Ebola/Handwashing Combo Post

Why haven’t I written here about OCD and Ebola yet?

The Ebola virus fright this year has become highly politicized. I would be the first to complain about media hype, sensationalism, and attempts to scare the public. We also must recognize that it should be perfectly reasonable to have discussions and disagreements about protocol without it becoming political, or overly emotional. It can be political, of course, but shouldn’t have to be.

Many people with OCD experience fears of illness, and these people (at times including myself) are particularly susceptible to this type of scare and media hype. Luckily, I have not been unreasonably worried about Ebola this year. It should be noted, however, that for someone with OCD, media hype isn’t even necessary. Those of us with OCD often develop fears based on stimuli which would hardly even affect normal people, let alone scare them.

Sometimes it seems people think it is necessary to over-state or exaggerate something to make an impression on others at all. Sometimes I wonder if this had to do with my childhood fear of germs, and hand washing compulsion. At school, teachers emphasized hand washing. They showed us videos about germs. The normal kids went on not washing their hands but I decided to, every day before lunch. It separated me from the other kids. It was a ritual no one else did. Yet I only washed my hands once — every single day, before lunch. (Not that that was the only time I washed my hands, but the only unusual time I washed my hands, at school.) Would I have been this way if teachers hadn’t treated me like every other kid, assuming I would not listen well enough, or take the concern of germs seriously? I don’t know. Would I have had other OCD fears and compulsions? Probably. But is it right to overstate what we say to kids, assuming they will only mind half of it?

I Don’t Know Me Anymore

I’m becoming someone I don’t know.

When I was a child, I had obsessions with germs, diseases, and other kinds of contamination. At the time, those were my biggest fears. And although my hand-washing compulsion eventually reached a point where it damaged my skin and had to be noticed, addressed, and dealt with to an extent, because I never got real therapy for my problems, the problems came and went with varying severity and no, I didn’t continue washing my hands until they fell off, but barring that kind of extreme, I continued doing my compulsions… over and over again.

As I grew up, those contamination fears gradually lessened — but not for the right reasons; not because I learned how to deal with them. Instead, my greatest fears simply changed over time. I’m sure I learned a little bit of helpful cognitive-behavioral therapy along the way without realizing it, but for the most part, I always gave in to my fears and anxieties. I always took them at face value.

So now, as an adult, I find myself finally learning how to deal with my obsessions and compulsions. It’s one thing to resist doing a compulsion, but the only way to win is to resist doing a compulsion for the right reasons. Plenty of times as a kid I was told to “Just stop doing that,” but it’s not that simple. It’s not about just stopping doing that; it’s about stopping doing that, and knowing why.

For the last week or so, I’ve been relatively successful. But sometimes it seems like I resist a compulsion and, well… a smaller one just takes its place. Does that still count as a success? If I didn’t ask my husband for reassurance about something for several hours, is it OK that I had to make sure my earrings were perfectly symmetrical instead? I’m assuming the answer has to be yes… because while making sure my jewelry is symmetrical is perhaps not the healthiest hobby, it has to be less unhealthy than a lot of my alternatives. Maybe one day I won’t be the person you always see adjusting her jewelry — but until that day, I’ll have to be happy if I’m doing that and not something worse.

And then there are the times I just feel… empty. It’s like my brain doesn’t know what to do. “Wait, I told you to worry about something… and you’re ignoring me? WTF. I’m not used to this.” So there’s just sort of a blank element. I’m not sure how to progress or be motivated to do anything when my life isn’t motivated by dealing with something my brain thinks is a problem. Kind of scary… but also liberating.

I’ve used a lot of ellipses (“…”) improperly in this entry. But I won’t correct it! No!

Dealing With Crises

So I know I’ve been posting like, way too much today, but this seems to be the case with me — I post in clusters. Anyway, I commented on someone else’s blog and got to thinking about the concept of how people with anxiety disorders deal with crises. This article by Dr. Steven Phillipson makes the following point:

“In general, when real life delivers a crisis, persons with anxiety disorders, and specifically those with OCD, tend to manage these crises somewhat more effectively than the population at large. The very nature of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is the mind’s relentless and endless effort to process and prepare for the most extreme nightmarish scenarios. The anxious mind compels people to mentally anticipate the worst possible scenario and not the negative outcomes which life typically delivers. Our usual world predominantly delivers circumstances to us which don’t come close to matching the level of negativity that people with OCD consistently prepare themselves for.

What do you all think?

It reminds me a lot of my mom, because everyone who knew her says how calm she was in an emergency. Yet, she had symptoms of classic OCD and believed herself to have it, though she was never officially diagnosed. Those of us with OCD are inherently plagued by worry and doubt. How could that possibly translate into us being calm in a true emergency? It seems counter-intuitive, but when you think about it, it starts to make sense, because…

Put me in front of a box of ant poison, and my anxiety skyrockets. I start thinking about how the box is sealed, but maybe it was manufactured improperly and the poison is leaking, or maybe someone who touched poison also touched the box, or maybe someone whose hands were just dirty in some other way with germs or something touched the box, and how maybe if I touch the sealed box I need to wash my hands lest I get poison on my hands and then later touch my eyes or mouth without thinking, and die.

Or put me in front of a parked car that might back up and hit me, and I start thinking about if the car hits me and I fall on the pavement and get my skin scraped off. It’s very violent, bloody imagery — even though nothing bad has happened. It’s just the worst possible thing that could happen, and my mind often goes straight for that.

Yet put me in a situation where someone is injured, or seriously needs my help, and I actually deal with that situation a lot better. I wouldn’t call myself exceptional in a crisis, but I don’t flip out the way I do in all those non-crisis situations which cause me the bulk of my anxiety. I don’t feel qualified to speculate on whether I’m good or bad in an emergency — it’s really up to my closest friends and loved ones to decide that, but I think it’s an interesting topic for discussion.

Those of us with OCD are plagued with false alarms, often feeling like serious danger is present when in fact, there is none or very little. Could it also be true that may sometimes work as a benefit, taking away that “alarm” when an emergency which is not as bad as the one we expected occurs? We were prepared for something much worse, and so our anxiety is not allowed to cloud our judgment — so we may navigate the crisis with a level head.

Because You Don’t Know OCD

Because you don’t know OCD, you say…

…It’s not a big deal? I have nothing to worry about?

…That I like to fight? That I enjoy arguing?

…Why can’t I just stop?

…That I have no self-control?

But because of OCD, my brain…

…Reminds me that it thinks the problem is a big deal.

…Tells me that anyone who tries to convince me there’s not a problem or that I have nothing to worry about is lying or trying to trick me at worst — at best, they just don’t have enough information.

(…And yet I desperately seek reassurance, asking to be convinced that my worries are groundless. And although your reassurance may temporarily help, the anxiety just comes right back.)

…Won’t let me stop fighting and arguing, even though I hate it.

…Tells me I’m in serious danger if I ignore my worries.

When you get injured and you’re bleeding, your brain tells you it’s important and that you need to put a Band-Aid on. It may be hard to understand, but when my brain tells me that you’re probably trying to trick me, or that I might be poisoned because I touched a box that contains a mouse trap because maybe someone who handled the box had also handled mouse or ant poison and didn’t think it was important not to touch the box since the box contained a trap to kill mice anyway, my brain feels just the same alarm as if I’ve been seriously injured.

And yeah, that really happened yesterday when I touched a mouse trap box. I had to spend a minute convincing myself that probably I didn’t need to wash my hands, and that it would be OK.