Adjusting the brain–at last


The brain is the hardest part of the body to adjust in any position or situation. This is the last time I’ll write about this in this way. Here’s why.

It’s about approaching that wall, at last, and recognizing that it isn’t going anywhere, there are no loose stones or secret passageways through or under, and you cannot go around it. It goes around all of you. It defines and limits your actions and feelings. It simply must be scaled.

Since I was young, I’ve asked all kinds of terrifying questions. My mind has been dusted by all sorts of fringe thoughts that most people seem to ignore with ease. There are times I would give anything to be one of these people. I remember when I was eight, and terrified of vomiting, thinking to myself: “By the time I’m fifteen, I won’t be afraid anymore.”

But the fears only worsened. I found more frightening things to think and worry about: what would happen if someone I loved died, how I didn’t want to die, and what would happen when I died? Where would I go? No amount of consoling, sweet notes, or help from mom or dad remedied any of these “ailments.” These obsessive cycles of fear (about death, illnesses, and other things I don’t care to mention) came and went, with varying levels of intensity, throughout my entire childhood and adolescence. They continued into my twenties, and they continue today. The invention of the internet seems to make my obsessive-compulsive tendencies worse: “now I can temporarily alleviate my fears not only by asking others repetitive questions, but by repeatedly researching whatever it is I’m afraid of!” Fact-checking (again and again and again) has always been one of my three main compulsions, the others of which are: seeking reassurance, and rumination infused with scenario-bending, theorizing, and mental review. Here is where I will tell you that any theorizing done while under the influence of OCD is completely and totally whacked-out. My mother, best friend, and boyfriend will all agree. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard “Katie! Where are you getting these ideas!? You normally think much more logically!”

Just today I was reduced to tears at the state of my brain. How had I gotten here? To age thirty, and still so heavily controlled by my thoughts and fears? I said out loud how I wished I were different, how I was so sick of this brain. Luckily, I was speaking to someone who does not wish I was any different than I am, and somehow manages to find beauty in what I feel is disastrously engineered circuitry and networking. I’m endlessly grateful for his patience, insight, and ability to understand.

But, back to the wall.

Let’s move to water, actually. Water was always my metaphor of choice when I began writing about my fears back in college. I want to give you an idea of what it feels like to be wrestling reality (and not indulging in anxiety-relieving behaviors [i.e. compulsions]) when you have OCD.

Imagine your ankles being cuffed together, your wrists being cuffed together. You are also blindfolded, and have just been magically transported to someplace about 100 feet below the ocean’s surface. In my experience, OCD is this disorienting. You know the only way to find “up” is to stop moving, to wait for that tiny feeling of floating to give you direction. But the panic is unbearable. Despite knowing that waiting is the best way, you begin to kick, thrash about, terrified about WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN if you don’t! This, of course, only exhausts you, depletes you of what little oxygen you have, and perhaps even sends you in the wrong direction. You come to your senses and stop thrashing, determined again to wait quietly. But, now you have less energy, and less oxygen, and  it seems impossible, always, to wait long enough. So the kicking starts again, even though it’s directionless, it feels better, somehow, than just waiting to perceive that gentle flotation.

In this metaphor, the cuffs and blindfold is how OCD makes you feel (trapped, disoriented, like something terrible is about to happen), the panic felt while waiting to float is the fear/anxiety produced by the apparently terrifying thought or situation, and the kicking and thrashing is the compulsive behavior meant to alleviate the panic, even though it usually just makes things worse. Of course, this sort of behavior usually invites drowning.

Today, I realized I had drowned.

Today I realized that I’ve been largely ignoring my counselor, my mother and close friends, and the many books written by experts on the matter. Instead of waiting to float, I have kicked, relentlessly. In attempt to make my anxieties go away, I’ve made them worse. I’m no closer to reaching the surface, but I am more disoriented, and more tired.

I have learned a lot, though, in the process. In attempt to deny, again, that this could possibly be anxiety or OCD, I’ve tried to lay the blame elsewhere: fears of intimacy, fears of loss, past betrayals, and previously committed errors in judgment. WhileI’ve learned that these things are all true (especially the fears of loss and intimacy), none of them is the culprit, none of them is to really blame for this.

It’s like in the past, when I felt pressed to come up with some fatal or terminal diagnosis to explain my symptoms, I’d always jump from one illness to the next. I’d briefly consider the possibility that it was all anxiety, and even enjoy momentary relief, but that “feeling” that something was seriously wrong would always come back, driving me to continue palpating my abdomen, knee, or neck, researching things online, or asking people repetitive questions. I even said to my sister and mother once, quite desperately: “But something just doesn’t feel right! I feel like there is something wrong with me and I have to figure it out!” Both of the would look at me with wide eyes and say: “Yeah! YOUR HEAD is what’s wrong with you!”

But I haven’t been here before, not really. Over the summer I wrote that I reached the point of no return–but then I kept going, so obviously that wasn’t true. I just got quieter. What made the journey into the depths quieter was the acquisition of knowledge that helped me feel a little better on the surface (that I indeed fear loss, intensely, and intimacy, and betrayal). But I kept kicking, digging, circling… whatever verb you’d like to use. And now I’m really here. Up against this wall that has surrounded me all of my life. Up against this wall I’ve avoided facing. This wall I have tried to cheat, tried to make disappear, tried to pretend did not exist.

I don’t think that at last finding the ability within me to scale this wall will prove to be some kind of awakening. I think instead it will give me more tools, capability, and hope when facing the other walls that pop up in my future. This is not a bad habit or a learned behavior I want to abandon or move on from. This tendency is etched into my brain. It has good and bad parts. And it is not going anywhere. I remember the disappointment I felt when my therapist told me that learning to meditate wouldn’t stop these thoughts from happening. Instead, learning to meditate would help me to not react to them, to not be controlled by them. Perhaps this is why I have been trying to blame other things and people: I am unwilling to face the reality that this pattern of thinking will never go away. There is no magic pill, book, or therapist that can bolt this door in my brain closed: I instead have to learn to accept what comes through it, good or bad.

However, as thrashing around blindly under water will often do, I’ve only lead myself farther from the truth. My unwillingness to accept that I have a real problem with anxiety and OCD has allowed these patterns of behavior and thinking to control my life for even longer. No amount of reading, thinking, or therapeutic digging will bring me to any answers about this.

The one thing that will bring me “answers”  is stopping the behavior. That means, when I feel terrified by a new or repeated thought or idea, I must not engage in any sort of compulsive behavior.  That means waiting for the panic and dread to pass. That means allowing panic and dread to sit there, inside of me, and gain strength until I at last can sense what is up and what is down. Not just once, but every single time a new terrifying thought enters the spotlight of my mind, I have to sit calmly with it. I have to welcome it in. The more I react, the more power the thoughts and fears have over me. I cannot kick and thrash. I cannot dig like a dog into the earth below the wall. I just have to wait. I cannot climb this wall until I summon the energy and clarity of mind to do so, and nobody is a good climber when panicked or frenzied, or tired.

It seems like simple logic. But it wasn’t for me. I had to exhaust every other possibility in order to understand that none of them were viable. I am still tempted to point the blame elsewhere, to run. But I’ve done that before, and look at where I’ve arrived! It’s at last time to try something different. It’s at last time to surrender to a life of climbing walls, understanding that as I go, each wall will get easier, and smaller, and perhaps one day, I won’t even notice them at all. I’ll also be super agile and have strong arms and legs!

It’s at last time to recognize that while I do struggle with fears of loss, intimacy, and have been hurt in the past, this isn’t any of those things. This is OCD. This is the disorder I’ve skirted all of my life. Reading about fears of loss won’t treat this problem. Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy will. Meditation and yoga probably will too.

I will never get what it is that I have always wanted most of all: Absolute and total certainty. Guarantees. Control. So it’s time to stop chasing them. It’s time, at last, to do something differently. It’s time for self-compassion, patience, faith, surrender, and letting go.

I hope to write an update on any progress (big or small) once we find ourselves in a new year. Until then, no more writing about this–I didn’t realize: that, writing, too, had become a compulsion!

My, oh, my. Happy Sunday.

a corny little PS: I’d like to write another thanks to all the people who have listened to me and supported me without judgment throughout my periods of fear and obsession. My mother, who answers all my phone calls with patience, empathy, and advice. My sister Ellen for crying for me when she witnessed the intensity of my pain in the middle of an OCD cycle this past summer. Hannah for her honesty and grounded perspective. My dad, for worrying about me. My best friend in NYC who shares phone calls, emails, thoughts, perspective, and her wild sense of humor with me (in good times, and bad). All of my friends, near and far, who so generously gave me advice when I asked for it. My attentive, loving boyfriend, who, although he does not share obsessive tendencies, can empathize with having an over-active and often intense mind/brain. I think I often undervalue how happy (and lucky) I was to meet someone who, like me, seriously feared death and annihilation at a young age. And who also had seam issues!  🙂

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