What is it Like to Have OCD?
May this help those who do not struggle with OCD support those who do
You’re probably aware of the Stream of Consciousness, the involuntary flow of our thoughts from moment to moment. For a healthy person it looks something like this, stretching on into infinity in either direction.
In the depths of my struggle with OCD my Stream of Consciousness was hijacked. It looked more like this, resetting each day only to end in a spiral.
Let me elaborate.
I was born in 1989. I grew up along side the internet. Sheltered like many kids, I matriculated through school with a relatively limited world view. After school my world view expanded rapidly. I moved to a city 30x the size of my home town. Twitter was aflutter, the Iphone 4 was in stores and Medium didn’t even exist yet. The point is, there was a lot of noise.
Couple that extra stimulation with the parallel life experience of starting my first full time job and the stressors that come along with that. As I worked to develop a competency for the work I was doing, I was also juggling a dramatic increase in expectations of me. To that point in my life I had been accountable to school. Getting good grades was my mission. It was my mission to get me to this point. I just didn’t think about what was next once I got to this point. That compounded the pressure I was already feeling.
Of course I had an assertive manager who challenged me to be the best I could be at work. Translated, that means that he was extremely difficult to please. Little praise when I “did what was expected,” and heaps of “constructive feedback” when I didn’t. I began to fear the phone ringing, for fear of this man. (We still had desk phones back in 2012).
To get better at my job, I started to take notes. I had learned a bit about memory and how it works through a couple psych classes and some reading (see: Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer). Note taking seemed like a reasonable way to help my retention of information. Even if I forgot something, I’d have a record of it.
So I took notes. I took a lot of notes.
Each time I missed something that miss was reinforced by my manager (who didn’t seem to miss a trick). Each time I felt more guilty for forgetting, more stressed. It became my mission not to miss anything.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was establishing an unhealthy cycle towards obsessive note taking. On meetings rather than listen and synthesize what I was hearing onto the page in my own words, it became a lesson in stenography, copying the exact words onto the page as quickly as possible. I built mountains of notes that would make the Rockies blush.
Remember that jacked up Stream of Consciousness from Figure B above? After some time reinforcing this behavior, two things happened…
- I became more aware of my thoughts.
- In places where my Stream of Consciousness would previously hum along, I would find myself mired in thought eddies.
I’d wake up and hum through the day until a meeting of consequence. (At that time in my career, meetings were the most consequential parts of my days, therefore the most dreaded). Then after that meeting I’d retrace what I’d heard. I would enter the funnel and fall into a spiral of thought retracing the conversation in my mind, the rest of my day preoccupied with that activity.
When it began, it wasn’t every meeting. It was just the occasional meeting. However, the cycle I found myself in didn’t have a limiting principle. There was no logical conclusion on this slippery slope that would protect me from descending further. Time passed and it continued to rear its head after more and more meetings. Fewer and fewer days went by without an event.
Then this behavior spread to other areas of my life. Phone calls with my loved ones became exercises in note taking and recall. Dinner dates with my friends became exchanges where I pretended to be texting others, when really I was jotting down details from the conversation so I wouldn’t forget something important. Checking Twitter in bed before I started the day became the launching off point into a day of distress.
One of the saddest realities I confront when I reflect on the dark days is that I remember very little of the details of my life during this time. OCD robbed me of my attention during much of my 20s, a time that is supposed to be the prime of life.
If you don’t struggle with OCD then I expect this sounds different from what you’d expect. It’s a lot different than the throw away lines you’ll hear from people like “I like to keep myself organized. I’m a little OCD.” I don’t fault anyone who thinks that’s all OCD is. I didn’t understand it until I had to. The reality is that OCD can manifest in many, many ways. For me it was in forgetting and note taking. For some its scrupulosity and sinning. For others is germs and hand washing. At the root of every OCD diagnosis is a neuro-chemical discomfort (to put it lightly) with uncertainty. And the longer it goes untreated, the more it spreads to other areas of your life and the deeper its hold on you becomes.
And by the time you realize that there’s something clinically wrong, it’s hard to pull yourself out. Really hard. Hard but certainly not impossible. If you’re reading this and you have a friend, family member or colleague that’s suffering my hope is that you understand their plight even just a little bit better after reading this. It can be hard to talk about this stuff with other people when you’re in the middle of it.
For me it inspired a lot of shame that I tried my hardest to hide. A lot of times people with OCD struggle in private right in front of our faces. After my personal experience Googling and finding nothing about my experience, I decided to dedicate time writing about my experience to help people feel less alone, and perhaps to encourage people that there is hope. Because there is hope. This is something that can be beaten. I speak from experience.
If you’re looking to educate yourself further on the topic there are a lot of resources out there. Of course in the world of 2022 some resources are better than others. A few resources that I found particularly helpful on my journey are below.
- Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
- The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam
- Freedom From OCD by Dr. Jonathan Grayson
Thanks for reading. ✌️& 💜.
Written while watching 📽 Super Bowl LVI.