|my favorite dysfunctional brain...|
It's a tough balance to keep - doing something regularly but not compulsively, thoroughly but not ritualistically. I love having this place to express my ideas and to share them with others, but the process of writing in general, and more specifically, writing here on this blog, is certainly not without its compulsive elements. So tonight I'm going to try to do my best to write NOT in order to come to a perfect sense of completeness, of having captured my ideas perfectly in print, but rather to enjoy sharing my thoughts and exchanging ideas about OCD with others.
That said, I've been thinking a lot lately about the similarities between my experiences with an eating disorder and my experiences with OCD. The new therapist that I started working with (in addition to my other one) has a lot of knowledge in this area, so I've started venturing into some of the thoughts and feelings I have from that period in my life. I kind of yearn to talk about that time because it seems like yet another manifestation of my disorder that rose and then faded and yet was never really addressed or resolved.
To provide some background to this: I had an eating disorder (though I'm not sure it was ever officially diagnosed) for a period of time in high school, and probably disordered eating habits that developed long before my problem really became noticeable (I lost my period quite a while before what I was doing to myself was noticed by others). But when my symptoms were finally recognized and my resistance to change was made clear, I was dragged to the doctor who ran lots of tests that began to make the severity of my condition sink in. From there I was sent to a therapist, and a dietitian. I gradually got better. The concern of others and my parents' proactive-ness seemed to be the permission I needed to stop starving myself. I had worked hard enough to be thin. Now I could try a little less hard since people were asking, indeed ordering me, to stop.
In my mind their demands and concern translated into, "Alright. I guess you can have a break from pushing yourself so hard. Maybe you do deserve to stop starving yourself. Maybe..." What was expressed as a fervent desire for me to get better by others seemed more like a reluctantly offered reprieve in my mind. "Stop doing this!! Stop doing this now!" was heard as, "Fine, I guess you can be allowed try not engaging in your disordered eating behaviors quite as much. We'll see how that goes and if it doesn't get too out of hand maybe you can have the privilege of eating more again. Maybe, just maybe..."
So my eating disorder faded, but my disordered approach to tackling fear and uncertainty was simply transferred elsewhere. The energy devoted to starving myself was re-distributed to fuel other compulsive behaviors. The therapist taught me nothing of OCD and not much about EDs, either. I was set free from therapy not long after I began, and was really none the wiser for it. With my disordered approach to life left intact without food to focus on, it seemed to look for something else to grab ahold of. And the with that, the energy previously given to my ED was added to my already well-fueled OCD. On the outside I may have seemed "better," but really I was just adding more fuel to a different, slowly simmering storm. The problem may have been temporarily pushed aside, but it was far from solved.
So, as I have been thinking about this eating disorder time in my life more recently, I continue to notice how that stint of exercising and dieting to the extreme holds so many similarities to my current bout of OCD.
Sometimes my eating disorder seems better explained in the context of OCD, and sometimes my OCD seems better explained in the context of an eating disorder. And often they seem like one in the same. Swap out excessive washing and avoidance of dirty things for excessive exercising and avoidance of calories and you've gone from one to the other. They seem to fit into the same sort of paradigm, a template that produces a spiral into severe disorder in which the contributing parts can be swapped in and out. Put the components of an eating disorder in, the obsessive fear of gaining weight paired with compulsive attempts to control it, and voila! Out comes an eating disorder. Put the components of a more traditional form of OCD in, the obsessive fear of being dirty and washing incorrectly paired with compulsive attempts to be perfectly clean and to clean perfectly, and presto! Contamination OCD! The disordered machinery stays the same. All you have to do is swap out the parts to go from one disorder to the other. They both seem to be the products of the same disorder-producing machine. The same monster disguised in different costumes.
So what does this mean? Why does it matter? Well, I feel like this is the first time in my life that I have really begun to treat the problem, the source of the symptoms, rather than just the symptoms themselves. Because when just the symptoms were treated, they did indeed fade (like the symptoms of the eating disorder), but the disorder that produced the symptoms in the first place was left intact, ready to pounce again when the time proved right, when it found the right fodder for the next flare up.
Looking back, I can see all the ways it reared its ugly head over the years. First it was a fear of contamination and contracting devastating illnesses as young child. Then, as I got older, it became religious fears, scrupulosity, along with a fear of death and dying. Soon my compulsive approach to doing homework would become apparent as the work load grew as I advanced through middle school and then high school. This area of compulsions would act as a constant in the background, a constant that gained more momentum each year I continued to indulge it, all the way up through college. The eating disorder period arrived in the midst of that, but I recovered from that while still in high school. And now here I am, back at contamination fears, but for different reasons. Now I am afraid to not clean perfectly, of feeling dirty, lazy, and unacceptable, instead of fearing illness and disease as I did when I was only six or seven. I've come full circle with this last relapse being the most acutely debilitating of them all. And it's this last relapse that finally led me to find (and realize that I really did need) the right help.
It's been a long journey, and I'm ready to start living a different, and hopefully better, life. I'm ready to start re-programming the machine so that when all the ingredients for another relapse are poured in, a relapse is not what comes out. Meanwhile I want to continue to improve upon all the little things, all the little compulsions that seem to have pervaded so many aspects of my life. These little compulsions may not produce the sort of spectacular melt-downs of full-blown OCD relapses, but they tear away at the quality of life little by little. I want the chance to overcome these compulsions, too. Basically, I want and hope to have the chance to experience life in a way that I previously didn't know how to.
My most recent relapse was devastating, yes. However, I am so grateful that it allowed me to make such a profound and impacting discovery about myself. I have OCD. I have probably had OCD my entire life. I have, for years, performed varying degrees of compulsions, sometimes not even really realizing it. But now I have been given the wonderful gift of insight, of knowing and learning more about that monster that kept coming back in different disguises, year after year after year. And, not only do I now I have a name for that monster, I have finally been given real tools to tame it and wonderful, knowledgeable therapists to help me do just that. At the same time, I am finally learning to recognize what it is that I want, what I like to do, and how I like to do it. I am slowly finding and taking these things back, little by little, as I learn to fight the OCD. And I am slowly learning to reprogram the machine that is my somewhat dysfunctional mind so that I can choose to do what I want to do instead of what OCD dictates.