pencil drawing tally marks

Counting the 'Wins' and 'Losses' in OCD Recovery

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The need to touch my right arm overtook all rational thought. Tension built behind my eyes, spread through my sternum and into a belly of nervous energy. A muscle in my leg jumped, soon joined by other muscles around my extremities. The fingers in my left hand ached to reach my upper arm, to brush against the skin that felt tight and uncomfortable.

Segments of my body felt foreign, like elements grafted to the components original to my being. I had a way to bring my constituent pieces back together. It was within my power to fix this. Yet, I sat, rigid, looking at the clock I was trying to avoid. I was the watched pot, except I had been boiling from the get go.

Using nerve endings as conduits, anxiety snaked throughout and each body part felt individually noticeable. Pinprick spots of itchiness appeared like whack-a-mole, moving from one position to another. If I scratched, then it added to my tally of mirrored places to avoid.

I heard footsteps coming down the hall toward my office. Not now. Please, not now.

“Good morning! How’s your day going?”

I want to roll around on the floor like a freshly bathed dog, but otherwise, “Great, how about you?”

The conversation carried on, me nodding at what I hoped were appropriate moments. If I thought chatting might serve as a distraction from my unbalanced body, then the crawling sensation spreading over my skin suggested I was wrong.

I eyed the clock. One minute to go.

As she left my office, a shiver ran through me, my internal audience doing the wave.  Five seconds.

I might explode.

Four seconds.

I feel like spiders are crawling over my skin.

Three seconds.

Deep breath.

Two seconds.

With my inner spring wound to its breaking point, I poised my left hand over my right arm just below my shoulder, as the minute hand on the clock lurched forward. I touched my arm in desperation. Then, I went around and touched all the spots screaming for attention. Leg, torso, head, head, knee. Too many. There was no symmetry, no relief; the old touches had faded as I imagined fingerprints blooming on my skin.

I shuddered, running my hands haphazardly around my anguished body in a perfect imitation of someone who has just walked through a spider web and does not know where the inhabitant may have landed. I pressed more deeply, to overwrite the imbalance left behind by this frenzied experiment.

I erased the subconscious tally marks as I rubbed control into my muscles, trying to find comfort in their slow surrender. I felt both victorious and hopeless. I had done what I set out to do, the task laid out by my therapist. Yet, I knew I only succeeded because there was resolution waiting at the end of the countdown.

I wanted full control. I wanted to extinguish the symptoms completely. If I could not stamp down this spark of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), then how would I ever put out the forest fires? Stubborn refusal to follow through in my never-ending search for bodily symmetry resulted in discomfort, yes, but it felt like the only way to fight toward the magically superstitious center of the fire, the place where people might die but for my carefully constructed rituals.

***

The mix of pride and disappointment was still my copilot later that summer as my daughter and I made our way up I-85 from North Carolina. Six days before the start of a beloved folk festival in Hillsdale, New York, I had spun myself into a dizzying need to be there. We had hundreds of miles laid out before us in this last-minute trip; hundreds of miles of road kill discarded along the shoulder of the highway.

Years earlier, to assuage my guilt over the casualties of nature caused by humans and their moving boxes of metal and plastic, I had begun apologizing to dead animals I saw along the road. Despite my general lack of religion or even anything resembling spirituality, I felt compelled to bear witness to the essence of these unfortunate animals. I needed to let them know I saw them, and the world would miss them. I had to make amends in the only way I knew how.

It all seems sweet enough on the surface, but it had spiraled into something difficult to control. I soon found myself apologizing, not only to formally living beings, but also to the useless items littering the edges of the road. Tires. Shirts. Sometimes I mistook items to be dead animals from a distance, but even after the rubber or fabric came into view, I still had to go along with the ritual.

The more I fought, the more time my brain spent fighting back. Yards of unwound cassette tape (back when that was a common sight) never looked like anything previously alive, yet as soon as the notion entered that I should give it my condolences, I could not avoid it for long. It was a bastardized and mentally unhealthy version of “Goodnight Moon.” Sorry stick. Sorry shoe. Sorry hubcap. Sorry cow, jumping over the hubcap.

Some days I could accept it and move on. Other times, I would get stuck in a thought loop of determination, failure and self-loathing, as I tried to beat my brain into submission. As the inside of my head reached a fever pitch, I would silently explode.

No!

My car ate miles of asphalt, and I thought of the mixed results of my earlier experiment — of all the dead animals and litter that were ahead of us. I thought, I can do this. On the other hand, maybe I can’t. I will never know why it clicked this time, perhaps because I gave myself grace in the face of potential failure.

It was not painless, but over the course of the road trip, I managed to shed the apologies, leaving them on the side of the interstate with everything else. The ghost of the compulsion lingers, but I have pushed it so far into the recesses of my brain that it does not have time to clamor for attention before I have moved on. I am aware it exists, but we are not on speaking terms.

It was embarrassing to have overcome a problem that felt so ridiculous in the first place. I had to mull it over for weeks before I could admit to the success. If I could do it, I reasoned, I could have always done it. I tried to talk myself out of any pride, any sense of accomplishment. Who cares if I have relieved myself of hours of fighting with my brain? No big deal. Nothing to see here.

Finally, like an afterthought, I let the news of this achievement float through the air in my therapist’s office. A last-minute revelation, so I could get out the door without having to deal with the confusing feeling of having someone be proud of me for something I was trying to downplay.

The voices in my head held court in a familiar battle. One side clamors for the attention and gratification in the recognition of a job well done. The other side fights back, questioning why I created the problem in the first place. These arguments with myself follow me through life like an annoying shadow.

That day, as I chewed on the inside of my cheek and stared at my hands, I dismissed it as a tiny fire that any extinguisher could have handled. After all, I had failed to stitch the pieces of my body into a symmetrical whole. If I could not solve everything, then I might as well have solved nothing.

The biggest lesson of that summer did not come solely from the success of guilt rendered harmless, but as an amalgamation of those small triumphs and disappointments. It came through as a study in letting small wins and losses stand on their own, not as balance for each other. The scorecard is not for a sudden death round. I do not lose ground for every point lost.

What does it matter if I still seek symmetry, brushing my leg against an object and finding the equivalent for my other leg? Scratching the cheek that itches and then the one that does not. Accidentally pressing my right arm against the cold tile in the shower and leaning to find the cold plastic of the shower curtain with my left arm. Sometimes I knock on wood because it is easier than fighting. I know I can win, which means I have won, even when I lose.

Image via Thinkstock.

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What We Need to Think About Before We Say We're Acting 'Crazy' or 'Psycho'

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I was reading a shared post on Facebook awhile ago from a woman describing some of her obsessive compulsive behavior. I had no trouble with the fact that she was openly doing this or describing herself as having OCD because it seemed likely she did have a problem from what she wrote (and I’m all for being open). The thing that made me sad about it was that she used the word, “psycho” to describe herself.

How often do we impose these stigmas on ourselves? “Psycho” “crazy” “weird” “bonkers” etc. It’s bad enough that the world at large stigmatizes those of us with mental health issues, but how can we expect them to stop when we do it to ourselves? 

Maybe we like hiding behind these phrases or adjectives (another question is if they should even be used as adjectives at all?) because we feel like it normalizes us. It’s like we are telling the people of the world, “look, I know I’m a little different. I’m not ignorant of that fact.” We are subconsciously trying not to be the strange kid in the lunch room at middle school. We think by being our own enemy we are beating the rest of the world to the punch. Maybe doing this will make it so we can laugh at ourselves rather than becoming the object of scorn. By stigmatizing ourselves, we become both the bully and the bullied — and feel we can identify with whoever has the upper hand. But is it healthy? Is it productive? Or does it just demean our condition and who we are as people?

I think we can all agree that having a mental health condition doesn’t make life easier. Generally, it makes it a whole lot tougher. But let’s not set ourselves up for failure by being the kid who apologizes before he’s even taken the stage: “I’m sorry I didn’t practice, and I don’t really know my lines that well… but I’m just an understudy for the main character so I guess that’s all that can be expected.”

No. Don’t be that person. Your mental health issue, whether OCD or depression or bipolar or whatever, doesn’t have to define you in negative terms. Don’t define yourself that way. Don’t make excuses for your behavior or your life, especially to people who don’t understand your condition in the first place. Your portrayal of yourself can make a huge difference in how others perceive both you and your mental illness, whether positive or negative. If you lead out with saying “I’m so crazy because my OCD….” then you have just reinforced a stigma for yourself and others with OCD. Let’s not keep perpetuating these misunderstandings that OCD is about being clean or freaked out over dirtiness, or that having bipolar disorder makes you so depressed or weird, or that you are acting psycho because of some other mental health problem. Don’t complicate already complicated situations. Be who you are, and leave the stigmas out of it.

Sure, sometimes it is difficult to describe how we feel. I often use the phrase “I freaked out about…” when I describe my obsessions and compulsions. So maybe it is our vocabulary that needs to expand. Maybe we need to think more carefully about how we describe ourselves and our behavior so as not to stigmatize our disorder any more.  And, OK, you might legitimately feel “crazy” or “psycho” when you are going through a bad bout of your OCD — but perhaps it’s time to realize that by using those words, we could be causing undue harm to others in the mental health community. You might think this is all too politically correct and that you should be able to say what you want. Of course, you have the freedom to say and describe yourself with whatever words you want… but I hope we can avoid self-stigmatizing so we can set a good example for others and show respect to our own minds. Because I think we can all agree that you really don’t need to bully yourself. Promise.

Follow this journey on the OCD Mormon.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Figuring Out 'Normal' When You Live With OCD

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My best friend and I go to the same psychologist. She coined the phrase, “What would Bob do?” for when we aren’t exactly sure how we should react in a situation. This might seem extremely silly to some people. It may very well be, but it is actually super helpful when you have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). We are sometimes instructed by psychologists to think, “OK, what would a ‘normal’ person do in this circumstance?” Then, ideally, we do that and not whatever compulsion we felt we had to do.

It seems so straightforward, to do what a person would do. However, when you’ve had OCD for awhile, it actually isn’t because you can’t really remember what people without OCD do. One time I asked my husband how he showered, step by step. This way I could see if, for instance, my hand washing in the shower or the order of how I washed myself was strange. (It was.)

You start to get personal rather quickly with your psychologist when you have OCD, to the point where you aren’t even phased when he asks you, “So, take me through how you go the bathroom, step by step.” For that matter, you better hope you don’t have an enemy in group therapy because they probably know far more about you than any casual acquaintance should.

Back to the point, you start to forget how people act after you’ve had OCD for a good number of years. Perhaps, you do remember and it suddenly (or not so suddenly) disgusts you. How can people use the same towel over and over again for days on end? Not using soap after you go to the bathroom? Are you kidding me? Your child was sick with the flu and you came out to this social gathering to escape the chaos? Get away from me!

fThis hyperawareness and anxiety about how people live their lives (in comparison to the excessively vigilant person with OCD) can make us (those with OCD) seem aloof, snobbish, antisocial, mean or just plain weird. This is especially true when others don’t know we have OCD. In reality, we are just battling with our own minds, which are often telling us to freak out, run away, hide at home or somehow compensate for the lack of compulsions in others.

For instance, let’s say that “so and so” came over and used my bathroom. She told me her daughter was home sick. Then she touched my counter, sat on my couch and opened the front door herself. When she leaves, the OCD tells me I must now sanitize the bathroom, change the hand towel, wipe down the counter and door knobs and spray the couch with disinfectant. What should have been a simple, pleasant social interchange became an anxiety causing, compulsion inducing nightmare. I would probably also worry for the next two or three days that I was becoming sick, which would then limit where I go (so I don’t get others sick), what I do, etc.

This is how the OCD mind can work. It likes to jump to the worst possible conclusion. It then tries to prevent it from becoming reality, all the while imagining how awful it will be when or if it does happen. So please excuse us if we seem distant, strange, aloof or snobby. We are probably just worried about our physical, emotional, mental health and well being. It probably isn’t what any normal person would do, but that’s the struggle. Who is “normal”? And is “normal” the right way to be?

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The OCD Mormon.

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When I Find Myself Wishing I Didn't Have OCD and Was 'Normal'

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nor•mal
adjective
1.
conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

I have bipolar disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I went through a really rough patch with my mental health at the beginning of this year. My disorders became debilitating. I’m functioning much better now, though, thanks to a new treatment plan with a psychiatrist, but I still struggle sometimes.

I am almost 18 years old, and many people my age know how to drive. Many also have jobs. These are two things I have a lot of fear and anxiety about. My anxiety was so bad I had absolutely no desire to even consider doing these things.

Now that I’m starting college, I actually want to do them. I’ll be commuting to the campus via the bus, which involves multiple transfers. As college nears, I realize I don’t want to have to rely on public transportation all the time and I want to experience the freedom that comes with driving.

I also want to be able to earn my own money for spending. Now that I have a desire to drive and get a job, I am slightly more motivated to push past my fears. Still, it upsets me that my anxiety is holding me back from doing the things I want in life.

Recently, my psychiatrist said he wants to increase my dosage for one of my medications. When he asked how I’m doing, I told him everything is good, but my OCD is still there. It’s definitely better than it was. I’m able to function, but it’s annoying and often times consuming. I get intrusive thoughts rarely now, but I’m still compulsing and engaging in rituals quite frequently.

I wish I didn’t have a fear of contamination. I wish I didn’t use hand sanitizer and wash my hands almost a hundred times a day.

I wish I didn’t have to kiss my arms two times each, several times throughout the day.

I wish I didn’t think about the most improbable, worst-case scenario of everyday situations.

I wish I didn’t doubt and second-guess everything.

I wish I wasn’t held back by my anxiety from doing the things I want to in life.

I wish I didn’t have OCD.

I wish I was normal.

“That’s good,” my psychiatrist says. “But I want to see it gone.”

The thought intrigues me. I’ve already seen huge improvement of my mood and behavior from one of my medications. My psychiatrist wants to increase the dosage of my other medication for OCD. Yet, the idea of a life without OCD seems like a distant dream to me. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. What would life be like being “normal”? A life free of consuming rituals, compulsions and irrational fears.

However, it’s occurred to me perhaps I’ve had OCD for so long that living with it is my “normal.” Even if my medication does work, I will still have OCD, whether my symptoms are present or not. That’s OK. It is a part of me. While it doesn’t define me, I don’t know who I would be without it. “Normal” is overrated anyway.

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What a Bad Day With OCD Looks Like for Me

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We all have our good days, our bad days and, of course, in-between days. Some days, I feel like I can conquer all. Some days, I forget I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and can be 80 percent successful, but those days are very rare. Most days, I keep it mostly under control.

Then, those bad days hit and it feels like all the world’s most horrible thoughts are dumped on just me. This is where I say, again, that mental illness is not cute and that OCD is not just about being neat and organized. How I wish it was just that.

Today alone, I have:

Washed my hands at least 30 times.

Every time I needed to wash, it took me up to five minutes to convince myself I had cleaned my hands properly, turned the faucet off properly, dried my hands properly and made sure not to touch anything on my way out of the bathroom or kitchen. If I mess up or think I might have messed up (even if I am not sure), I wash again, again and again, scrubbing my skin. I do this until my hands are dry, in spite of this hot and humid weather. What should only be one wash (before eating, after using the bathroom, after handling my ducks, etc.) turns into three to five washes. Multiply that by the number of times I actually needed to wash and you end up with more than 30 times.

2. Used Clorox wipes on my hands at least five times.  

If I am still not convinced that my hands are clean, then it’s time for the Clorox wipes.

3. Spent at least an hour total wondering if I cleaned my hands well enough.

These thoughts pervade every activity I do, whether it’s watching TV, playing a game or trying to sleep. I am constantly trying to convince myself I am clean enough.

4. Cleaned out my entire teaching bag and wiped down every item inside with Clorox wipes.

The bag was in my car. The bag is dirty. It did not come in the house with me. So I stood outside by my car, with gloves on, and wiped my stuff down out in the open where neighbors could potentially see me. It is embarrassing, but that bag cannot go in the house. It is dirty.

5. Took an hour to shower.

It has been a while since it’s taken me that long to shower. Even then, I wasn’t fully convinced I was clean.

6. Bailed on a friend with plans to see a movie.

I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, plain and simple.

How can society think OCD is cute? Yes, the OCD I happen to have revolves around being clean, but that’s just the superficial description. Beneath that are the thoughts that make me think I’m not clean. There lie thoughts that tell me I didn’t clean correctly, that tell me to use Clorox wipes to be clean and that if I don’t do things a certain way I won’t be clean. It is an agonizing, paralyzing fear that courses through me and so many countless others.

I don’t know why today was such a bad OCD day. Maybe it was stress. Maybe I need a higher dosage of medication to regulate the chemicals that control my thoughts. Maybe it’s just a bad day.

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When OCD Feels Like a Monster

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1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4

The numbers that used to control my life were 2, 4 and 8. I used to count everything from the number of steps I walked to the times I washed my hands in a day (which used to be around 80 or so!). I’m down from four to two showers a day.

OCD has felt like a monster inside me.

It can be a scary disorder. The monster of OCD can only be understood by the ones the OCD monster has attacked. I sometimes feel as though I was cursed with this disorder. But I’m overcoming and fighting my monster.

OCD is not only the compulsions and actions. It’s obsessive thoughts, too. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and open and close the drawers. I would clean all day obsessively.

“So what changed?” you may be thinking.

I now practice intense thinking. I’ve slowly exposed my self to my fears such as touching door knobs and shaking people’s hands with my bare skin. The OCD monster does still creep up on me from time to time, but I’ve learned to put a leash on it. OCD could have ruined my life, but I’ve taken control back, and you can too.

Take back your reign, and most of all take back your freedom. You can do this, you are a fighter, you are strong and you are a warrior.

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