I am very familiar with OCD. If this were a perfect world, OCD would just be a texting term to compliment me on my fashion sense – Oh, Cute Dress! But instead, OCD is an acronym for a disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I have suffered with OCD for a good portion of my life. I believe I first started to notice OCD when I was in my 30s. At first, it was not what I would think of as a serious problem. I would find myself mostly worrying about whether I had turned appliances off – both in my office and in my home. But it must have been serious enough that one time I drove back to my office on a winter night to check to see if the coffee pot in the office where I worked was off. As is usually the case when one has OCD, the coffee pot was off. My OCD became apparent to my close friends. One friend told me that I should just have a circuit breaker that controlled all my appliances at my front door so I could just turn the breaker off when I left my condo.
I think my OCD is an inherited trait from my Mother. My whole life, I can remember that she worried about things. But it seemed to become obsessive worrying about certain things as she got older. It seems like every time she went on a lengthy trip with her sisters, she would call me with something new to worry about. Once it was the fact that her identity had been stolen and her credit card account had been impacted. I listened to why she was worried about this and concluded that there was no need for concern. I called her credit card company myself and got a balance check on her still open account. But she was inconsolable until I finally assured her that I would check her credit card and bank balances while she was traveling and let her know if anything was amiss. Needless to say, all was fine with her accounts.
I also remember a couple of times where she called me from the airport because she was concerned that she had left her front door unlocked. On one occasion, I called her neighbor and asked her to check on the door. Of course, the door was locked tighter than a drum. On the other occasion, I went to her house on my own and found that everything was fine – the door was locked and the alarm was on. But I could not criticize her for worrying about this because I tended to check and re-check to see if my door was locked before I traveled. Sometimes, I would go back up to my apartment to check yet again to confirm that the door was locked.
I talked to a therapist about my obsessive thoughts and read several books he recommended. I remember one book where the author gave a number of examples of people with serious OCD. One example I remember was a man who was convinced that his car was leaking a dangerous substance onto the road. He would go out at night when there was little traffic and try to scrub the substance off the road. I remember thinking – thank God, I have never obsessed about that! But I also knew that I needed to get my OCD under control.
The book compared a person’s brain with OCD to a car that was stuck in a low gear and couldn’t shift to the next gear. One of the techniques suggested in the book was to do something detailed that would take your mind off thinking about whatever was the focus of your obsession. I started to do crossword puzzles. I found that I would get so involved in solving the clues that soon the obsessive thoughts were gone and I could see that the thoughts and their dire results had no basis in fact. This technique helped me manage my OCD for years. As I said, I read a number of books and I gave them away. But I think the book may have been Brain Lock by Jeffrey Schwartz.
When I learned I had heart failure and as it progressively worsened, the OCD seemed to come back with a vengeance. I am not quite sure why. Perhaps it was because the concept of heart failure was just too scary to obsess about. I mean, unlike my silly little worries, something really bad could happen with my heart. So perhaps my brain just started to fixate on things that were not possible or probable, but that if they happened, could cause some damage.
It was clear to me that I would need more than crossword puzzles to tackle the resurgence of OCD episodes. I am thankful that I was already seeing a therapist when the OCD returned. Who better to help me try to overcome this disorder? And let me tell you, she really has earned her fee helping me try to put the OCD episodes I have experienced into perspective.
We have tried a number of different techniques with increasing success. Most important, I began to understand that nothing that I have ever been anxious about has actually occurred. I realized that what feeds my OCD is (1) finding something to put all my worry into that isn’t my heart failure, and (2) finding things to worry about that if they indeed happened, could cause damage or harm to others. You see, I did not really worry about leaving my door unlocked that much because the only person who would be harmed was me. But if for example, I left the stove on, or if the dishwasher overflowed, that could cause harm or damage to other people in my building. Or if I did something stupid while driving, I could kill or harm someone, or cause property damage.
There is a saying that admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. I think that this is true. But the fixing part can still be a challenge. Happily, with my therapist’s help, I gained a number of tools that I use each time the OCD ogre rears its ugly head. First, I have an OCD workbook that has self-assessment tools that help me to identify the various obsessions and compulsions that haunt me. To make a long process short, the book helps you figure out what triggers the anxieties and fears that cause the obsessive or compulsive behavior. The book also helps you work through ways to challenge the behavior. I remember doing a lot of written exercises to help me evaluate the thoughts that were causing me to engage in obsessive or compulsive behavior. The book also provides strategies that can be used to challenge or restructure your thoughts.
The book has been invaluable. I think my training as a lawyer was also invaluable. I was able to argue the case of why I should not worry about this particular thought coming to fruition. I would challenge the lack of evidence for an upsetting thought. After working through the lack of evidence and arguing against the obsession, I was able to become calmer and snatch my thoughts away from OCD.
I also had a good friend who became my OCD lifeline. Whenever the obsessive thought was so strong that I could not totally annihilate it on my own, I would e-mail her. I would describe the thought that was obsessing me. Sometimes just describing the thought and hitting send made me realize how silly it was. But it helped to read her responses, which always had some really good insights and advice that helped me to realize I had nothing to worry about.
When I have an obsessive thought that I have to work through, I will sometimes e-mail my therapist. She lets me know that she likes the way I am working through my anxiety and not letting it rule my life. To me, there is no sin in asking for help to get you through the bad times, because then going forward you realize that you have a support network to rely on when necessary. But sometimes that assurance in and of itself is enough. So lately, I have been able to quell the thought on my own without e-mailing anyone. To me, this is true progress.
I have coined a new term for what I am suffering from: Red Herring Disorder or RHD. A red herring is an irrelevant fact that becomes so dominant in your mind that it stops you from thinking about the really relevant, important facts. So in my mind the red herring tricks me into thinking it pertains to a real hazard, and distracts me from just getting on with living in a fulfilling way. So I decided when the red herring comes up, I will tell myself "that is not important, but here is what it important". To me, the things that really count are: not being judgmental, helping those out who are less fortunate, staying in touch with the people who count, finding things to do that challenge your mind and are fulfilling. Oh – and occasionally when the fashion diva kicks in – Oh, Cute Dress!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.