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.

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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.

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.

Anxiety

Zeus Might Love Me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s cat knows I’m at DEFCON Dinosaur Extinction when it comes to my recent bouts with anxiety. He’s cuddling with me, asking about my day, and offering to do my laundry. That is why he sits on my clothing, right?

This is the same cat that once cornered me in a narrow hallway. Years ago (when I was an actual adult who wasn’t sharing her space with her entire family) Zeus told me that I was in his hallway. He did one of those throaty growls made all the more ominous because his mouth remained closed. Also, just a week prior he had torn a pair of my pants with my legs still inside them. Given the context I was afraid, so afraid that I called my mother over to rescue me.

“He’s throaty growling,” I said.

My mom laughed.

“His mouth is closed.”

More laughter.

I’m convinced she trains him in mischief-making.

Fast forward to the present day. Zeus is being nice. Like really nice. He sits on my lap and purrs. He pats my head knowingly. It’s like he understands that anxiety sucks and he’s there for me.

He might also be hungry.

Anxiety

Building a Better Ellipsis

Today in my internet ramblings I found this statistic: women hit the nadir of their happiness at 38 ½. Even without scientific backing, this feels right. I’m 38 ½ (yes, I still count with halves), and I’m sad. Before I move on, let me say that I’m angling for an optimistic post. My initial response to this stat was: “Of freaking course!” After that, I thought, “Well, here comes the upside.”

Let me be honest and say how unhappy I’ve been feeling, even intimating to some that I’m going through a mid-life crisis. Mostly, I think this is because I’m adjusting to several big life changes. Not only have I moved to another state for a mediocre job, but my family just lost their house and thought it would be fun to camp out in my one-bedroom apartment. We make s’mores and sing Kumbaya every night. My anxiety has also turned my brain into an echo chamber of doom. When I say that phrase, it’s with mock melodrama, so it sounds funny. When I’m living that phrase, it’s doesn’t feel so funny.

Every morning I wake up and think, “This can’t be it.” That’s another phrase tinged with both hope and despair. When I’m tired and cranky as I head out to my mediocre job, I’m not feeling so optimistic. But when I’m writing and thinking and exploring topics of interest, “this can’t be it” has transformative power. There’s definitely more. So much more. To be sure, though, such hope is difficult to hang on to. And yet…

I should end this post at that ellipsis, weigh down those few dots with possibility. But hope only comes with real work, and I don’t even know what kind of work that entails. Pick up the pen; put down a few words. Watch some stand-up comedy. Set goals. Dream a little bit. Pay attention. That sounds like a good start.

That’s also not where I want to end this post. It’s too tidy and trite. Here’s something more specific: my current goal is not to give in to anxiety for three minutes. Then I’ll go for another three. I don’t know where I came up with that time frame, but it feels more authentic than five minutes. 2:59…2:58… That’s a better ellipsis.

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.