I have OCD.
It doesn’t rule my life, but it used to. Knowing that I have the capacity for that kind of thought is exactly why it doesn’t rule my life like it used to. I’m perfectly aware that I’m going to have that capacity forever, as studies have shown that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is genetic (if you have a parent with OCD, as I do, you have a fifty-fifty chance) and is caused by abnormal brain circuitry, which means you’re stuck with it. And I am okay with that. I’ll survive. Recently, readers have asked me a lot how I learned to control it, so this is my story.*
*with the obvious warning that I am not a therapist and you are not me and I am not you and this is just my story your mileage may vary.
I was an anxious child. OCD and anxiety play very well together, and back then, I didn’t really know what was happening. I was a twitchy creature of secret rituals.
The first thing that helped me was when I realized that my obsessions weren’t normal. Not everyone felt this way. And not all thoughts had to feel this way, either.
The second thing that helped me was realizing that OCD didn’t really look the way it looked on television. Obsession could be about germs or cracks in the sidewalk, but really, it turns out that I can obsess about all kinds of things.
The third thing that helped me was figuring out that my compulsions weren’t always straightforward. Sometimes they were directly related to the obsession:
Tags in shirts —–> change clothing eleven times a day
tweets —–> refresh the screen every twelve seconds
Some of them were less so:
Dying before making a mark —-> replacing all other activities like eating and sleeping with research, acquisition, and practicing of a new musical instrument
Datsuns —-> i don’t even know how i ended up with a datsun but i resent that entire chapter of my life
When my OCD was in control of me, it changed the way I looked at the world. Example. Here is life:
Life is always full of both bad and good things. Also trees. There will always be disasters and miracles happening in tandem. Mental illness changes the way you see it, though.
The good or bad things don’t go away. You just point your gaze in a different direction. You are able to minimize some things and expand on others. When I got obsessive thoughts, they shifted my gaze onto something and held it there. It didn’t have to be something huge. It could have been about if my hair was dirty, or if I had said a prayer correctly, or if I had the precise same amount of air in each of my car’s tires.
In my head, the thought, whatever it was, became all encompassing.
It didn’t matter what else I tried to do, my mind would return to it. It became everything, my whole world, looped again and again and again.
I don’t even know if those are what lady bugs look like. I guess that’s okay. It’s a metaphor. They are only what I imagine ladybugs to look like, and my obsessive thoughts are not real thoughts, either. They aren’t really me. They are something my brain does to process stress and uncertainty and decision-making.***
***this took me a long time to figure out. More in a bit.
My personal breakthrough came when I decided that I would give myself rules. I was a champion with rules. I was a champion with rituals. I was a champion with things that involved numbers and counting and generally being compulsive. So my rule was that if I caught myself thinking about something obsessively, the timer began.
I would tell myself I could obsess for a certain number of minutes, and then I had to do something else until a designated time when I was allowed to obsess over it again. I could obsess for ten minutes. Then I had to put it down completely for thirty minutes. Then I could have another ten minutes. Then I had to put it down for two hours. Then I could have another ten minutes. I wasn’t allowed to act on any of the thoughts, either.
I told myself a rule was a rule. I couldn’t cheat on the time. And when I put it down, I had to really mean that I was putting it down. Did I want to be free or not?
And it began to work. I began to be able to reward myself with less and less obsessing time.
And then the really amazing thing happened, the thing that changed my life. Once I had spent enough time disciplining my obsessive thoughts, I realized … they weren’t really my thoughts. They were markedly different in character from my ordinary thoughts. The further I got from them, the more I realized that they were mental illness, not me, and moreover, that I could be free of them if I wanted to be. All I had to do was identify a thought as obsessive when it first appeared:
And then give it the time it deserved:
And I got better and better at it. I still sometimes have to give myself three minutes, especially when under stress. I still have to sometimes remove myself from a physical location to give myself those three minutes. And sometimes I still end up with a Datsun. But mostly, I just live my life, and it’s invisible.
So much of it is knowing that it’s the place your brain goes to under stress. Knowing that you can be out from under it. Knowing that ladybugs don’t really look like that. I just googled them and it turns out they have an entire additional segment in front of that black bit where the head goes which means I just drew an entire flock of headless ladybugs.
Well, all the better reason to avoid them.