Washing the dishes while half-dancing to pop music is often a source of excellent ideas, at least for me. I’ve had a post circulating in my head for a few weeks now, but wasn’t sure how much I wanted to share or how to say it. However, Justin Timberlake’s sweet soprano voice got my mind rolling in the right direction. Thanks, Justin! And before I begin–do know that I have some qualms about sharing this. But because one thing I’ve done “well” since my youth is share the parts of myself that many people prefer to keep hidden (no wonder I was so popular as a teen!! Is sarcasm palpable via blogging?), I feel compelled. Anyhoo. Very few of you out there have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I’m pretty sure, but I’m also sure that all of us have parts of ourselves we don’t like to advertise, promote, or even allow others (or ourselves) to know about. For all those times you see pictures and posts on social media that make it seem like everyone else has got it figured out, or that they’re happier or more confident or accomplished than you are, I’ll be the big, bright, flashing reminder that we don’t. Life is not always perfect, ideal, beautiful, or worthy of sharing on Facebook. And that’s OK. So, mis amigos queridos, here we go!
I’m the sassy-looking young girl (in the above photo) wearing the leopard-print belly shirt. Besides having superior fashion tastes, I also had a handful of behaviors even more unique than that hot pink number in the photo: namely, taking my shoes on and off until the seams in my socks felt right (which caused me to miss the school bus a few times, according to my mother), and avoiding jean material all together. I’d had a bad experience with jean “textures” and “tightness” in a booster seat at age four. I still remember it–that sense of terror and panic that ballooned inside of me because of how the material felt. I recently learned that heightened sensitivity to both physical and emotional discomfort can be a handy-dandy precursor to OCD. Not everyone who is super-sensitive develops OCD, but you can’t develop it without that heightened sensitivity. Of course, a few years after this photo was taken, I really went off the deep end in order to avoid vomiting and (even more realistically!) control the life-span of every member in my immediate family, but that is a story for another time. Tonight I’d like to talk about how I’ve finally learned to come to terms with what it is that my brain likes to do with its plentiful creativity and imagination when I’m not careful.
“Though we may never agree on whether the chicken or the egg came first, when it comes to OCD we do know that biology precedes learning. Research suggests that a person will not develop OCD without having a biological vulnerability to it. This means that people don’t cause their own OCD. It is not the result of some character weakness on your part or something your parents did to you.”
Let me begin by saying that the author of this books goes on to say that it’s also unacceptable to blame biology entirely for the problem. He stresses how the combination of both biology and learned behaviors is what results in the endless cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Still, reading the above paragraph allowed me to shed a lot of guilt about who I am and how I feel a lot of the time. About the long history of fears, thoughts, sensations, scenarios, images, numbers, body parts, diseases, and crippling doubts that have gotten “stuck” in my head for months, or even years, at a time.
And since there seems to be some real confusion out there as to what OCD is, here’s a nice little definition:
Obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that occur over and over again and feel outside of the person’s control. Individuals with OCD do not want to have these thoughts and find them disturbing. Obsessions are typically accompanied by intense and uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is “just right.” In the context of OCD, obsessions are time consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values.
Compulsions are the second part of obsessive compulsive disorder. These are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person uses with the intention of neutralizing, counteracting, or making their obsessions go away. People with OCD realize this is only a temporary solution but without a better way to cope they rely on the compulsion as a temporary escape.
Have you ever thought something seriously awful was happening to you? Or someone you love? Do you remember that sense of terror, panic, and helplessness? That’s how OCD makes you feel, almost all the time—and even though you might know your thoughts, feelings, and fears are irrational, you can’t reason with them. They are powerful beasts. And instead of seriously considering that I did in fact have this disorder (that was suggested to my mother when I was nine, and again to me when I was nineteen) I chose to believe I was pathetic, weak, lacking determination, crazy, selfish, and simply making insufficient effort. After all, I wasn’t washing my hands repeatedly and sometimes experienced months or years withOUT symptoms. I recently found out, though, that some people have mental compulsions rather than physical ones (like hand-washing). I also learned that the genes that apparently control the OCD response turn on and off in some people (though no one knows why, yet), so they experience periods of time without any symptoms at all. But I didn’t know this until very recently.
I’ve said on here before that I thought I had OCD, but I didn’t really believe it, and I didn’t seek help for it, I thought on some level that I had a host of other problems. Or worse, the very things I was terrified of! So I read dozens of self-help books, practiced (and continue) meditation and yoga. I tried positive thinking techniques, breathing exercises, and I changed my diet. I tried even harder to control, change, suppress, or neutralize all the bad thoughts. Nothing worked. All of my efforts only made me feel worse, and think worse thoughts. I was an even bigger failure than I had previously thought. Since I felt like I had no control and nothing I did made me feel better, I submitted to my fears and anxieties, letting them take over and run my life, waiting frantically for the day when they left. They always left [i.e. the genes turned off]. This had been the pattern since age eight, but not anymore; the presence of irrational fear has been pretty steady since the fall of 2010. I’ve been trying really hard for almost five years to fix this. Since 2010, the obsessions have changed form, but the behavior and thinking patterns have stayed the same, no matter the focus. And since I was going in the wrong direction, I only ended up more confused, lost, and consumed by my fears.
I’d like to take a moment to add a personal note here: The apparent difference between “real” (physical) disorders and “mental” disorders played a serious role in my denial. I saw mental disorders as if they were character flaws, or just plain made-up. Like, OH JUST TRY HARDER KATIE! Everyone has fears and insecurities, why don’t you just get over them like everyone else does!? What the hell is wrong with you? FIX THIS! BE BETTER! I saw mental disorders as some kind of excuse or crutch. Surely I could overcome this on my own.
But. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning and going to work and performing a challenging job all-the-while being bombarded by terrible thoughts and feelings that, despite your effort to suppress, neutralize, or improve, DO NOT LEAVE YOU ALONE. EVER! You spend a good portion of your free time AFTER work trying to “figure out” or “re-think” your thoughts, researching various topics online in attempt to quell your mounting anxiety about _X_. You call those closest to you for repetitive reassurance. Your world slowly shrinks as all your time becomes dedicated to warding off these terrible thoughts and feelings. It becomes impossible to enjoy anything because you’re constantly on edge, waiting for your worst fears to come true. Television becomes your main hobby–you don’t have the mental energy or focus for much else. And everything is a sign. Everything must be analyzed, scrutinized, and endlessly checked. Total disaster is just around the corner! DON’T YOU DARE BE HAPPY! EVERYTHING IS GOING TO FALL APART SOON! AND IT WILL BE ALL YOUR FAULT!!!
This is the voice of OCD. Or at least mine.
A pervasive sense of hopelessness and failure in the face of all of these out-of-control fears has been with me for almost five years. Until earlier this month, that is, when I found myself sitting in front of a local OCD specialist. I was going over my history, age four to present, which I didn’t feel added up to a “typical” case of OCD—I was probably just pathetic and making excuses for myself. I was saying to him that it didn’t seem like I had a normal presentation, so I remained unconvin—
“Actually, it is a very normal presentation,” he said, interrupting me as he stopped writing for a moment, glancing up from his clipboard. I wish I could put into words the feeling that washed over me at that moment. Relief doesn’t do it justice, joy is going too far. But I left his office feeling one hundred pounds lighter than when I’d entered. Excuse the tired cliché.
For the first time in my life, I can look back over my history and see all the erratic, out-of-control, and inexplicable behavior and thinking with intense clarity. My mind finally makes sense! And, OF COURSE, like everyone else on planet earth, I’ve got a bundle of “normal” weaknesses. I mean, I can be a total biatch, can easily lose my cool, and at times I’m self-absorbed, moody, critical, combative, and am a terrible procrastinator when it comes to certain things. I also have a little FoF. OCD is not an excuse for all of my flaws, but it IS a bright light in an incredibly dark space; illuminating what has been a life-long mystery, as well a real path to greater peace and personal freedom. I do not have to spend the rest of my life chained to endless cycles of irrational fears and thoughts and behaviors. Nor do I have to continue to feel pathetic about myself! The fears and insecurities I experience are not “normal”, they’re monstrosities, immense in size and scope, and cunning and clever in their articulate control over my life.
For the first time (ever?) I feel like I have a real chance at diffusing the dark clouds that have been following me since I was eight. I became an expert at running from them—but that’s not a sustainable solution. In 2010, they caught up with me, and have been looming ever since. But this is not hopeless!! I’m not crazy or pathetic or a failure at all—my plan of attack was just wrong! And that’s not to say that meditation, yoga, diet, exercise, breathing, and positive thinking don’t work, or that I’m going to stop doing any of them… but they weren’t enough for me. They’re all going to be supportive elements in my new plan of attack, from a different angle, and with an additional set of tools that will function both as guidance and anchors.
I’ve also (in addition to developing a treatment plan for my glorious cognitive “abilities”) made a few changes that are helping me both narrow my focus as well as expand my life in positive ways. I did easy things, like deleting my Pinterest account, and unsubscribed from various email lists; this helped discard unnecessary mental clutter. I then made some decisions about my job, and I also decided to quit teaching yoga. I am considering going back to school, but am going to sit with that idea for a while. I unloaded over 100 books at the local Goodwill, along with 4 bags of clothing (and I don’t even have that much!). I got rid of a giant tub of art supplies I haven’t touched in years. I’ve dedicated myself practicing my favorite thing everyday: writing, and have rededicated myself to pursuing photographic work. I’ve also signed up to volunteer with a couple organizations, and joined a women’s B-level soccer league. I haven’t played since I was fourteen! I stretch and meditate (almost) every night. The path ahead of me is long and arduous, but I am ready, and I am hopeful, for the fist time in a long time 🙂
I hope to share some of my progress and lessons learned along the way. The take-aways for tonight? Don’t be afraid of having a dark side; all of us do. And. Mental disorders are real disorders. Perhaps over-diagnosed, yes, but real nonetheless. My negative opinions and stubbornness led to a denial so sharp I insisted on calling myself all kinds of terrible names instead of getting help. I cannot express the sense of empowerment I have at present, knowing I finally have access to the tools necessary to overcome what’s been troubling me, despite my persistent efforts to get better, for years. For most of my life. I look forward to turning contraction into expansion, shining light into a dark space, and then seeing what happens or changes as a result 🙂
That’s all for tonight. Hasta luego!