Anxiety, Depression, OCD

Ask for Help

The first time I needed help, I only asked for it when I hit a breaking point. I had known about my OCD for years, and only once did I try to speak up about it. It was a failed attempt that included me stumbling around for the right words to say. I forgive myself for that now, but I would love to go back and say, “You don’t have to wait to ask for assistance.”

For whatever reason, I set up my own self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew I wouldn’t get help for my OCD unless something devastating happened. I believed my OCD had to get so out of control that I’d have no choice but to seek assistance. Then the devastating thing happened. My friend died in a car accident, and I couldn’t handle it. I was teaching at the time, and I’m grateful for those hours I spent in front of the classroom. While up there, you’re forced to concentrate on the task at hand. There’s no time for lingering thoughts. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again because it’s so true: performance has much in common with mindfulness, and it’s one of the reasons I feel at home when I adopt a persona, be it as a teacher or a comedian. Don’t get me wrong; I am myself when I teach, but I’m also performing a bit. I’m the version of me that’s not an introvert.

During that terrible time after the accident, when I was home alone or just sitting still somewhere, I couldn’t escape the rituals. Unexpected accidents are a chief concern of my OCD-addled mind. Nearly every ritual I complete is a stopgap against this uncertainty. At this point, I was checking traffic reports every time my sister went to work to make sure she was safe. I called my parents every night to see if they were still alive. I could no longer sit quietly and watch TV or read a book. And still I didn’t get help.

My body pushed me in the right direction. I became so ill with the flu that I had to go to the ER. The nurse who took my information offered me a ride to the room in a wheelchair. I thought she was joking, even convinced myself I didn’t need no freakin’ wheels. The nurse knew better. She kindly, gently got me to sit down, and I was grateful for it.

I recovered from the flu, but my mind was still wary. It took me sobbing on the phone to my mom to finally say, “Hey, perhaps I should call a psychologist.” I had reached my breaking point. But here’s the thing: there shouldn’t have to be a breaking point. I wish we could all be free to say, “I need help.” Even now, I’ve hardly learned my lesson. I’m hurting deeply, and I know I need to make a phone call. I’ll do it, if only because I’ve said I will so very publicly. But those words are still hard to write.

Ultimately, I can’t be an advocate if I don’t take care of myself. I’m going to take care of myself.

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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.

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 in the wild

Share Your Story

Recently I shared part of my story  at The Secret Illness, a great site where people discuss their intrusive thoughts and say a little bit about their OCD. If you or someone you know has OCD, check out the site and consider sharing your own story. You can even be completely anonymous.

The more people know about OCD the less stigmatized it will be. Plus, hearing other people’s stories has always made me feel less alone. Perhaps this is true of others as well.

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.

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.