Obsessive-Compulsive Note Taking
Too many notes
Drone racing. Westworld. Do priority laundry. Paddington 1/2. Yt pc. Finances. All-in. Mindfulness.
The above is a small taste of my struggle. The image is a bigger taste of my struggles. It may be triggering, but I wanted to establish a baseline for my struggles with you. There’s a lot of information out there about OCD. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with it. If that’s the case, feel free to skip the next section.
Please note that I am not a licensed professional. Everything herein pertains to my personal experience. I’m sharing it because when I googled “Obsessive-Compulsive Note Taking” I found painfully few accounts of people that struggled as I had. This is for those who find themselves in the midst of this struggle. I see you and you are not alone.
For the uninitiated, OCD manifests it self in many forms. The hallmark is some kind of “intrusive thought” or so their called. Intrusive thoughts as I understand them are something that persists in your stream of consciousness to the point of anxiety. This is the “O” in OCD. These thoughts result in anxiety. The anxiety increases with time. Typically not overnight, mind you, but gradually, or in spurts triggered by stressful moments. For me, my obsession was the fear of forgetting something important or something that could be important.
As the anxiety grows, we look for ways to reduce or remove the anxiety. We tell ourselves “everything will be alright.” I reassure myself that I didn’t forget anything. These ways that we temporarily reduce our anxiety that develop are denoted “Rituals.” These rituals are the “C” or “Compulsions” in OCD. My rituals were around note taking. The most obvious manifestation of this was me constantly having Evernote out, jotting down thoughts from the current conversation, stray thoughts, or things I thought of from visual cues triggered by things in front of me. My Evernote was a mess. Anytime I tried to take handwritten notes, they were a mess. But, they provided me temporary relief and I with time I had the crushing feeling that they were something I couldn’t stop myself from doing even though I knew it wasn’t normal and that it wasn’t rational. Having so many notes didn’t lend itself to me not forgetting anything, it lended itself to me burying important thoughts and notes in a sea of irrelevant garbage notes ( see header image ). Those suffering with OCD obsess over something to the point of anxiety and seek relief through the path of least for resistance manifesting as compulsions. Those with OCD (like me) want to be 100% certain that their obsession is within this control. The only thing that’s certain is that nothing in life is certain. People (not just people with OCD) consciously or unconsciously must think of everything in life in the context of probabilities, not assurances.
I wanted my life back. I didn’t want to spend all my time thinking, writing or reviewing my writings. As David Adam says in his book “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop,” OCD stole my attention.
My intrusive thoughts pertain to the fear of forgetting the thoughts passing through my head from moment to moment, living with the uncertainty that I’m not forgetting something important. I would constantly write and write to try to keep up with my thoughts, on whichever medium was available to me. Sometimes that medium was the Evernote app, other times it was scraps of paper around my desk at work, or the search bar in Chrome when the intrusive thoughts were especially bad and I couldn’t get a piece of paper in front of me fast enough. The more notes I took, the more anxious I got. The more my thoughts raced, the more I took notes. The more notes I had, the more anxiety I had, knowing that the important stuff was buried in there, just waiting to be forgotten.
I wanted my life back. I didn’t want to spend all my time thinking, writing or reviewing my writings. As David Adam says in his book “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop,” OCD stole my attention. I would come to find this book after going through recovery.
Across the years before I arrived at a diagnosis I would work my way through different systems to convince myself that my note-taking was normal. I started with hand-written notes and graduated to my PersonalWiki which is a series of cloud-based notes that are easily accessible and updatable from my phone or pc. I went to great lengths to put my OCD into a box so it wouldn’t take up so much of my day. This worked to an extent, but my notes soon overtook the structure and eroded and value the system provided. I found myself back at square one.
At this point I had figured out that something wasn’t normal (more on how I knew I needed help). I did a little research and arrived at Johnathan Grayson’s book “Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Discord” which is considered one of the best sources on educating oneself and for starting self-treatment of OCD. Using this book, I determined that my struggle was with OCD. I committed 2017 to solving it myself. Again, I was successful to a point. Knowing the beast helped, sure; however, after a couple months I stopped getting better.
I felt like I was living a double life. These obsessions and compulsions took up so much of my life, but people saw and understand so little of what I was experiencing. I was ashamed of my notes, and would do what I could to hide them from people, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I had my phone out constantly whenever I was talking with someone. There were awkward moments when they would sometimes say “Are you writing down everything I’m saying?,” which I’d then do my best to hand wave, still concealing the true reason. In 2018 I committed to seeking and accepting help through a counselor trained in administering Exposure and Response Prevention treatment (the golden standard). After three months I started to see some progress. My person and I would see each other every week and he’s good at holding me accountable for my exposures. This early part the I devoted almost all my waking hours to active- and passive-exposure-and-response-prevention. Day by day, week by week I became more successful at tackling my exposures. We drafted a “fear thermometer” and methodically I would work from the easiest exposures towards the more challenging ones. It’s all the same brain chemistry, so as I tackled the smaller challenges and racked up smaller wins I built confidence while also changing my brain chemistry away from the patterns that I had sunk into.
Eventually my help and I shifted from weekly meetings to every two weeks having a meeting. As those went well we started to shift to every other week, every three weeks until we got out to every 4–6 weeks.
As someone who suffered and sought help, it is my wish that you found this and that it offers some hope to you in your struggles. As someone who’s time with OCD is in remission (it always has the possibility to come back) here are my recommendations for a place to start:
- ) Read Dr. Grayson’s book “Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Read it, even if it’s a struggle. The information Dr. Grayson presents helped me understand the importance of everything to come and I’m a big believer that understanding the methodology of ERP and the ins- and outs out OCD helped me separate myself from the OCD and start on the path to wellness.
- ) Educate your loved ones about what you’re going through. You don’t have to share with everyone, but I recommend you tell at least one person so that you have someone close to you to talk to candidly. Expect that you’ll have to educate them on what OCD is really like. It’s not just keeping your room clean, after all. Be patient with them when they say “they’re also a little bit OCD.” They don’t mean ill will by it.
- ) After you read the book, seek out a person who specializes in OCD therapy. If you can’t find a specialist, a person who deals in anxiety counseling is a fine substitute. At a minimum, this person will be present to hold you accountable in your Exposure and Response Prevention. If they’re as great as my person they’ll continue to help you unpack even the biggest areas of anxiety in your life. As Dr. Grayson says in his book, at times Treatment-Interfering Behaviors (TIBs) have the possibility to crop up during treatment. One of the main TIBs that hinders people is not being honest with yourself or your counselor about your active ERP. Resist the urge to lie to them about how your exposures and response prevention sessions are going. It’s okay if it doesn’t go as planned, but keep at it. Be patient with yourself.
- ) (Added in 2020) I still deal with backslides on occasion. I decided to dedicate another article to how I deal with backslides.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll get better, but if you are reading this and make the decision to take the next steps you are increasing the chance that you’ll try to get better and if you try to get better, there is hope that you will get better! It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely not impossible.
Nothing is certain, but it is certain that you won’t get better if you don’t try! I hope you have found this to be encouraging. Best of luck to you, my friend!
October 2019: Currently I’m seeing my therapist every 6 weeks. I do still take notes, but I take notes when I want to take notes, not when the OCD wants me to. When I feel myself losing control, I turn back to my exposures. This year I read “Turtles All The Way Down” by John Green. This is the closest representation I’ve found in print fiction to what my experience was like. To anyone reading this, I encourage you to seek help. It may take time & effort, but if you’re willing to make it a priority, you can turn this thing around.
February 2020: Most days are good days. Occasionally, on sleepy days I find myself having flare ups of OCD. Armed with the techniques I developed with my counselor though I’m generally able to keep them contained. I feel confident that the relationship that I’ve cultivated with uncertainty makes me stronger than I would be had I not gone through these struggles.
March 2020: With the COVID-19 flare up, I decided to put pen to paper to describe some of the ways I cope with anxiety and uncertainty. You can find that here. Wherever you find yourself in the world, I hope you’re okay.
December 2020: It’s been a difficult year, but I still have hope. As more an more uncertainty and anxiety rears its head I double down on my strategies. I believe I am stronger for having gone through this.
July 2021: I’m currently doing well in managing the tendencies I have towards OCD. Recently, I’ve been trying to tackle some of my perfectionist tendencies, which I noticed have caused me to get stuck in analysis paralysis at times. I’ll probably write about it soon, but at the moment the fight is on!
Disclaimer: I don’t intend for this to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.