This is the first in a series of posts about my obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’ll be part biography, part documentary about the disease, and part self-help manual. If you struggle with OCD, I’ve learned some tricks and habits that may help.
Starting this is really difficult for me, but I feel like this is the block that’s preventing my life from moving forward. My OCD story is stuck in the machinery of my brain, and I feel like I’ll never be able to write again unless I tell it.
That’s the thing about obsessive-compulsive disorder. It loves the dark. It hates when you reveal its secrets, or talk about it like it’s no big deal. It taught me, at a very young age, to hide, to fear, and to lie.
My Beautiful, Anxious, Shitty Childhood
I grew up in an idyllic middle-class household in Northern Alabama. Two parents, a brother 2.5 years older than me, and all the toys and video games I could handle. We had a huge backyard festooned with fire flies and honeysuckle, and we pretty much always had a pug and a cat. My mom made us Kool-Aid and Jello, and sometimes she’d fry baloney with a slit down its radius to make little Pac-Men.
It should have been great, and a lot of it was. I loved my summers, and getting lost in books, and the intervals when me and my bro were getting along. But mostly, I was worried.
I worried about things that I had said and done the week before, or events that were coming up. I worried about school. I worried about being good. My parents never had to punish me, because I would mentally thrash myself for the most minor infraction. I remember going to my mom one time, full of an emotion that I couldn’t identify, needing to confess to—brace yourself—almost running into her antique coffee table.
“Ian,” she told me, “you don’t need to tell me when you almost do something.” I’m certain that she hugged me.
I also worried about being clean.
I don’t remember a lot about this part, but my mom tells me that I used to wash my hands until they were red and raw. I do recall one episode vividly. I was playing with Transformers, the awesome old kind that were more metal than plastic. They were probably a little grubby, but we took good care of our toys. Despite that, I remember washing my hands repeatedly that day. There was nothing on the toys, but my hands felt dirty, so I’d get up every few minutes and remedy the situation in the bathroom. My mom pulled me aside and seemed concerned. “Your hands aren’t dirty, baby.”
The Feeling of OCD
If you don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, there’s something that you need to know. Obsession isn’t an emotion like love, or an intellectual motivation like curiosity. An obsession is a sensation much akin to an itch that begs to be scratched. It’s an eyelash in your eye, or an unpleasantly wet sock. It’s this unpleasant texture that demands action.
And so you act. You get this unpleasant feeling, and you find a way to get rid of it. Hand washing is an incredibly common compulsion in children with OCD, even in those who go on to experience different obsessions and compulsions. If my experience is any guide, it’s because the difference between dirty hands and clean hands is easy to pick up on, and it’s broadly reinforced. Clean hands mean that you get to eat, and that your hands don’t smell like the rusty chain on the swing set, and that you won’t spread germs to your classmates.
These are concepts that are very easy for a young brain to handle, and they’re easy for OCD to claim as its own.
Even though OCD can morph into something far more complex (“if I don’t check my oven knob 14 times, something bad will happen to my family”), it’s still about feeling. That shit I put in parentheses just now? It’s not based on logic, and most OCD sufferers know that. We’re ashamed of that illogic, in fact. But that feeling, like an invisible layer of filth on your hands, won’t go away until you scour it clean.
The Changing Face of OCD
So, back to young Ian. The hand washing thing would get bad for a while, but I would always seem to recover on my own. Mom says that she and dad swore they’d take me to a professional if it ever cropped up again. It didn’t, though! Not in that form.
OCD is clever like that. Like me, it started out quite naive, but it figured out that it was being too obvious. It saw that the heat was on, so it changed clothes.
So far, it had found two avenues of success: filth and guilt. It followed each of these in its own way.
OCD as an Entity
I know that I just did another little interlude, and that I didn’t really progress the story afterward, but I need to address something weird that I keep doing: Talking about OCD as if it were an independent entity.
This is, of course, an affectation. My OCD is just as much a part of me as my loves and passions and bigotries and fears. It is a product of my complicated brain, not a gremlin riding it like an airplane wing.
But that’s how it feels sometimes. In fact, I’ve found it to be a useful way to conceptualize the cruel influence of the disorder. If I can say, “it’s not me, it’s my OCD,” as I learned to do in the book Brain Lock by Jeffrey Schwartz, then I can feel a little mental distance from the thing.
Before I learned to do that, I could have sworn that my OCD was me. That I wanted to satisfy my obsessions by performing rituals, that I needed to wash, to scour, to shrive myself. It’s because obsessive-compulsive disorder is a quirk of a very deep, atavistic part of our brain. It operates at a low level, like the weird text-only environment that appears while your computer boots up. It’s stuck deep in your code.
Because of this, it’s clever. Because it rides on your animal urges and motivations, it’s able to piggyback on your logic to do its dirty work. If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider how hunger hijacks your brain. If you’ve ever tried a crash diet, you know about the mental gymnastics that you become capable of in order to justify stopping for fast food “just this once,” or buying a pint of ice cream while swearing that you’ll eat it in small portions rather than downing it in one go. Your lizard brain, which dearly wants you to eat, sleep, and procreate, knows how to play your higher mental processes (plans, hopes, philosophy) like a fiddle.
And so it is with OCD. When you’re new to the disorder, or just new to being conscious and inhabiting a body (OCD tends to come prepackaged into brains, though it can occur later in life for some), you could swear that it represents a legitimate part of who you are. Indeed it does, but thinking of it that way is a trap. In my experience, it’s better envisaged as a cruel imp. That way, it’s easier to recognize when it’s perverting your mental habits, and it’s easier to distance yourself from its machinations. More on that later.
Back to Little Ian
So, young me never had the clear-cut symptoms that would have garnered me professional help. Why? Because I had learned to be ashamed of my hand washing. Not because my parents shamed me, but because I knew it was unusual, and because shame comes so easily to the young.
And so I started hiding my washing. I would only allow myself as much washing as I could get away with, though it pained me to walk around with “dirty” hands. I didn’t suffer too much, because my OCD found new forms of dirt to torment me with, ones that my parents would never notice.
Consider defecation. Everybody poops, usually about once a day, and then you wipe, wash your hands, and go on with your life. My OCD decided to focus on that post-pooping portion, where…
You know what? Skip to the next subheading if this is too gross for you. I’m about to talk about poop for a minute.
My OCD decided that the area involved in excretion was never properly wiped. And so I would wipe, and wipe, and wipe, until the toilet paper started coming away speckled red. That made me feel ashamed, too. The frequently clogged toilets were a constant source of misery for me, because it meant getting help from my parents, and that they would notice how very much toilet paper I had used. I eventually learned to flush several times during the process.
I also started doing something odd, something that made perfect sense at the time: I would divide the area that needed wiping into quadrants, or even octants, and wipe that region a certain number of times. The number would change, but it became very important that I perform that number of repetitions. Otherwise it would feel wrong. The action wouldn’t feel complete. That was the first manifestation of my “counting” compulsion.
OCD and the Feeling of Completion
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is something that we can all identify with. We’ve all been annoyed by little inconsistencies in the environment, or by the urge to check something more than once. I don’t begrudge people who say that they’re “soooo OCD” when they have to go check their door lock a second time. OCD emerges from a phenomenon common to all of us: The desire to fix something, and the need to be certain that the job is done.
That second part seems to be the unit that’s messed up in people who truly have OCD. That feeling of “doneness” is supposed to be built in to the action of doing. We lock the door, it feels locked. We arrange our belongings, they feel arranged. In OCD sufferers, that feeling lasts for a second, and then it goes away. That shelf that we just arranged? Well shit, it doesn’t feel quite right. Let me nudge some things around. There. Well, it doesn’t feel quite right…
This “never done” phenomenon is the essence of OCD, the quirk that all of the life-ruining worry and baffling rituals spring from.
Because the brain is a scientist, it performs experiments to fix this broken “doneness” module. Okay, my door doesn’t feel locked when I lock it once, so I’ll check one extra time. Okay, that wore off pretty quickly, so what if I check, step away, and check again? That wore off too, but doing it 7 times seems to do the trick. The action finally feels complete (for the moment), and now your OCD has a new number to play with.
So What’s With the Weird Obsessions?
Hey, good question. If you have OCD, or if you’ve seen the many popular depictions of it, you know that we sometimes obsess about some really bizarre shit. The idea that we hit a kid while out driving. That we might violently attack a loved one. That we might spread a disease, or offend God, or cause a natural disaster.
How does the brain come up with this weird nonsense? Well, it starts with anxiety. A free-floating sense of dread. We’ll pick up on that topic next time.
Self-Help Tip #1: Distancing
I touched on this earlier: One of the most effective strategies that I’ve found for robbing my OCD of its power is labeling it as “not me.” I use the mantra, “it’s not me, it’s my OCD,” as recommended in Brain Lock, the book that helped me through my first real break-down.
This process has two parts. First, you need to keep an eye on your own brain. When it starts repeatedly throwing an idea at you that you find unpleasant or stressful (an obsession), or if you feel an urge to act in order to reduce that stress (a compulsion), you need to recognize it as a symptom of your disorder. This may sound simple as you read it, but OCD is insidious, and it can hide itself in otherwise sensible lines of thought. Ask yourself, “would this seem reasonable to another person?”
- “I’m feeling anxious about my parents dying, despite them being in good health. Would that seem reasonable to another person?”
- “I’ve already checked how tidy my room is several times today, and I feel like checking again. Would that seem reasonable to another person?”
- “My house is becoming so cluttered by my yard sale purchases that I’m embarrassed to invite anyone over. Would that seem reasonable to another person?”
At first, you’ll only be able to do those “reasonableness checks” after the situation is over and some time has passed, maybe hours or days later. “That wasn’t quite normal. I need to keep an eye on that.” That’s fine. Getting good at identifying obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior after the fact will lead to being able to identify them sooner, and eventually in real time.
Second, you need to reframe those ideas. You’ve been thinking of those thoughts and actions as “me,” and now it’s time to distance yourself from them. You are a rational creature who just wants to live a happy life and maybe accomplish a few things. Your OCD is a disease that compels you to waste your time, cognitive resources, and willpower on bullshit. It’s a weird subroutine of your brain, but it’s not you.
And so, once you get good at identifying unreasonable thoughts and urges, relabel them. You’re thinking of getting up to check your stove knob again, your anxiety is really building because your mind is creating all sorts of fascinating scenarios where your house burns down and it spreads to your neighbor’s house, you’re doing your best to refute these illogical thoughts, “no, I just checked, and even if it were on, it probably wouldn’t start a fire,” and on and on in a circle. And then, you think, “this isn’t right. Oh. This isn’t me, it’s my OCD.”
This won’t cure you, but it will help… a little. At first, your OCD will still win pretty consistently. You’ll identify the thought as unreasonable, you’ll label it as OCD, and then you’ll go do the damn compulsion anyway. Still, you might allow yourself to feel just a tiny bit victorious, because you’ve started down a path that will make dealing with your disorder much easier. Labeling the OCD behaviors allows you to step back just the slightest bit—a psychological strategy called “distancing,” very popular in mindfulness therapies—and hopefully feel less helpless. We’ll talk about what to do with this distance in part 2.