Monday, October 4, 2010

Buried Alive

Some days I feel like I have somehow managed to bury myself by means of excessive avoidance and procrastination.  When I don't have things I HAVE TO do or HAVE TO be at, it is hard for me to find the will to do the things I dread - to shower, brush my teeth, clean, etc.  Even when there are places I had planned to go or things I had planned to do, there are times when the consequences of missing those things still isn't motivating enough for me to face the dread they stir up.  And so my life is put on hold, tasks accumulate, and time slips by as I sleep the day away or search my computer, numbly looking for something to entertain me, something to fill the time until I muster the courage to go face what I'm avoiding.  

I seem to go through cycles.  First there is the dread that arises when I either actually need to do something or when OCD says I need to do something.  Usually it goes something like, "I can't do x until I have taken care of z."  But whatever "z" represents is something I unfortunately dread.  Like a lot.  And, as a result, a whole list things represented by "x", things I would like to accomplish and complete, get put off until I can summon the courage or motivation to do "z."  With so many things prohibited until "z" is done, I am left with options like, "Sleep until you finally feel like doing 'z'."  "Sit on your computer and look for something entertaining to distract you from your dread and frustration." Etc.  Etc.  Hey, that's what I'm doing this very instant - avoiding the things I dread while hoping that, through describing this experience, I find the motivation to overcome that dread and just go do what I need to do.

Most often "z" is showering.  I have an unnatural dread of it.  And sometimes I don't understand how everyone else in the world seems to shower on a regular basis without complaint.  I realize that my showers aren't exactly like the average person's shower, but even so, the monotony of it has always been a point of frustration for me, even before I showered extra-compulsively.  When I consider things like showering, making my bed, washing dishes, cooking, walking/biking to class, dusting, vacuuming, begins to seem like the endless repetition of the same things over and over.  As soon as you get it all done, it's time to start all over again with the first item on the list.  Thus, I've dreaded doing many of these things at one time or another.  And because I am so averse to completing these tasks in a world where people seem able to keep up without complaint, I feel like I am a "lazy" person, someone who just needs to learn to do what needs to be done and get over it.

I think this is where some of my fear of becoming a "lazy" person comes from.  I feel like if I let myself take even one non-compulsive breath of fresh air,  my careful construction of a world where I am "as clean as" or perhaps "cleaner" than most will fall apart and my true nature will be revealed.  So it's a constant internal fight - make the bed, do the dishes, shower, brush your teeth, do laundry.  And OCD says, "Well, if you don't, well, your lazy nature will show itself.  You hate doing all of these things at times, and you are weak for occasionally complaining about or dreading these chores.  Why can't you just accept that they are part of life and do them on schedule like everyone else, without avoidance?  It's probably because your parents didn't make you do them enough as a child.  And, as a result, you are inherently spoiled and lazy, and you must always fight the tendency to take on those characteristics.  If you don't, everyone will always look at you or treat you like you are over-privileged and don't know how to work hard.  Because you know deep down, that's what you are.  That's your handicap - you know you're a spoiled brat.  That's what's wrong with you.  So suck it up and got do 'z' already and fight the person you know you are but don't want to be."

That's how OCD addresses the situation.  But just saying "suck it up and go" is sort of like telling a child struggling with a math problem to just "do the damn problem already and stop being so lazy."  It creates discouragement and frustration and fails to address why the problem still hasn't been completed.  When I berate myself for being "spoiled and lazy" when I feel a sense of dread and a desire to avoid a certain task, it's kind of like punishing the confused child for not finishing his math homework.  You can yell and scold all you want, but that's not going to make the issue go away.  Inside I have become the authoritarian parent of myself, yelling and scolding and punishing when I don't manage to do what I feel I should do.  But all that yelling and screaming doesn't help.  It just makes me feel like I really am lazy and that the only way to overcome that laziness is through constant self-flagellation. 

It doesn't help when others feed into this belief that I must be lazy and inherently bad, which sometimes happens when they assume that I don't do things for the same reason that they don't.  And, because I tend to be a vicious, angry critic of myself rather than a comforting refuge of self-advocation and support, I agree with those people rather than perhaps trying to understand why it is that I find certain things difficult to do.  People might assume that I don't make my bed because I am lazy, and it is far easier for me to just agree with that assertion and beat myself up than to come to my own defense.  It is what I have done for years and have thus come to believe what others say, or even what I merely assume that others might think.  I feel helpless, condemned when I fail to meet my pre-determined standards.  And thus, I beat myself up and push myself harder to run away from feeling like I am lazy.  To somehow prove to myself (more than to the world) that I am not bad, not spoiled, not lazy.  I finish my "math homework" even if my difficulties with it are left unaddressed.

One thing that I often fail to recognize is that different people do different things for different reasons, and that, if such chores carried the same personal significance and demanded the same exacting standards for them as they do for me, they might also avoid showering, cleaning, etc.  If others felt that every wrinkle left in the sheets, any short-cut taken while washing dishes, any inch of skin missed while showering, could be powerful  indicators of their personal defectiveness, they might be less than eager to face these activities, too.  As expwoman of Exposing OCD put it in her recent post, Anxiety in Disguise

"My therapist emphasizes that if someone had my fears of what would happen, they wouldn't want to do things either. I fear if I make a mistake, I will be a failure, worthless, and my defectiveness will haunt me forever. So yeah, that might make avoiding doing anything somewhat appealing!"

Remembering this when someone questions why I avoid certain things, helps me support rather than degrade myself further.  Even so, their remarks still hurt in ways they don't realize.

For example, while in college I once complained to my roommate about how difficult it was to change my sheets and how I hated doing it.  I had a loft bed at the time and getting my bed made perfectly could easily half an hour or more if I had to do it alone.  Even then I wasn't really satisfied but eventually relented and tried to accept that it was "good enough."  And usually I would avoid sleeping under my comforter or under my sheets for a few days after making it, hesitant to destroy the product of my laborious efforts.  One of my other apartment-mates had the same bed, and I made the mistake of asking my roommate a question, a question I now view as a plea for permission, an excuse not to have to put so much effort into making my bed.  I was basically seeking reassurance that I was not a bad person for hating making my bed so much.  But instead instead of getting the type of answer I was hoping to get, an answer that would allow me to forgive and go easier on myself, I got "Oh, she just wouldn't complain about that sort of thing."  In my mind, I heard:  "She's not like that.  Even if it were difficult, she wouldn't complain, because she's not a complainer.  Suck it up.  Other people don't complain even if this is difficult, why do you?  If you are frustrated and feel the need to complain, to look for permission not to make your bed so perfectly, just do it anyway.  Other people do.  Stop being so weak!"

Even then I recognized that my supposedly saintly non-complaining apartment-mate didn't try as hard as I did to make her sheets look "right."  In fact she probably spent about five minutes making her bed.  She probably didn't complain not because she was better than that, but because she didn't really have a reason to.  Looking back, my roommate's failure to recognize what was going on, how her answer stung and made me feel even more trapped in self-hatred, makes me angry.  She was my bull in the china shop, crashing violently around within my sensitive world.  And she wasn't just passively knocking things off the shelves either.  Her answer was the exact thing I didn't want to hear, the answer that translated into, "What's wrong with you?  Why can't you suck it up and not complain?" in my mind.  Without realizing it she had lifted a piece of china in her hands and thrown in as hard as she could against the hard, cold floor, causing it to fragment into a million painful shards.

What I have realized from many such experiences, and later, from treatment, is that I have to find a way, as hard as it is, to be my own self-advocate, to not rely as much on what others say or do to interpret my self worth.  They don't always realize how their actions, their words can sear into my mind and direct my behavior.  It's kind of like looking for reassurance.  If I am constantly waiting for people to say, "It's okay, you did the right thing."  Or, "You put plenty of effort in, that's good enough," I will always feel like I am bad and lazy because OCD is always there degrading the value of my own opinion and even questioning the meaning of favorable things other people may say.  OCD will always be there discounting the positive and emphasizing the negative, if I let it.

Of course, finding out that I have OCD has been a huge help in this battle.  I can now recognize how it has molded and shaped my approach to so many different things.  I can see why certain comments people made were so frustrating, why I struggled so much under certain circumstances.  It all falls into place.  And knowing that I have this disorder does make it easier sometimes.  Instead of berating myself for my frustration or overly-emotional responses, I can take comfort in knowing that I struggle with certain things not necessarily because I am weak or lazy, but because I have a disorder that can take even the most subtle thing and turn it into proof of my inferiority or failure as a human being.  Recognizing this and forgiving myself for being upset makes it easier for me to overcome being upset in the first place.  

As I have learned in therapy, if I have feelings about feelings, it's probably OCD trying to jump in and complicate things.  It's alright to be angry, it's alright to be frustrated, it's alright to be sad.  It's even alright to be anxious.  It's not a crime to have feelings, and I don't have to immediately eliminate them.  In fact, it is extremely difficult, if possible at all, to directly control our feelings (or our thoughts for that matter).  But what we can do is direct our behavior, our reactions to these feelings, and as a result, make them better or worse.  Berating myself for feeling a certain way or trying to make myself feel "right" by eliminating a certain feeling has never worked very well, and perhaps this is why.

To tie all this back into what I experienced this weekend - prolonged avoidance of showering and, as a result, failure to do many of the things I wanted to do - I can apply all that I have mentioned to this situation.  I could berate myself for being lazy, for sleeping half my time away, and sitting on the computer for much of the remainder of it.  Maybe my reasons don't matter.  Maybe it is lazy, maybe it isn't.  But the best way to overcome this hurdle is not to internally yell and scream and beat myself up, but rather to do my best to forgive myself, to try to recognize why I find it so difficult, and look for ways address these problems and encourage myself to tackle those things I dread.  Even if others don't understand, even if they can't, I know why I find certain things difficult.  And, if I can bypass OCD long enough to just to let myself consider reasons other than "I'm lazy and spoiled" (as hard this seemingly small step is), I can address some of the reasons for my avoidance and find ways to make things like showering more do-able.  

As strange as it may sound, being easy on myself is often the harder route.  It is easier and more automatic to condemn myself, to label and berate my character.  It may sound cheesy, but forgiving and working with, rather than against, myself, takes more courage, more strength, than assuming that I am a failure.   I have taken the latter route for a long time, allowing it to direct my actions and choices, to bully me into doing all sorts of things compulsively just to prove that I am not lazy or inherently weak.  The way I have approached task has all to often been designed to fight those feelings rather than actually productively and efficiently complete the chore at hand - whether it be making my bed, washing dishes, or doing my homework.  I wasn't really doing any of these things when I did them compulsively; instead, I was using them as a shield, trying to defend myself from the OCD critic in my head.  What I didn't realize then, was that, if I lowered that shield and braved my enemy's fire long enough, I might just find out that the perceived threat was not a threat at all, but mere bluffing on the part of a defenseless enemy that had no weapon other than the fear I gave it.  But to find that out, I would have to take the chance of not knowing.  That's the hard part.

Anyways, being kind and working with, rather than against, myself, is a strategy that I need to remember more often when I find myself feeling buried under layer upon layer of "failure."  Instead of waiting for someone or something to finally dig me out, all while feeling helpless and defective, I need to remember to work with myself, recognize what my goals are, and to understand the level of discomfort I may have to endure to reach that goal.  And if I find myself struggling to face that discomfort, I need to work with myself so I feel more able to face it, rather than beating myself up for my failure to do so.

And that is what I am going to try to do right now.  I need to shower.  And I hope to coax myself into overcoming my dread to face what I need to face.


  1. I'm glad you found some helpful ideas in the post I wrote! I resonated with what you said, "And, if I can bypass OCD long enough to just to let myself consider reasons other than "I'm lazy and spoiled" (as hard this seemingly small step is), I can address some of the reasons for my avoidance and find ways to make things like showering more do-able." I also find that telling myself that I am willing to take the risk that I am lazy and spoiled, and do my exposures anyway, instead of trying ascertain for sure whether I am, leads me closer to getting exposures done.

  2. Oh my, can I relate! My personal procrastination pitfall is taking a break when I start to get caught up. This is a big no-no, and I am aware of it, yet the lure of some ritual-free living (mindless computer wandering or sleep) can win easily.



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