Let Me Introduce Myself
I am not an over-sharer. I am an observer. I tend to listen, not talk. And I am the last person you would expect to write about herself. Especially in this way. As an attorney, I am very used to analyzing and writing about other people’s conflicts. But the constant opposition, the reactionary nature of legal proceedings, it can be almost physically painful. So how the hell did I end up in law school? The answer is: I commit to a plan. I always said I was going to be a lawyer, since elementary school at least, so that’s exactly what I did. And I like the law. It provides an admirable, albeit imperfect, attempt to organize chaos.
I am divorced, which I realize contradicts the “commitment” statement I just made. Just know that I did commit to the marriage plan, and when I realized the plan was crap, I committed to a new plan. You grit your teeth and do it. Like the bar exam and childbirth. And my new plan involves a handsome boyfriend that can fix all manner of home, car or recreational equipment and isn’t afraid of anything. We are a study in opposites and he accepts my imperfections with grace and even, sometimes, adoration.
And I exaggerate when I say “imperfections.” My primary problem isn’t cellulite or credit card debt or an inability to make small talk (although I have all of those). My biggest struggle is OCD. Well, that’s not exactly true either. Sometimes it’s my biggest struggle and sometimes it’s not there at all. Occasionally, OCD makes me better than I otherwise would be, like when it makes me quadruple check my legal brief citations. But usually it makes me a useless mess, worried that a piece of litter I saw on a sidewalk is a used condom or refusing to buy anything with fake fur in case it’s not really fake. These concerns sound trivial and, when I am not sucked into the OCD vortex, I view them as minor, too. So I can generally continue with my daily life while I think about whether there was blood on that band-aid at the beach or if my waiter had a blister on his thumb when he set down my chopped salad. But sometimes one of those things will affect me differently, perhaps by relating to my kids or occurring when I am particularly stressed, and then I spiral. I can spend hours obsessing to the exclusion of all other productive activities, particularly eating. When I’m in a low phase, I can lose 10 pounds in a week.
At the apex of my obsessions, I would fanatically research details – symptoms of ulcers, indicators of drug use, BPA in food storage, the safety of GMOs, the danger of radon, whether I needed flood insurance. Danger was everywhere. I used to poll people about my concerns. Did they use non-stick cookware? Only feed their kids organic baby food? What did they think of unbleached tampons? Nothing was too mundane. Nothing was too personal. I used it all to assess what I should be doing. If someone agreed with me, I would feel better … temporarily. Then they would say something I disagreed with – perhaps about politics generally, their opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey, that they prefer chardonnay to sauvignon blanc. And I would wonder whether I should trust their judgment about anything.
When I was officially diagnosed with OCD four years ago, it was a surprise to exactly no one but me. But I was shocked. Shocked. To be clinically diagnosable with an abbreviation was unimaginable. Although I always believed myself to be very open-minded and empathetic, my diagnosis very clearly demonstrated that I harbored all the usual stigmas about mental health. I was pissed at my therapist for suggesting medication and refused to go to an appointment for weeks while I stewed. And I stewed constantly – at home, at work, in my car.
Then I realized I didn’t go anywhere but those three places. I couldn’t take my kids to the movies because there might be an inexplicable stain on one of the seats. No volunteering at the elementary school because one of the germ bag kids may sneeze on me. No grocery shopping because the rust stains on the carts, likely from sitting outside in the weather, looked an awful lot like blood. The mall wasn’t an option because I had to sanitize my credit card after every purchase, just in case the cashier had a paper cut or hang nail.
It was all so exhausting. And my pants were literally falling off of me. At a mandatory professional event, an acquaintance I had not seen in months thought I might be terminally ill. I didn’t have cancer, but I looked like I did. Skinny, gaunt, gray.
I could continue to be “normal” and not take meds, but my world would be tiny and tense.
Or I could acknowledge imperfection and just live my life.
I chose the latter.
Since then, I’ve realized that OCD is one of the more socially “acceptable” mental illnesses. People self-deprecatingly or, with a great deal of pleasure, boast about their OCD tendencies. How they love The Container Store, how they load the dishwasher only a certain way. They conflate being an aficionado of hand sanitizer with having OCD.
I assure you, it’s not.
I can only speak from my own experience, and *disclaimer* I have absolutely no medical or psychological training. But I do have almost 40 years of history with something that is sneaky, overwhelming, controlling and frustratingly inconsistent. So much so that it’s consistently misunderstood by even those of us that obviously manifest its effects. I have struggled explaining it to loved ones who are tired of reassuring me, comforting me, listening to my tenuous theories and washing their hands at my request.
I get tired of me.
Sometimes I just want a vacation from my own brain. Like I am my very own demanding and unsympathetic boss, calling at all hours, yelling for no reason, writing emails in ALL CAPS.
OCD is not charming or endearing or laudable. You do not have OCD because it gives you pleasure to organize your closet using all of the same kind of hangers or store your spices in matching labeled containers. If you have OCD, you have to organize your clothes or cabinets that way because you think it is inexplicably imperative that you do. Doing so will protect lives, save money, prevent disaster.
Yes. I know it makes no sense.
Logic does not matter.
When I am obsessing, I simply cannot stop thinking about such useless things. It is as if my mind must rev at a high level, circling, seething, boiling with these ideas. Sometimes I can direct the focus of those thoughts and detour that energy toward some other activity. This has included exercise, billable hours, reading, binge-watching television and writing, among other things. Most of the time, however, I can only worry that the unidentifiable road kill I drove past earlier in the day had rabies, that molecules of rabies are now on my tires, in my driveway and smeared across my floors. (Is that even scientifically possible? To OCD, that is an irrelevant question. If your brain can conjure it, your consciousness can accept it as mortal preoccupation.) Very literally, years of my life have been spent considering the transitive properties of communicable diseases.
Even though I fully own the obsessiveness of OCD, I don’t have much of the compulsive behaviors associated with it. So I more accurately have OcD. I don’t have to count things or tap light switches. I’m not required to repeat mantras. I have no mandate to continually organize the appliances on my kitchen counter or line up my shoes by heel height. Because my obsessions focus on contamination issues and illness, I tend to wash my hands a lot when I am in a bad cycle. And I will avoid public bathrooms, dirty activities, doctor appointments, the subway. But that’s more of an avoidance issue than a compulsion. Apparently it’s troublesome from a mental health perspective, but not clinical. So I have been able to live a relatively normal, even successful, life despite so much of my mental energy being detoured down avenues of thought that I do not choose and do not enjoy.
Medication has helped immensely. I am on a very low dose and for the first couple of years, I frequently asked if I could taper off. I did not love the (admittedly, very minor) side effects. I hated how the capsules seem to be coated with something sticky, getting lodged in my throat, occasionally making me vomit. Regardless, I’m now glad that I have Prozac as a safety net to help manage my brain. I know OCD will always be there for me because, in retrospect, it always has been.
It is me. And I’ve accepted and embraced that.
OCD can actually be a positive thing because it makes me good at my job, vigilant about little friends’ nut allergies, organized in my chaotic life. But I cannot let OCD control me in the same way, ever again. So I meditate, which is surprisingly awesome. I go to yoga whenever I can and exercise regularly. I even bought one of those light boxes for the winter months. (I’m still not sure about this last one, I’ll let you know….)
Oddly enough, the thing that helped the most is my gynecologist (who I happen to adore, which makes those appointments somewhat less traumatizing). She is a little younger than me and directly out of central casting for a medical drama on network television, with a perfectly casual bun and understated-but-stylish ensembles. She looks like someone I would be friends with, so I tend to be very frank with her. Like when I explained that the medical technician who just took my blood pressure had a suspicious brown spot near the ankle of her scrubs. Or when I worried out loud about dating after having been married for over a decade. While I talk, she cocks her head to the side – not as if I’m crazy, as if she’s trying to understand. She will change gloves extra times during my appointments, just to make me feel better.
During one visit she said something that really stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase: “What you do, it’s not uncommon. Many of my highly-educated, successful patients worry. Worry a lot. And in a way that can interfere with their lives. Perhaps it is generalized anxiety, perhaps it is information overload, perhaps it is a fear of failure. But you are not alone. To some degree, we’re all like that, at least some of the time.”
This was news to me. I thought I was the only one that saw danger everywhere – that worried about every little thing. Other people seemed so carefree, walking around downtown Boston in flip flops or eating hot dogs at Fenway that are passed down an entire row of fans from the vendor standing in the aisle. I always thought there was something seriously wrong with either me or them, because we saw the world so differently.
But we all have neuroses of some kind. I have family and/or friends with social anxiety, ADHD, depression, extreme selfishness, extreme selflessness and a host of other diagnosable conditions or just frustrating character traits that have simply not yet been labeled. No one is “normal.” We are all our own brand of crazy, in our own little worlds.
But that makes us each particularly well suited for our lives, doesn’t it? If I ever find myself as a patient in an operating room, I’d prefer my surgeon to be a narcissist with a God complex. Similarly, I want my team leader to be an alpha and my next-door neighbor to be a middle child.
So, whatever your head issues may be, take comfort in mine. Specifically, that I undoubtedly have them and, until now, have refused to see them as a problem without shame and angst and (even more) fear. Which is nonsensical. I’ve always had eczema and never hesitated to treat a flare up. Sensitive skin isn’t a character flaw. And neither is my penchant to over-focus on something simply because that symptom originates in my head.
I’m done with that kind of thinking and if you’re ready to be done with that too, pull your little world up next to mine.