Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Post"-OCD Life


The title of this post, I am well aware, is very much a misnomer.  OCD is still a living, breathing part of my daily existence, and always will be, to a certain degree.  However, I'm starting to feel as though I've entered a new stage in my recovery, one where I have to figure out that troubling and very confusing question:  what now?

For a solid three years my goal was to tackle my OCD.  Year one started with my life falling apart shortly after I graduated from college.  School had always been my life and provided a certain amount of structure and sense of purpose.  As I started my first year of work post-college the following fall, everything seemed to fall apart as one compulsion lead to another until I was having a hard time making it through just a single day at work.  This was followed by the search for help.  I was lucky in that I relatively quickly stumbled upon the name for my disorder and found an excellent treatment provider, one who was ready to help me fight back with cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure and response prevention.

At first things continued to get worse before they got better - my OCD spiral had already gained considerable momentum before I got the right help, and it took time to get my treatment up to speed.  I had to become educated about my disorder and to understand the treatment process and how to fully apply it to my symptoms.  At a certain point, I was actively fighting my disorder, but was still in over my head when it came to work, especially since my job was the source of many of my triggers.  Eventually I went on disability in order to continue treatment without giving up on my job entirely.  In the few months that followed, I made a lot of progress, but ultimately resigned at the end of that disability period as I was not ready to be fully functional in my position and was unsure if I even wanted to follow that career path.

The next two years were a period of transition.  Things were still very tough, but my world was starting to gradually open up again.  OCD was on my mind constantly, but there was so much hope - hope that I could not only overcome that latest spate of severe symptoms that had prompted my need for treatment, but also hope that I could address some of the other compulsions that had lurked in the background for years.   Tackling my OCD was my new purpose.  My goal was not to resume the quality of life I had before OCD completely took over, but to attain an even greater degree of functionality and happiness.  I dreamed of being my old self minus all those pesky habits I could now see for what they were - unnecessary rituals designed to reduce discomfort.  Discomfort that would go away on its own if I just let it.

During the 2nd year I blogged a lot as my life was devoted to recovery and treatment.  I also started a mini-intensive treatment program designed by my therapist to help accelerate my progress, which at times seemed to falter between office visits.  For a couple months, I met with therapists daily, either in the office or in my home, to push past my progress plateau.  During that period, I also began working again.  At first only a couple times a week for an hour a two, and then gradually more and more.  Even though I was working, my life still centered around OCD.  It was what was always on my mind, and the prospect of becoming a happier more functional person through treatment buoyed me up and made me excited for my future.

Now enter year 3.  Looking back, the start of that year ultimately led to a lot of important changes that I didn't see coming.   It was at the beginning of year 3 that I finally moved away from the college neighborhood I'd inhabited for a good 6 years.  I also started  new, more demanding job while I continued some of my part time work.  That new job was more structured and forced me sit with the discomfort of triggers I had long avoided.  I also had co-workers again and had to learn to navigate the unfamiliar waters of thinking and talking about something other than my OCD.  I felt like I lived in two worlds, one where OCD and OCD treatment were the priority, and one where I did my best to leave the OCD world behind, one where I pretended to be a (gasp) "normal" person.

In some ways, not much is different from the start of year 3.  I live in the same apartment and work at the same place.  But somehow in the 2 years that have passed since, everything seems to have changed.  At some point being "normal" became less and less of an act, and more and more of a reality.  And rather than being thrilled to be relatively "normal" again, I'm left confused and slightly distraught.  How did I wind up staying in this job that was supposed to be a temporary stepping stone in recovery?  How did I become more functional but lose sight of all that hope? What happened to all that passion about OCD and all my aspirations and goals related to it?

The hint of depression started to surface this spring, half way into year 4.  It had been 3 and a half years since my world fell apart and I first sought treatment for OCD.  8 months earlier I had been promoted to a new and highly demanding position at my job, and OCD treatment officially became my second focus as work took over my life.  This spring a transitioned to a less demanding position, and since then, with the extra time, those questions I mentioned above have begun to trouble me more and more.  In a way, I have much of what I was working toward in treatment - a more balanced life that include work, socializing, working out, even dating.  I am "functional."  And yet, I'm dissatisfied.

I know that to a certain degree, my one-dimensional focus on OCD and its treatment was not a healthy and sustainable way of being, but I hoped to transfer that single-minded fervor to a job that valued it.  Perhaps as a counselor at a treatment center or as an assistant where research related to OCD and anxiety disorders was being performed.  Then, with more experience and more knowledge about possible career paths, I could go back to school and pursue a degree that would allow me treat OCD or perform research to further our understanding of this disorder.  I could continue to learn more about and grow from and apply my fascination with OCD.

But as work has become the focus of my life with OCD treatment relegated to the background, I find myself less and less sure about where my life is headed.  I am almost back to "normal," but still put up with compulsions that I had hoped to eventually obliterate.  What happened to all those grand aspirations for living a life that was better than before?  One without the compulsions that always existed even before my OCD got out of control?  What happened to that sense of purpose and drive that being in more intensive treatment instilled?  Is this just a new plateau in my progress? Or is it a stage in recovery where the grandiose ideas about how wonderful "normal" life will be have to be put into perspective?

It sounds absurd, but sometimes I think I was happier when I was in that in-between phase of years 2 and 3.  That phase where I had the luxury of focusing on just OCD, while readily feeling and seeing my improvement.  Back in the beginning of treatment, I had my therapist tell me that I would eventually have to grieve the time lost to OCD. He also told me that I would have to learn to readjust as compulsions were no longer the sole focus of my life.  Now, I feel as though I am finally experiencing both of these things.

First, grief and frustration for the time lost.  It seems like I went through so much and yet have landed back where I started.  Almost four years later there's the same level of baseline compulsivity, the same confusion of what to do next with my life now that school is over.  While my peers worked through the post-college ambiguity by trying out different jobs or going back to school, I wrapped myself in an OCD bubble for 4 years, a bubble that, while unpleasant for obvious reasons, also protected me from dealing with the bigger question of "what next?" I feel behind and unsure about to do now.  OCD was my struggle, but also my purpose and hope for the future.  And as work has taken over my life, and OCD has been placed more and more on the back burner, I wonder:  is OCD still my future?  Is it still my passion?  The thought of living a life continually devoted to OCD and its treatment once brought me so much hope and excitement.  Can it still?

I'm confused as ever in a new and different way.  What defined who I was for a solid 3 years, seems to have slipped away during the 4th.  What now?  Who am I? What do I want beyond escaping the confines of OCD?  How and to what degree should OCD and its treatment take part in this next chapter?

This all part of what I'm trying to figure out.

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