It's been a hard month, and when I thought of what to do for Y, the phrase "Yet Again" came into my head. There's a jolt of surprise every time anxiety intrudes into my life, and a heart sinking disappointment. I have been learning to expect the anxiety, with less of a "yet again" and more of a "oh, it's you again." My therapist likes to tell me that I've had years practicing the old OCD stuff, and to expect it to come back. This isn't the same as being doomed, and that's the hard thread to hold onto when I'm having a hard time. If I expect the OCD to be there, and don't give into the "Oh, no, it's back. How can this be?" compulsion of figuring out, it's less likely to get worked into a big flare up.
The last month started with my husband being away for a week, which I find stressful, and stress makes my OCD worse, and since I've been doing so much better in the past 6 months, I was taken by surprise at all the old crap. My mother had her heart surgery), got released and then had to go back the next week for fluid under her lung.
Then, last week, I absentmindedly scratched at an itch on my ear, and it started to bleed, in the area of the spot where my squamous cell skin cancer was 5 or 6 years ago. I spent some time trying to see it in the mirror, actually two mirrors, and a flashlight, because it's part of my ear that's really hard to get a look at. I did remember that this is one of my compulsions, and the more I look at it, the more anxious I get. I haven't looked anything up on the internet. After a day of free-falling anxiety, I called my dermatologist. Her first available appointment was October 24th, but then the receptionist asked what I was coming in for and she said, "Hmmm. That sounds like something to come in sooner for." In the irony of OCD, I couldn't decide if this made feel better or worse!
Part of OCD is perfectionistic, and a fear of guessing wrong, and being humiliated at the doctor's office if I went for "nothing," so that part of me was relieved. Part of my OCD is health anxiety, and that part of me was like "WTF"?? So I'm seeing the dermatologist on Wednesday. Next, I called my therapist, and made an appointment for Thursday. He told me that it's unlikely I could diagnose a cancer by touch or by getting a look at it. . .and to go on with living my life, so that I don't lose that time, and also that the thoughts and anxiety will pop into my head, and that's normal, and if I don't do my compulsions, I'm less likely to relapse with my OCD this week. I could have a recurrence of cancer, or I could have a pimple, or sharp fingernails. As much as my OCD insists I can diagnose it, I can't, especially not by repeated checking.
Then I had coffee with my best friend yesterday. She's going through the possibility of a divorce, and first week at a new job, and all the old critical voices of her abusive childhood blaring full blast. She doesn't have OCD, but she understands the nature of insistent beliefs from the past, on high volume. (And got even more insight to the irrational fears of OCD, when she was offered the new job and suddenly feared she'd fail the drug test, even though she doesn't take drugs.) So she talked about her sadness with her marriage, and I talked about all the old health anxiety and perfectionistic voices saying "what's wrong with you? why did you scratch at your ear? why do you notice the smallest thing? or maybe you should've noticed it long ago? you are a bad person, you should know what's wrong", and it was a relief that she got it.
As I approach this gauntlet of a week, I would appreciate all your thoughts and prayers!
Until the 4th grade, I went to a school that didn't have letter grades. When I got my first test paper back with 2 x's, I knew instinctively that this was bad, and I should only have check marks, only right answers. My perfectionism started early. An x meant I had done something wrong, and I could feel fear in my chest, and a flush of shame in my face. I had decided that being perfect was the key to being ok, to being loved, to being acceptable. This is a potent belief that influenced my life thoroughly, and when mixed with OCD, extremely painful.
OCD offered a supposed solution, a method for being perfect, if only I analyzed and ruminated enough about every thought I had, every action I took. There are times when I want to x out OCD, draw a big black x through it, banish it, deface it. I'm old enough to remember learning to type on an electric typewriter, and the satisfaction of pressing down the x key and obliterating a whole line of type. My perfectionism is sneaky and I find myself desiring to perfectly eradicate my OCD symptoms, and this slowed me down for a long time, since anything I did wasn't enough in my mind, and any progress I made, I dismissed as inadequate. But over time, through the love of my husband and my friends and the help of my therapist, I have learned compassion for myself, for the girl I was, the girl who could never make a mistake or else she was worthless and doomed. If you struggle with this kind of self-loathing, know that it is possible to learn kindness for your own self. A child doesn't know there is hope or that perfection is impossible, but as adults, we can step outside that suffocating room of condemnation, and move toward freedom.
When the publicist for author Vanessa Curtis contacted me about possibly reviewing the young adult novel, Zelah Green: Who Says I'm a Freak? , I was intrigued, because I was a voracious reader as a teen, but do not recall any books about characters with OCD.
Zelah is in the confluence of pain between her mother dying, her father remarrying to a woman who doesn't like her, followed by her father disappearing, and her persistent need to keep germs away, and elaborate routines of cleaning, counting and physical gestures. My OCD, although present from age 9 or 10, flared when my father left and my mother was depressed, when I was 16, so I resonated with the overlap of the traumas and the rituals and the flood of anxiety, and the fear of being a freak.
Zelah is from the UK and through various twists in the plot ends up in a group treatment home for teens, run by husband and wife behavior therapists. I don't know how representative this is of the British mental health system, but it does provide a setting for Zelah's growth as she discovers other kids who are "freaks" and finds commonality of experience, and also is guided into exposure therapy for her rituals--purposely touching faucets, and toilets and not washing and moving at an incredibly rapid pace.
My main ambivalence about the book was the tendency of the therapist to dictate what step Zelah would take next in combating her OCD, and her relative quickness in doing what was asked of her. On the other hand, I did appreciate that the therapist understood Zelah's thought process, her fear of bad things happening if she didn't do her routines exactly right, and the focus on addressing the compulsive actions directly, rather than assuming that if everything was made right in her family, then her fears would magically disappear.
I remember at age 13 or 14, noticing that all the young adult novels I read were about unpopular kids, outsiders, with lives in turmoil or chaos. I wondered about that, how the characters seemed on the margins. Of course, I was on the margins as well, and I kept reading the novels, hoping for some company, some acceptance. A book like Vanessa Curtis's could have helped me feel less alone with my anxieties, and my OCD. The closest I came to having this was when I read The Best Little Girl in the World by Steve Levenkron, about a teenage girl with anorexia.
Here is a page from my list of books. I recorded the title of each one, which was probably a compulsion.