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!


  1. Well Darling it sounds like you're on top of it. Way to go! It's an every day battle, isn't it? Some days, it's a minute by minute battle.

  2. Ha, when I saw "reading online medical articles" as a OCDish behavior, I thought "that's me! I have that!" But I rarely self-diagnose any multitude of diseases... I just love reading them and can waste hours and hours of my day doing so. :-) Nice blog!

  3. I'm a nailbiter myself! That's *great* insight about HALT-B!

  4. Hello, nice to meet you, thanks for the comment on my blog, I replied to your question there but the short answer is "No, I wasn't on medication during my pregnancies."

    I look forward to reading your posts and I'll be adding your site to my sidebar list of OCD blogs.


  5. Interesting story & you seem to be pretty much clued up on your disorder. Thanks from me, too, for HALT-B. I eat too often for exactly the same reason you obsess.

  6. Like most of us with OCD you seem intelligent enough to know when your symptoms are a problem and when they're not. Can you explain a little more about to use HALT-B?