Living With OCD
By Pete Mason
It can be difficult explaining to others what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is, mainly because popular culture hasn't been kind to those of us with OCD. This isn't merely the stereotypical checking of the oven, meticulous cleaning, or recently in Hannah Horvath's experience on Girls, doing things eight times each. I've been there with all of them (although my oven is always off), but what OCD boils down to is trying to keep one thing, one thought from changing my focus for the day and upending everything I had planned to do.
I was first diagnosed with OCD in June of 2008, the result of looking into finding out what it was that was holding me back. The testing was nothing too intense, almost enjoyable, but the results were a bit surprising. Seeing "obsessive-compulsive disorder" listed in big letters, with no more than a cursory explanation of the diagnosis, made me think about nothing more than OCD for quite some time. Yes, I became OCD for OCD. Like most OCD triggers, I didn't see that one coming.
There are of course, two parts -- the obsessive side of things and the compulsive side. They go hand in hand and can make life burdensome without treatment, or at least recognizing and addressing the issue headfirst.
The "O" -- I'll obsess over things, various things, but really anything that my mind decides it has to focus on. Relationship issues, job and work issues, financial issues -- those are all things we all will end up running our heads around silly with, but when it comes to have OCD, the "O" will make sure that this record keeps spinning no matter what you do to cut the power. It's a never-ending saga -- random thoughts pop into my head and won't leave until I have addressed it in some manner, which is the compulsion side of things (more on that in a minute).
Case in point: If I am not sure what a supervisor/boss meant by a confusing comment, I can plan on spending two to three days worrying about it, overthinking it and losing sleep over it, because I can't get it out of my head. I can't fathom asking the boss to clarify -- what if it's the worst possible outcome? What if they question why I'm asking when they already told me? Without even asking for clarification, the thoughts are running rampant in my head almost instantly -- that's how difficult it can be with OCD, day in, day out. It takes the focus off what I should otherwise be focusing on and makes minutiae of dire importance.
The "O" is there for worrying about things that you should have control over, but in most cases, you just don't feel like you do. Maybe it's the lack of communication from someone at customer service, maybe your sandwich was made without gloves or the maker sniffed their nose in a way that suggested they may have a cold, but really, anything can serve to trigger the "O" and bring a focus directly upon the menial, unimportant in life.
The "O" does, however, allow me to focus my attention on things I like. If I can't get enough of a song, don't worry -- the internal jukebox in my head will play that song nonstop, to the point of nausea, but I can jump to parts that I enjoy revisiting. It's hard to wrap your head around, but realistically, the internal jukebox is great when there's a song I absolutely love, but terrible when it's a song I could go without. I once spent weeks tracking down a single live version of a song a band I love seeing, simply because the guitar riff was lodged so deep in my head, yet I couldn't describe it to anyone. I couldn't make the sound and since I don't play guitar, I was stuck. All I could do was think of it as a pinging sound. Imagine a ping, nonstop, in your head. Now put it there for weeks at a time. When I finally stumbled across it, I wasn't just relieved, I was in tears. This was a white whale, and then some, all for what amounted to 20 seconds of guitar noodling.
Yes, OCD can change the course of your thought process pretty significantly, sometimes to your benefit, sometimes to your disadvantage.
The "C" is compulsion. I have a compulsion to address anything related to my skin and hair. I'll brush my hair a little more than I should, take vitamins to improve skin and hair and see my dermatologist on a frequent basis so that we can address any small blemish which to me looks far worse than it could possibly be. I've cut back on visits to the dermatologist -- an attempt at restraint, as I recognize how silly some of my compulsions are. I carry Band-Aids with me at all times (and in my car, backpack and work bag) in case I have a slight cut or need to stop picking at my fingers -- it is an achievement to have no Band-Aids on my fingers for a couple days at a time.
You wouldn't notice these compulsions unless I brush my hair while I drive or while camping or even while tailgating. (I'm talking just once or twice, here and there, not an incessant thing.) In another way, the "C" can make you focus on that one errant thread, which turns into a task worthy of focusing nonstop, and before you know it, that one thread led to a blanket unraveling completely.
Routines are needed in order to keep my OCD manageable. To others, they are silly or seem like a waste of time, but to me they are giving a sense of order to the chaos. Each night I take out my vitamins for the next morning, I have my clothes and everything laid out before I go to bed, all in a certain order. I use Post-its to keep track of what I am doing that day, and make adjustments accordingly. I don't wash my hands every 10 minutes, but I do keep things organized and neat.
When I go to someone else's place, I don't let my OCD react to things being out of order, although it has taken some time to get to that level. But I find that I keep things ordered -- "A place for everything and everything in its place" -- and while I don't repeat that mantra, it does make great sense for someone with OCD. If I can have a routine and schedule things in the short- and long-term, I feel like I am taking control of my OCD, even though it might not be the most convenient for friends and colleagues.
OCD can be crippling. I've returned home to an apartment that was less clean than I left it and broken down in tears. I have since learned to clean before I leave, but that lesson was hard to learn. I have labored over projects down to the fine detail, but those never get noticed by anyone but me. The "D" in OCD may as well stand for detail, because sometimes that is all that I am capable of seeing. On the bright side, it has improved my writing and editing skills, and provided me with the ability to use the latter in working with writers at a music magazine.
When others say, "Oh, it's just my OCD acting up," no, it's not OCD, you're just particular about things, and there is a major difference. Not being able to sleep because you can't recall if a book on a shelf was cleaned off enough, or if the nightstand clock, remote, phone, water and book are not all in the right spots -- that is OCD, and far more than a picky thing -- it is debilitating and oppressive. It can ruin your day and set you back, disrupt all you planned and keep you from focusing on anything more than moving from Point A to Point B. It's not always pretty either.
Preferring a drink with less ice isn't OCD, you just don't like that much ice in your drink.
The first time I felt like I had found a way to get my OCD under control was when I got my first smart phone, a BlackBerry Bold. This phone allowed me to get my thoughts written down right away, not keep notes on pieces of paper with reminders to email people back, but actually email them back right when I needed to. I became tech-savvy and sought out any method to organize things the way that was most effective for me. Google Calendar and Drive came to use, as did Facebook, Twitter and any app that could help me stay on top of one small aspect of my life, whether it be the Yankees schedule, finding what music was coming to my area, checking the weather -- literally anything that would nag at me without the answers at my fingertips. There are times when I think my phone (now a Galaxy S4) is a bit of a burden because I am too connected and find it tough to disconnect at times, but the benefits have far outweighed the drawbacks over more than five years of analyzing and working to improve my handling of having OCD. Reading Howie Mandel's book Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me was an eye-opener, and let me know that things could be worse with my OCD.
I've used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to control both the "O" and the "C," and since I utilize it daily, I find areas where I need to take back control from my OCD and keep at an even keel with certain tasks. Rather than vacuum every other day, I can manage a little dog hair and vacuum weekly at the most, but resist the "as-needed" approach, because that will open the door for the thought that "Well, it needs it today," every day of the week. Dishes used to be done immediately after a meal -- a little distracting from the enjoyment of a meal -- but now they pile up a bit. It has taken me a lot to not lose it over a sink full of dishes, and simply take it in stride for 10 to 15 minutes of cleaning. What used to be a burden is now quite relaxing and meditative.
I can train my OCD on working to address things using CBT, and it works, but it isn't a cure all, just one of my limited options. There are anti-depressants, but those are designed for depression and not as effective for OCD, despite being approved for OCD treatment by the FDA. My therapist is probably the only person I can go to for OCD issues, since the quirks and behaviors others see as voluntary are far from it, making the situation even more difficult. Going over triggers and things that bother me, and how to keep them from getting to that level are part of an ongoing struggle, even though it might not be visible to others. The internal struggle is ongoing, even if on the outside you see nothing out of the ordinary.