Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Field Guide to OCD: Feeling on Trial

I feel like I'm on trial by OCD. This is one of the clues to recognizing being in the OCD. The OCD thrusts the burden of proof on me. I must prove all things beyond any reasonable doubt, which of course, OCD doesn't ever recognize. When I started Exposure Therapy, my OCD had a lot of power and credibility.

Right now, I am on the computer, after being on Skype. I called at 8:00 am, the time I used to start work when I was employed, and once I got off the phone, I was back in my old work pattern of compulsion, which was to stay on the computer, in a kind of trance, because anything else I might do could be the "wrong" thing, and I would be in for harsh cross-examination from my OCD thinking. I'm doing my mental rituals of checking of what time it is, how many minutes have passed, diverted into the "why am I doing this? What is wrong with me?" line of questioning, followed by, "you can't undo this. you've ruined your day, you can't salvage it. you suck."

This adversarial mode adds more fuel to the OCD fire. And OCD talks a confident way, a dictatorial, demanding way that is intimidating, and uses a kind of brute force, saying the same thing over and over, louder and louder. What if! What if! What if!

A cross-examination complete with, "Just answer the question. Don't explain. Just answer yes or no. Strike everything else from the record." What if I am fucking up my life? What if I am making a horrible mistake? What if I really am bad? What if I don't really deserve any compassion? What if I am wasting my life and this is unforgiveable? What if I am beyond redemption?

Often my own thinking seems pallid and inconsequential, signifiying nothing, powerless. But it's my own thinking that allowed me to get into treatment, and start doing things with my life, and learn to have compassion for myself. This is the act of faith, to trust the quiet still voice, without knowing for sure if it really is my own thinking--the OCD chips away at that too, demanding I know for certain if I'm thinking for myself or if it's OCD.

This is crazymaking stuff. Depending on the context, the my current line of questioning can completely contradict another line of questioning from just a second before. From "Don't trust your thinking" to "What's wrong with you that you don't trust your own thinking?" to "Ok. But are you sure this is your own thinking and not the OCD?"

What is the fruit of your OCD? What kind of fruit does it bear? Does it bring peace or joy or meaning to your life? If I am brave and take a minute to observe, I can see the destruction it wreaks, the poisonous fruit OCD bears, the mess my life became when I was totally in grips of it. OCD certainly promises peace, and promises if I just stay at the computer and answer all the questions, that I will avoid the turmoil of getting up, and facing my day in a backlash of obsessiveness, but I know from experience, if I stay on the computer a few more hours, until my back hurts, and I've thoroughly exhausted myself and my mood has deteriorated, that any peace I get is an illusion.

Monday, November 15, 2010

OCD and Emetophobia: Fear of Throwing Up

After Dark: Fear

Emetophobia is part of my health anxiety history. When I was 11, I got sick to my stomach, and my mother gave me some sort of medicine from a cold spoon, and I promptly threw it up. Maybe I wouldn't have reacted as strongly, if she hadn't given me another spoon of medicine a few minutes later, and of course, back up it came. I vowed from that moment that I would never throw up again. I kept my vow for over 12 years, but this vow came with a cost, as it was intertwined with my OCD. If I felt the slightest twinge of stomach discomfort or nausea, I would keep checking the sensations, trying to figure them out, diagnose them, and this would make my stomach even more tense and uncomfortable. Then I would start drinking water, with the idea that I could dilute the toxins with fluid. I'd be up all night, drinking glasses of water and unable to sleep because of my hypervigilance.

Finally, I ate something that was truly toxic, and my body wanted it out, and I threw up at age 23. It sucked. But once it happened, it was over. The phobia is never "over"--it will expand to fit whatever room there is in your life. I feel sad when I read about people with emetophobia who restrict their lives more and more in order to avoid all possibility of getting sick, or of their kids getting sick. The difficult thing is that most people hate throwing up. It's easy for this phobia to slip under the radar, since it seems logical to avoid getting sick. But a phobia will impinge on valuable things in your life. No trips because you might catch something. No parties. No eating out. No leaving the house.

I could never have predicted what made me sick at age 23. This is the sucky thing about being human. We get sick. The world isn't a clean place. Exposure therapy for emetophobia isn't about making someone sick. This is the first thing people think of when imagining treatment. Exposure therapy is about doing those things you are avoiding because you *might* get sick, and not doing rituals like constant sanitizing and hand washing. If your first thought is, "Well, I'll never get treatment, because if I have to take the chance of throwing up, there is no way I will do that"--I encourage you to think about all you are losing to this fear. If you get sick, you will deal with it then. You are stronger than you think.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

OCD Cartoon by John Spottswood Moore

Dr. Michael Jenike on the Yahoo OCD-Support Group mentioned this short animated video about OCD. I resonated with the spreading nature of the character's fears. I don't have contamination OCD, but the process of OCD thoughts multiplying was very familiar.

AIYH Sample from John Spottswood Moore on Vimeo.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Your one wild and precious life: OCD and Trusting Your Heart

less internet, more art!
My exposure this week has been to get into my studio first thing in the morning, rather than get on the computer. In the irony that is OCD, I love being in my studio, but the ritual of distracting myself on the internet has worn a groove in my brain, so I put off making art. I've been leaving a voicemail with my therapist once I get myself into the studio. My mornings have been a chant of "eat breakfast, go into studio, call Leonard" with varying amounts of squawking from the OCD, but I've made a lot of art, which is good, because starting next weekend I have 7 craft shows in 7 weekends!

My love of art gives me a lot of strength for fighting the OCD. When I make art, I am in the present moment, and I rely on my intuition, my eye, my hands, my heart. Yes, the OCD intrudes, with delaying my studio time, or getting stuck on what to make next, or not wanting to take a break because I might not get myself back to the studio. But the self I am when creating art, is the self that is whole, and strong, and wiser than my OCD.

It took a long time before I let myself be an artist. When you've had OCD as long as I have, it intertwined with so many aspects of my being, and with my troubled family. I assumed that if I liked doing something, that this was irrelevant. I've met others recovering from OCD with a similar sense, and who also, like me, felt lost when contemplating what they might like to do, rather than what the OCD wants. Combined with my perfectionism and wanting to do things right on the first try, and my fearful thoughts of worthlessness, it was a struggle to experiment and try things out, but I loved art, and this love gave me strength to persist in making it, even though I wasn't certain it was what I "should" be doing.

The OCD chimes in with "Are you sure you love art? Maybe you don't really. Maybe you can figure this out. Start assessing the quality of your passion. What if you really should be doing something else, like when you felt called to be a minister. Maybe God is angry with your decision to be an artist." I did two semesters of seminary in a quest to banish the persistent thought that God wanted me to be a minister, in spite of my lack of any real desire to be one. I feel closest to God when I am creating art. My leap of faith is to trust my experience. This is akin to standing too close to the edge of a steep path up a cliff, and feeling woozy, but this is my one life, and OCD is lying when it promises complete safety.

I'd love to hear your story of what you love. Take your best guess, the smallest inkling if that's all you have. Think of it as an exposure.

Here are some lines from a poem, "The Summer Day," by Mary Oliver, that speak to me, and hopefully to you:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?