Making Sense of Life With OCD: A Sobering Oxymoron
In 2013, I spent most of October, and a good part of November, feeling really sick.
I’m self-employed, and figured I was simply working too hard, as I was in a period where my business was taking off, and I was simply feeling the “growing pains” of entrepreneurship.
Working for yourself takes a very tough skin, and a tougher heart and head. I’m a full time marketing writer in New York City. No one would attest to it being an easy feat in the least bit. But there is a difference between navigating the daily and occasional stresses of self-employment — the worry, the instability, the pressure, sometimes the guilt — and feeling like you’ve fallen down a dark hole in the middle of the day time, without any warning, and not really sure what the hell is going on, or why you’re there. Suddenly, the ground just caved in from beneath you.
It was an evening in early October of that year, when I received what I’ll call “an unwarranted bad review” from a client, and in a very public forum, nonetheless. Now I had known five months ago, when I wrapped up working with this person, and ultimately refunding her her investment, that she wasn’t satisfied with the work we had done together. That was fine — not everyone gels in terms of creative style, and while I found that concept difficult to swallow initially — the idea of a client leaving unsatisfied — I took little offense from it and moved on.
Apparently, she had not.
She made a public comment defacing me, my business, and essentially my reputation. Logic tells you, “Suck it up, it happens. It’s one person out of several hundred happy customers.” But suddenly, I found myself having an unusually emotional response to the whole ordeal, looking at it as more of a deliberate and unforgivingly demeaning attack on my character. After all, when you work for yourself, it’s often difficult to separate your work performance from your self worth.
If they don’t like your work, they don’t like you. It’s not true, but sometimes it feels that way.
Sticks and Stones…
I tried to let it go. In the meantime, I had formed a lucrative partnership with a local arts teaching organization where I had secured a monthly gig teaching a writing workshop. I didn’t amass much wealth from the workshop itself, to say the least, but the exposure on their website did wonders for my traffic, and my sales. I felt like I was trotting toward the next level as a writer, and a teacher. I had two workshops lined up for October and November, and no sign of stopping there. Plus, I loved being part of an independent arts organization — finally, I felt as though I’d found a community of creative professionals with whom I could identify and grow.
And that night, following the negative blast less than 24 hours earlier, I received an email out of nowhere informing me that my classes had been cancelled. I was dumbfounded, and upset — had I done something wrong? Had no one signed up for the course, and now they’d decided to nix it all together? Scenarios like this ran through my head, in between thoughts of how worthless I was as a writer, a teacher, and subsequently, a human being.
As it so happened — and by complete coincidence — the organization shuttered suddenly, and let go of all their staff within a 24 hour period. Nothing personal, nothing to lament.
I wouldn’t be privy to this information for another few weeks, when it took hold in the news. Until then, I wish I could say that I got over it quickly, bounced back, and moved on. But I didn’t.
What I was experiencing was what I would later understand to be a “triggering event”. What it triggered — or more accurately, released — was something I wish had stayed right where the fuck it was — buried deep below the surface of my psyche, manifesting as little more than a “quirk” or inconvenience, up until now.
For the next 3 weeks, I would come to experience some of the worst anxiety and depression I had felt in my entire life, not understanding why, and struggling with what to do about it. I’m known by friends and family close to me to have practically a trademark tough exterior, bordering on stubbornness, which I used to protect myself from myself, as I was by far my own worst critic, and in the most unforgiving of ways. But it makes me a strong person, a good business person, I would always argue, and I liked being able to move through life unaffected by things when I needed that shield the most. It always came back to haunt me in the end, but alas, it still brought me a gleaning sense of accomplishment and pride in the moment, and that was what mattered.
Now, here I was, feeling like that exterior had cracked irreparably down the middle, like when you step on a dead bee and you hear the crunch of its once protective exoskeleton beneath your foot. Mmm.
Fearful of just what in the hell had come over me, I persuaded my therapist to conduct “emergency” Skype sessions with me and talk me off the figurative ledge — if anything, I just needed to be able to clear my mind for a few hours to get my slowly amassing pile of work done.
When you work for yourself, one of the dangers is realizing you’ve left no room for error — for sickness, for “off” days, for anything out of the norm — until you desperately need it and realize it fails to exist.
I found myself lurking in a pool of self pity, and I felt guilty for it. I wasn’t afraid of hurting myself — I was afraid of this new me, a formerly driven, ambitious, and creative person who loved her job as a writer, but had now reduced herself to an unsteady, volatile heap of emotions who couldn’t bring herself to work, and spent most of the day feeling numb at best. It was scary. But at the same time — I didn’t feel I deserved to acknowledge it. We all have “those days”, after all. What makes me special?
I’ll tell you.
It came to a head one evening as my husband and I were settling into bed. I burst into tears and sat up in the dark room, burying my face into a pillow. “I don’t know what’s going on with me. I just feel terrible all the time, and I have these intrusive, bothersome thoughts that won’t go away, and seem to just get worse and worse!”
It was that last sentence that led me to perhaps the biggest conclusion and self-realization I’d ever had, and change my life.
The next morning I thought back to my outburst, the intensity with which my head felt like it was spinning and overflowing with upsetting, saddening thoughts of terrible things happening to my love ones — things that made no sense, but painted a horribly disturbing visual. I struggled to describe it in a succinct phrase, something I could put into a search string that might make sense to Google.
“Intrusive thoughts,” I remember saying to him. That’s what these were, what they felt like.
And that’s how I stumbled upon the fact that I had OCD.
A chance Google search. The thought still makes me cringe.
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At first, I felt a huge sense of relief when I realized that the things I had been feeling, emotions, thoughts, and physical maladies that I had struggled to put into words, much less tie together into a rational explanation, could be attributed to something. Because attributing these things to a cause meant there was hope for alleviating them.
OCD manifests in a number of ways, and in a wide scale of severity. Most people associate OCD with the compulsions — extreme germaphobia, a need to touch things a certain way, perform rituals, recite mantras. Intrusive thoughts are a lesser-associated aspect, in which you uncontrollably visualize terrible scenarios of torture, pain, despair, and suffering — happening to others — often caused by yourself, or worse — out of your control to prevent. And this happens daily — sometimes hundreds of times per day, as I’ve experienced at its worst.
I had less trouble with the compulsions as with the intrusive, obsessive thoughts. It had begun early on in my childhood as obsessions, having to touch or place things a certain way, having to conduct meaningless and odd routines, having to recite sayings that were non-sensical, but which had some kind of positively reenforcing value to me, like they were preventing something bad from happening.
As I transitioned into adulthood in my 20s, these compulsions became more intrusive thoughts, manifesting first as worries about something happening to my father, then the other members of my family, and by the time I was 28 and engaged, something terrible happening to my fiance (now husband), leaving me terrified and alone. I attributed it initially to simply adjusting to my new status, realizing how much I cared about him, but it was more than that. I would spend the next 3 years obsessing about his health, annoying him about it every time he complained of a headache, thinking the worst every time it got late and I was waiting on a phone call, or for him to come home. I worried that if I didn’t fold the towel the same way, dip my tea bag in the water 14 times, brush my hair in the right sequence, recite my mantra, prayer, or settle into bed without adjusting my clothes just so, the worries would manifest into truths.
It was a terrible, unending cycle that only snowballed, and that’s exactly what happens with OCD — it gets worse and harder to control the more you give into the urges to perform certain routines, or to try to suppress the intrusive thoughts. But it’s also easy to overlook these things out of habit, out of the fact that you’ve performed them all of your life, and had always chalked it up to a personality quirk and nothing more. It quickly occurred to me that I had done that for the better part of 25 years, and suddenly, I found myself wondering who I really was — the person I’d always been, or someone totally different, just shrouded and limited by an ongoing “condition”.
The more I read about OCD — the compulsions, the fears, the understanding that what you’re doing is irrational, but you do it anyway — the more I realized that this was something I had struggled with through my entire childhood, adolescence, and adult life. This was nothing new.
Upon realizing that, I felt a mix of emotions — relief that I understood what was going on in my own head, anger at my parents for not having noticed this early on in my childhood, despair that there was “something wrong with me”, guilt that I had heaped this upon my husband involuntarily, and then this weird of mix of regret, concern, and curiosity around how my life might have been different had I recognized this well before my 30s.
Had I failed myself by not realizing this earlier in my life?
Had I caused myself unnecessary pain and anguish, or caused myself to miss out on things? Had someone else caused that by not recognizing that I was struggling with this? For weeks, it would be a series of questions like this flooding my head, which, even if I could answer them, probably would have no bearing on anything.
Is There Anyone Out There?
After my “epitome” I wrote a frantic email to my therapist detailing my discovery and my symptoms backing up my reasoning. When we connected the next day, she delivered the “official” diagnosis, that everything I was saying was in line with OCD. And for a moment, I was angry at her as I realized this was my own discovery and not hers — why, after over 4 years of working together, had she not caught onto any evidence of this and suggested a possible conclusion? Why had it taken me spiraling into a deep depression and stumbling upon the answer through an internet search?
Again, questions that could be answered, but would yield no relief to me one way or another. It was simply time to move forward with a plan so I could get back to my life, and potentially start building a better one.
It took me several weeks to find someone who not only dealt with OCD under the umbrella of general anxiety disorders, but who had an availability, and would take my insurance plan. At first, I started feeling lonely and depressed, as if no one “wanted” to help me, and that I would continue to suffer in this alone, despite a strong support network that existed around me — my husband was well aware of what was going on by this point, and the conclusion I had come to. He supported it, and I think, shared my joy that, finally, I had stumbled upon some explanation around all the emotional turmoil that was starting to seep into the cracks of our relationship, and his daily life.
Finally, I found someone who was close by in Brooklyn, on my insurance plan, received good reviews, and had an availability, and by the first week of November, I was walking into his office for an evaluation… and out with a prescription for some stuff.
It’s a New Day
At the time of writing this post in 2013, it had been 5 weeks since that doctor’s visit. For awhile, the depression had subsided. The thoughts lessened. The anxiety remained in check.
I made a personal choice to ween myself off medication roughly 18 months later, replacing it with a dedicated regimen of self-care that included exercise, acupuncture, meditation, and healthy lifestyle. But it continues to be a daily struggle. I still worry about terrible things happening to my loved ones, of sickness tearing my family apart, of killing me before I have a chance to have children or grow old.
Medication doesn’t always alleviate the thoughts, and you have to retrain your brain to break through the physiological stronghold it has over you, through practice and practice and practice. I’m getting the hang of it with the help of a great book that was recommended to me, along with a regimen of weekly therapy, and working really hard every day to take care of myself.
As an entrepreneur, it’s all too easy to lose sight of that the second deadlines and money come into play. For me, it’s a dangerous territory that straddles the work I love to do, and setting myself up for failure.
Most days, I’m actually grateful for the chaos that descended upon my life that October, because it led me to a clear realization that had been hidden from me for so long, and prompted me to change my life 100% for the better. Someone’s ill-wishing actually had the opposite effect and made my illness go away (to a degree), a funny karmic turn of events, I’d say.
I often think about the ways being obsessive compulsive has actually positively contributed to my life — some of the compulsive behaviors and attitudes I have, have actually made me a great business person. I’m incredibly attentive, if not obsessed, with detail, and getting things right, as well as being seamless in my follow up and customer service. I absolutely detest the thought of someone thinking ill of me (evident, from the story that started all this), and while it’s not entirely healthy, it has, in a way, always pushed me to be my absolute best. It’s with a mild amount of gratitude and sense of humor that I continue to accept all that as the silver lining within this mental shit show.
When I finally got up the courage to disclose my discoveries to members of my family, I learned that my mother had suffered for nearly 50 years with the same affliction — and, much like me — brushed it off as a personal nuance that didn’t warrant further investigation. I also learned that her mother — my grandmother — had most likely suffered, and eventually died, with the same affliction — never having had the chance to talk through it or understand it for what it was: an unfortunate circumstance that was not her fault.
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that there remains a complete lack of dialog, met with an unfortunate surplus of stigma, around mental illness. It’s there, we have it — many of us — and it doesn’t make us bad people. I like to think, in my case, it actually made me a better person. And with a little understanding, education, and compassion, I’m sure other people can feel the same way.