The Power of Names

So, I have OCD. To no one’s surprise but my own.

Until recently, I had the usual pop-culture picture of OCD: hand-washing, checking locks, that sort of thing. A friend has a close family member who suffers from it pretty badly, so I knew how serious and debilitating it could be, as well as the importance of diagnosis and treatment. But I didn’t really understand the potential variety of the symptoms involved.

OCD doesn’t always involve outward behaviors. OCD can manifest as repeated, inescapable repetitive thoughts. I see this type referred to as “pure O” here and there, but that seems a bit of a misnomer to me. Compulsion is compulsion, whether it’s circular thinking or hand-washing.

I’d long suspected ADHD in my father, but learning more about the subtleties of OCD makes me strongly suspect he suffers from that as well. As his dementia progresses, it’s becoming far worse, and far more difficult for him to deal with: his usual coping mechanisms involve the comfort of numbers, which he’s entirely lost. For me, though, looking at his behaviors as an illness has made me far more patient with him, which is better for both of us.

Never occurred to me, though, that what I was going through was OCD, that it was something I’ve been working with since I was a kid.

And this is because of writing.

I can’t say for certain how long—or how much—OCD has been part of my life. I’m just beginning to learn, just beginning to identify when it starts to pull at me.

(I’m leaning toward barbed wire as a decent analogy: if you skim it, it’ll sting you and maybe tear your skin, but you’ve got a chance to escape. If it catches you, it’ll tear you to pieces until you get to the other side of it.) (Be patient. I’m new at this.)

But I’ve written myself through loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, frustration for my entire life. It’s been my coping mechanism for everything, from the start, and certainly some of that everything has been OCD. It’s not an understatement to say that writing has enabled me to function within normal parameters. (Most of the time. I suppose nobody’s “normal” all the time.)

A few years ago, I let writing get pulled away from me. I fought for it, hung on to it against forces outside of myself. For a while there, I thought it was mortally wounded. I’m not yet convinced it isn’t. Aspects of it have become my number one OCD trigger, and when it’s historically been my only comfort? Well. That’s a situation, isn’t it?

So here’s some brass tacks, for those of you familiar only with the compulsive-hand-washing variety of OCD. Keep in mind this is my experience only, and I’m still learning.

“Spells” last about 9-14 days, on average. If I catch on early enough, I can sometimes shove them sideways so they don’t trough quite so deeply, but I still have to bottom out before they end.

They are always triggered by external events—never anything I control. These events are usually trivial, and nothing anyone who doesn’t know me extremely well would think of as problematic.

Initially, I’ll often identify an OCD spell as depression, but depression, for me, is far less kinetic. OCD spells are a lot like being trapped underwater in surf: you lose orientation, and you have to stay in constant motion just to stay in the same place.

At its worst, it feels like there will never be an end, that the frantic, suffocating darkness is now Normal Forever. And that’s a bad damn space to be in.

“You know, Liz,” I hear you say, “there are meds for this. There is therapy.” Therapy is covered. Meds are more problematic. The go-to meds tend to be SSRIs, which I’ve historically had problems with. Also, it’s early days yet, and Life, the Universe, and Everything* have been conspiring against anything but the most rudimentary self-care.

And I hate the idea of meds. This is old-fashioned thinking about mental illness, and I know, intellectually, that it’s counterproductive. But in my defense, I have weird reactions to medications, from aspirin on down, and I don’t relish the idea of going on and off stuff until I find the magic solution. Especially since there may not be one.

On the other hand…OCD is a goddamned misery. It’s a dark, hopeless, gut-stabbing, soul-destroying mass of bewildering, disorganized torture. Can’t believe working to find the right med could possibly be worse.

And dammit, I’m not letting it steal my writing. Now that it’s identified, I’m thinking I can use it. (I think I already have. In retrospect, “Single Point of Failure” seems a lot like an OCD attack with a wee plot wrapped around it.**) I use everything; why should this be an exception?

That’s the thing, I think, that some folks don’t really get about mental disorders: this newly-named thing is a part of me. It’s always been a part of me. It’s inextricable from my experiences and reactions and choices. It’s driven me into bad places. Sometimes, strangely enough, it’s helped me survive, if only by screaming at me that something I have yet to define is very, very wrong. It has a label now: OCD. Bad Thing. Thing To Treat. And I am treating it, and I’ll continue to do so, and the misery it brings me will be mitigated and lessen.

But it won’t disappear. It’ll always be a thing I live with. It’s a thing I’ve lived with all along. It’s just now a thing with a name.


*I got curious and looked it up and it turns out Adams’ book was Life, The Universe and Everything–no Oxford comma. I’m deeply bothered by this, although “The Universe and Everything” means pretty much the same thing whether you interpret it as two separate items or a single item described as a grouping, and ADHD is often co-morbid with OCD, why do you ask?

**YES I LINKED TO THE STORY. I’m a writer. This is what I do. Also, it’s a good story and it’s short so go read it. I’ll wait.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Names

  1. I love how you talk about OCD and its’ effect on your life. I have a mom who is definitely OCD, but not in the traditional sense of obsessively handwashing, but more that you can never get her out of the house on time…because she has to wash every unwashed dish, wipe the sink, position the faucet in the middle, clean every possible utensil, be certain that all dirty clothes are washed, etc. It can be really frustrating. But she isn’t really bothered by it. That’s where the whole diagnosis really breaks down. I found this with my son who is severely ADHD. When the disorder is not really a problem for them, but is for anyone trying to live with them, it’s a whole different story. It is really difficult to impress upon someone who has ADHD how this affects the people they interact with. They have a hard time seeing it. My mom sees no problem with her OCD. It means she is compelled to have a clean and neat house, which is a positive goal for someone of her generation!

    1. My heart goes out to your mom. She wouldn’t have had diagnosis available to her, never mind treatment. She’s fortunate she was able to channel her disorder into something socially acceptable, but that wouldn’t change how it feels to her. Imagine what her life would’ve been like if she hadn’t been in a role where cleanliness was socially rewarded.

      The trouble with OCD (and pretty much any chronic disorder, mental or physical) is that of course you learn to work with it, because what choice do you have? On the one hand, I can humblebrag about some of my coping mechanisms. On the other hand, what kind of life would I have led if I hadn’t had to innovate around my own brain? Would I be doing the same things, only more productively and less painfully?

      Spouse learned how to deal with it long before we had a name for it, and before the latest bad flare-up. I’m sorry he bears the brunt, but he’s helped me survive, and I’m so grateful for him.

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