OCD Stole My Attention

Why you should manage your attention rather than your time

After years of progressively worsening OCD manifesting in a deluge of interfering thoughts the storm has slowed to a drizzle. Today I manage the OCD in the background almost like a normal person, aware of my thought meta, but not consistently absorbed by it. I am tremendously grateful to be where I am today in my journey. I’m also singularly aware with a calm mind and the clarity of hindsight that OCD robbed me of years of memories.

In my case, my thoughts were my obsession. My mind functioned like a broken sieve. As sensory information flooded into my brain like a landslide I turned over every pebble checking for stuff to remember. I couldn’t let any tidbit of important information submit itself to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. The felt like Michael Scofield from Prison Break suffering from a form of low latent inhibition, except in my case it wasn’t a super power. Constantly trying to remember every thought that went through my mind was torture. And, God forbid I forget something or think I forgot something. That’s when the real spiraling began—I would forget something and then spend the rest of my day sifting through my thoughts like a pan handler from ‘49 desperately seeking that golden nugget. I would ruthlessly step through my thoughts from the moment just before I forgot the thing in an attempt to recreate the inception point in my mind. I did this repeatedly until I convinced myself that I found it. The gold analogy continues. It wasn’t imperative that I remember the thing, it was just important that I believe that it was the thing, like fool’s gold is to gold. What an irrational thing to do. The thing is I knew it was irrational, but it was the only thing that would relieve my anxiety.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

After seeking help and working through a long slog back to normalcy (i.e. an anxiety-neutral state)I look back both with gratitude, but also with sadness. My sadness is triggered by my lack of memories for the darkest times in the depths of my struggle with OCD. As my OCD trended, so too trended my memories in a reverse parallel. During my darkest days, my attention was consumed by obsessive thoughts and compulsive note taking. I have many memories of notes and of taking notes and of trying to make sense of my notes, but little else. OCD consumed my attention and, with it, my memories. In this way OCD functions as a reverse time-capsule. Instead of serving as a beacon of what I cared about at that time, it wiped out my memories for a broad swath of my 20s.

These days, in my early 30s I consider myself lucky to be where I am (I’ve written about it before here, here, & here). Having been robbed of my attention for so long, I now guard my attention like most people my age guard their time. Before OCD I did not consider attention a raw material. Now, it’s one of the most valuable things I have. Having successfully overcome OCD to the point where I can live like a mostly normal person, I feel I have more agency over my attention. My journey’s given me the courage to question where else my attention is being frittered away. Most recently it’s got me thinking about the concept of time management. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to get more out of their day, trying to do more in less time. I’m not here to say that that’s wrong, but I am considering another perspective. What if rather than optimize my time to be more efficient (ala doing two things at the same time), I choose to be truly present in the one thing I’m doing that has my attention? What if splitting my attention fractures my brain’s ability to encode memories.? Will I really remember the details of Knives Out in a few years if I was balancing my budget at the same time? When I look at a scenario like this now (or any multi-tasking scenario), I cannot help but to think of it in terms of thought versus intrusive thought. The more I stack together to do at once, the more my attention is split and the less rewarding the experience is upon reflection. I just end up with a bunch of half-memories, jokes without the punchlines, and stories without their endings.

What if rather than optimize my time to be more efficient, I choose to be truly present in the one thing I’m doing that has my attention?

Maybe it’s the nature of my work. As a project manager, of course the first place I look to apply my learnings are in the realm of productivity. However, I don’t intend for my learnings to stop there. I intend to continue questioning how my attention is spent. Hopefully my journey from here will yield many more memories as my 30s unfold and my attention muscles grow. Looking back, I’m not ready to say that I’m grateful to have gone through the experience, but if it was meant to be this way to get me to this perspective then I consider myself lucky.

If you’re in the midst of a struggle with OCD, I have tried to capture as much about my experience as I could. Hopefully you find some healthy solace in it. Hang in there!