It took the world’s fourth most powerful super computer 40 minutes to model a single second of human brain activity. I frequently imagine computers to have vast intellectual processing abilities, but really, each human brain is a more powerful processor than even the most advanced computers. The brain is an amazing machine that is constantly taking in sensory information and processing it in such a way to help each individual survive and prosper.
One thing the brain does quite well at a subconscious level is to try to determine all possible outcomes of a given situation simultaneously, and decide what is the most likely to occur. For example, someone extending a hand is likely trying to offer a greeting, but our brains will process other possibilities so quickly that we don’t even register them. The extended hand could be a trick and they may punch you instead, or they may grab you inappropriately, they might turn away before you get the chance to extend your hand back, or if you do shake their hand, they may have rubbed their palm through dog poo right beforehand. While unlikely, these are all strange but legitimate possibilities that you are always somewhat aware of, though little credence is ever ascribed to them.
Unless, like me, you have obsessive-compulsive disorder. One of the most pervasive problems associated with OCD is something called “intrusive thoughts.” Someone with OCD is usually very sensitive to what is and isn’t considered socially or morally appropriate. Whenever a passing thought pops up that is in some way reprehensible, the OCD brain plays it out repeatedly causing severe anxiety. Frequently the only way to at least temporarily relieve this anxiety is to perform compulsive actions.
OCD doesn’t mean being fastidious. It doesn’t mean being a perfectionist. It doesn’t mean keeping a clean house. It means living a life feeling apart, abnormal even. I cringe a little when I hear someone say: “I’m so OCD!” simply because they keep a spotless kitchen. That’s not OCD. There’s an almost positive connotation to OCD because it is associated with being driven and hygienic. Either that, or there’s an assumption that we’re all just like Howard Hughes. For most people, it’s somewhere in the middle.
Here’s an example of the obsessive-compulsive mind. You may see a person crossing the street from your vehicle, and think that you could physically run them over. You would usually dismiss this as an odd thought because, of course, you would never actually do that. Someone with OCD might think the same thing, and the thought will replay over and over again causing debilitating stress. The OCD individual may even check their front fenders a few times after driving, or return to the crosswalk to make sure that they did not actually run someone over. They will know by memory that nothing happened, but the fear and anxiety of even considering causing harm to another human being is so intense that checking to make sure it didn’t happen seems to be the only option.
There are many foci for worry to the OCD brain. Some people fear causing harm to themselves or others, some fear disturbing God, and some fear for their own health, among infinite obsessions. Some people are more obsessive, and others more compulsive. The compulsions are usually rituals that are preformed as a way to temporarily ease anxiety on a particular obsession. Some people may touch something to make sure it’s still there, or clean and wash repeatedly to dispel germs, or check the locks a dozen times before finally believing that they may be locked. The relief from doing these things never lasts long. The thought always comes back that maybe one more washing is in order, one more touch, or one more check of the lock.
My OCD normally materializes in intrusive thoughts, hypochondria, intermittent bouts of checking things repeatedly, localized skin picking, and a difficulty in making variations to routines. I make daily to-do lists and get upset or despondent when I don’t complete them. I’m afraid that if I don’t make the lists I’ll forget to do something and my life will somehow eventually spiral out of control, inevitably ending in the destruction of mankind. So I keep to my lists to preserve humanity (you’re welcome).
For years I’ve been convinced that any blemish near my lips was actually a touch of mouth herpes cleverly disguised as a zit, although to this day I’ve never had a cold sore. Every headache or slight dip in energy has been personally scrutinized for fear of cancer or AIDS. While I do not lead the type of lifestyle frequently associated with HIV or AIDS, I have concocted more than one elaborate scenario that could undoubtedly do the trick. This is actually one of the reasons that I rarely get my nails done.
When I think of something that I will need to do eventually, it is very difficult for me to sit still and not do it. I have a hard time leaving dishes on the table as soon as the food is off them. I want to immediately put them in the dishwasher because I can’t relax if I know that sooner or later the dishes will need to be done, or the soda cans recycled, or the laundry folded. Even if I’m in the middle of a conversation or at a crucial plot point in a movie at home with my husband, I’ll get up and perform chores because I can’t sit still until they’re done. I inevitably find more things that need doing while in the process of completing my current chore and the cycle continues until I tire out. More than anything I’m afraid of forgetting, so I try to make sure I get everything done as soon as I think of it.
I also worry for the sake of worrying. On some level I believe that if I worry about a negative possibility the act of worrying will prevent it from happening. In my logical mind, I know this isn’t true. Knowing that what you’re doing is illogical, but not being able to stop doing it is one of the extremely frustrating and depressing aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
One of the most difficult problems I have is in meeting new people, which is very convenient when I move every couple of years. My mind likes to play a little game of “what would be the most inappropriate thing to do right now?” Usually the images of kissing, spitting on, or punching a new person rotate through my brain. I have never, and strongly suspect I will never do any of these, but if the thought is there, the worry is there. And unfortunately, I can’t stop my brain from imagining all of the most horrifying scenarios. The worst is meeting a pregnant woman. I usually keep my distance for fear of what my mind will start projecting on a seemingly never-ending loop through my head.
A therapist once told me that people with OCD and intrusive thoughts are usually very sensitive. That is why we experience such horror at the thought of doing something we deem terrible. We are also usually the least likely to act out any of our terrible thoughts. The compulsions are an attempt to satisfy, corral, or even atone for the thoughts we have. It’s a small comfort to know I’m sensitive.
It used to be a lot worse. There was a time when I attempted to give myself physicals a dozen times a day then made a doctor’s appointment if I thought I detected an abnormality. I missed a week of school once because intrusive thoughts gave me such bad anxiety that I could barely keep food down. I used to get out of bed each night and re-check the locks and stove even though I’d done that multiple times before retiring. These are only a few examples that I feel comfortable with sharing. There are many more.
I’m currently medicated and I lead a relatively low-stress life. Things that used to need doing are less at the forefront of my mind. I don’t always think about spitting on people when I meet them, and as long as I’m not home alone, I’ll allow the door to be unlocked for sections of the day. I still have intrusive thoughts, and I still have some compulsions, but they are fewer, and are generally relegated to areas in my life that aren’t disruptive to living.
I used to see medication as a personal failure. In the spectrum of mental health conditions, the general population supports, for example, schizophrenics or bi-polar individuals to stick to a regime of medications. Those who suffer from depression and/or anxiety are often met with the condescension that they should just deal with it. Everyone gets anxious or depressed sometimes after all. Then I realized that if I could “just deal with it,” I wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. My OCD is defined by my inability to dissuade intrusive thoughts and compulsions. Without medication I can go for weeks with little to no sleep and experience periods of deep depression because I feel so desperately out of control in my own mind.
I recognize that what’s right for me isn’t for everyone. But I hope that everyone realizes that we all have a choice, and no choice is wrong. I have a condition, and I chose to take medication because it has helped. It’s not a failure. Others with similar issues may choose therapy or meditation or any number of options that alleviate symptoms. I did not choose to have an anxiety disorder with depressive repercussions, but I am choosing to be open and vocal about it, because it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of who I am.