My Endless Tug-of-War with OCD
A look at daily life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
It is sad how widely used the term Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Here on referred to as OCD) is used and how few of the people who use the term actually understand the condition.
As someone who suffers from a diagnosed case of fairly severe OCD, I find myself constantly frustrated and angered by the misrepresentation of this illness.
Notice the italicized words: Suffer. Diagnose. Illness. Yes! OCD is a real illness that people suffer from. It is not something that just anyone and everyone has, nor should it be treated like a joke or be minimized.
Remember, OCD is a REAL mental illness. It's not some made-up problem we use as an excuse or crutch.
Yes, I realize that almost everyone has something that they are obsessive about.
Maybe you cannot work properly if you are facing the wall instead of the door. Maybe you still avoid cracks in the sidewalk even in your late forties. Maybe you are obsessive about making sure that your doors are locked at night and the lights are all off in your house.
We can all be a little obsessive-compulsive about some things. We are, after all, creatures of habit and like things the way we like them.
But true Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is so misunderstood by the general public (even those who have it) and is often misrepresented on television. It has become a catch-all phrase for someone who likes something a certain way or likes things neat or is picky.
Many people think of the TV show Monk and how the lead character was obsessive about literally everything. Or maybe they think of the character Monica on the TV show Friends. The scene where she vacuums her vacuum will forever be satisfying to me.
Granted, both of these examples did a fair job of representing some of the various aspects of the illness. However, they were obviously aimed for entertainment purposes and should be taken with a grain of salt when considering what people who actually have this disorder go through on a daily basis.
I love both of those shows, of course, and particularly relate to Adrian Monk's character in Monk. But what has always hit home for me the most is the way the amazingly talented Tony Shalhoub portrayed the struggle that the title character experienced.
I can't help but think of the way he would shrug in that way after touching a lamppost or cleaning something. Now, that I can relate to.
There is a physical relief that is experienced when you are able to satisfy the urge of some compulsion or other. The release once the action is completed.
The best way I can think of right now to explain this is to liken it to when you have an itch that you try to avoid scratching. You hold off as long as you can, but then finally you give in to the urge and scratch the itch. Oh! The relief!
That is what it is like to have a compulsive need that is finally satisfied. Finally getting the coffee stain out of a mug or adjusting a picture frame in someone else's home.
It is hard to explain the anxiety and discomfort that you experience when something is disarrayed. I'm not talking about how you want your coffee just right or something like that. A good example of this for me is how I feel when I spill or drop something and create a mess.
I remember so clearly one time that I dropped a plate of spaghetti on the kitchen floor. Now, for most people that would be inconvenient and frustrating, even disappointing if it was a particularly good spaghetti.
But for me, it was physically and mentally paralyzing. As I type these words, I find myself reliving the experience. My hands are shaking, and a growing sense of dread is in me. Lump in my throat and elevated pulse. The memory itself is so painful for me that I feel physically uncomfortable.
I remember screaming and trying to stop the plate from falling. And then there was the paralysis and fear. I stared at this plate that was spinning on the floor and cupped my hands over my ears and closed my eyes.
I remember instantly feeling overwhelming anger. Anger at myself. Anger at the plate, the spaghetti, the floor. Anger at literally everyone I had thought of, seen, or spoken to that day.
Then the overwhelming anxiety of how am I possibly going to clean this? It's impossible. Then the crumpling onto the floor and crying.
Now, you are probably thinking:
This woman is insane! Just grab a paper towel and the trash and scoop it up. Problem solved. Stop being crazy and dramatic and pathetic!
Well, to be honest, if that's what you think, then you're pretty much correct. But then there are the other people who would read that and Totally get it!
It might make me seem crazy to you, but this incident really illustrates one of the little-understood symptoms of OCD. My husband is one of those people who, much to my dismay and discomfort, still cannot understand.
There is this paralysis I sometimes feel when a mess or situation makes me feel so overwhelmed that I cease to function. I become immobilized and cannot address the problem.
Many people think that everyone who has OCD must have an immaculately kept and maintained home and car and, etc. But the truth is much more disturbing.
Sometimes my OCD actually prevents me from being able to clean. And a small mess can get worse and worse over time. As the mess grows, the paralysis deepens. And a horrible, painful, dirty game of Catch-22 begins.
I have taken medication for my OCD before and experienced relief. I actually experienced a great amount of relief... once the medication had been properly adjusted.
This took much patience and effort and many tears. I had a great doctor to help me, but, sadly, I have been off meds for about a decade now. It hurts. A lot.
I cannot express how much I miss having a bit of chemical relief to help me deal with this. But c'est la vie, right? I
Anyway, back to Monk. Everything that the character suffers from in that show is actually somewhat legitimate, but it is terribly overdone.
I mean that character suffers from every known form of compulsion and fear and phobia they could think of. Well, that's just not reality.
In real life, we tend to suffer in different ways and to different stimuli. Maybe someone is a "lock-checker," as we call my sister. Or maybe someone obsesses over the way they fold their clothes, etc...
But what many people don't know is that cleanliness and the like are not the only things involved with OCD.
It took me literally decades to understand some of what I was experiencing was OCD-related, and I'm still finding new things about myself all the time. But here is some of what I experience.
First, let's just state that there are many types and forms of OCD. In fact, the list grows pretty much every day, and because of the way that society and humans are, it will be an ever-changing and growing list, I believe.
But there are four main recognized forms or types of OCD that I think can almost cover the majority of the symptoms/issues:
- Forbidden Thoughts
I have included a couple of links to reliable sources about these. I personally think that we are all so dynamic that everything we experience is subjective and personalized to us.
I have at least a touch of all four types. Perhaps the one that I think of the least for myself is the part that says Doubt/Harm. Even that, though, I still experience a good deal. The other three, though, Contamination, Perfection, and Forbidden Thoughts are very real issues that I face daily.
I'm going to share a couple of real-life experiences from my past to help you understand my ongoing battle with these compulsions.
Now, to be honest, I don't suffer from this the way it is portrayed in movies or even really the way that it is defined.
Sure, I find myself sometimes trying to arrange something on perfect 90-degree angles or obsessively singing "99 bottles of beer on the wall..." and can't stop until I get from 100 to 0 without a mistake or glitch. Over and Over and Over. But that's just one thing, and I tend to think of it more as an intrusive thought.
For me, it is more like the plate of spaghetti I mentioned above. If something is awry in my life... it only gets more and more disorderly. The paralysis is so real to me.
If I am in a place that is not perfectly orderly, I can't function. Now, in TV and Movies, they make it seem humorous. The person will sit there and make everything perfect until they can function. I do this sometimes.
When I worked at Starbucks and would wash dishes, I would have to start fresh every time. You might be thinking... Sure, fresh water and an empty sink.
But no. What I mean is I would have to clean the sinks and the walls and the dishwasher first. Then, I would rinse and empty all of the dishes and then clean the sinks again. I would fill the sinks with clean, hot soapy water and start to wash my dishes.
But when I would go to put them away, I would find the shelves weren't organized properly. So, I would take everything off the shelves and clean the shelves. But then I would have to rewash all the dishes and, etc.
Fortunately, I did all of this fairly quickly, but still. My coworkers hated when I would clean. I think it was a good thing for a restaurant, but the truth of it is that I couldn't do a simple task simply. Oh no. Everything was complicated.
On the flip side, though, when I am at home and there is a mess.
I. CAN'T. MOVE!
Seriously, what triggered me to write about this in the first place is me standing in my bathroom, trying to figure out what to clean first. The sink? No. Sweep the floor first? No. The toilet? No. . .
I look at a mess in my home, and it is too personal. Too close to home. I end up breaking down in tears and climbing into bed, telling myself I will do it after I relax for a few minutes.
Of course, a few minutes turn into a few hours and then a week and a month, and, etc. Before I know it, it's three years later, and the mess has only grown.
Though it may seem obvious, this compulsion is also very subjective and personal. so here are a couple of my experiences in that department.
There was a time when I was working at Starbucks when one of my coworkers cut himself. I used gloves to treat and then cover his wound. And then my usual carefulness failed me for just a moment, and I pulled the glove off with my teeth!
I was horrified. Shook. Though this person was a friend and someone I genuinely love, they worked a second job that put them a little higher risk of contamination for many diseases. What was my response?
I immediately ran to the back of the restaurant, and, when I knew they weren't looking, I shoved the hose for the disinfectant in front of my mouth and put it on full blast. I stood there for about three minutes, pouring a concentrated form of Quat cleaner into my mouth like it was mouthwash.
(No. I didn't swallow the cleanser. And Never do this!)
After that, I still felt unclean and sprayed my face, arms, hands, and neck with a bleach-based cleanser and scrubbed before rinsing with the Quat solution again.
Now, the whole time I was doing this, I was completely aware of the ridiculousness of it. It was way more likely I was going to make myself sick with the cleanser than contract some illness from the glove.
I tried to stop. I was also aware that it could hurt my friend's feelings if they knew. It wasn't personal, but they wouldn't understand. Then began the usual cycle of self-hatred and abuse.
Another example is how I feel when I see someone cough or sneeze into their hand without promptly washing them. YUCK!
Even if I love the person dearly, the overwhelming sense of disgust is impossible to fight. I find myself having negative thoughts about that person, which leads me to have negative thoughts about myself... and then the cycle continues.
Leading me into my next one:
Forbidden (or intrusive) Thoughts
This is actually one of the dimensions of OCD that took me a very long time to figure out was actually OCD.
I thought that this was just my personality or was a symptom of my social phobia disorder. I now realize how greatly linked ALL of my disorders and phobias are.
Anxiety manifests in many different ways, and it is a chicken-egg situation to try to untangle which comes first or which stress goes with which disorder.
Anyway, the idea that OCD was the cause of my forbidden thoughts was not introduced to me until I was about 27. My mother informed me that it was linked to OCD. What does this look like?
At least for me, it looks a little something like this:
I drop something at work in front of people. Okay, no big deal, right?
I drop an item. Immediately I try to cover it up or make it seem like I don't care. I smile or completely avoid all eye contact. Then, I drown myself in self-deprecating thoughts. The inner debate that ensues is something like the following:
"God, you're stupid."
* "No. It's okay. No big deal."
"Yeah, it's a big deal. You're so stupid. Clutz. Good for nothing. You can't even hold a freaking cup!"
* "STOP IT! It's just a cup. Nobody cares. You're all good."
"Oh!? All good, huh? All good for someone so stupid. It wouldn't matter if you weren't so ugly too! At least if you weren't ugly they would think it was cute. But you're ugly and you're fat. See? They're still looking at you. Because you're stupid and clumsy and ugly."
* "Nobody is looking at you. They're just waiting for coffee. Give them the coffee and smile. See? They smiled back. You're all good. Nobody thinks you're stupid. Stop being so hard on yourself. It's not normal."
"Well, you're not normal, though, are you? You're fat and stupid and a freak. Nobody likes you. They just pretend. Do you think normal people talk to themselves like this? You're so stupid."
* "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!"
It's not a pretty sight, is it? But that's what goes on in my head any time I do something even mildly clumsy or forgetful.
And that inner dialogue will continue the whole day and any time in the future that I recall the incident. The above happened about five years ago, but I replay this inner dialogue every time I am reminded of this event as though it just happened.
And for the next forty years or however long I live, I will be regretting and beating myself up for writing all of this down and sharing it for all of you to read.
And even if I get a million reads, I will still think I'm irrelevant and nobody cares.
(My current inner dialogue is below)
"Yeah right! Nobody's going to read this. Nobody cares. You're stupid and ugly and nobody gives a flip what you think or feel or write about. You're going to regret writing this. You're going to check your reads over and over and over, and no one will ever care. Because you're stupid and nobody cares!"
Are you starting to get the idea? This is what is in my head ALL the time. I try to stop them, but the more I fight these thoughts, the more I obsess. To infinity and beyond.... I obsess.
But that's not all. That's just the self-deprecating form of intrusive thoughts... there's more!
The other thoughts are actually Mostly too personal and, dare I say, forbidden, to talk about. It's embarrassing and ridiculous to me how someone who tries to be kind and considerate of others can have thoughts about smashing frying pans on someone's head... and yet...
Now, please don't go thinking I'm some homicidal, violent maniac. This is a form of OCD. Highly recognized. Thoughts of harming others that won't go away.
Now, I'm not talking about people who "hear voices" or someone who entertains thoughts of violence. Those are very different situations with disorders all their own. And below is a link to an article that discusses the differences.
But intrusive or forbidden thoughts are thoughts that you don't agree with or that don't correctly represent you but still push themselves into your mind like a thief pushes into your home at night.
You fight the thoughts. You tell yourself how crazy they are. In fact, you sit there feeling guilty that your own mind would even conjure such horrible thoughts.
Your mind, however, plays a little game with you and tries to beat the last intrusive thought with an even worse one. So, there you are, trying to cleanse your mind from these bad thoughts, and they just get worse and worse.
And, suddenly, Intrusive Thoughts become something an even worse form of OCD:
So, what is Harm OCD?
"The condition is characterized by having aggressive, intrusive thoughts of doing violence to someone, as well as the responses the person uses to cope with these thoughts." - Taken from The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders.
One very distinct presentation of this disorder is called Misophonia.
Now, this is a disorder that I am all-too familiar with.
There is limited research and evidence on what exactly causes it and what exactly it should be characterized as and, etc.
The research is growing and so are the opinions and experts on the matter. But I know that, for me, it is so intricately linked with my OCD that I just consider it another aspect of such.
But what exactly is Misophonia?
Above is a link that has the actual definition and information about it, but this is what it looks like for me:
I sit in the car with a friend, and she chews chips. I can HEAR THE CRUNCH!! And my anger GROWS! I tell myself she is a good friend. I love her. She's hungry. It's just a little crunching. But the other part of my brain says this:
"Why can't you shut up? Why do you have to chew so loud!? I can hear you over my own chewing AND the radio! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!"
At this point, I may have increased the volume on the radio to try to cover it up. Maybe my eye is twitching or I'm digging my fingernails into my thigh to distract myself.
And the more I tell myself that I'm being the most ridiculous person on the planet, the more the other voice in my head gets angry.
Now, my lips are pursed, and I start envisioning wrecking the car or punching her. Sometimes I think of smashing a frying pan over her head!
Then, I can't believe that I would think that! Then, I hate myself. What kind of person am I? I would never do that! BUT THE CHEWING!!!!
The same thing applies to many scenarios. This is just an example. Slurping noodles is another trigger for me. Someone popping their gum or clicking their fingernails on a counter. A TV that's too loud or the flushing toilet from upstairs.
Any of these simple noises can go from being a simple sound to the thing that triggers an inner dialogue that genuinely scares me.
And it scares me to share this. I have never actually acted on these things, nor do I think I ever will. But the thoughts are still there.
It is a scary thing to feel so little control over your own thoughts. Or your own body.
You literally lack the normal control over your impulses and actions. This does not mean that I go around acting without impulse control all the time or making excuses for my actions.
In fact, most of the time it is actually the opposite.
I go around every second of every day putting extra effort into every single thought and action. There are some things I simply cannot control. But in reality, my OCD makes me constantly in a battle of attempting control.
Imagine you are holding 4 ropes. One with each hand and one with each foot. At the other end of each of those ropes is a version of yourself. Four endless games of Tug-Of-War going on with your evil selves.
- One telling you you're going to die from contamination.
- One telling you you're never good enough.
- One telling you that you are always forgetting something and it's going to kill someone.
- And one bringing up all the bad thoughts you are trying to put away from your mind.
Now, do you see how it can be paralyzing?
Do you see how it can make you freeze and not know how to act?
Remember these are thoughts that you can't make go away.
Normal people with normal brains don't think this way.
What I would give to have a normal brain!