Friday, July 16, 2010

Busy Work and Incompleteness OCD

The stack
Thinking about my time, it occurred to me that I do a lot of "busy work" in relation to my OCD. In fact, my compulsions are busy work incarnate. I remember being in school, and teachers giving out worksheets to keep us quiet, that didn't actually lead to learning anything, and compulsions are similar way to keep the OCD quiet, except of course it manages to come back squawking! Yesterday, I was in a store with a whole aisle of picture frames, and I felt a wave of anxiety that I needed to make sure I didn't miss one that was the right size, so I'm glued to the shelves, picking frames up and putting them down, and the frame I eventually bought doesn't fit anyway, not to mention that there was no real urgency to get a frame, except in my own OCD mind.

I came home and did some of the things I really needed to do. My husband was going to do a craft show by himself this weekend, but since I'm not going to the IOCDF Conference, I am going with him, and needed to pack up for that. I was wiped out by the time he got home from work because I crammed all the necessary tasks into 1.5 hrs, and my back ached. But I am still grateful that I have this much awareness of what is going on. 15 years ago, I volunteered to do the mailing list for a group I belonged to, and I sat at the computer trying to figure out how to merge mailing labels, and entering addresses, until my shoulder was throbbing, and completely baffled with myself. I could see that it made no sense to keep sitting there typing in names, but I had an overpowering urge to finish, and no understanding as to why.

I'd noticed this need to complete things, to hit every chapter in a book, including the pages with roman numerals(my husband tends to skip introductions, which was very alien to me), footnotes, appendices, indexes. A sense of dread would envelop me if I skipped a page, or didn't understand a particular sentence before moving on. My love of reading was more powerful, in part because reading itself was a compulsion, and also a distraction from whatever was going on in my life, that I would manage to consume large quantities of books in spite of being slowed down by the nagging anxiety that I wasn't thorough and complete.

This is part of why I procrastinate--the fear that once I start something I will feel compelled finish it, no matter how useless an activity it turns out to be, or whether it causes me bodily pain. What kind of busy work is your OCD handing out?


  1. I feel the same way!
    If I start something, I feel as though I must finish it. There's no if, ands, or buts about it. This tendency has put me through a lot of uneccessary pain and suffering.

    I just can't help it though. I feel if I don't complete something, something bad will happen in my life. OCD is the strangest disease.

  2. I'm so glad you brought up the reading compulsions!

    Since I was a child I have often done just what you described...reading every page (sometimes even the copyright page!) and not wanting to move on until I was sure I had understood a sentence or sometimes even an author's choice of a single word.

    I have very distinct memories of this bothering me when I went on plane trips with my parents. My mother and I would both be reading, and as I slogged through the pages of my book, my mother read and read and read. At the end of the flight she might be 150 pages in, and I, if I was lucky, would have read maybe 30 pages. I hated that I couldn't read as fast and at the same time didn't feel I could give it up because the way I read was the "right" way...or so I thought. I remember trying to explain to my mother that I had to read every page, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word. She didn't understand this because she readily skipped sections of a novel that she wasn't interested in.

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey with OCD. I have been inspired by your blogs and others in the OCD blogging community to start my own blog to write about healing and dealing with OCD. I am inviting you stop by my blog. If you like what you see, please let others know.


  4. I have those reading compulsions, too!
    Ever since I was a child, I've read every single word in a book, from the title page to the very last footnote.

    When I first started ERPs, I worked on asking myself questions like "What do I actually need to read to understand what the author is trying to say?" But now that I'm an academic, I actually do have a legitimate reason to read footnotes, etc. The worries I used to have (I might not really understand the book) have exploded into something more drastic (I might miss something important that will end up affecting my career.)

    It's frustrating, but also a little fascinating, to figure out new strategies to cope with an old problem.

  5. Thank you all for the comments!
    Someone Like You--It's weird how OCD can convince us that we are protecting ourselves by doing rituals--I think it's because the fear feels real in a visceral way, but there's also the part of me that knows it's not really protecting me to read every word of a book, and I try to listen to that part as much as I am able.

    Fellow Sufferer--I find even when I attempt to skip pages, if my eye catches something, I want to stop and see what it was! An exposure is to keep moving--not fun. . .

    elle--Academia would really get my OCD riled up! The OCD really does still want something unobtainable--complete understanding and knowledge of a book, and it's more than glad to exploit the cultural approval of being thorough. I did research in my previous job--talk about an OCD field day! I would deluge my clients with info, which sometimes overwhelmed them and they avoided opening the big envelope.

    Kinder Brain--That's cool you started a blog--I will be checking it out!

  6. In classes that have workbooks, teachers don't assign every little thing in them. I always feel like I have to do the exercises not assigned. I end up fearing that if I don't do all of the exercises, I'll miss something that I need for at test.

    I work at a preschool. Today I had to do an inventory of all of our snacks. I ended up reorganizing the snack cabinet just because it didn't feel right. It wasted so much time.

  7. I've got down to just skimming the copyright page, acknowledgements, and index. I feel safe that I've read everything that way. It didn't really occur to me that it was a compulsion many people have.
    If I watch a movie, I want to watch it until the end credits are all done. I don't necessarily have to read who was 'best boy,' etc, but unless someone urges me along, I prefer to stay so that I get the full experience.

  8. Elly--welcome! I hear you on the workbook thing! I'm sorry to hear you have struggled with this kind of compulsing. I've even done that with workbooks I am doing voluntarily, for self-learning--no one is enforcing an assignment, but my OCD would like to.

    ocdbloggergirl--I like to stay to the end of the credits, but I don't get anxious if I leave sooner. My challenge is to refrain from looking up everyone in the movie to figure out who they are, just because I feel anxious not knowing. . .

  9. Reading your blog is like reading my mind...except you're way more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. Thanks for blogging about this stuff!

  10. trissgutza--thank for your kind words about my writing! I am always thrilled when I can express some of my experience in a way that resonates with others.