OCD

What if I don’t have OCD?

The first time I went to see a psychiatrist, I thought, “What if he says I don’t have OCD?” Though not a doctor myself, I was fairly certain I did have OCD. I had read about it, and the symptoms seemed to match mine. Perhaps not completely, but every case is different, right? It wasn’t until I was face to face with the reality of seeing a doctor that I briefly wondered if I’d gotten it wrong.

I’m fascinated by the brain, and if I were smarter, I may have become a neuroscientist. As it is, I just read books about the brain and its myriad dysfunctions. There are worse habits. At any rate, my accuracy in diagnosing brain disorders was at 100%. See, I had just diagnosed one of my students with synesthesia. During a creative writing class, she began describing how each letter for her had a particular color when it’s said aloud. This rang bells for me. I told her about synesthesia, and she checked it out. She’d always thought she was odd in a bad way. I feel like I actually did her a service. Man, I miss teaching.

Presently, however, I was facing the intake specialist. She wanted me to describe the reason for my visit. I was nervous and thoroughly overwhelmed by my (perceived?) OCD. My friend had died in a car wreck, which made my symptoms spiral out of control. The stress alone brought on the worst flu I’d ever had, for which I was only just recovering. So I likely fumbled a bit, didn’t quite articulate what I truly wanted to say. I mentioned OCD, and she scribbled notes. She seemed more interested in the trauma. I steered her back to the OCD. Was I leading the witness? Ultimately, she recommended that I see a counselor for the recent trauma, and (perhaps perfunctorily?) also recommended that I see one of the psychiatrists in the practice who “deals with OCD.” That seemed terse. Did she not believe me?

I had to wait a week before I could see the doctor, but his name was auspicious: Dr. Still. Yes! He’d keep me calm. Providing I actually had OCD, that is.

The agonizing week finally ended, and I met the doctor, who looked to be about 21. “So soon out of med school,” I thought. “Would he really have the diagnostic tools necessary to meet my needs?” This sentiment was unfair, but I was nervous and overwhelmed. I told him my symptoms, and he just kept writing notes. I alternately felt both assured by my doctoring and horrified that I’d gotten my diagnosis completely wrong. I think I may have squeaked out, “I guess it’s OCD.”

He finally put the pen down and said, “Oh, you have OCD.”

That made me laugh a little with relief. Then I thought, “Wait. Is he chastising me?” This was another unfair assessment because he followed with the best words I’ve ever heard in dealing with this disorder. “You’ve just been coping?” he said. “For over 20 years?”

I nodded.

“Well, I want you to do so much more than cope.”

Thank you, Dr. Still, for helping me thrive.

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OCD

Vulnerability is OK

I’d like to once again thank the great people at The Mighty for posting another story of mine: “When I Want Permission to Be Overwhelmed By My Mental Illness.” It’s about dealing with vulnerability, a subject that’s difficult for me.

If you haven’t checked out their site, I recommend it. They do great work.

OCD

Communion

I love reading and likely own more books than I can possibly read in a lifetime. This doesn’t deter me from buying more books, however. Setting aside whether I should talk to someone about my book problem, I’d like to discuss how OCD affects my love of reading. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and because the universe often allows you to find what you’re looking for (confirmation bias perhaps), I stumbled across this piece about OCD and Reading  by Janet Singer.

OCD is notorious for attaching itself to everything you love. That’s the source of its power. For me, I’m often concerned about losing my support system, my family and friends. I worry about losing them to accidents or disease. When I read, I’m often confronted by trigger words. For a long while, if I saw words like “death” or “cancer” or “heart attack,” I’d immediately have to stop reading and start ritualizing. Even now it’s difficult to write those words. Sometimes whole scenes about tragic events can stop me from reading.

Some might suggest reading more lighthearted books as a cure for what ails me. But that’s not it. Reading for me is a rewarding experience because of the communion I feel with others while doing it. Even explorations of darkness bring light. One feels less alone when reading about struggle. The writer seems to say, “We’re in this together.” There’s a devastating beauty amidst the suffering.

And that word — “communion” — represents another idea that keeps percolating. I’ve been reading quite a bit about language, words, reading and listening, and the recurring theme in all these books and articles is that of communion. Talking and listening, reading and writing, words themselves bring people together.

Here’s one of my favorite lines from When Breath Becomes Air, a neurosurgeon’s meditation on confronting death: “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.” That line explains why reading is so important to me, and why I hate when OCD interrupts this intimate exchange. Fortunately, I’m able to read with less ritualizing these days, and that’s wonderful because I need to buy more books.

OCD

Stretch, Leap, Sail, Jump

I have this theory that OCD informs some of the risks I take. These are calculated risks, though some might say that’s absurd. That’s because these gambles involve jumping out of airplanes and leaping off tall buildings. But even as I’m filling out the paperwork to relinquish vendors of any responsibility for my potential death or dismemberment, I’m thinking, “Well, how often does the parachute fail to open?”

Here’s where the OCD comes in. The only way to get better is to face your fears. You have to flood yourself with anxiety in order for that anxiety to decrease. So jumping out of an airplane isn’t exactly exposure therapy, but part of me has taken these leaps to overcome the fear I’ve gotten so sick of throughout my life. (Please note that I’m not endorsing this behavior; I’m merely speaking from personal experience.)

OCD has been a constant source of pain and fear for me for nearly three-quarters of my life. I get tired of fear, so I’ve confronted it in myriad ways. To date, I’ve gone skydiving, jumped off the Stratosphere (twice), been zip-lining, and let my niece put bugs in my hands (which she finds hilarious).

A boss from long ago once told me I liked certainty. Based on his observations, I wasn’t someone who’d easily stretch beyond my comfort zone. He was ­­right and wrong. I do like certainty; it’s at the very root of my ritualizing. But I will push my limits. I don’t consider myself a thrill-seeker; I’m just someone who hates to be chained to fear. Perhaps it isn’t the OCD itself that informs my behaviors. Instead, there’s a lesson embedded in the recovery process. Stretch, leap, sail, jump – you’ll be happier for it.

Coming Out, OCD

Maybe I Just Like Closets

I came out of the closet shortly after grad school, though I knew I was gay since I was 14. I had attended a creative writing program, and for my thesis I wrote both fiction and nonfiction, though you might say I simply wrote fiction. While there, I admired one of my instructors for her candid portrayals of herself in her stories and essays. She was real in ways I wasn’t. I also took a course that dealt with the way writing can heal trauma. While I don’t feel that dealing with my sexuality was traumatic, I embraced the idea of writing as healing. I finally came out because I knew I couldn’t live an authentic life while in the closet.

Perhaps I don’t learn my lessons well, or maybe I just like closets, but life handed me another opportunity to come out. As with my sexuality, I long knew about my OCD. I’ve had it since childhood, though I didn’t have a name for it until I was a teenager. I did what you’re not supposed to do: I diagnosed myself. I’m not sure how I put the pieces together, but I remember seeing the book Brain Lock and recognizing its truth. I remember reading a bit of it, furtively, in the bookstore before becoming so afraid of what it said that I put it down and snuck away.

I stayed in the closet for another 15 years or so when a tragedy finally forced me out. I lost a friend to a car accident, and that amped up my obsessions and compulsions in ways I’d never experienced before. I constantly checked traffic reports when I knew a family member was out driving. I called my folks every night to make sure they were still alive. I literally grew sick with worry, enduring a bout of the flu that included a trip to the ER and an expensive IV. Finally, I broke down one night while talking on the phone with my mom. That’s when I sought help.

Now I’m fully out of the closet and able to share my story without reservation. I’ve always admired people who, like my professor, can speak authentically. It took some time for me to realize it, but I’ve been trying hard to be just like them. In a way, I’ve finally received my master’s degree.

OCD

Hooray for The Mighty!

This past week I had a story  published on The Mighty. I love that site because the founders are truly on a mission to destigmatize illnesses of all kinds, both mental and physical.

When they agreed to post my story, I was excited. It’s my goal to become an advocate for those with OCD. I’m not sure I’m up to the task because I’m definitely not mighty all the time. In fact, while I was excited to get the story published, I was also anxious. My OCD tries to get me to believe that if something good happens, something bad must follow. This is when I like to tell it: screw you! My OCD backed down a little bit when I said that.

Please check out the site if you can.