Magical Thinking, OCD

Poking the OCD Monster


I just read that book. I read a lot, so this shouldn’t be a big deal. But this book has magical powers. If you read it, someone you love might die. You can’t be 100% certain that will happen, so you shouldn’t read the book at all. Or so my OCD said.

I bought this collection of stories the day my friend died in a car accident. His sudden death was a painful reminder that life truly is uncertain. That event triggered my worst bout of OCD symptoms, which ultimately led to my seeking help. That was six years ago, and while I’ve certainly gotten much better, I couldn’t shake the connection between that book and that terrible day. I remember reading the timestamp on the receipt and concluding that my friend was dying while I was purchasing the book. There’s likely no truth to this, but I imbued the book with dark magic anyway. The title, I thought, was especially portentous. Here Comes Another (Painful) Lesson.

So I didn’t read the book, and even looking at it made me nervous. Over the years the book remained on my shelf, and then I moved and didn’t bother putting all my books back in their bookcases. I lost track of the book or deliberately forgot about it. More to the point, I purposely didn’t read it.

I don’t know what happened to make me finally do it. I’ve certainly been inspired by the people I interact with on social media. I’ve seen so many people overcome struggles, which made me feel less alone. Also, I believe that the act of posting something publicly is a way for me to hold myself accountable. That’s how I’ve managed to continue meditating for 200 plus days and counting, so I took this approach with the book.

I posted that I was reading the book and then started posting fun quotations from the book and then realized I wasn’t nervous while reading. In fact, I felt a strange sort of calm. I don’t know that doctors recommend this sort of public reckoning, but the approach worked for me. I’m just describing my experience.

While posting these messages, I had moments of feeling too brazen. I’d defiantly type “suck it OCD.” This, of course, made me scared. Don’t poke the OCD monster. Then I realized this was more of the same OCD thinking, so I kept poking the monster. Suck it OCD. Suck it so hard.

And then it happened; I finished the book. It took me about a week, and I made it through with minimal pain. When I was done, though, I cried. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. I had invested so much emotion in the book, and I could finally let it go.

The cover still makes me a little nervous, so I keep it out in the open. The title doesn’t seem so portentous now. I’ve learned a lesson, and it was a good one.

Magical Thinking

What a Coincidence

I came across an article  about coincidences that got me thinking about OCD and meaning-making. The author argues that individuals who want to ascribe more meaning to the world – those perhaps of a more spiritual bent – weigh coincidences more heavily than others. Statistically speaking, coincidences aren’t so extraordinary, but humans are storytellers who like beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s not enough that you met someone who shares your birthday and believes, as you do, that chipmunks are hell-bent on destroying the world. You had to have met for a reason. Perhaps you should get married.

I might be exaggerating, but I do know a bit about magical thinking and the almost-comfort it brings in regard to OCD. The disorder is, in some ways, about bringing order to chaos. The world is unpredictable, unspeakable tragedies happen, and you can’t control the future. But an OCDer – at least this OCDer – irrationally thinks she can. If I ritualistically check traffic reports, then my loved ones won’t die in car accidents. Of course, this isn’t how the world works, but engaging in the ritual brings a modicum of relief. The relief, however, is so fleeting that you must engage in the ritual over and over again to the point of its becoming debilitating. We know we’re engaging in irrational behavior, but we just can’t stop. The pull of creating peace is just too strong.

It also happens that a coincidence sent me reeling. In fact, the event is so painful that I hate to call it a coincidence; I am a meaning-maker after all. One of my chief fears is losing someone I love in a car accident. Over a lifetime I’ve ritualized about this thousands of times, perhaps tens of thousands. Then it happened, and the finality of it all was too much to bear. It was as if my OCD won. I must not have ritualized enough or it wouldn’t have happened at all. Now I had to ritualize more. And I did. About accidents and all sorts of tragedies. The OCD just got worse, and despite knowing how irrational my thinking was, my desire to keep others safe was just too strong.

If you have a thought thousands of times, it might come true eventually. That doesn’t mean you want it to happen, or that it should happen. But people with OCD ascribe a lot of meaning to their thoughts. Perhaps this is because thinking is such an intimate act. Couple that with a desire to make the world safer for your loved ones, and the development of OCD isn’t so difficult to understand. What I try to remember is sometimes a thought is just a thought.

Magical Thinking

Just a Thought

When you have OCD you live in a world of magical thinking. One moment of anxiety and you think, “Well, that’s portentous.” You start believing your body is psychic, that it’s divining secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “This has to mean something. My body doesn’t lie!” When really that panicked feeling, that moment when you can’t catch your breath, is just anxiety. It might even be gas.

For nearly seven months I’ve woken up with feelings of dread. This has come about because of a flood of changes in my life. I’ve moved to another state, gotten a new job, had an existential crisis, and given up yodeling. Add in some money trouble and familial stress, and you get more fun than a day at Disneyland. The fluttering in my guts and bonus heartbeats have become Pavlovian. Cue the alarm clock and let the discordant trumpets play in my chest.

You’d think with such chronic discomfort I’d stop giving credence to the signals my body sends out. Alas, anxiety doesn’t respond to logic. I’ve been trying, somewhat intermittently, to use mindfulness as a mode of combat. “Look at that shiny thought. It’s just a thought. Here comes a feeling. It’s just a feeling.” And yet, the gravitational pull of these thoughts and feelings is enough to bring the moon crashing into the global ocean. Still, I’ll keep trying.