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...


  1. Wow! This is a powerful post.

    My OCD hit one day when I was 10 - after having a stomach virus with violent vomiting and diarrhea. My life changed overnight. But I had a lot of stress before the OCD hit - and I was being primed for it.

    If you've read my blog you probably know that I eventually developed full time OCD and had to be hospitalized. My commitment to my recovery was the only thing that got me through. It was my full time job and I missed 5 months of work. I went on FMLA.

    The main difference is that today I experience "a sense of generalized well-being" which had eluded me ever since the OCD hit (28 years). I have peace of mind for many hours of the day.

    In terms of sorting out me vs OCD - the intensity and rigidity of the thought or urge is how I distinguish one from the other. I have choices. My OCD doesn't like choices. I know something is OCD because it "feels like OCD". Then again, I've had times in my life that were dominated by OCD and anxiety. It clouded everything. Perhaps you are experiencing that, and that is why it is so hard to distinguish.

    Peace of mind is priceless. Don't give up!!! It is worth it.

  2. I can't tell you how much I relate to this post. I too am currently mired in the throws of OCD....relationship OCD. I haven't been able to work for the last few months and have spent as much time as possible learning about this horrible disorder. It has been an incredible eye opener for me to realize how OCD wiggles its horrible way into so many parts of my life. One of the biggest things I struggle with is "Is this OCD or a real concern - something that needs to be addressed?" Thank you for writing this.

  3. Kinder Brain - as always, thanks for your kind words and support. I really admire your ability to overcome all that you have been through. You are definitely an inspiration! Thanks for sharing the story of the "sudden-onset" of your OCD. It's so fascinating to me how one day someone can be fine, and the next, find themselves caught in a world of obsessions and compulsions. At that time was the focus of your obsessions related to illness? Or was it completely unrelated? I also find the research being done on PANDAS fascinating - that the body's immune reaction to strep could be responsible for some cases of OCD in children. It just goes to show how much traditionally "mental" disorders can have a very strong biological basis.

    Anonymous - Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I'm am always comforted to find others who can relate to my experiences and to whose experiences I can relate. I certainly know what it's like to read and learn as much as possible about this disorder once discovering it, in an attempt to understand and free myself from it. For me, professional help from a CBT therapist has been an invaluable part of my recovery. It sounds like your OCD is really compromising your life, much as it has mine. I hope you are either getting help from a therapist or have already found good help. I can't emphasize enough how invaluable it is to have an experienced OCD specialist on your side!



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