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?


  1. I agree- working on things little by little instead of with an all or nothing attitude helps me when it comes to OCD.

  2. The best way I can cope with my OCD is to take on the little tasks. This is a more positive approach rather than trying to overcome everything at once. I have found help with dealing with my OCD at I hope this is helpful!



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