I Follow the Rules; Now You Follow the Rules

Apartment hunting may be the optimal task for hypomania. I have been making flurries of phone calls, refreshing my local craigslist page every twenty minutes, and attempting to jump into these listings with the knowledge that apartment hunting often operates on a first come first serve basis.

Last weekend that meant showing up for a local open house an hour early to ensure we arrived first in line (yes, I am taking this very seriously, but you’ll see why in a minute). Frankly, it is a wonder I ever imagined the situation would be handled in a civilized way… as it turned out, before the landlord even opened the unit there were 12 other people there to look (besides us) and two of them walked immediately to the landlord (before seeing the property) and handed him a completely filled out application and deposit check.

I felt slightly better after seeing the place (it was tiny and terrible) and concluding it wouldn’t have worked for us anyway. It has been three years since we’ve moved into a new apartment, and I don’t know if people have just quit caring about the rules (shit, I guess I am almost 30 now) or if it was always this way and I was just young enough the last time around that I didn’t expect anyone to actually follow them.

Fast forward to a week later and I’m beginning to think these “rules” I’ve imagined are simply that: imaginary. Every place I have called I’ve had to keep calling and calling until I got someone on the line, every landlord who said they would call me back or give me some kind of advantage has failed to follow through. Turns out in this situation there are no rules; I’m smack-dab in the middle of the apartment-hunting wild west.

The idea of set, commonly-known “rules” has always been a problem for me, I believe that is a big part of where my OCD symptoms like to swirl around and cause mayhem. I’ve subjected myself to an incredible amount of rules since childhood, starting with anything as simple as:

Don’t wear pink and red together.

Follow-up or returning phone calls should always happen within 24 hours.

Always wait for a break in conversation before leaving.

Of course, there are more complicated and/or irrational rules too… things like:

If I wrap a blanket around my feet a certain way, nobody will kill me in the night.

If I am worried the bus will come before I reach the stop, I can perform a repetitive little chant that will keep me from losing my shit (and hopefully from missing the bus).

If I am camping and I see a stranger I want to talk to I have to wait 24 hours before speaking to them.

These ideas may seem simple enough, but my mind has often been clouded with millions of rules all piled up around each other. A rule for every situation, rules for getting dressed, rules for the order in which I can brush my teeth and wash my face. Rules about what I eat or can cook or where I can eat out. Rules about when I can or cannot call or text someone else, and what kind of contact is appropriate on which holidays. That, unfortunately, is just the beginning.

Having rules like these have always helped me know what kind of decisions to make and how to behave in certain situations, but they have also been like a curse. I have always required myself to do certain things at certain times, and not to do certain things at other times. Through childhood and adolescence this was a pretty intense burden to deal with, and what is probably worse is that I have had  a very difficult time not projecting these rules onto other people and expecting them to adhere to them without any explanation from my end.

Many times my mother told me (generally referring to herself), “you have unrealistic expectations of people!” Having this pointed out over and over again didn’t help me change that fact, particularly because I felt caught in the same vortex. I had unrealistic expectations of myself (it is practically impossible for me to get all the rules right 100% of the time, and if I don’t I have had panic attacks from feelings of impending doom or death, physical pain and anxiety, general feelings of horribleness, and the constant voice telling me how much of a failure I am) and I didn’t know how to break through them. These rules were ruling my life, and while I was running around trying to follow them it seemed outrageous to me that nobody else seemed to care about the rules. Wasn’t everyone born with the same sort of rules programed into their brains? Didn’t they feel the pain of failure that I felt? Didn’t they have a cruel voice in their heads too? How could these people operate without caring if they did things “right”?

Yesterday morning was like stepping back through time. My new therapist hadn’t called me yet, and a nearby apartment’s landlord who said he’d call me back hadn’t. Instead he reposted the page for the apartment on craigslist without giving me the first spot in line I thought I had deserved because I had contacted him before anyone else had.

I thought my head was going to explode, and I fell back into the frustration formed by those rules and those unrealistic expectations I have (practically unknowingly) for others. I clenched my fist and was pissed, knowing that if I was that therapist or that landlord I would have called because it was the right thing to do. It was one of the rules!

It has been a long time since I have considered myself a “perfectionist”. That is a word I try to avoid, because it dangles something unattainable in front of me that I know (no matter what I do) never feels quite perfect enough. Even those moments where I feel a sense of achievement and even perfection there never seems to be anyone around who understands all the odd hoops and rules and the terrifying earnestness that goes into achieving something that way. All I am left with is a shiny gold star and emptiness.

I liked to believe that the OCD symptoms I had as a child and teenager have long since vanished. Realistically, they’ve been overshadowed by the seemingly more pronounced and intense symptoms of bipolar disorder, and in moments of anxiety and stress they jump out. Over the years I have found small ways of coping with the overwhelming feeling of being controlled (and thereby controlling others) by practicing breaking certain rules. Doing so reminds me that breaking them doesn’t end in the stark conclusion of life vs. death; but often (when I can pull it off) makes me feel much more free. This is something that waxes and wanes in intensity for me, but I want to do a better job remembering that there is a sense of irrationality behind these rules that have (for whatever reason) taken hold of me.

4 responses to “I Follow the Rules; Now You Follow the Rules

  1. Rules, shared expectations, etiquette, etc. can building silent and instant trust but only if both parties subscribed to similar rules. The whole “ethics” training industry is based on slack attention to rules.
    We hold even deeper rules about rules, and even rules about when and how to change rules! Perhaps all of our work to develop ourselves away from our insanities is to tease out the rules that break us and eject them, and the rules that would help but are broken and mend them.
    Appreciate your honesty and heart. The ‘rules’ you hold about blogging are working well.

  2. No Doorknobs OCD

    Apartment searching is THE WORST!! I lost sleep, pulled out a good section of my hair and was in OCD overload last year during our search. Funny how you mention rules because I would have to check craigslist at a certain time in a certain order then follow up after an email with a phone call and make sure I said the “correct” thing to help get a return call. No calls or emails back meant I messed up somewhere and didn’t count or do something so had to back track and start again. It’s simple to pick up the phone, send a thank you card etc and I do it like clockwork and expect others do do so in return yet it never happens. Common courtesy has gone out the window and I can’t wrap my mind around it since it throws off all order and what’s right in my mind with OCD.
    Best of luck with the search.
    Glad I found your blog.

  3. None of this reads as a bad thing to me… Just the anxiety related to it. Don’t judge yourself so hard. We need rule keepers and enforcers in this world, and there’s no fault in being one of them. Carry the torch, if you will.

    I get that way in my manic stages myself. My group leader told me I’m a list person, it keeps my thoughts organized. And I stick to them, religiously. It helps, and I’m happy with it.

    People who break their own rules are hypocrites. And you have rights which are your right to enforce. Granted, it can get exhausting…. But rights and rules and habits are there for reasons!

  4. Oh my, I understand the struggle of control. Just when you think you have the strength to let it go, it fools you into thinking that you can’t survive without it. Ugh!

    I don’t however think you are unreasonable in your frustrations with your therapist and that landlord. Business is business and there are very realistic expectations that all “professionals” need to be held accountable for.

    To nikeyo: I think a strong element of hypocrisy is when a person unfairly binds rules on another person.

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