OCD is a Full-Time Job

by Matt B. on April 1, 2014

Most of the time, I forget that I have OCD.

This might sound strange: how do you lose touch with the biggest, most destructive thing in your life?

Well I don’t, exactly – but I also don’t understand it as a disease. Instead, I operate under the belief that I’m “normal,” and that I’m just sort of screwing up all the time. Like that tagline from Girls: almost getting it kind of together. But never quite.

You’d think that fourteen years after diagnosis, and twelve years after beginning both therapy and medication, the reality of my condition would have sunk in. That after decades living under a seige of self-cannibalizing thoughts and fears, I’d have come to understand that life is a little different for me.

But OCD is paradoxical that way. On one hand, there’s no mistaking the pain it causes. On the other hand, that pain is completely intangible, composed entirely of illusions. What’s wrong with me again? That I sometimes have completely unrealistic thoughts which generate unbelievably powerful fears. But none of that is real – so why is this so painful again?

This is a perpetual mindfuck.

*     *     *

Most mornings, I make a plan for the day. I do so to give myself a sense of predictability – so that no matter how bad I feel, I have a path to follow – a path that’s bigger than my feelings. So that the feelings don’t become too dominant and I don’t become too reactive.

Deviating from the plan, then, can feel really consequential. The other morning, I altered my routine so that I could download a book onto my Kindle before heading out. (I’d been feeling lonely, and I thought a new novel might be a nice reprieve.)

It turned out that the book wasn’t available, and I found myself disappointed. In that space, the prospect of going out and starting another solo day felt too bleak, too self-punishing. I found myself clicking over into email, hoping to tamp down the loneliness. And I immediately felt guilty – that I was being reactive, and I shouldn’t have changed my plans. A nasty swarm of intrusive thoughts began making their way into the room.

Why now? After all, I’d already altered my plan once. And while doing so had made me feel a bit nervous, it was only the second change that sent shrapnel spinning though my mind.

It took me a few hours, but I finally discerned the difference. In the first instance – the decision to download a book – I’d been sorting through confusion, trying to discover what I actually felt and wanted (as opposed to just enacting my normal routine out of a desire for security). In the second instance, though, I already had clarity – I knew I was feeling disappointment and I just didn’t like it. So I tried to run away.

*     *     *

Zen teacher Barry Magid talks about our ineluctable need for love and warmth. Seeking out the book was my way of extending myself that warmth. And when I failed, the need was still there, so I sought company in my inbox.

The fact that I felt so guilty about indulging that need has helped me see something: that I deeply distrust the notion of need itself. For a couple of years now, I’ve interpreted Buddhist teachings to mean that dependency is equivalent to grasping, and is therefore unhealthy. So I’ve done my best to recognize the areas of my life where I feel dependent, and to whittle down my tendency to self-indulge. A progressive asceticism.

Recently, a buddy suggested that this mix of motives was at work in my political writing, too – that I feel a need to speak out, but that I feel guilty about it. I’m not sure he’s entirely right, but I do think there’s something there – I very much want to avoid speaking reactively, out of anger or aggression.

But those impulses are rampant in me (as they are in most people). So I spend a lot of my time pausing, checking in on my feelings, trying to discern what’s going on inside and what’s moving me to speak. On one hand, this feels necessary; I don’t want to just spew my inner garbage all over the place, and I certainly don’t want to hurt people. On the other hand, it sometimes feels as if my vigilance has itself become reactive – a fear of doing the ‘wrong’ thing, of spontaneity, of losing control.

Ultimately, that’s what all of my daily self-scheduling is about. I plan my day because I don’t trust that I’ll be able to handle emotional surprises, nor the uncertainty and groundlessness that arise between activities. More simply, I don’t believe that I can trust myself to respond appropriately to the thoughts or feelings that might come up. My schedule becomes a dividing wall, then – clean streets and clockwork on one side, confusion and disorder on the other. That’s the idea, anyway. But of course, it doesn’t work.

*     *     *

I lie in bed with a tickle in my nose. I vow not to scratch it for 20 minutes, until the end of the podcast I’m listening to. Impulses go to war. On one side, spontaneity (that hardest-to-argue-with of the virtues). On the other side, my desire not to be overcome by compulsive spontaneity.

And lately, I’ve been overcome quite often. Because as I’ve sought to put aside my schedule and respond more fully to my impulses, I’ve gotten a little carried away. I find myself responding to every feeling – constantly readjusting myself on my motorbike seat, looking up from my book every time I feel even slightly fatigued, getting up from the keyboard to pee every twenty minutes (and then discovering I don’t have to). And I’ve come to wonder – if I become too spontaneous, will I lose the capacity for discipline entirely? Will I be unable to sustain any activity for more than a few seconds? Will life spin down into a Pig Pen-cloud of confusion?

*     *     *

Some mornings I sit in cafes, reading things that leave me smiling or crunching up my face, pre-tears. I look up at the walls or out at the boughs overhanging the boulevards.

My friend J tells me that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Not relationship-wise or career-wise or in any other specific sense, but just generally – moment-to-moment.

I don’t know what I’m doing either, J. There is either something inside, waiting to come out, or there isn’t. But whatever’s there is hidden. So I sit here, learning how to live, or learning nothing at all.

*     *     *

My friend Mike reminds me that beliefs are simply habits, thoughts we think over and over. An example: I want nothing other than to write, but an injured finger threatens to stand in my way. The instrument of my liberation, contorted by OCD into the instrument of my torment.

About ten years ago, I fractured my right ring finger ever so slightly. I had bought a pair of rollerblades and – too excited to wait ’til I got to the park – I strapped them on in my densely packed city neighborhood. A hill took me, and – afraid to let myself fall – I picked up speed, slicing the 18-inch gap between a cop and a motorist, dancing with luck between cars coming off a green light. I because aware: you could have died. There but by the grace of God? But no God would protect a person so careless and let others perish.

In the park, I fell.

I would recover. Three years later, though, I began feeling strain in that finger as I typed. I saw a physical therapist, and then another, and then another. I handled objects gingerly, learned stretches and exercises, bought dictation software and a headset. To this day, I wear wrist braces when I type.

How likely is it that this injury remains? It’s a strange limbo: not painful enough to be totally incapacitating, but not nothing enough to leave me be. Just bothersome, oil in the water, piss in the stew. What is this pain, exactly? Just a scratch on the fender? Or a sign of things to come? I never get clarity, but the question remains.

But the question is a mistake. The world doesn’t work like that – things are or they aren’t, but they don’t float, permanently, at precisely eye-level. There is only one thing on earth that tracks our eyes and shadows our hearts in this way, and that is fear – that perpetual shapeshifter, that shameless opportunist.

*     *     *

OCD involves a great deal of magical thinking, and one of its tricks is convincing me of near-impossible coincidences. An example: while snowboarding two months ago, I faceplanted off a jump. On the surface, nothing too dramatic – just a busted lip. Inside, though, I was shaken to the core. I had fallen out of the air and landed directly on one of the areas of my body that I worry about most – my mouth and teeth. It felt like a Life Event – a BC/AD watershed.

Since then, I’ve developed an increasingly firm belief that my face is actually misshapen – that my mouth, chin, and jaw have been pressed backwards, leaving my oversized nose to dominate even more prime facial real estate. And it’s not just a belief. It actually looks this way to me in the mirror.

Now, who knows? Maybe this really happened. But consider – for that to be true, it would have to be possible for my face to reorient itself without breaking any bones. I’d have to have moved things just enough for me to notice, but not enough for anyone else to detect. (Boxers apparently never find this sweet spot.) Oh! And I’d have to have done all this subtle-but-decisive facial reconstruction in precisely the area of my body that I’ve worried about most over the years. Yes, it truly is a miracle.

* * *

Consciousness dawns, vaguely. I’m coming up from somewhere deep in the REM cycle; it’s not even clear that I’m awake.

First thought: you’re definitely up. Not gonna fall back asleep. So don’t malinger – out of bed with you.

My “no malingering” rule isn’t moral, really. (I have a heaping dose of Protestant work ethic in me, but that’s not what this is.) I tend to notice that I can wind up in pretty painful struggles when I start negotiating with myself about whether to get out of bed, so I’ve created a little heuristic: if I detect that spark, that inner certainty that I’m not going to fall back asleep, then it’s time to get up.

But I’m also tired as fuck, and it’s weird to feel like I’m obligated to get up when I’m this drowsy. I go to the bathroom to pee and then come back. Maybe I’ll lay down again, try to let the rising noise settle, see if I can detect the spark a little more clearly.

But wait: am I now acting on obsessive doubt, refusing the truth I’ve already recognized and compulsively searching for further certainty? If so, then I’m violating my central rule: don’t compulse, no matter how strong the temptation. The tension starts to accumulate again, and I can feel it pooling in my fingers. I lay for a moment, but I can’t make out anything in the murk – all I see is that this struggle is going to continue until I get out of bed and start my day. So I do.

*     *     *

It helps to talk to myself. For a long time, I thought of self-talk as just another form of struggle – a continuation of my internal politics by other means. Recently, though, I’ve been giving it a spin.

It feels useful, because we speak much more slowly than we think. (Same goes for typing!) I rarely resolve anything internally, because all of the voices are shouting over each other. With speech, though, only one voice gets to speak at a time. I’d have predicted that this would just prolong the debate, but the pace somehow seems to set the tone: speaking one thought at a time communicates a kind of sanity that no individual thought ever does. Which is perhaps why spending time with other people is such a massive relief, too – it’s necessarily slower than living in my own mental stock car race.

*     *     *

Pace – pace and time. There’s a connection here.

I never lose track of time, because nothing lasts very long for me. My anxiety means that it takes a great deal of energy to sustain effort for even short periods – to read a few chapters of a novel, to type up some notes. My mind is like an OPEC analyst – always monitoring internal energy reserves, calculating likely outputs, hedging against risk. In other words, I’m perpetually making a profound mistake: I believe that in order to get what I need, I must live in the present and the future simultaneously.

OCD capitalizes on this mistake. I’ve been noticing recently that the pain only seems to let up once it’s dragged me through the mud and wrung me completely dry – once it’s outlasted me, and I’ve resigned myself to the idea that it’s going to be permanently semi-shitty from here on out. Once I’ve given up hope. Or perhaps once I’ve given up on controlling the future.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Singer April 3, 2014 at 8:42 am

Matt, Your writing always give me a good “inside look” at OCD. I don’t have OCD so I can’t help thinking things like, “Just don’t analyze everything so much,” or “Just relax and be in the moment and everything will work out okay.” But of course it’s not that easy, because you have OCD. But I do wish that for you as you continue on with your life. I used to say to my son, “I wish you would just stop thinking so much.” :) Of course, I know it’s not that simple. Thank you once again for sharing.

Matt Bieber April 3, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Thanks, Janet. I’m working on developing a capacity to do just that – to be present to my thoughts without reacting to them, and without indulging the temptation to think everything through 50 times. But like you say, it isn’t easy. Slowly, slowly.

Nhung April 10, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Hi Matt, it’s Nhung! I did my homework, therefore I am here! :) Your writing helps me imagine life in another body, which is always a reader’s relief and a writer’s accomplishment. I reach out to you through this channel, not via email, I hope you don’t mind. :)

Matt Bieber April 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

I’m glad, Nhung! That’s a really nice thing to say – it’s what makes me love the writers I love.

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