Monday, November 15, 2010

An unwillingness to Tolerate Discomfort v. An Unwavering Desire to Achieve a Dysfunctional Perfection...

With tempting and shiny promises of "just one more step...and then another..." OCD lures me on down its path of "sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice." 
Often refusal or resistance to doing exposure seems to be equated with an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort in the area of life that OCD affects.  Sometimes I squirm under under this assumption.  I want to say, "Wait, but being able to tolerate discomfort is what I pride myself on - my ability to force myself to do things when I really, really don't want to do them, especially things like compulsions.  Yes, compulsions can make things seem 'right.'  But often I really, really just don't want to do them, and yet I feel like I 'should' or 'have to' and I do them anyway despite the inconvenience they cause, despite their extremely onerous nature, and despite all the time and sacrifice they require.  I do this not so much because I don't want to deal with the discomfort of doing something wrong, but because I have such a strong, unwavering desire to do things 'perfectly,' even if attempting to achieve that arbitrarily-determined 'perfect' world renders me completely dysfunctional and unable to live a normal life."

In some ways, I feel like it's the opposite of an unwillingness or an inability to tolerate discomfort.  Instead it seems like the willingness to tolerate an extreme and infinite degree of discomfort in one very narrow part of life; an intense willingness to sacrifice for the sake of achieving a very focused, if misdirected, goal, and at whatever the cost in other areas of life.   Sometimes it's like I want to see how much I can tolerate, how much deprivation I can endure, how much pain and discomfort I can withstand in order to do things just as OCD says they should be done in some unattainable perfect world.  Instead of an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort driving the urge to perform compulsions, it's the unrelentingly and blinding desire to somehow do things "perfectly," (even if that 'perfect' is defined by OCD and is totally and completely unachievable in the real world), that often seems to drive my desire to perform rituals .  OCD doesn't care if it's standards aren't realistic.  It says I should do whatever possible, endure whatever it takes, to come as close to that 'perfect' world as I can.  And whatever discomfort that must be experienced along the way, so be it.  In fact, the degree of sacrifice, of pain, of discomfort endured for the sake of doing things "right" almost becomes an OCD badge of honor.   It's like the more unnecessarily terrible and difficult the task is made, the greater the accomplishment and the closer I am to reaching OCD's ideal of perfection. 

I feel like a lot of my OCD surrounds the constant desire to test my ability to endure for the sake of enduring.  If there is an easy way and a difficult way to go about something, both of which produce the same result, OCD declares that I must take the difficult route.  I have to, just to prove that I can.  Just to demonstrate to myself that I can MAKE myself do things despite the discomfort and drudgery they require.

One of the most poignant examples of this that I can remember comes from the eating disorder time of my life, when I was starving myself while simultaneously working out as hard as I could, draining myself of energy, of enthusiasm, of any desire to really do much else.  Just existing seemed like all I could endure.  And when I was finally dragged to the doctor and questioned about my habits, I felt somewhat shocked and offended when the doctor asked if I ever threw up or used laxatives to lose weight.   I didn't say it aloud, but in my head I was thinking.  "Never!  That's, that's like goodness, that would be so NICE.  So EASY.  I could never allow myself to do those things, because that would indicate failure on my part to achieve thinness through sheer willpower and willingness to endure the exhaustion and pain that getting to this point requires.  That would be the shameful, lazy, failure way of getting results.  No.  If someone else can endure this sort of deprivation and suffering to lose weight, than I should be able to, too."

In the end I gained the weight back, felt like I was letting myself off the hook way too easily and without enough resistance to the process, learned pretty much nothing about the nature of EDs, and went on about my life without figuring out better ways to manage my strong perfectionistic tendencies and without learning about OCD at all.  I gradually stopped applying perfection to food and exercise and stopped testing my ability to endure sacrifice in that arena, but I continued on in others, especially in regard to schoolwork.

This willingness to endure discomfort to achieve some unrealistic and misguided sense of doing things just "right" carried on throughout the rest of high school, where my priorities went something like school > extracurriculars > sleep > taking care of myself  > relaxation and socialization and doing things for the sheer enjoyment of doing them.  And though my determination to do school just "right" at any and all costs lightened up in college, it was clear that I still sacrificed a lot for the sake of doing things "my" way. "My" way didn't even ensure better results, it just ensured that I always felt like I had tried, really really really really tried.

Even if I recognized that my overly-meticulous study habits sometimes hindered more than they helped, I forced myself to continue on.  My ability to achieve was important, but the ability to prove that I could make myself do things the most difficult and thorough way possible often seemed even more important.  And that's where I see this OCD theme once again - my inability to make changes to my rigid ways of studying even if I might actually be able to do just as well or maybe even better, and with far less effort and sacrifice, if I could just "let" myself ease up.  There's that cliche, "Don't work harder, work smarter."  Well, even when I readily recognized that there was a smarter, more efficient way to do something, I wouldn't let myself take it.  I made myself do it the hard way in order to feel like I had left no stone unturned, no possibility unconsidered, and in order to feel like I had endured and sacrificed to achieve.  Because how would I gain any sense of accomplishment any other way?   Sometimes I longed to give myself a break, to do something the "easy way" if it didn't really make a difference in the end result.  But those were also the times when that sacrifice seemed the most valuable.  When it was the most painful, and the most obviously non-essential, that was when that sacrifice was worth the most.  That was when it was real proof that I could endure for the sole sake of enduring.

Needless to say, I had, and still do have a warped way of achieving a sense of having done something "right."  Now I've just applied it to washing and cleanliness.  And I've done so in ways and with rules that are just as arbitrary, if not more so, than my ways and rules of studying.  I realize that washing this hand before the other hand, or for five less seconds here or there, doesn't make a difference in life.  I realize that touching this clean thing after touching that dirty thing doesn't really matter.  But because OCD is saying it does matter, because OCD is saying, "I don't care.  Just do it anyway to prove that you can endure, sacrifice, and accept any and all discomfort to achieve this faulty ideal of perfection, of orderliness," I am drawn to it.  I am pulled toward the desire to see if I can do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to perfectly adhere to the totally arbitrary standard of perfection OCD has set before me in my mind.

I feel like there are two sides to driving force behind OCD.  First, there is the avoidance of discomfort, a desire to avoid the unwanted feelings that NOT performing compulsions brings about.  Second, there is the horribly tempting and everlasting pull towards some unattainable ideal, no matter how ridiculous, no matter the cost.  OCD waves that in front of me, "Saying, yes, yes, I know this is illogical.  I know there are minimal benefits that are most certainly outweighed by the costs.  But do it anyway, just to see if you can...don't you want to know?  Don't you want to try?  Don't you want to see what it feels like to know you can make yourself do something, no matter how pointless, for the sole sake of seeing if you could?"

Sometimes I feel like it's not so much the avoidance of discomfort but the loud siren call to achieve some dysfunctional idea of perfection that drives my behavior.  I don't do certain compulsions, and is it really that bad?  I'm not always sure.  Sometimes I feel like I have to MAKE myself uncomfortable by focusing on how I have violated my rules, how I have gone against the tenets of OCD, and by enumerating all the ways in which it screws up my way of maintaining my twisted sense perfection.  If I don't think so hard about it, it doesn't always bother me that much.  It isn't always that automatic.  But the desire, that magnetic pull to turn around, to make up for my transgressions against OCD and get back on its dysfunctional path, is still there, shining ever-so-brightly and ever-so-temptingly before me.

That said, I feel like it's not always so much an unwillingness to endure discomfort as a very, very lopsided distribution of that willingness that fuels my OCD.  On the one hand, I feel like my OCD is about seeing just how much discomfort I can make myself endure, and at what cost.  That willingness and desire to force myself to endure discomfort is just extremely concentrated in one very small part of my life, leaving not much for anything else.  The lure of enduring for the sake of enduring in an OCD-defined way combined with the lopsided distribution of my energy and drive to endure discomfort seem to be what gives OCD its power.  Somehow I need to tip the scales, to shift that drive so that I can use it to my benefit rather than be its slave.  Somehow I need to figure out how to harness that desire to force myself to do difficult things and use for the sake of battling rather than abetting OCD.

The thing is, this kind of work is hard and difficult in a very unconventional way - it's EASY.  It is so much EASIER than my usual way of doing things, and thus does not supply the same sense of suffering and sacrifice, feelings that, in some twisted way, seem to provide satisfaction.  I feel forced to obey OCD, and yet I am also drawn to it almost magnetically.  Turning the other way and not seeking out that feeling of doing something "right" often seems to require something that is not so much an ability to endure discomfort as an ability to endure a lack of discomfort.

How or why is it hard to not make things hard?  I don't know.  But I am trying to learn to do things the non-compulsive way, even if doing things that way doesn't provide that same sense of sacrifice.  Even it doesn't seem to beckon with the same lustrous sheen of the promises OCD is constantly dangling out in front of me - "just one more time, try just a little bit harder..." Because though it may feel good at first, trying to live up to OCD's misguided and ever multiplying commandments soon devolves into a race that is never quite over, with the sacrifices required growing ever greater to achieve the same sense of accomplishment.

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