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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.


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.

Originally published: September 12, 2016
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