Saturday, January 24, 2009

OCD Misunderstandings

I'm sure you've heard it: People using OCD as an adjective.

"I'm really OCD about my apartment." "She was really OCD over him." "I'm really OCD about paying people back when they lend me money."

These people have some vague idea that OCD has something to do with needing order, being particular, or washing your hands repeatedly. This knowledge qualifies them to use "OCD" willy nilly. While this doesn't bother me nearly as much as it bothers my husband (in noble defense of me and my feelings), it's not the worst way that OCD could be misunderstood.

Jumping to Conclusions
The other day I was working on a project in my parents' basement. My dad was down there, too, organizing the newest toolboxes he acquired. It was chilly, so he set up a space heater for me. Using care to situate it just right so my legs would be warm, he put it under the table I was working on--except that it was just a little too close to some papers and cardboard for comfort. I said, "No, move it up a little bit. A person with OCD doesn't like that those papers are so close to the back of the heater," hinting at the fire worry that a lot of us have. It didn't really bother me, but I guess I was taking a little advantage of my habits. I was warmer, so I started working.

I was soldering metal for a project I'm working on. To do so I first clean the metal with flux, a liquid that roughs up the surface so the metal will stick. I accidentally dropped a Q-tip I was using to apply it into the flux bottle. Knowing my dad solders and welds and is generally a knowledgeable guy when it comes to the practicalities of tools and such, I sought his advice.

"I just dropped the Q-tip into the flux and I don't know if I can get it out. Do you think that matters?"

--an abrupt "Don't worry about it."

Worry? He said it as if I had some wild idea conjured up, like this Q-tip in the plastic bottle would start a fire, or someone would decide they needed to clean their ears with this very Q-tip.

"I'm not worried about it, I just wondered if it would ruin the flux." Purely a pragmatic concern; I didn't want to be out $8 for a brand new bottle of flux now ruined. He didn't believe me.

"Don't worry about it."

Not Qualified to Judge
Now, as a person of frequent irrational thinking, it would not have been unlikely that I was obsessing over impossible situations that could happen as a result of this Q-tip having fallen into the flux. I can admit that. And my dad knows me, and he knows what my OCD is capable of. But this was not one of those OCD situations! But in his mind it was, and his prior experience with my OCD made him feel qualified to judge so he quickly chocked it up to obsession.

This is the kind of OCD misunderstanding that hurts most. It's different than a person thinking he knows how to use the term "OCD." It's thinking he know when to use it.

Tip #1: Accept that people will misunderstand sometimes.
OCD is nothing to hide, but surely I keep it private from most people for this reason exactly: I cannot trust that they understand it. Of all the people that are close to me, my dad has been through it with me the longest, yet he still can be quick to judge my feelings and make assumptions--proof that even those who think they "get it" will sometimes misunderstand. It's ok to let them.

Tip #2: Be assertive.
If a misunderstanding arises, express your feelings. Assertiveness shows mental clarity, and mental clarity is never present during an obsession. I gently said, "You know, sometimes I wish you didn't know me so well."

"Did I hit the nail on the head?"

"No, you didn't, actually. And it's not always nice to be discounted like that." Point taken, and he didn't say anything about it. He's not a man of apologies, so I didn't expect one. The satisfaction that I had expressed myself was enough.

*Footnote for loved ones of OCDers*
Yes you've been through a lot with them. They have shared a lot of deep feelings with you. You know they trust you. But you don't know what they're thinking. Let the person with OCD have her feelings, and share with you what she feels comfortable sharing, but don't ever jump to conclusions. Listen, love, and offer advice.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

OCD: Knowing My Limitations

When I was 12, my dad worked for a condiment manufacturer. One day he brought home a box of 60 mini ketchup bottles. I remember thinking how perfectly diminutive they were, each one large enough for just a few burgers. There was also something satisfying about the sheer quantity of bottles. 12 rows of 5 each, all snugly aligned in the cardboard box. It was more ketchup than we would ever need, but looking at this box it felt like I had accomplished something. It was just an inkling of satisfaction, but it was the satisfaction of having something. If my OCD issues were different, could this have been the start of a hoarding problem?

Having obsessive compulsive disorder, I want to stay aware of my tendencies, especially the ones that don't make sense or feel odd. I know I have an addictive personality. It's hard to deny doubt. It's hard to stop doing things that could be bad for me. It's hard to turn my back on satisfaction, no matter how destructive. Therefore, here's what I'm paying attention to:

  • Urges to Shop. I'm the type of person who is sometimes stricken with a sudden urge to "buy stuff." It's satisfying, even when I don't need the purchase. When I worked in the "mature women's" section of a department store, I found myself eyeing up too-large sweatshirts though I'm decades too young for that clothing. Most of the time it's driven by the same 5 emotions that drive my obsessions: hunger, anxiety, loneliness, tiredness, or boredom.* When these emotions creep up, they often bring OCD issues with them. But if I take the emotion out of shopping, it's not as satisfying. Call it stoicism, but that's why I decided to make a habit of monitoring my shopping habits so as not to develop a compulsion.

  • Alcohol Consumption. Alcoholism runs in my family. Pair genetic predisposition with my already compulsive tendencies and I could end up with a serious problem. Even without the genetic factor at play, anything more than moderate alcohol consumption would be dangerous to me; after all, I can't even stop biting my nails. I'm thankful to God for the wisdom of this fact, which leads me to limit how often I drink alcohol.

  • Reading Online Medical Articles. Seems like anyone with any obsession will find their fears increase after reading an article about it. Say I feel sick. Could it be cancer? The internet answer is always yes. If I look *obsess* long enough, somewhere, in some article, I'll come across the answer. Not "yes, it is cancer," but "yes, it could be cancer." But to the OCD in me, the fact that the possibility is there, no matter how remote, means that it is definite. There's that inflated risk issue again. OCD wants to defeat us, and it defies our reason in order to accomplish that end.

But Isn't This Just Avoidance?

In my therapy sessions I'm taught not to avoid my triggers or my obsessions. What if I avoided harmless people or places because they feel contaminated or unsafe? Just like doubt always breeds more doubt, avoidance breeds avoidance. Soon my world would close in around me, nowhere safe to go, nobody safe to trust.

But there is a difference between compulsive avoidance and informed avoidance. Unlike the example above, I can't see any negative effects of making informed, wise choices about my life. Because OCD knows a shortcut to ramping up my anxiety and keeping me in submission, I have no problem cutting it off at the pass.

*My therapist taught me to use HALT-B (acronym for hungry, anxious, lonely, tired, or bored) to identify when I'm susceptible to obsessions. I'm not sure who coined that phrase, or if it's trademarked, but if you do please let me know!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Better safe than sorry? No, sir.

Sometimes I wish I'd never learned the proverb "It's better to be safe than sorry," because it's become my enemy. It's pretty much the worst thing a person with OCD could ever be told.

Say I went to a party last night. I wake up this morning replaying the events of the whole party over in my head. Did that one comment I made about the host's home come out wrong? Were people offended? Did I look like I thought his house was a mess? I had better apologize when I see him because it's better to be safe than sorry.

Or what if I'm cooking dinner, and the thought occurs to me that maybe I didn't wash my hands after touching the raw chicken. Then I touch the outside of a bag of flour. To a healthy mind it's no big deal if I didn't because I'm not serving dinner yet and I'm really only touching the pan handle with my chicken hands. Well, just in case, I'd better wash my hands anyway. Better safe than sorry.

But Am I?
These tendencies to "re-check" and "re-do" are my rituals. I can check anything, depending on what I'm worried about. As a person with OCD these rituals are soothing, but I'm addicted to the relief of doubt they give me...until I doubt something else.

The more I check, the more doubt takes over and I fall victim to checking things repeatedly, or worse: fearing things that cannot be checked-away. Soon the snowball effect of anxiety and depression consumes me. Depending on what I'm worried about I might land myself in an emergency room, 10 pounds lighter (read: sicklier).

The Problem of the False Premise
While "Better safe than sorry" is a helpful rule for the healthy mind, it's poison to the obsessive-compulsive mind. Checking and rechecking everything is a misapplication of the rule to situations that don't warrant it. I can check that I've turned the stove off, but what is the liklihood that I wouldn't see its glowing coils when I turned off the kitchen light? Pretty unlikely. The axiom assumes that every situation is highly risky, when in most cases it isn't.

A Different Kind of Relief
As part of my constant recovery I am taught to go towards the anxiety. Going toward it means flat-out avoiding the tendency to recheck. It teaches me to accept doubt. Accepting doubt flies straight in the ugly face of the proverb and my perversion of it...but it feels great.

I take a look at my life from a wider angle: How is it better to let doubt control me? If I'm certain that my purpose is not to live in suffering, and I am not living my full potential if I am paralyzed by worry, then it would follow that being "better safe than sorry" is, in fact, a lie.

Whew, what a relief.