Tuesday, February 27, 2018

When You Have to Fight Your Nature

Gus's nature? Take the burger. 
No regrets. No remorse.
We all have natural inclinations that we should fight against for our own good.  

These demons come in many different forms.  If you have OCD, one of yours may be naturally seeking out reassurance to combat self-doubt.  If you have anxiety, you may naturally jump to the worst conclusion in every situation. 

Whatever your demons are, building character involves the difficult process of learning to combat these internal signals to craft a better self.

With this in mind, I have realized that my dog, Gus, is honestly one of the most noble creatures I know.

Those who have met Gus or have heard of his antics may be surprised by this.  Gus has bitten 3 of the 4 members of my bridal party.  Gus snarls, guards his food, and barks at strangers. He has seen a behavioral therapist for his anxiety and paranoia, resulting in a regimen of anti-anxiety medication, and he still gets very ornery.

But Gus is growing.  This morning, I went to give him his kiss goodbye and I got snarled at.  I knew to back away, and I went to sit on a nearby chair where I knew I would not come across as threatening. Gus followed me, did some light angry nibbles on my hand, and then, still slightly snarling, jumped up on me for a hug.  

I was moved.

Some of you may read this and wonder how I could possibly view this as positive.  Here's the thing: Gus showed restraint.  You could tell that he was really trying to be good...  The mismatch of his snarls and his cuddles revealed the internal struggle between his natural inclination to attack vs. his desire to show love and not hurt his loved ones.

Now, you may accuse me of anthropomorphism, but I think this experience really highlights something important about judging human behavior.  Certain instincts vary from individual to individual, and how impressive it is for someone to abstain from a behavior really depends on that specific person's natural inclinations toward that behavior.  

Anger is a solid example.  Most people don't bite, but a lot of them yell.  Personally, I rarely have outbursts where I scream at the target of my rage. However, I know that there are people who really struggle not to snap at others whenever they are frustrated.  In my opinion, when those people don't yell at someone, it is much more admirable than when I do not yell at someone.

Another way to think about it? Imagine fresh, hot french fries.  There may be two people who decline to eat them, but if one of those people hates the taste of french fries, their act of restraint just isn't as commendable or meaningful.

Trying to fight our negative instincts is the only way we can stop them from controlling our lives.  Even small steps matter.  If you have an OCD fear of germs and manage to ignore your compulsion to wash your hands an extra time? You have fought a harmful instinct.  If your depression tells you to stay in bed all day, but you get up anyway? You have fought a harmful instinct.  If your eating disorder tells you to binge, but you stop after one plate? You have fought a harmful instinct.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking comparable actions require comparable strengths of character.  Context matters.  Evolving and becoming stronger means that you have to appreciate these little victories in your unique journey.  

Congratulate yourself on the small improvements.  The little actions add up.

This is how we grow.  This is how we triumph.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

OCD Paradox: Wanting and Fearing Control

Kind of like Ketchup and Mustard,
these opposing flavors somehow fit
together on the OCD sandwich. 
If you have experienced life with OCD (or have read other entries on this blog), then by now you know that OCD is a very strange beast.

It doesn't always make a lot of sense - even to the person who is experiencing it.

One of OCD's trademarks is anxiety about what's to come.  I worry about what might go wrong.  I worry about what negative consequences might result from a scenario.  I jump to the absolute worst conclusions naturally and with ease.  

Compulsions often come into play when the OCD sufferer is trying to stop something bad from happening.  As an easy example... If I was worried that germs on my hand were going to get someone else sick, then I might wash my hands to try and take back control of the situation and take the concern away.

For someone who is constantly worried about bad outcomes, it seems like a natural thing that I would want to step up whenever possible to maintain the best control that I can over what's to come.

Except no.  It's not that simple.

One of OCD's other trademarks is doubt.  You'd be amazed what OCD can make you question.  This doubt can lead to an intense desire to avoid situations where you have to be in control.  

I HATE having responsibility for something if I can avoid it, because the OCD doubt makes me question myself and whether or not I have done things appropriately.  I'm such a great worrier, and the more I am responsible for, the more there is for me to worry about.

For a simple illustration of this opposite phenomenon, even keeping my own time clock at work could drive me crazy.  What if I write something down wrong?  How can I really prove to myself that I marked my time correctly?  Was I really there at 9:57 am, or should I have marked 9:58 am?  

Having a clock-in machine at one of my jobs has been such a relief just because it takes that concern off of my shoulders.  It marks the time that you click on arrival, and there is no self-reporting... no room for a mismark.  

Wanting to have control over outcomes while also fearing that you will mess up anything you are in control of can be a maddening situation.  This is one of those OCD tragedies: a seemingly lose-lose situation where OCD can creep in from either side.  

So, what can you do about this kind of thing?

You actually have to work on both sides, because control in life is both something that you need to take while also accepting that you never truly have completely.  

You can work with a therapist on learning to accept that sometimes you can't control situations, and that the motto "Let go and let God" is sometimes your best bet.  At the same time, you can't let yourself avoid any situation where it is appropriate to take the reigns.  Having a therapist lead you through Exposure Response Prevention therapy (exposing you to situations where you need to take control and aren't allowed to perform the compulsions you use to eliminate doubt) can help you grow in this area.

As usual, it's all about balance.  May we all continue to work towards it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

When Your OCD Therapist Retires

Nothing says 'thanks' like a puppy card.
Today was my last appointment with my therapist.

Don't get me wrong, this was not because I have achieved a zen state of perfect well-being and faced all of my demons; this was because she is retiring.

It's a very bizarre experience when your therapist leaves.  Here is this woman that I have spent years confiding in, telling her things that I don't tell even some of my close friends.  She has been there through the ups and downs of my dating saga with my fiancé, leading up to his proposal and into wedding planning... and now *poof* we will never speak again.  I wonder if it's a bit unsettling to her as well in some ways, not knowing what will happen to me and other clients - not getting to finish the story.

She warned me she was retiring about three months ago.  This woman certainly has every right to do so.  I know not to take it personally, and lucky I am stable enough that this isn't a true crisis. Still, it is a frustrating experience in many ways to lose your therapist.

With OCD, and the intrusive thoughts that accompany it, every time you share your story you have to worry about how it will be received.  This is true even when you talk to new mental health professionals, as not all of them are OCD experts.  Mental illness is very vast and mysterious, and a therapist simply can't be an expert in every diagnosis.  The intrusive thoughts trouble you enough, and then when you share them with someone new, you worry and wonder:  Will the person understand?  Will the person panic and think I'm a freak or a monster?  Will the person misinterpret what I'm saying?

I definitely had these fears when I found out my therapist was retiring, and they were compounded when she warned me that there weren't that many OCD specialists in the area... especially female ones.  Given that I prefer to work with a woman as my therapist, I was very worried I may be left to dry.

When we spoke originally about where I would go next, my therapist shared the idea that I could work with someone in her office who was practiced in anxiety and wanted to learn about OCD.  She believed that since currently my OCD was relatively stable, and since I had learned a lot over the years about OCD, I didn't necessarily need a specialist for regular visits.  

Though she suggested I could always get an OCD specialist for emergencies, I didn't want any part of this plan.  My OCD can come on strong seemingly out of nowhere, and I don't want to be a guinea pig for someone just learning about OCD.  The wrong reaction to an OCD crisis could be very damaging.  I've already had an experience with a psychiatrist who seemed to have no idea how OCD worked.  I didn't want to go through that again.

Luckily, I spoke up and I have an appointment booked next week with one of the few female OCD specialists (Always speak up y'all!). My therapist knows her, likes her, and was able to arrange to transfer a number of her clients to her.

So, today was bittersweet.  I gave my therapist her final update on my life, gave her a card with puppies on it that thanked her for everything, and gave her a little gift: three matching notebooks wrapped in a bow, the top of which reads "You are stronger than you think."  I thought this was appropriate, since she always made me feel that way.  I wish her all the best, and I can only hope that next week when I meet my new therapist/OCD spirit guide, that we can connect in the same way.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

New Year, New Me - BC Pill Free!

Me: "I want to do a blog post, but I don't have a picture"
Fiancé:  "Use a picture of me!"
Back in May, I did a blog post about my experience on the pill. Since then, I had actually settled in nicely to my new pill that had three weeks of the same level of hormones.

Things were good and steady, so that was when my insurance decided it was time for a change.

Without consulting my doctor, the insurance company decided that all birth control pills were created equal and therefore I should be switched to the cheapest one.

The problem here is that the cheapest one was completely different.  It cycles through three levels of hormones instead of keeping me on one steady level.  During the first pack, I had my period for 2.5 weeks after it was supposed to end.  I also turned very mentally unstable.

I was constantly frustrated and depressed through mid-December.  There was a lot of anger and crying.  I cried in the grocery store aisle when a box of Frosted Flakes reminded me of my dad (a man who is still alive and well.)  I cried once again at the end of Titanic (a movie I have seen 5,000 times.  It really is a beautiful film though.)  The depression and anxiety was overwhelming.

I called the doctor, but the doctor's office didn't pick up the phone and there was nowhere to leave a message.  Mom said I was being too impatient and hanging up too early, so I called back, put the phone on speaker, and let her listen to it ring from the dining room table until she acquiesced that they were indeed not answering.

It took a few more weeks before I tried back.  Why?  Because even picking up the phone seemed overwhelming.  Every little task felt frustrating at the time.  

The good news is, they did pick up.  My doctor called me back and I told her I wanted off of these things for good.  I was right at the end of a monthly pack, and she said I could just stop.

I had read that the side effects of going off the pill could be interesting and somewhat negative.  I've been lucky so far: I have been BC pill free for about two weeks now, and I feel great!   

Ultimately, the side effects were not worth it for me.  I'm excited to fully return to my natural hormonal balance.  There are other ways, and BC is a personal decision for everyone.  I've talked to other female friends who decided to get off the pill, or change which pill they take, for the same reason.  I have other friends who are fine on the pill.

Going through this process made me realize that freedom from the pill is the best decision for my mental health.  Stepping into 2018, this is a triumph for me, and I encourage other women to consider all of their options.  Rather than just sticking with what your friends do, or what you feel you can "deal with", make the best choice for your own wellbeing.  You're worth it girl.  Let's make this our best year yet!

Monday, December 4, 2017

In Clorox We Trust

If you are a woman who has reached a certain age in America, you have been
invited to a shopping party.  These are parties where women get together and someone gives a presentation to sell them things like jewelry, makeup, or
In Clorox We Trust.
Tupperware.  The hostess gets free gifts and the participants learn about new items and enjoy the quintessential female pastime of buying things they don't need. 

Well, Mom and I headed to one recently for a company called Norwex.  They sell cleaning products, and they are focused on natural.  Less artificial.  Less chemicals.  More clean.

Though it wasn't her intention, with the OCD between me and my mother, this party merely highlighted our blind faith in soap.

In the middle of her presentation, the presenter stepped into the kitchen to prove that Norwex's microfiber towels could clean raw chicken with just water.

My mom looked at me like the woman had just suggested the sky was green.

The presenter rubbed raw chicken on my friend's kitchen counter.  She wiped the area with the special towel and water.  She took a bacteria testing kit and proved to us that the bacteria was gone from the counter. 

My mom gave me a knowing look.  There was no way in hell she accepted this.

The presenter then proceeded to pull out Clorox wipes and ask how many people actually read the instructions and followed them.  

My mom alone raised her hand.  

The presenter had not anticipated that.  She then wanted to know if people realized how much Clorox actually needed to be used to be effective, and if they understood that the counter had to then be cleaned with water after.  

My mom again rose her hand, the sole religious follower of disinfectant wipes.

One of mom's OCD fears is death by raw chicken.  Her OCD germ fears have always outpaced mine.  That being said, we are both more afraid of germs than chemicals.  It's funny, because I don't even really know what the scientific definition of a germ is.  I certainly couldn't explain to you how soap works to get rid of them.  All I know is that the concept of washing without soap makes me extremely anxious.

This Norwex woman could have talked all day about how chemicals were going to make us sick and potentially harm our children.  She actually gave me new concerns I hadn't even considered (Impressive!).  But what she didn't do was convince me that her products had the solution and that water alone could battle raw chicken and other germ nemeses in the home.

She had the scientific test, but OCD germ fears are not about a scientific understanding of germs.  We need to feel safe from harm, and what makes us feel safe does not always make perfect sense.

I can think of a perfect example from years ago.  I used to be very worried when I washed my hands that I didn't wash high enough up my arms to get all the germs, but I found that washing up to my elbows was too messy and got water everywhere.  Solution: Febreze.  I would wash my hands and then spray my arms with Febreze. 

Febreze is not for people.  I knew that.  There was no scientific reason to believe this was an effective method for anything.  Didn't matter... I kept doing it.  All that mattered was that this compulsion took away the anxiety.  OCD is a funny thing that way.

The party got me thinking about how much OCD can focus more on the feeling of clean over what is really clean.  Trying to balance what feels good with what actually should be done is a constant battle.  

There is a healthy balance to seek.  At the end of this party, I ended up buying a dishtowel.  I'm still a big believer in soap, but maybe I'll strive for a pump or two less next time.  Small steps. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bring Your Fiancé To Therapy Day

Life sentence. :)
So, my fiancé who is normally out of town Wednesday mornings happened to be in town a couple of weeks ago when I had a therapy appointment scheduled.  I knew he had been curious about how best to support me when I'm having an OCD or anxiety crisis, so I decided to bring him in to therapy.

While my therapist gave him some nice advice and a good handout with some strategies for coaching me, she also gave him one piece of advice that I did NOT appreciate.  

He told her about a particular instance where I was crying inconsolably at 3 am over something I had no control over and asked her what he could do next time.  She said he could go to another room and go to sleep. 

Are you for real, lady?

Now I understand this perspective if crying in panic was a nightly habit... even if it was a weekly habit or bimonthly habit.  Obviously if someone is irrationally upset and having hysterical breakdowns late into the night on the regular, that person should not expect a partner to stay up and suffer every single time.

But that is not the case with me.  Not even close.  This was a very upsetting circumstance regarding a family member that lead to what I still see as genuinely justifiable sadness for that person's current situation and potential poor prospects for the future.  

When I was crying, did anxiety lead me to catastrophize?  Absolutely.  But in many ways, this situation was a catastrophe without any help from my anxiety-ridden brain.

One of the tragedies of having anxiety and OCD is that you can often fall prey to "Boy Who Cried Wolf" syndrome.  You get anxious and upset often enough that when something is really bad and you are reasonably upset, people tend to still see you as unreasonable.  

My therapist may have many years of experience with anxious patients, but I can tell you what I know based on 28 years of being me:  If my fiancé had gotten up and walked out to sleep on the couch that night while I was panicking, he would not only have had a panicking and upset fiancée at 3 am.  No, that would have quickly transformed into an extremely hurt, angry, panicking and upset fiancée at 3 am 

I let my fiancé know that I was not okay with the therapist's conclusion on this issue, and we talked it over.  I think he agreed at least in part with my side.  

It is true that you cannot always be the best judge of what you need, but a therapist's advice won't perfectly apply to every situation you have either.  You have to fit that advice into your life in a way that works for you, and try to make strategies and suggestions fit your individual situation.

Ultimately, I'm glad that my fiancé came with me to therapy if only that it opened up more lines of communication on these issues.  I'm very lucky to have a partner with me on my fight against OCD and anxiety.  Navigating these obstacles will be a challenge, but one I know we can face together.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

OCD Week and the Importance of Awareness

Sometimes, it's the society that's really insane.
It's 2017 OCD Week!  I can't believe it has been a year already.  Once again, it is time to raise our voices together to try to build more awareness about what OCD really is.

This week comes every year right around Halloween.  I was actually at a haunted house recently that reminded me of how important OCD Week really is.

I hadn't been to a haunted house in like 10 years, but my fiancé and I were looking for something fun and different to do.  And it was fun.  Four different themed haunted houses with pop-out scares... including one simply titled "Insane Asylum."

Now, I'm not one of those people who demands complete political correctness at all times. I understand why the "Insane Asylum" has become a Halloween staple. Mentally ill can sometimes mean unpredictable, which can in turn sometimes mean dangerous, which is something that people fear.  

But the problem is, most mentally ill people are not dangerous; they're just tortured and hurting.  On top of that, a number of the mentally ill people who are "dangerous" are only in danger of causing harm to themselves.

Insane asylums are all but gone at this point, because the scariest part of them was not the patients themselves but how many people were mistreated. If you actually look into the history of "Insane Asylums", it is very disturbing and horrifying... but not in the fun Halloween way.  I had to try and put those realities behind me and just enjoy the rest of the night, facing more "fun" villains like clowns and masked monsters.

But I couldn't help but realize that I have considered committing myself in the past to some sort of mental health facility.  I have never been dangerous, but more than once I have been so scared and overwhelmed by the intrusive thoughts that accompany OCD that I have considered seeking refuge somewhere that intensive treatment could be provided.  

I was lucky enough to have family support.  I had a diagnosis and I had access to outpatient mental healthcare.  I was secure enough in my position that I didn't feel the need to hide that something was wrong or deny that I had a mental illness that needed treatment.  Unfortunately, many are not so lucky.

I know someone who is currently facing serious mental health issues.  She not only clearly struggles with some mental illness, she also deals with some other problems as well.  The worst part is, I'm not sure that she knows life can be any better.  Her family does not discuss such matters.  Their pride and the stigma related to any mental "defect" stop them from dealing with the problems.

I hope that soon we can all get to the point that we stop judging people for the mental problems that they face.  I hope that enough people raise awareness that we stop seeing the mentally ill as haunted house characters, and start to see them as real people.  The less stigma attached to mental illness, the more people will feel like they can come forward and get the help that they need.

Therapy and medication are nothing to be ashamed of.  Whether it is OCD or Schizophrenia or Borderline Personality Disorder... it is okay to admit you have a problem.  Working to become the best person that you can be... acknowledging and facing your shortcomings and making changes to fix them?That's bravery.