OCD and the Compulsion Not to Compulse

by Matt B. on January 30, 2014

In therapy, I’ve learned that I have one job: not to compulse. No matter how much fear I feel, no matter how creative and tormenting my thoughts may be, I’m supposed to do my best not to react and ritualize. I’m to stand on the beach as the typhoon bears down, as it comes ashore, as it breaks me against the dunes.

As you can imagine, I’m awfully tempted to do otherwise: to do whatever I can to escape the onrushing waves. But trying to avoid intrusive thoughts through compulsive behavior is like trying to escape the sun’s heat by putting on more clothes: you buy yourself a moment’s reprieve, but at the price of making the problem much worse. Compulsions are closed loops, perpetual motion machines, self-cannibalizing Möbius strips. They feed on themselves, which is why it’s so important to starve them of fuel.

Over the last several years, I’ve taken my therapist’s instructions to heart. I spend hours each day trying to resist the temptation to wash my hands again, to reread that email, to sit still. Perhaps predictably, then, I’ve developed a compulsion not to compulse.

* * *

Scientists tell us that it will never be possible to predict the weather more than thirty days in advance. Beyond a certain point, there’s simply too much uncertainty in play.

If there is wisdom in meteorologists’ restraint, I don’t heed it. Instead, I spend lots of time trying to predict and forestall, to spy around corners, to survey my territory from the sky. I want to catch compulsions in embryo, to pour water on the kindling.

And from a certain point of view, all of this decoding and counterintelligence work makes sense. After all, compulsions often appear in disguise – the friendly fruitseller’s stand hiding VC weapons. Is my desire to finish reading this chapter a compulsive reflection of my generally type-A personality? Or is my impulse to stop reading itself a compulsion, born of a desire to avoid straining my eyes? And is the very fact that I’m now caught up in this debate another compulsion altogether, a product of my mind’s insistence on perfect self-awareness and perfect decision-making? This is the soundtrack of the rabbit hole.

As you can see, I’m playing an unwinnable game. I feel the obligation to identify compulsions before they manifest, but I don’t know what I’m looking for.

My therapist recommends a simple acid test: when I feel myself struggling, caught up in a fear-driven debate, then I’m likely on the verge of compulsing. And in those situations, I don’t have to decide what’s actually happening or try to divine the best course of action – I’m free to cut the tension and walk away.

But OCD has a way of coopting any gesture toward freedom back into servitude. The other morning, for example, I sat down at the computer to do a quick bit of email before going snowboarding. I didn’t want to get drawn into a long computer session; I’d been spending lots of time in front of the screen, and I needed to puncture the claustrophobia and get outside. So I made myself a little deal: just the one email. But inevitably, the blinking lights and tempting opening lines of a second email pulled me in, and I found myself clicking.

To my surprise, I didn’t want to finish reading it – I was tired and unable to focus. And in a flash, the first debate (should I open the email?) was entirely displaced by a second one (should I finish reading?).

OCD loves a debate – the more confusing, intractable, even nonsensical, the better. In this case, the debate quickly became several, all happening simultaneously. Am I obligated to finish? No, of course not. (So long as you’re not stopping out of a compulsive fear of the consequences if you do.) So am I allowed to finish? (Sure. Just as long as you’re not doing so because you believe you’re supposed to – so long as it’s what you really want.) So should I stop? (Fine, so long as it’s not because you fear that you’ll hurt your eyes by continuing.) But aren’t I allowed to walk away when I’m struggling? (Oh, is that what’s happening here? Or are you so afraid of OCD that you imagine its presence when it’s not even there?)

This is the template, the boxing match that OCD is constantly promoting: Is this against the rules, or do I just not want to do it?

Meanwhile, the words on the screen were getting blurry. And as the argument in my head intensified, the external world quietly receded. It didn’t occur to me that anything existed outside this conversation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

godismyglory February 26, 2014 at 6:27 am

Hey this made me laugh in the nice kind of way. I have been in the past said to have OCD but not in the physical sense but mental sense (repeating thoughts causing anxiety). Definitely therapy is the best, but it has taught me, on a long journey, to take little heed of permanent labels. Usually the symptom of a diagnosis is a logical response from our past environment. In my case my mind would create ‘scary thoughts’ because I grew up in an environment which was upredictable so my mind continues to try and create that familiar sense of danger – to repeat a pattern. Actually yeah maybe mental OCD maybe just a natural response to an un-natural upbringing.
I too have battled with decision making and it is the description you give that makes me laugh (relate to). Recently my counsellor suggested when I end up in a catch 22 situation damned if I do, damned if I don’t to focus not on what decision to make (ie: to read the email or not to read the email) but to focus on how I am going to make the decision. Since whether I do read it or not is inconsequential. So for example you might decide next time I fear I am being compulsive then I will follow through with what I am doing, the time after that if I fear I am being compulsive I will stop.

Matt February 28, 2014 at 4:43 am

Thanks for your thoughts! Yeah, I agree that a lot of OCD behaviors begin as coping mechanisms. The trouble, of course, is that they end up being far more confining than the initial trauma. Mark Epstein has some really good insights about this in The Trauma of Everyday Life.

Totally agree that OCD-driven debates are about trivial stuff, too. At my therapist’s recommendation, I generally try to just make a really quick choice as soon as I realize that I’m beginning to struggle. As you suggest, the important thing is to back out of the struggle; the choice itself doesn’t really matter.

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