I want to call this “Learning to Love the Voodoo,” but I also want the title to show up if someone’s hunting for OCD, so. . . .
It’s one of those posts that people go, “Do you really think you ought to write about that? Really?” and the answer is, gee, probably not. But sometimes I imagine someone out there, someone young, maybe, or someone who doesn’t have anyone to talk to, and they’re thinking they’re absolutely nuts, just batshit crazy, you know? And I think maybe I have something to say to them. Maybe not, but. . . .
[And as I do the search for links to this, I find out that this week--October 11th-18th--is OCD Awareness Week—and isn’t that the oddest coincidence? (NO: it’s NOT ironic: coincidence does not equal irony!) Whoa. Imagine my surprise.]
In the last decade or so, we’ve learned a lot about obsessive compulsive disorder, haven’t we? We’ve had Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, and we’ve had The Fabulous Monk, and so we know everything we need to know. And isn’t OCD a hoot, anyway? People are always saying, “Oh, I have a little OCD myself,” or “That’s so OCD,” or whatever. And I just smile and smile at them and, to myself, shake my head.
OCD is not cute. I can laugh about it and make jokes about it and poke fun at myself, but let me tell you: it’s not what you see on tv and in the movies, and it’s not that cute little tendency to double-count the change from your half-caf double shot extra-hot soy latte.
The quirks and checking and counting are just one part of it. The thoughts are something else entirely, and that’s the part you don’t see in the movies or hear about from your I-have-it-too friends.
The thoughts are ugly. They’re ugly and scary and completely confusing. For instance: we keep an ice pick in the freezer for chipping the ice when it clumps together. I use the ice pick, but I hate the ice pick. I never, ever see the ice pick without the thought going through my brain about how easy it would be to take that ice pick and stab one of the cats with it.
I’m serious. This is not funny at all. Now, y’all know how I feel about cats, about how I like them better than people, about how they run my life, and about how I’m perfectly happy with that. My normal, rational brain can’t imagine doing anything to hurt them. But there’s that other part. . . .it’s the part that, if you see someone up on a ladder, says, “I hope they fall,” never mind that Your Real Brain is thinking, “Be careful up there, whoever you are!”
This other part of your brain, sends constant little thoughts about things, “I hope they trip,” “I hope she sings a wrong note,” “I hope he slips/crashes/drowns.”
I’ll pause here while you’re thinking how utterly horrible that is, about how I am, indeed, crazy as a loon, how no one else thinks this way and it’s just me.
It’s not. These are called “intrusive thoughts,” or unwanted thoughts. They’re the other, un-cute side of the brain chemistry imbalance that is thought to cause OCD (although they’re not sure—it feels right to me, but I’m not an expert). When I was young, I thought these thoughts were proof that I was a horrible, terrible person, evil and beyond help. This seems so very sad now, looking back, and I wonder how many other children are where I used to be. I can look back and see it clearly now, but I had no idea then.
Used to, they thought OCD was really rare. I read once that there was really no way to treat it successfully short of institutionalization. They know better now—they know many more people have chemical imbalances that lead to all sorts of anxiety-related disorders. Latest studies report that there are up to 4 million people with OCD in the US alone. But I’m betting there are still many, many people who think they are truly, truly evil, possessed by something they can’t control and don’t understand. I’m guessing there’s a lot of religiosity tied in with this—people believing they’re receiving unbidden thoughts from the devil, perhaps. Or, on the other hand, receiving unwanted thoughts from the aliens, who implanted them with a chip during an abduction.
Because we have to understand our world, esp. ourselves. If there’s something we don’t understand, we have to figure out an explanation for it. And if we’re generally kind and non-aggressive and gentle people, yet we have these horrible thoughts about wanting calamity and death and disaster to befall other creatures, why, it must mean that there’s Something Out There causing those. Right?
Nope. It’s not Out There. But that’s even scarier, because that means it’s In Here, right in here with us, and we can’t blame it on anything else.
Scary, indeed, huh?
I do not at all understand the chemical process by which a lack of serotonin in my brain leads to my issues with The Ice Pick, but I’ve learned to trust that it does. I’ve learned, over the course of my life, to trust that the thoughts that pop up aren’t about me and don’t have anything to do with how I behave. I don’t worry that I’m going to hurt anyone because I have no inclination to do harm.I’m a pretty gentle person not at all given to acts of violence.
[If, however, you DO have that inclination , if you find yourself actually wanting to follow through on these thoughts and do harm to others, that’s a whole nother thing, and you must get help right away. Go now and make the call to your local mental health organization. Or click here for a doctor in your area.)
Here is the link to the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation, where you can find tons of useful information. As with any disorder, this information is presented by people who do not actually have the disorder, so some of it may seem a little weird to you. But there’s plenty here that will have you nodding your head, going, “Yep, that’s true.”
For me, the biggest help in dealing with The Dark Side of OCD has been learning to meditate. It’s not meditation that helps so much as practicing and developing the ability to stand back and watch your thoughts. In mediation, you watch thoughts arise and flow past and subside. You learn, in essence, to watch your brain work. This is really wonderful when you’re dealing with moods. When you’re 15 and suddenly feel unhappy, you think the day is ruined. You’re unhappy/angry/depressed/bored, and it’s going to be like that all day long. Once you learn to watch things arise and float away, you can see that mood arrive and think, “Oh, a moment of not-so-great-feeling. I’ll be glad when that passes.” Conversely, it helps you appreciate the good moods and happiness: you feel happy, you realize, “I’ll feel sad again at some point, so I’d better enjoy this right now.” You can do the same with Bad Thoughts.
This isn’t exactly the way the Buddhists would have you approach this, but, hey: I’m not a Buddhist. Mindfulness in this way works for me, and it works for OCD: you can watch the thoughts arise—“I hope he falls and dies”—and know they don’t mean anything, that they’re not about who you are as a person and that they don’t mean you’re bad. You can, over time, learn to recognize the conditions that make the thoughts more frequent (stress, rushing, being generally frazzled, perhaps) and the conditions that make them less intrusive—meditation, calm self-awareness, mindfulness, perhaps.
I have never taken any kind of medication for any of this, but there are new drugs being created all the time that can help make life so much less scary and stressful. If you’re suffering, please find someone familiar with OCD who can help—the link to the OCD foundation provides not only contact info for professionals but also a list of things you should look for to make sure your health care provider understands the most successful treatments. And if the first one you try doesn’t work, don’t give up—it takes most people several attempts to find good help.
I take St. John’s Wort, which seems to be a big help for me. Exercise and diet are important, as well. The biggest difference, I think, is self-awareness, which perhaps is partly a function of age: it’s much easier to see what’s going on in your brain if you’ve been living with it a long, long time. It’s so much harder when you haven’t known each other all that long.
If you know a child you think might have OCD, please do whatever you can to get help for them. It’s a crappy way to spend your childhood. And if you’re an adolescent for whom this sounds familiar, find someone to talk to. And if they don’t have a clue, find someone else. There should be no shame about OCD. None.
There are on-line support groups, and those may be useful, but be careful: I think the groups where people keep talking about their obsessions and compulsions, often as if they’re badges of honor (“Look how much worse mine are than yours!”) are very, very dangerous. OCD doesn’t need to be glamorized. There’s no benefit to anyone in out-OCD-ing someone else. The goal is finding a way to live peacefully and happily with your brain, both the Zen Side and the Voodoo Side, and making your life a joy to you and those who care about you.