on one of the blogs I follow today, ED Bites, and was struck by the author's seeming ability to read my mind.  (And apparently several other people's minds, too, looking at the comments.)  She always seems to pick an aspect of the ED/OCD/perfectionist approach to life and put it into words amazingly, so that it appears to spell out your habits and ways of thinking perfectly and better than you could have ever imagined.  In this particular post she was reflecting on her tendency to put off or save things she enjoyed "for later," or as a result of constantly delaying gratification, sometimes "for never."  She rations the pleasurable things in life, and in the meantime tries to get the unpleasant stuff out of the way, so that when the time does come for enjoying herself, she can do so freely and fully.  The only problem is - the "right" or perfect moment for that enjoyment rarely, or never, arrives.  You end up spending your time perpetually preparing for that moment to come, and sometimes it's already gone by.

After reading her post I began thinking about all the various ways I have and continue to do this in my life.  I am constantly waiting for the future, and yet the future nears, arrives, and then passes me by and I am still standing there waiting in vain for it to suddenly appear.

A good example of this is an aspect of my OCD that I have rarely heard described despite all the reading I have done on the disorder.  So far, the best, and really the only thorough account I have read of this compulsion was in an article published on the  OCD Center of Los Angeles blog on "memory hoarding."  In this article the author describes this particular compulsion as so:

"Memory hoarding is a mental compulsion to over-attend to the details of an event, person, or object in an attempt to mentally store it for safekeeping.  This is generally done under the belief that the event, person, or object carries a special significance and will be important to recall exactly as-is at a later date.  The memory serves the same function for the mental hoarder that the old newspaper serves for the physical hoarder."

Like when reading the ED Bites post mentioned above, when reading this article I am again struck with the feeling of "Aha!  That is me!  Exactly!"  The themes of these two posts are related in that they both discuss the tendency to do something now so that you can enjoy your life later (or in some cases, it's really more of making yourself suffer now in an attempt to suffering less later - but that's really what most compulsions are designed to do, aren't they?).

In terms of memory hoarding, I am particularly bad about trying to "capture" moments in my life that are supposed to be "important" or things I think I will want to remember later - vacations, graduations, firsts, and lasts.  The ironic thing is, when I spend my time trying to remember these moments as they happen, I am no longer really enjoying those moments as I intended to enjoy them in the first place; instead, I am, in a way, trying to mentally package them up for safe-keeping and enjoyment at a future date - or as Carrie Arnold of ED Bites writes, I am quite possibly saving them "for never."  I'm hoarding up life's moments to make sure I have what I want in the future, but the future keeps coming, and instead of taking pleasure in it as it occurs, I am still too busy planning for an even more distant future to enjoy the moment at that time.

Recognizing my tendency to do this within the context of my OCD has helped me enjoy the fun and momentous occasions in my life as they occur more frequently.  On my most recent vacation I was able to stay in the present and enjoy things as they happened more than I have been able to in YEARS.  Instead of constantly taking pictures, either mentally or with an actual camera, I spent more time just enjoying the things I saw and felt as I saw and felt them.  Instead of constantly being in the act of preserving the moment for the future, just in case, I was enjoying the moment RIGHT THEN so that there was actually something to remember other than the relentless drudgery of feeling like I had to constantly perform "memory hoarding" rituals.

Granted there is still sometimes a good reason to "memory hoard" for the future.  I like taking pictures so that I can play around with them on my computer, show them to others, decorate my room, and use them to spice up my blog :).  But as with any other compulsive activity, it would be okay, if only the OCD sufferer could do it in moderation.  Things like washing your hands or making sure to lock the door aren't necessarily bad things to do - except when the need to do them begins to dictate your life and interfere with you ability to function.  The same goes for trying to remember the moment.  A quick glance back at that beautiful mountain scene or taking a picture of the apartment you lived in for several years aren't really life-restricting activities - unless doing so means that you will also be trying to remember every rock and tree you passed on that mountain or that you will also find yourself taking photos of your bathroom from all possible angles (trust me, been there, done that; see I told you that toilet picture was relevant!).  The key is being able to recognize when the activity is no longer enhancing your life, when you are solely preserving it for a future that you will probably never notice passing by, because you are too busy, in that moment that it does go by, preparing for the next installment of your future. 

Again, this is still something I am learning to do.  I am still learning how to balance out preparing for the future and enjoying the present moment, and I suspect it is something I will always be learning how to do better.  In the meantime, believing that I can't really enjoy my life until I do have this balancing act mastered is to fall prey to exactly the trap I am trying to overcome.  I can enjoy my life as it happens even without everything figured out.  In fact, if I am constantly waiting to enjoy myself until I reach that elusive destination, I will likely be hoarding future gratification for a moment that will have constantly already passed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

OCD Purgatory: Neither Here nor There but Caught Hanging In-Between

As much as I would like to write a cohesive post on some theme related to OCD, these days I haven't been as, well, reflective, I suppose.  So I'm just going to spit out the thoughts that come to mind - the things that are bothering me right now - so that I can try to get myself back on board.

I am lethargic today, both mentally and physically, and I don't know why.  Well, maybe I do know why.  It comes from procrastinating the things I don't want to do - like showering.  And the longer I procrastinate, the dirtier and more stifled I feel.  Everything seems less satisfying with the thing I am procrastinating looming on the day's to do list.  And on top of that, I have OCD labeling me as "dirty" until I do, even if I only really need to shower for OCD reasons in the first place.  It's like waking up and lounging around in your pajamas all day.  You never feel like you have "gotten up" and started your day until you have gotten dressed.  At least I never do.  It's now evening and while I have been productive, I still feel like there were other things I wanted to accomplish but "couldn't," at least by OCD rules, until I took my compulsive shower.  Oh OCD...

So there are two things I could do to remedy this situation:

A) I could just go shower instead of putting it off longer and longer, because really, it's unlikely to get any easier the longer I put it off - usually it gets harder and I start to dread it more and more the longer I wait, actually; or

B) if I really wanted to give my OCD a nice blow, I could say, "Forget it!  I'm not going to shower just because I spent time at a house with dogs last night!"

...because that is, in fact, the reason I feel I "need" to shower.  I went and hung out with a friend who has dogs, dogs that I played with, and then I spent the night at her "contaminated" house because it would have been a long drive home and I wouldn't have gotten back until late at night.  Also, I knew if I came home I would feel the need to shower before sleeping in my bed.  And if I was too tired to shower, which seemed quite likely, I would probably end up sleeping on my bay window seat...which is not very comfortable...because I would feel too "contaminated" to sleep in my bed.

Does my bed actually need to stay "clean?"  Rationally, no, it doesn't.  I know that...a bed is a bed and is meant to be slept in.  But that's OCD for you...I just feel like my world would fall apart if I did sleep in it when "dirty."  It would be throwing my carefully constructed OCD rules down the drain, and that frightens me.  Of course, I know the world wouldn't end if I slept in my bed when "contaminated."  But that sort of logic and reasoning doesn't make it any easier to do.  Though I'm sure that there will be some point in treatment where I am forced to contaminate my bed and sleep in my bed when I am "dirty" on a regular basis, I am still unwilling at this point...ugh.

So I am currently wading around in OCD purgatory - I can go in either direction but until I gather the determination to overcome my fear of doing one or the other, I am stuck and will be sleeping on a window sill for the night...

I wanted to write more, but I am feeling tired and worn by the nagging desire to do SOMETHING other than wait.  Perhaps I will try to summon the courage to shower, because I don't think I will be summoning the courage to blatantly disregard my OCD and just sleep in my bed "dirty" any time soon.  I did blatantly shatter the rules in a different way yesterday - but that's a story for another day.

So off I go to muster my courage...or find some other temporary distraction while I continue the procrastination.  Oh OCD, why do I let you play these unfair games when I know exactly how to beat you?  Oh OCD...


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