Monday, December 6, 2010

The Gift of Doing Less

As the holiday season arrives, I sometimes think about how OCD affected this time of year for me in ways I never knew.  When I was struggling with scrupulosity, there was of course compulsive prayer surrounding the religious holiday of Christmas.  That was the most obvious form my compulsions took.  I felt compelled not only to pray, but to pray "right."  If I had bad thoughts while I was praying or if forgot important parts (or if I simply suspected that I might have forgotten important parts),  I had to start over.  So, secretly in hidden in my bedroom with the door closed, I prayed, hoping no one interrupted. Because, if they did, I would then have to stop, pretend like I had been doing something else, only to start over yet again as soon as they were gone.

Sometimes if I couldn't seem to get the prayer "right" I would begin reciting the words aloud, hoping to make them stick, hoping to make them somehow seem more final and sure so that I wouldn't have to repeat them all yet again.  Sometimes even after I finally got it "right," I would begin to doubt whether I had included all that I felt I needed to include.  The urge, the pull to go back and begin the ritual all over, was strong.

Had I forgot to pray for this relative or that relative?  Had I expressed enough gratitude for all that I had?  If I had forgotten a relative or if I hadn't expressed my gratitude sufficiently, would God take it all away from me?  How would I know that it wasn't my fault if something bad did happen?  How could I live with myself knowing that I could have done more?  That maybe if I had just spent a few more minutes perfecting my prayer nothing bad would have happened?

I had to get this ritual right.  Furthermore, I had to do it right and get it out of the way so I could appreciate and enjoy the rest of my day.  Or so I thought.  If I didn't, I feared I would constantly have that nagging sense of what still needed to be done, of the task that lay ahead hanging over me, constantly intruding upon my ability to enjoy myself.  Until I prayed and prayed correctly, the day would not feel "right."  I wouldn't be able to enjoy Christmas.  All would be tainted with the realization that I still had to face the Christmas day prayer of epic proportions.  And so I would pray.  I would pray until I got it right.

That was one of the most obvious ways OCD affected my holiday experiences, and once I learned about scrupulosity and read about the common obsessions and compulsions that were associated with it, my struggles all those years suddenly seemed to fall into place.  Suddenly my secret prayer rituals made sense.  It was amazing to me how my obsessions and compulsions fit the OCD mold so well.  So much of what I had done and felt seemed like a textbook version of scrupulosity.

What I didn't realize was how OCD affected the holiday season for me in other ways.  It wasn't until I learned more about OCD that I began to recognize all the less blatantly obvious ways OCD had hijacked my mind and my behaviors, dictating what I should do and how.

That said, each winter I would get out of school about a week before Christmas.  That's when the marathon started.  The clock was ticking and the countdown to make and find the "right" presents, so that I could enjoy the holiday, began.

Every Christmas I wanted so badly to feel accomplished and successful, like I had tried "hard enough" when the momentous day finally came, but to achieve that sense of accomplishment year after year, I had to be sure to put in just as much effort and work just as diligently as I had the year before.  Each Christmas I had to continue to meet the ever-increasing standards I had set previously in gift-giving and gift-making if I didn't want to feel like I had failed.

Thus, I would spend that week before the holiday searching for the perfect gift ideas, the perfect craft projects to take on, and I would pour all my energy into them, so that when December 25th arrived I felt accomplished.  It was like I feared that I couldn't enjoy the holiday if I didn't have to work hard for it, if I didn't spend hours shopping or brain-storming or creating, if I could think of a way in which I had done something "better" the year before.

I stopped buying cards - only those made by hand were acceptable.  I had to wrap presents the "hard" way if I noticed I was too tempted to take the easy route.  I had to wrap, not bag, the presents.  And I couldn't just slap a bow on top.  Instead, I had to create and make ever more elaborate ribbon designs.  I was always complimented on my artistic wrapping abilities.  I couldn't flake out on that now.  Christmas wouldn't be the same if I didn't work as hard at making even the wrapping of my presents just as good as it had been the year before.

I can't tell you how many times as a kid that the following would happen: my parents would eventually go to bed on Christmas Eve, asking when I, too, would turn in for the evening.  They would say, "Please, just go to bed.  It doesn't matter.  You don't have to do all this.  We appreciate how much effort you put into these gifts but you don't need to.  Can't you just stop now and go to bed?  Please get some sleep."

But I was stubborn.  I wanted to continue onward.  I wanted all to be done in the way I was set on having things done.  So I would stay up, often late into the early morning hours, finishing up and making and wrapping presents so that all could be "perfect" for Christmas day.  The late night race to finish it all seemed to bestow the elusive sense that I had worked hard "enough."  And when the morning came, I could celebrate not only the time spent with family and friends but also just being DONE.  Finally DONE.  Of knowing I had survived another Christmas and had once again put in all the hard work that would make that day seem worthwhile.  What I didn't realize was that always trying so hard to make things "perfect" was what often made them seem less than perfect in the first place.  All the effort put into ensuring that I could enjoy Christmas day just made it that much harder to enjoy.

Even when I was older and I moved on from the gift making stage to purchasing gifts, I felt the need to work for the presents I bought.  Even if I could just go buy them online, I felt the need to go to the store, to drive around town looking for the item I wanted.  Somehow just ordering presents seemed too easy.  Driving around from store to store to purchase the exact same items made me feel more complete, more worthy of the Christmas holiday.  It just didn't seem right if I didn't have to work for it.

Last year was different, though.  I was so wrapped up in my OCD world, so paralyzed by my disorder that simply getting out to shop seemed like it required heroic effort and advance planning.  As much as I felt like I needed to do more, it just didn't seem possible in my condition.  For once I felt like I could let myself off the hook.  I wasn't sure Christmas was going to be the same, but it didn't seem like I had much of a choice.

Besides, I had begun to realize just how compulsive my determination to feel a certain way on Christmas had become.  And it wasn't just Christmas.  It was all holidays, birthdays, and celebrations.  In learning about OCD, I was finally able to see how my disorder had impaired my ability to just remain in the present, to feel the feelings I was having on those occasions, rather than forcing and vehemently protecting some artificial sense of enjoyment.  I could finally see how my determination to enjoy these events actually made it more difficult to feel that way.  Instead of just being in the moment and enjoying the company of my family along with the food and presents on holidays like Christmas, I was constantly on guard, ready to pounce at any sign of something that might destroy my mood.  I spent my time constantly on defense, constantly afraid that something would ruin the day and my ability to appreciate it.  What I didn't realize was that I didn't have to do all that work to enjoy my time.  In fact, I would probably enjoy it more if I didn't spend so much time trying to feel the "right" way.  The more time I spent defending my state of mind, the more it seemed to need defending.

And that brings me to this year.  Though I still have a strong desire to enjoy the holiday season and to purchase presents for my family that will bring them fun and enjoyment on that day (and to put effort into finding and selecting those presents so that I can also get a sense of accomplishment out of it), I am more aware, more mindful, of my tendencies and am trying to make preparations without going overboard.  I realize now that all that shopping and present-making wasn't so much about the actual process or the result as the ability to make myself feel "right."  There were so many times that my parents would probably have appreciated the gift of less effort, less time slaving away on presents for them and others in exchange for more sleep and more time spent with them.  I wanted to give them that gift, too.  I just didn't know how to reconcile my desperate desire to make things "just right" with their preference that I actually do less.

Today, there is still a part of me that feels as if I am being lazy, as if I am not working hard enough for the holiday, but I am trying to be mindful of that, too.  Why does it matter if I have a perfect Christmas?  If I work hard enough to feel like I can "really" enjoy that day?  It doesn't.  And in realizing this, I am more free than ever to appreciate my actual feelings, to really experience the holiday season in a way that I haven't been able to in the past.  When Christmas arrives, I plan on being mindful of my emotional state as well as the things that threaten to impinge upon it.  Christmas doesn't have to be perfect.  I can enjoy it even if things do go wrong, and being aware of this fact allows me to be that much more present to enjoy the experience.  Instead of constantly being in my head trying to make sure I am feeling "right," I can be in the moment and appreciate all that is going on around me for real, both the bad and the good.


  1. Yes! I encourage you to stay strong in this! How much more joyful Christmas will be if you can just relax and appreciate what really matters. It will be much more of a true balm to your soul!

  2. Thank you Leah! I think you are definitely right! Thanks for the encouragement.



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