Category Archives: OCD

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.

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Tattoos and Closure

In many parts of America I think tattoos are written off as the hallmark of degenerates. I think what our culture is slowly realizing (on the tails of American youth) that tattoos are no longer symbols limited to criminals, gang members, and salty dogs, but are swiftly being acknowledged as a disciplined art form that has been spreading (especially through the Pacific Northwest) like wildfire.

Today many different people have and are getting tattoos, and the reasons people get them are practically as widespread as the artwork itself. Some people consider their tattoos to be living works of art with no connection to any specific motive beyond a sense of their own enjoyment of a color, a shape, or an artist. Others collect tattoos to represent things that are important in their lives, like their children. It isn’t uncommon for people to get tattoos as a milestone representing a celebration like graduating, moving to a new place, or starting a business.

While I don’t want to detract from these (and other) reasons people have for getting tattoo work done, I want to specifically address another big reason people seek out the experience of getting a tattoo; closure.

While many people get tattoos as a symbol for a milestone event in their lives, it is very common for these events to have something to do with loss. A memorial piece for the loss of a loved one (like a parent or pet), a cover-up piece to detract from scars associated with physical loss (like a difficult surgery or self-harm), or a piece to symbolize the end of something difficult (like a relationship) are all ways people seek closure through the art of the tattooing.

I find that many, especially those seeking a tattoo to move toward closure, are infatuated with the ritualistic method of tattooing as well. I really believe that most people in the process of seeking closure experience some degree of anxiety about it, which is somewhat amplified when that person is about to be tattooed. As the artists works, there is physical pain that might (as some might suggest with self harm) be like a physical manifestation of the pain the grief of loss has been causing internally. When the piece is finished the pain subsides and is replaced with something beautiful, something permanent that can act as a visual reminder of our loss, replacing that constant need to obsess over it mentally.

***

After somewhat inadvertently escaping an abusive relationship in 2006 I didn’t realize how much I’d been effected by it until a couple years later. Though I’d moved on and lived in a different place and was in a new relationship, I was in a constant state of terror that my ex would reappear and set fire to everything I’d built.

This fear was not entirely far fetched. It had been common for him to track people down and show up without warning, and though I thought I had made it clear to him never to come near me again, I had the slow churning of the anxious bipolar mind working against me as well.

When I would have periods of psychosis, I was the most afraid. Afraid in general, but mostly afraid of him. My paranoia would take over my life and I would be afraid to open the curtains or unlock the door. After changing my phone number and moving again (for the 4th time since I’d seen him last) I still didn’t feel safe. I still didn’t feel free.

By last year (six years after the relationship ended) I still felt as anxious and terrified as ever. I was afraid I would bump into him in the street (despite a rumor that he lived in another state). I was afraid that I would come home one day and he would be in my apartment. I was afraid that he would do something irrational… and that’s when I took a look in the mirror.

If anyone was being irrational, it was me. I was in a constant state of being engulfed by fear, fear of something that wasn’t very likely going to happen at that point, if it had at all. I had obsessed and worried so much that I felt swamped, completely unable to tell what signs to consider threats and what was harmless.

In a manic epiphany (I tend to have one every few years) I concluded that I should get a tattoo. The tattoo would be a moth, because my ex was terribly afraid of moths. This permanent symbol would act as a talisman, and perhaps not directly repelling him, if I associated myself with something he considered repellant, I hoped I would feel empowered. A reminder that I am safe now.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the idea would work. Surely, getting a tattoo would work (I already had two at the time) but I didn’t know if I could ease my mind this way, particularly a very anxious, obsessing, bipolar mind.

When the mania wore off I still felt inspired, and within a few weeks I met up with a local artist (a great one, I might add) who tattooed me.

(I also wanted to note that you wont find any images of my tattoos on this post because I don’t post images of my tattoos on the internet. I prefer they remain singular works of art, not copied by anyone else.)

I don’t think the change was immediate, but I am sitting here almost a year later and haven’t had any problems with anxiety or paranoia about my ex-boyfriend in months. Of course, that isn’t to say that I haven’t had any anxiety or paranoia about other things, but the fear I had before (particularly about him breaking into my apartment) seems to be quelled.

Going through with getting something as simple as a tattoo has greatly improved the amount of closure I have felt about a traumatic time in my life and lessened my fear about my past, and scaling back that fear has meant specifically (for me);

  • Less frequent apartment lock checking (especially when I was getting up in the middle of the night several times to check locks)
  • Being able to keep the window open when I am at home
  • Being able to be home alone without leaving every light on
  • Feeling comfortable leaving the apartment more frequently
  • Less concern that he will jump out at me on the street, I am able to walk much more relaxed
  • I no longer feel the need to keep moving around or changing my phone number

I realize the idea of using tattooing as a way to help combat anxiety or fear is something that people may be skeptical about, and that is why I wanted to share my experience about it. There are many people out there who, like me, see tattooing as a form of therapy.

After all, there have been moments in my regular therapy sessions where my therapist has asked me to close my eyes and imagine wearing an outfit that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed. She said that any time I can close my eyes and imagine I’m wearing it.

All I’ve done is taken this idea one step further. I thought of something I can wear that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed… and I’ve permanently adhered it to my body.

Now I never have to close my eyes and imagine, I can just look down and remember who I am.

The Long Shot

Yesterday’s adventure (of trying to hunt down an emergency Lithium prescription) started out with an electric jolt to my need to find a solution. It ended with what might be the biggest miracle I’ve experienced since 2014 rang itself in 4 months ago.

Being threatened with only having five days of lithium left (and no refill or psychiatrist to speak of) I kicked it in to high gear yesterday morning.

pleaded with my primary care doctor’s receptionist to land me an appointment at the end of the week (as a last resort) to which she generously complied.

I asked my pharmacy to send a request to my old psychiatrist’s office for another refill, even though I knew that would be a big shot in the dark.

Finally, after running some errands in the sunshine (wasn’t it supposed to rain all day yesterday?) I stepped into the clinic where I see my therapist (and should eventually be seeing a psychiatrist).

My therapist, a contemplative woman who is a great listener and empathizer, is a little lacking in the area of organization. She had no memory of leaving me a voicemail last week that said, “oh yeah, come in Tuesday at three and I’ll write you in for an appointment, only call back if you want to cancel.” Thankfully (considering my frustration around the Lithium issue) she agreed to see me despite never having actually made the appointment.

She told me she was 99% sure that the house psychiatrist would not be willing to refill my medication, something I expected to hear anyway. She told me to try calling my old psychiatrist’s office and pleading with them, something I didn’t feel so great about.

When I asked when I would be able to make an appointment for an intake with the clinic psychiatrist there (I gave them my paperwork a month ago) she said they didn’t make appointments. They just went through whatever people had applied in the order they were received. For that reason, she claimed she could not give me any idea of how long I would be waiting (“at least a month” was all she could say) or any indication of exactly when I would be seeing this phantom psychiatrist.

This sent up some BIG red flags for me. I have never associated my therapist’s personal disorganization with the clinic itself, having seen other therapists there that had no trouble calling me back or being on time or scheduling my appointments, but having to put the faith of my future mental health treatment in the hands of someone who isn’t willing to give me anything more than their word that I’ll eventually see them… well, I don’t operate on a currency made of promises. To me an appointment is an agreement (which exists on paper or in a computer somewhere) on both ends that we will meet, and without that I have nothing.

On top of that, how can I be expected to know how long I need my new Lithium prescription for if I have no idea when I will be able to see the doctor who is supposed to write the next one? That doesn’t make sense.

I walked out of the clinic feeling totally defeated, and in a small fit of hysteria (overlooking the busy freeway) I called my old psychiatrist’s office.

That’s when I’d remembered something I’d been told a few months earlier. An anonymous tipster revealed to me that the psychiatry department of my previous psychiatrist (which did not take any of the insurance plans I was now forced to apply for through the healthcare reform) was considering taking one, JUST ONE, of the plans available. They told me to select that plan, and then call at the end of April to see if the plan would be accepted. I knew this was a huge long shot, but if you remember… I was extremely upset about having to leave my previous (kick ass) psychiatrist. Because of this tip, I had selected the plan in question and yesterday (as April had ended) I found myself in a position to ask their office if something miraculously had changed.

When the receptionist said (what sounded like) yes (I could barely hear over the roar of the traffic) I ran to the nearest building and popped inside to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.

You mean, I thought, not only can I begin seeing my previous psychiatrist again, but he can also then refill my medication in the next couple days?!?

I hadn’t, in my wildest dreams, imagined that scenario would have worked out! It is not very often I have two large, looming problems solved with one phone call, and I thanked the receptionist profusely.

It is so nice to know that these two big issues are now taken care of, and that I don’t have to rely on what seems to be a particularly flaky system to try to receive care. I was extremely upset to have to give up my whole healthcare team when everything changed over with the health care reform, and now (through a couple good tips and a lot of good luck) I am back to having my original healthcare team back.

The trick at this point will be to keep them, because Corey and I will need to move within the next few months. In order for me to keep this insurance and these doctors, I have to remain in King County, something that is another long shot (as housing prices have skyrocketed) but something I also feel more and more compelled to make work since it will be worth the work!

Obsessing Over Food

Even though I was diagnosed as a teenager with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (due to primarily overwhelming obsessive thinking I couldn’t seem to control), the majority of my obsessive compulsions as a child were centered around food.

Yes, I was that childhood friend, the one you invited over for dinner and wouldn’t eat any of the food at your house, save a hamburger bun with some ketchup on it. In fact, my diet was based largely on ketchup, usually with a side of a potato product or bread. We joked that I was a purveyor of “the white and yellow diet” because I would only eat foods that were white or yellow (minus the ketchup).

If the texture was wrong, I couldn’t eat it. If the color was wrong, I couldn’t eat it. If the taste was wrong, I couldn’t eat it. To ensure that all foods met my needs, I picked them apart thoroughly, looking for anything despicable in there that might turn me off before I ate them. This earned me the nickname, “the Inspector” -something that I thought was hilarious at the time but does sting slightly now.

I realize a lot of kids are picky, but this was much more intense. If the food didn’t fit my standards, I wouldn’t eat.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been introduced to new foods. New flavors, new textures, and I’ve come to appreciate that the crunchiness of a cucumber (though very difficult for me to handle previously) is something I’ve practiced eating and now enjoy. I stopped picking through food and have attempted to embrace the action of taking a bite blind… something that has gone well, up until recently.

A couple months ago I was at a Japanese restaurant and bit into a clump of sand that was swirling around the bottom of my miso soup. I was instantly repulsed, and the childhood voice boomed in my head, “see! Why didn’t you look for that??”

A few days later, it was a hotdog I was eating. I bit into the meaty cylinder into something hard. I threw it down immediately, and was green for the rest of the day.

A few days later I bit into a bone in a breakfast sausage at the hospital where I was getting my blood drawn.

After drinking a glass of water only to see a spot of black mold sitting at the bottom of the glass, the truth of my past came flooding back.

“You can’t trust it, you can’t trust food” it said.

Ever since it has been like taking one step forward and two steps back. I have banned all processed meats, including processed meats in casings in my diet. I am willing to eat ground meat, but only if I am cooking it myself and can personally guarantee what’s inside. No soup. No deli meats with rubs unless the rub has been concocted by me. And that is only the beginning. I can feel the window that I’ve worked so hard to open closing, and I feel helpless to stop it.

I’ve found crap in my food once a week for the last couple months, like some kind of cruel clockwork reminder. How is that possible when I’ve gone years without anything like this happening? It is all I can think about, and when I stop thinking about it for a second… something else goes horribly wrong and I wind up with a mouth full of something inedible.

I realize the issue here is that I am too sensitive. One wrong move on my food’s part is enough to make my world come crashing down, and then obsess over it for days, weeks… even months at this point. Really, as a child, finding a bug in my food was on par with finding onions in there, and I’ve been able to get over the onion bit. The bugs though (minus fruit flies in my tea) -not so much.

This is something important to me, as I’ve been extremely proud of the changes I’ve made in my eating habits and my thinking (even if not as permanent as I hoped) and I expect that when I talk to my new psychiatrist this is going to be one of the things that needs to come up.

In the meantime I will just have to retreat into the world of potatoes and eggs and macaroni. Perhaps pulling back my forces will allow me to muster for another all on food assault.

Asking For Help

I’ve been seeing an alarming number of blog posts in which people discredit the notion of asking for help, or claim that asking for help is for the weak.

I find this claim wildly disturbing. Not only has this idea been deterring people across the globe for seeking help for mental health treatment for ages, but it says something that I believe is entirely false.

The truth is that asking for help draws on many traits that are incredibly far from weakness, such as:

Courage

Stepping forward and making your needs known, even just asking a question takes courage. Since when was courage ever synonymous with weakness?

Trick question, it never has been! Courage requires:

Strength 

Something which is the very opposite of weakness!

It is one thing to have courage, but to use it one must have the strength to move forward and take action.

Intelligence

Have you ever heard the phrase, “two heads are better than one?” Asking for help is essentially the intelligent act of asking for two heads to take on a problem instead of just one. Double the heads means double the chances of finding a solution.

Asking for help can be difficult, but overcoming fear shows a display of courage, strength, and intelligence. These traits are not traits of weakness, but traits that most human beings would hope to portray in their lifetime.

I wanted to take a second to also note that asking for help can feel much easier when faced with many options of people to speak with. A parent, friend, or doctor might seem like an obvious choice, but teachers, co-workers, HR department representatives, local crisis phone lines, even sending an email to a blogger (like me) is an option.

If you don’t get the response you are hoping for when asking for help the first time, consider it a practice run! There are other people you can talk to, so don’t give up!

Journalist Comes Out About Having Mental Illness

I want to share an article that I found interesting, it is a post written by Mark Joyella, a journalist and former television reporter who has just recently come out about having a mental illness to help fight the stigma that surrounds it.

His article, Screw Stigma. I’m Coming Out takes us on a journey through his fear of being identified as a mental health consumer to a place where he feels comfortable sharing his OCD diagnosis.

For someone in the public eye, I found this article to be extremely thoughtful and well written, as well as reflective. I think his journey can be related to anyone who has questioned their own diagnosis or felt self conscious about the idea of having a mental illness, not just for folks who have an OCD diagnosis.

In any case, I suggest checking it out… and for Mark Joyella, a big high five – thank you for being brave enough to come forward about your experiences!

Confronting Delusions

The older I get, the more acutely I’m aware that my mind creates fictional situations and relationships all on its own. Once I started paying more attention to this process, I realized that this issue seems to come from my mind jumping to conclusions after stumbling upon something my mind considers to be a clue.

Here is a very simplified example.

I call my boyfriend.

Clue: he doesn’t answer.

Delusion: he is dead.

I’ve gotten better at spotting these irrational conclusions in simple situations (like the one above) but in the cases of hardcore delusions (like the one 16 months ago where I was certain my boss was trying to get me fired and sabotage the company we worked for) my delusions are made of a series of clues, usually all taken out of context, coupled with subsequent bad-conclusion-jumping.

It seems that in these situations, anything I read, anything that comes up in conversation, as well as physical clues (mail, clothing, you name it) all begin working together in a web of total fiction. The more clues I stumble upon that seem to lend themselves to my theory only make a stronger case for the delusion, and makes it more difficult for me to break the spell.

Generally, when I begin having delusions like this, I tend to make things much more complicated by talking to different people about it. I might easily find myself talking about the clues or suspected theory to friends, family, or my therapist even… and though one would think this might help (and it does occasionally) most often people take what I have to say at face value. Usually if I believe it, it isn’t totally unreasonable to suspect the people I tell will believe it as well.

There have been a few situations where I was contested about what I mentioned, but it wasn’t enough to “break the spell” until almost a month later. No, realistically what I’ve learned is that it is best to go straight to the source.

I had a delusion almost a year ago now that one of my friends was having an affair with another friend of mine. In that situation I knew I couldn’t completely trust myself and the conclusion I had come to, so I did the only thing I could… I confronted one of them and asked about it.

NOW, confronting someone you have a delusion about in an attempt to find the truth has been one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had to do. In some cases it has actually been a bit rewarding (not having to continue obsessing over the delusion anymore is nice) but generally, you need to know that it really puts people off.

I’ve only done this sort of thing with people who are pretty close to me, people who already know about my (somewhat questionable) mental health. Even then, starting the conversation with something like, “so, I have a question for you, and I don’t want you to get upset because it is going to sound totally crazy -but that is only because I think I may be delusional. I just need to know what is real and what isn’t!”

Yes, people get offended. Or distraught. Or very silent.

(I guess this is starting to sound less and less like a good idea, but I swear it can be very helpful!)

The thing is, the way my brain functions, I need to be able to walk up to someone I trust and ask if something happened, or didn’t. If something exists, or it doesn’t. If they saw or heard something or if there was only silence a moment ago.

There are so many layers of things going on in my mind that sometimes I need to be able to ask if I’m the only one experiencing something, or if everyone else saw/heard/knows it too.

Though mildly concerning to the people I’ve asked of this before, the result on my end has been extremely helpful. By going straight to the person I’m having delusions about and asking them about the situation I am essentially bypassing days, week, maybe even months of delusional thoughts and “clues” that riddle my brain with no real point (apart from distraction), as well as averting potential crises (like setting a huge HR investigation in motion).

I’ve also had to consider what this does to my reputation. After all, it isn’t particularly common for people to be sharing their delusions (let alone confronting people about them) and it probably looks a little… weird. Since I embrace the fact that I’m a bit of an oddball, it doesn’t bother me much at all.

I guess the best advice I can give is to tread carefully.

No. Wait.

The best advice I can give is to have one person in your life that you can trust and be honest with who will tell you (gently) that you have no idea what you’re talking about. If you can find more than one, consider yourself very lucky!

Sometimes it is better to go straight to the source when it comes to delusions. If you can risk talking to the person about the delusional situation you could ultimately save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the road.