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.


  1. I'm so glad I found your blog!!! Recognizing is the first step and also one of the hardest steps. So, that's out of the way...just stay strong, hold on and you can do this!

    take care

  2. Very well put. This is a nuance that isn't touched upon often. Thank you for your excellent writing. I often don't take pictures as a way to practice "living in the moment". Lots of people like to be behind the camera, so I often leave it to others. I have less photos, but I think it helps me have a better life.
    I will sometimes go to an extreme to extinguish the pattern - then I can re introduce some of the behaviors in a more moderate way. It is very freeing for me.

  3. Lisa - Thanks for stopping by! Recognizing certainly is a hard step when your OCD questions whether you even have OCD in the first place and tells you that you should just suck it up and get over it all ready. But I've learned that looking at it like that only makes things worse. Thanks for your support!

    Kinder Brain - Thanks for your kind words. Even before I realized that this was part of my OCD, I often found myself leaving behind the camera and letting others take pictures, as well, because as soon as I brought the camera along, I was constantly worrying whether I had appropriately captured the moment! If having fewer photos means that you are able to enjoy the moment in the first place and have a better life, than I agree, it's worth it. If only I could more easily apply this attitude towards other compulsions! I am always impressed with your ability to eliminate something almost completely to free yourself - someday I may get to the point where I am willing to do that more often!



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