OCD Attacks What I Care About Most

by Matt B. on October 13, 2014

In the first episode of The OCD Podcast, I analyze an incident in painful – and possibly boring – detail. I also discuss parallels between exposure and response prevention (ERP) and Buddhist meditation. Traci Foust’s OCD memoir Nowhere Near Normal gets a mention, too. Some additional themes: resisting vs. accepting reality; OCD as an equal-opportunity victimizer; the effect of being pre-afraid all the time; the temptation to hibernate (and the resulting ennui); communicating and sharing as a form of relief.

Rough Transcript

Hi, everyone. This is the first episode of a podcast on OCD. You would think that for the first episode of anything, you would want to offer up something really flash-bang and exciting. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to offer you a picture of OCD’s tedium, just a boring, mundane, changeless phenomenon that followed me around all the time because I think that actually provides more accurate picture of what it’s like to live with it than to dive straight into the most dramatic and tragic seeming episodes.

Actually, I just finished Traci Foust’s Memoir of OCD called Nowhere Near Normal. At the end, she actually admits that she’s addicted to tragedy in part because she’s so sick of herself. She’s so sick of sort of being with her own thoughts and being thrown back on herself.

There’s at least something dramatic and exciting about the really intense episodes. But today is nothing like that. Today is a rainy Sunday afternoon in Saigon where I live. I’m looking at a window pane on a glass full of slowly falling raindrops.

I had thought about doing some other things. I’ve been working on a book about OCD, collecting some essays that I’ve written over the last couple of years. I had also spent the morning finishing Traci’s book. This afternoon I thought maybe I would give myself a break and go see a movie.

There’s a new movie in the theaters that I’m keen to see, Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson, which looks cool and intriguing to me mostly because the premise is about what would happen if a person were to learn how to use all 100 percent of their brain as opposed to just the 12 that we normally use.

So for somebody with OCD perhaps especially that’s a pretty intriguing premise because I know that I’m stuck in a tiny portion of my own possibility most of the time. Anyway, I thought of seeing this movie. I watched the trailer and it looks both intellectually intriguing as far as its premises go but disappointing as far as its actual execution goes. It’s a big Hollywood production and includes a lot of the same shift gimmicks and narrative shortcuts and general laziness that I think characterize a lot of Hollywood films.

So I thought this ambivalence about the idea of going to see it in the first place. But I thought “You know what, you don’t really have anything better to do, maybe to see if it’s in the theater.” It is in the theaters but not anywhere close, not in any of the theaters that I’m familiar with. So I began to plug the addresses of unfamiliar theaters into Google Maps. But as I was doing so, my worries about overusing my hands begin to flare up.

My worries about using my hands in the service of bullshit in the service of vices you might say begin to get the better of me. I had a long history of worries about my fingers and hands particularly now that I’m trying to complete a book. As often the case with me and perhaps others with OCD, my OCD tends to zero in on whatever it is that I care about most of a given time. So when I started having sex, it was my sexual virility.

When I wanted to run a lot, it became my knees and my hips, same for meditation. Now that I’m spending a lot of time writing, it zeroed in and I have spent a lot of time fixated on the health of my eyes and my fingers. I do a lot of exposure exercises around just those very areas.

So typing is already fraught for me. I was sitting at the keyboard and I was typing in these addresses into Google Maps. The combination of my ambivalence about the movie and my ambivalence about the nobility of my motive in going to see the movie. After all, I know it’s kind of a bullshit movie. At some level, it feels like it might be. At some level, I’m just trying to fill up my time.

I feel ashamed about that as if I were a better, more competent, more disciplined person, I would know what to do with a Sunday afternoon. So I’m going to see a movie that I suspect would be disappointing. Anyway, I’m typing in the addresses of the movie theaters into Google Maps and the worries about my hands start getting a better of me.

A thought that occurs in me is “You don’t really want to do this anyway so why are you forcing it?” There’s another trigger for me the sense that I never can force things because OCD is, you might say, a sort of perpetual exercise in forcing things, in pushing things beyond their natural duration and worrying about things more than they ought to be worried about, in sort of extending the life of moments artificially.

For me, a big part of therapy over the last couple of years – I’ve been doing cognitive-behavioral therapy particularly exposure therapy for the last six years or so. It has been just getting used to acknowledging, just getting in the habit of acknowledging what’s actually happening whether that’s a particular OCD episode of high intensity or just the fact, the sort of ongoing low level burn that is OCD more generally for me the way that infects and plays a role in just about everything.

So this new interesting “accepting things as they are” just acknowledging reality, first and foremost, has been bolstered even more by my interest in meditation over the last couple of years. I’ve been practicing under the guidance of a teacher back in the States and reading a lot about Buddhist psychology and philosophy. Thereto, a lot of the emphasis seems to be on the idea that we create a great deal of our own suffering precisely because we refuse to acknowledge the way things really are.

We refuse to acknowledge the impermanence of everything including our own experiences, our own ideas, our own emotions that they do come and go that when we fight their arrival or fight their disappearance, we inflict additional suffering on ourselves that we cause ourselves a great deal of pain when we insist on a particular picture of ourselves.

I’m a type of guy who is X or who is Y or who is not Z. All of these, according to Buddhism and exercise in self-deception and unsustainable exercise in self-deception, one that will inevitably break down and that requires a great deal of painful effort to sustain for even the brief moments we do manage to sustain it.

So all of that just is a really brief summary of why for me resistance has come to feel like – self-deception has come to feel like a form of counter-productive behavior given the thrust of exposure therapy and given the thrust of Buddhist teachings. Now of course, there are more new answers there that are worth exploring and I will explore them at a later date. But I just want to give you a sense from where my head was just now as I was going through this episode.

So I’m typing away, typing these addresses in the Google Maps and beginning to worry that I’m forcing my plan on myself, right? I am going to this movie because I basically can’t stomach the idea of spending an additional two hours by myself this afternoon. I don’t feel like I have any better options. So as this is all happening, I can feel the tension rising inside.

At a certain point, I actually just have to get up out of my chair and walk over to the window because I can no longer take the tension and confusion that I’m feeling, the confusion about the question “Should I continue searching out these theaters?” But also the larger and still grueling questions of “Should I be doing this at all? Is this even appropriate given my beliefs about what’s best for me.”

There’s this abiding sense of it’s not worth it. So I get up and walk to the window. As I’m standing there, I think to myself, “No, it might not be a very good movie but if the reason you got up out of your chair is that you are afraid to sit there, that you are afraid you’re damaging yourself by typing for too long, then you need to get back in the chair because that’s an unrealistic fear and you’re acting compulsively by avoiding the typing.

So I get back in the chair and begin typing some more only to discover another technical hiccup that the addresses that I find for the theaters are in white type. So instead of just cutting and pasting them, I got to paste them into Word change the fonts from white to black, and then cut and paste them again back to Google Maps.

All of a sudden I’ve got an additional technical hurdle and all of a sudden the question arises again. Well, do you want to do it now? Is it worth it now given that you have to go through all this extra difficulty just to figure out where the movie is that you’re not sure you want to go to in the first place. It’s funny because as I was describing this, I’m not actually sure I’m capturing it totally accurately. But in a way I don’t think that matters because I think you can probably detect the sheer confusion and craziness that it shot through this whole experience anyway.

As this is all happening, I’m thinking to myself, you’re about to walk away from your computer and not go to this movie because of the stress you’re feeling about the prospect of spending 10 seconds changing a font from white to black and then pasting it into another program, the sort of thing that most people wouldn’t think twice about much less worry about much less make decisions on the basis of.

Yet that’s what I did because the tension, the mercury rose all the way up from my feet to my head and just like a thermometer would, just like one of those carnival games where you slam the metal bell and the measuring stick rises and tries to hit the bell at the very top of the post. That’s just what happened. I got up and closed the computer and realized I wasn’t going to see the movie after all.

It wasn’t “not going to see the movie” that seems bothersome. It was the fact that I’ve been beaten by my own fear. Of course, it wasn’t even clear that that’s what it was because I was also, as I mentioned, sort of ambivalent about the idea of going to the movie in the first place. So I’ve been acting in the service of this really dubious goal all along. I didn’t really know how to feel about any of it.

So I just laid down. I think from all of this, you can get a sense that OCD is really sort of agnostic, opportunistic condition. It doesn’t really care what opportunities it has to exploit so long as it has one and it’s incredibly good at creating them. So while on one hand it’s true that I along with most people with OCD have particular triggers, particular areas of sensitivity that are particularly difficult for us to navigate, it’s also true that OCD is an equal opportunity victimizer.

It’ll take any opportunity any chance it gets to ruin or call into question the safety of any situation in which you find yourself, which sucks because the effect of being pre-afraid and being pre-fearful all the time being on your guard for whatever might go wrong, whatever could go wrong, whatever OCD happens to cough up or ambush you with is, in my experience anyway, is a real diminution in desire.

If everything’s a potential site of anguish and anxiety and concern and trashing panic and grief, then it’s easy to stop wanting things entirely. If your friends suggest you come over for a visit or go off on a vacation with them or go out to dinner or if you consider going for a walk in the park and bringing along a book or going to a restaurant or café to hang out a bit, each one of those scenarios brings with you all kinds of potential dangers and risks, then it’s easy to begin to hibernate to curl inward and to allow your life to get a lot smaller.

I just finished The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde novel. Lord Henry, one of the main characters the one that’s famous for speaking entirely in epigrams, says toward the end of the book that “ennui is the only sin.” Lord Henry is a particularly obnoxious character, kind of a heartless person with really no compassion for anyone else and as best I can tell very little connection with his own emotional roots.

But as I read that I thought that’s even more obnoxious than his average saying. The idea that “ennui is the only sin” the idea that that’s the thing we’re meant to avoid struck me as particularly ignorant at least for people with brains wired the way mine is. There are times that ennui feels like it’s the only thing that’s really possible. It’s the only thing you’re left with or the only thing I’m left with after OCD and perspective fear has preempted all the joy in your day and left you wanting nothing other than quiet and rest and sleep.

Ennui is certainly not fun but it’s only a form of relief, I suppose. Of course, there’s an agitation there, too, and that’s part of what makes it ennui rather than just restfulness I suppose rather than just taking good care of yourself. There’s a sense that I want something more than just being given the chance to rest. I actually don’t want to be thrust back in the position of needing rest all the time. I want to get out there and live a more courageous or even just everyday existence without worrying about impending doom all the time.

I suppose this podcast is going to be an attempt to articulate some of that. As I think anyone who’s going through any of this knows and really anyone who’s going through lots of other very difficult things knows. Talking about it can help. It doesn’t always make it better. Sometimes, it makes it much worse but there are things that need to get out of our heads and maybe into the hearts and minds of others so we can all communicate a little bit together.

I suppose this is my first down payment on all of that. So I look forward to communicating with you all after you hear this episode and I’ll speak to you again soon.

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