Thursday, December 9, 2010

When the Universe Hunts You Down: Band-Aids on a Mission and Dirty OCD Newsletters

Sometimes it seems as though everywhere I go, whatever I do, I come across things that remind me of OCD.  Then again, I think there is a lot of selective abstraction going on - I mean, I do pretty much have OCD and its treatment on my mind 24/7.  Literally.  I frequently dream about OCD predicaments, and it used to be all I would dream about!!  Every night it was another OCD nightmare, a dream that only I (and others with similar OCD fears) would find terrifying.  I recognize the absurdity of it, how silly it seems that such inconsequential things could be the central subject of a nightmare, but that's how it goes!  And I'm glad I can step back and appreciate the comedy in it after the fact.

It's funny how when you are focusing on your OCD, the universe seems to leap out and offer you exposure wherever you go.  I was talking to a friend who has contamination fears, particularly with blood, and as she told me stories of the challenges she faced, it seemed like wherever she went, band-aids were just crawling out of the woodwork, tracking her down so that she found herself coming across what seems like an absurd number of band-aids each day.  When she would go jogging on the sidewalk outside, there one would be, right in her path.  When she braved swimming in a pool, suddenly they were floating ominously in the water near her.  I don't know about you, but I never seem to come into contact with quite so many band-aids on a daily basis.

The truth of the matter is that I probably do.  I just don't notice.  And so goes the power of OCD tunnel vision.  When you are hyper-vigilant and hyper-focused on scanning your environment for triggers, you notice things that others probably wouldn't.  For me it's that stain on the therapist's couch, that smudge on the wall, or that puddle on the floor.  I even received my newsletter from the International OCD Foundation with what on it?  Dirt!  Yes, dirt.  It seemed like fate.  It seemed like the universe was trying to tell me something not so subtly:  "Give up already.  Your world of 'cleanliness' is just an illusion that causes you a lot of pain and suffering without really keeping you safe.  Just touch the newsletter and read it."  If you can't read your newsletter about OCD because it was too dirty, it just seems like a sign that it's time to move on and tackle your disorder!

I'm sure all of us OCD sufferers come across our own unique versions of this phenomenon.  When we start obsessing about something, suddenly all the world seems to be talking about it or doing it or leaving traces of it for us to come upon.  Things that other people do or say without even thinking can suddenly turn our whole day upside down.  It can be the tiniest, littlest thing that sets off a furor of OCD madness.  But I suppose this is all the more proof that tackling OCD head-on is far better for us in the long run.  As much as we sometimes wish we could avoid coming into contact with certain people and places and situations, as much as we long to compulsively undo the "damage" that has been done when we do come into contact with them, we cannot control the world around us.  We cannot dictate how others act or what comes across our path.  And the more we try, the more dysfunctional we become - the smaller our worlds get until we are reduced to focusing on one very small portion of life at the cost of being able to see and experience so many other things that life has to offer.  The band-aids will continue to hunt us down.  I will continue to come across disturbing stains and mysterious puddles, and so on, until I stop paying so much attention to them.  And how to I learn to pay less attention to such things?  By changing my behavior.  Engaging in compulsions only serves to heighten the apparent importance of whatever it is I wish to avoid.  Not engaging in compulsions, not structuring my life around my triggers, allows them to fade back into the fabric of day to day life until one day, hopefully, they will be no more attention-grabbing than most of the other mundane aspects of daily life.

The less I wash, the less dirty the world seems.  The more I wash, the more I focus on doing things "correctly" and avoiding dirtiness, the more "incorrectness" and dirty things seem to hunt me down.  I continue to notice this paradoxical phenomenon as I continue onward in therapy and recovery, and sometimes I am even tempted to use this knowledge to sabotage my progress.  Sometimes what I find more bothersome than fear is lack of fear.  Sometimes I want to "remember what it felt like" to feel paralyzed by this or that, to see if I can still make myself experience the same amount of anxiety surrounding a particular situation or object.  Funny thing is, in learning to overcome OCD, I also know how to make it worse.  I know how to re-sensitize myself to old triggers that no longer cause me anxiety because I know if I just keep performing compulsions, soon the feeling will return, that I can recapture and memory hoard the sensation of "having OCD."

Ridiculous, I know.  But it's part of the constant push and pull.  I get over something, notice that it doesn't cause me as much anxiety as it did previously, and then I get scared.  I try to relive, in my head, all the things I have done that were "wrong," all the things that "should" bother me, all that would have caught my attention instantly that I now pass by almost without noticing.  And I do it all to recreate the experience.  To make sure I haven't become "too careless" or to make sure that I am not allowing myself to get better "too fast."

That's a lot of what I am going through now.  Reaction to exposure comes in waves.  First there is the "You want me to do what?!" shock and awe phase.  Then there is the grudging but nevertheless committed decision to do the exposure.  Next, it gradually gets easier with repetition.  And then wham!  I fear that I am forgetting what it felt like before.  I fear that I am becoming careless because what would have shocked and appalled me before sometimes doesn't even register on my radar.  And that, that right there, is what scares me when I start to improve in regard to one trigger or another.  I want to somehow get better but still be just as observant of all the triggers in my environment.  But it doesn't work that way.  When the fear dissipates, so does the desperate need to scan my environment for warning signs.  I want to "remember what it felt like before" but as long as I keep running back to the safety of that feeling by re-sensitizing myself, I will never actually move forward.  I can't get better and feel the same way about things as I used to.  Those concepts are mutually exclusive.  And, though it is difficult and troubling in the meantime, slowly forgetting how I could once find some things so bothersome is probably a good thing in the end.  When I finally do make it out on the other side I will be able to actually appreciate the freedom it gives me.

In the meantime I just have to trust my therapists and the exposure and response prevention process.  I have to accept that my urge to go running back is another compulsion in and of itself and that it only hinders all the work I have already done.  Even if I find my progress distressing more than comforting, one day I might just might be able to appreciate and take advantage of that mental freedom.  Instead of seeing that smudge on the carpet or the streak of dirt on my newsletter, I could have a much broader and well-balanced perception of the world around me.  I could appreciate it, rather than constantly feel hunted down by the things I want to encounter the least.

Plus, I could read my OCD newsletter.  I probably need it :).


  1. Your penultimate paragraph is the essence of it!! You captured it in words so well. I go through this with OCD and also with making changes in my recovery from alcoholism. My expression for it is that changing the pattern (ie, not going back to the old familiar way) is as hard as breaking bones. I feel like I am disintegrating like on Star Trek when they "beam up" and become all those particles. Metaphorically, it really is. Then I get to be put back in a new and better way. As hard as it is (and we all have the resistance), I just need to have a little bit of willingness. I just need to leave a door open a crack and let the sun shine through. If I leave the door open to the possibility that the new way is better and where my true essence lies, I can nudge it open a little more next time, etc. Try not to go back. YOU CAN DO IT! The idea that the old way is safe is a lie. I know you know that.

  2. Great post!!! I can relate so well to what you write about. And you're so right about how OCD exposure opportunities seem to be everywhere - and when you decide to tackle OCD - you can't ignore them! I've even started to have magical thoughts about this kind of stuff....kind of like the whole fate stuff you refer to but probably "crazier"!!! Kind of like - the universe is trying to tell you something stuff - more OCD crap. Anyway - keep going - you're doing great!!!

  3. This is a great post.

    I think part of the problem you described at the end is just that our subconscious still hasn't completely given up the lie that we see danger others can't. So when we trust others, do our exposures, and experience relief, sometimes our subconscious kicks in and says WAIT A SECOND! Just like with exposures that help us to ignore our obsessions and compulsions, we have to ignore that little subconscious voice that kicks in periodically and we have to tell it no, too. Eventually it will weaken :).

  4. Thank you all for your continual encouragement and kind words!

    Kinder Brain - I loved your saying and description of how it feels not to go back to old ways. I once told my therapist that doing certain exposures, going against the grain of my intuition, felt something like trying to amputate one of my own limbs - better for my health in the long run, but an excruciatingly painful and difficult decision to make in the moment! Your analogy is a bit more positive though! Instead of losing something, you have the chance to be put back together in a way that is better than what you started with. Thank you for your encouragement! I really respect all the hard things you have done and find it inspiring!

    Pure O Canuck - I agree, the whole "universe is trying to tell me something" can be part of the OCD. And it can affect us in good or bad ways depending on how we see it. We can use it as proof that our worst fears are true or we can assume that the universe is trying to encourage us to move forward, providing convenient challenges on the way!

    Leah - Oh, you are so right. As much as I tend to recognize the irrationality of my behaviors, I really do think that sometimes some part of me does believe that I can see danger others can't. And, like you said, I place my trust in others, but then begin to question if they are just missing that one vital piece of information, which, if they knew, would cause them to recoil in horror at the exposures I have been doing. I like the way you frame that "voice" as just something else we have to say "no" to, just like our more regular obsessions/compulsions.

  5. hi

    how do i email you??



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