Sunday, December 26, 2010
It's been an interesting week. I've been pretty busy and haven't had so much time to devote to blogging (or to think about blogging) as I usually do. I start to feel "off" if I don't write as much - like I have something I want to say and am afraid I will forget if I don't write it down soon enough. This is probably OCD in and of itself, but it's hard to know where the boundary lies between something you want to do and something you just feel you need to do because of OCD. Writing probably falls a little bit into both categories.
Anyways, one of the things I have been doing a lot since arriving at my parents' house is sorting through old papers - souvenirs, old school report cards, notes and cards from friends, etc. - that I had been stashing away for about a decade before I left for college. Now every time I go home, there is a certain amount of de-hoarding to do. This particular trip I happen to be tackling all the papers and documents I saved. And trust me, it's not a small task. It's tiring to try to perfectly decide what to keep and what to save with the constant fear that I "might want this" or "might miss that" if I give it away hovering over me. I realize that I haven't really missed any of this memorabilia in the last decade or so that it's been sitting in and under my desk. Some of it I was completely unaware I even had. Yet, when I uncover it again, it seems crucial that I keep it.
The ironic thing is that when I keep SO MUCH stuff, it's hard for me to enjoy or appreciate any of it. The really good stuff is all mixed in with the sort of good stuff which is also mixed up with the "I probably won't want this but I'm afraid I might" stuff. The few things that I really do need to keep, or really do want to keep, are obvious at first sight. But I keep so much that it gets diluted in the volume of all that's there. I can't enjoy the things I like the most because the only time I ever see them is when I brave the drawers and bins full of papers to once again sort them and try to throw some of them out. I don't think I qualify as a hoarder - I'm not quite that extreme. But the fear of potentially tossing something I might want, combined with the desire to make decisions "perfectly," makes it hard for me to get rid of things I no longer need, use, or even really want.
Aside from my decision-making issues, going back through all these old papers has been interesting for others reasons. It provides a snapshot of my past, a rough time line of various periods and experiences from my childhood. Among other things, traces of my OCD are captured on paper. There's my first grade report card where the teacher was always commenting on what a good and well-behaved student I was, how wonderful it was to have me in her class, except for one point at which her notes begin to hint at an emerging problem - the fact that I did well but "worked really slow" and had a hard time completing my work efficiently...in first grade!! Other teachers seemed less aware of my difficulties, but I remember having a hard time keeping up later on as well, whether or not my teachers picked up on it. In third grade, again, my teacher commented on my difficulty in completing work on time. She urged my parents to help me learn to work faster, but apparently I was quite stubborn ;). My mom told me that I was really insistent on doing things "my way" and that I didn't want others stopping me. Somehow I'm not surprised...
Going through the artifacts from my middle school years was particularly difficult for me. Perhaps it was just the time of day or maybe I was just tired, but going through pictures and papers from that time in my life really toyed with my emotions. It made me remember thoughts and feelings from those particularly rough years that time has thankfully smoothed over in memory. I have often said that my most recent descent into OCD mayhem has been the most debilitating, but even so, I still don't feel like it has taken the same emotional toll on me as it did back then. I was more functional, but inside I was falling apart. I was carrying emotional boulders with me everywhere I went and in everything I did, and looking through the pictures, the notes from classmates, the assignments, and the awards, recreated that world for me in a very vivid way, a way that reminded me of just how hard those years were.
There was the depression, the great black hole where my self-esteem was supposed to be, the way I HATED my body and the way I looked and the desperate desire to change it, the shyness and lack of confidence in myself that weighed upon me in just about every area of my life except for academics. The feeling of being an outsider, of wondering if I did, or if I ever really could, "fit in," or if my nature and the nature of my family made that impossible. The feeling of helplessness. The feeling that there was no one I could really confide my struggles in, at least no one who would still want to be my friend afterward, no one besides my parents that is. I was always on the brink of falling apart, of succumbing to the conviction that I really was a freak, that I really was amiss socially, lost and beyond any and all hope.
I am SO GLAD I no longer feel that way. I really think I was clinically depressed at that time, though I was never diagnosed. And while it was fascinating to travel back through that period in my life through the various mementos saved from those times, it brought back the feelings of those years a little more vividly than I would have liked. For a little while I felt as though I was on that ledge again, swaying on the edge of a downward spiral into not knowing who I was or whether I could sustain any confidence in myself. I came out of that mood, but reliving just a fraction of what I felt back then was not exactly enjoyable.
Finally, moving onward from elementary and middle school to high school, the evolution of my OCD and perfectionism really became clear in sorting through stuff from my 9th-12th grade years. There are not so subtle hints about my obsessive nature documented here and there - the friend who jokingly called me by the name "Perfect," or the Valentine's Day card given to me by a friend with his impression of me summed up as... "thinking really hard, with no sleep, thinking, tired, no sleep, thinking hard, thinking hard without sleep..." There's a decorative placemat that was given to me at a banquet I attended my senior year that says, "I win at life!" That, in and of itself, I found so intriguing, so puzzling, because, while I was very, very flattered that someone might think of me in that light, I didn't feel that way about myself. I never felt like I had done well enough. And I certainly didn't feel like I "won" at anything other than academics and music performance. I was a leader, sure, but often I didn't feel like a very good or confident one as much as I tried to convince myself that I was. And in the social realm, well, I definitely didn't feel like a "winner" in that area. I feared that I didn't have that much of a social life NOT because of my life-consuming devotion to school, but rather because I was simply inept and too fundamentally flawed to foster such a social life. The titles, the academic achievements, they were what bouyed me up, and I was somewhat shocked that others perceived me as a success and not just as a freak thinly veiled by a facade of accomplishments. Because, to a certain extent, that's what I feared I was...and that everyone recognized it but me.
I don't mean to say that my entire experience of growing up, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, was all hard or all depressing. There were plenty of happy times, times when I felt very successful and proud, times when I enjoyed hanging out with friends and making connections with others. Times when I felt genuinely good about myself. But this is a blog about my journey with OCD, and in going through much of my past as captured by the things I kept from those times, these are the impressions that stood out to me in relation to my experiences with OCD. Some of the things I was able to achieve, some of the things I was able accomplish perhaps even because of OCD, I am really quite proud of, but at the same time, they came at a price.
I'm at a point in my life now where I feel much more stable and resilient. My self-esteem no longer seems to dangle precariously on a ledge, ready fall over at the slightest gust. Nor do I feel like I am constantly teetering on the cliff of depression, holding on with all my might to keep from falling in. I am so much more steady, and for that I am SO GRATEFUL. Sometimes I wish I could travel into the past and tell my former self that, "It will get better. Things will get easier. They will. Just hang on."
All the therapy I've had over the last year or so has also helped strengthen my emotional stability. Now I can sometimes see that the carrot on a string that I'm chasing after has been placed there by OCD, and I can recognize that it's OCD before I follow that carrot too far off course. And this, in and of itself, has been immensely helpful. Even as I became more confident in myself and less emotionally volatile, I still sometimes felt like my feelings were swinging on the tip of a pendulum, gliding from one extreme to the other. I still felt like I constantly had to guard my emotional state, compulsively fending off any and all things that might make me feel "off" or no longer "right." Now I know that that insistence on guarding my state of mind is what made it seem to need constant protection in the first place. Figuring this out, and learning about OCD, has helped me feel more stable and so much less at the mercy of my mind and the world. Don't get me wrong, I still have lots to work on. I still have a very compulsive approach to life and a lot of OCD hurdles I'd like to overcome. And I still have some really rough days when the OCD fueled self-hatred runs rampant. But now I feel like I know what I'm battling and how to battle it. It may not always be easy, but I feel that I am capable of fighting OCD and that I have the knowledge, tools, and support to help me fight it.
I'm not sure I believe that "knowing is half the battle" when fighting this disorder. Knowing what you're fighting certainly doesn't guarantee that you'll fight it or even know how to. But when a diagnosis, a name for all the collective mental struggles you've faced, is combined with the knowledge, tools, and support to challenge it, the odds of winning that battle seem infinitely greater. There's still a lot of battle left, but at least you're no longer unknowingly stumbling around the battle field, wondering who's constantly shooting at you and why.