The seemingly contagious annoying millennial habit of saying “literally” before any declaration hasn’t infiltrated my dialogue exchange yet. A not-so-small mercy as “literally” is the new “like” of colloquial language and that’s depressing. But I have my own overly used terms and phrases that I need to dispense of so I shouldn’t be too judgmental. I definitely need to revamp my response repertoire. “That’s hilarious” or “that is amazing!” or even just “amazing” have been overly played out as my default response to whatever anecdotal retelling someone shares with me. But the one phrase that I say often, whether to someone aloud or in my head, and which I desperately wish didn’t need saying is “that’s not me.” The interesting thing about that phrase is that I say it in extremes. Sometimes it comes out barely audible or even just exhaustedly whispered in my own head. Other times I’m screaming it out of frustration and anger.
The situational context in which I say, “that’s not me” is a very familiar one and yet I’m still not impervious or “habituated,” so each time it occurs and for some moments thereafter, I lose a little enthusiasm for life and certainly a bit more of my soul. That’s no hyperbole. To regain my appreciation for being alive takes many reminders and thoughts of all the gifts in my life that I love.
I say “that’s not me” to explain my reaction to OCD triggers either to someone else, or as a reminder to myself. Because the way I react to an OCD trigger is the very opposite of me and how I would react. “I” meaning the intellectual identity and belief system that my truth. “I” meaning the intrinsic essence of my character and my true intentions were they left to my will. Spelling that out all over again here is a redundancy, which I dislike, but unfortunately a truth that bears repeating, again, as explanation to others and reminder to myself….that OCD is not me. OCD is the opposite of who I am. It is my worst enemy – peddler of extremely charged irrational fear, hell bent to destroy all I care about. My reaction — acquiescing to my compulsion to an OCD trigger — is OCD as “decision maker.”
That’s not me. It is my opposite. It is my supreme enemy. The enemy of everyone and everything I care about. But when it is at the controls, it is the divergent transgression of me that you see compelled to compulsions, behavior, and decisions that seem unnecessary, odd, irrational, unjust, hurtful, exhausting. It’s an antithetical lapse of my being. It is horrible. When you see me engaged in such behavior, please believe, that’s. not. me.
Again, I know that’s a massive ask. Because your eyes and ears show you I’m the one saying the words and doing the things and arguing to make the nonsensical actions seem reasonable and normal. But that’s not me. That’s OCD. And inside that visible external Shell of Fear that’s invoking intrusive, irrational, highly disturbing thoughts, and controlling my words, my body; inside that seemingly ludicrousness person you are seeing in the moment of an OCD trigger; inside there, screaming for help, but hearing the pleas twisted into OCD driven avoidance excuses; inside that shell, banging against it from within as it speaks the excuses and lies of OCD in my voice through from lips; in there seeing all this unfold and seeing the OCD in complete control of my body and actions; inside all that external thrashing-pandemonium-generator is the real me.
Yes, I see and hear it all from inside the Fear Shell; an omniscient, reversed “out of body” experience. I see it unfolding from inside. I’m horrified. I want it to stop. Stop using my voice from my lips to form words and argue excuses that aren’t mine. Stop creating chaos where there is meant to be none. Stop wasting energy, stop forsaking emotional stability, stop torturing me and others. I see it all but can’t do anything. Not while OCD is at full charge. The OCD battery has to burn itself down before my words can come out. The charge has to diffuse.
It takes a while after an OCD trigger, for the real me to be able to penetrate through that Fear Shell you just witnessed. But when I do, I try to convey that what you just saw and heard, well, that’s just not me. That’s not who I am. And because I’m so drained/frustrated/bewildered and coming off sheer panic and intense grasping-at-straws which I desperately tried to pass off as normalcy, I’m either screaming “THAT’S NOT ME!” at you or muttering it to myself. Either way, the communication is ineffective. It’s unheard. So please try to remember for the next time you see the Fear Shell in effect at full charge….that’s. not. me.
But wait, you’re almost thirty posts into this blog! You read through the baffling descriptions and seemingly insane scenarios to eventually arrive at some happy resolve! You read that I went to McLean Hospital’s OCD Institution, went through the mentally taxing treatment exercises, was placed on a medication regimen that seemed to be working, and “came through the other side” of that dark tunnel to find happiness and rejoin the living! Why am I now writing about OCD triggers again and wanting people to know my reacting to them isn’t me?? Aren’t we passed that?!….Well yes, we were. But there’s no cure for OCD. It can creep back in if you let it. And somehow, unwittingly and certainly undesirably, I did.
If you remember, it wasn’t long after my stay at McLean that I moved to Boston. That’s when I was most liberated. I was rid of OCD, which really means I had gotten it to a very manageable level – learned how to keep it significantly at bay. So I was able to live again. And after years of being tormented by OCD, boy did I want to live! I had a life again and an amplified zeal for it!
A new friend: Want to get some drinks at this new bar?
A new friend: Want to meet my friends, so-and-so and have dinner at their house tonight?
A new friend: Want to head to so-and-so brewery tomorrow?
A new friend: Want to join my flag football league?
A new friend: Want to head to Vermont with us for a ski weekend?
A new friend: Want to —
I was up for any any adventure and was meeting a lot of new people. Everything was new and unknown and I wasn’t scared! It was exciting and I was absolutely loving it! How could I not, after years of isolation, stuck inside my head with my hateful thoughts?! I was feeling more alive and free since….well, way too long, and I wanted to feel that sensation as much as possible.
But a few years later, when my new adventurous self ventured past the novelty of being in a new city and doing new things, and my zest for newness had settled some, I slowly reverted to my predilection for anything that was a cozy indoor activity. I taxed the Holly Golightly bon vivant phase of my Breakfast at Tiffany’s Boston life and was ready to just sit on my balcony with my ukulele and serenade the pigeons to Moon River. I was ready to just Netflix and chill (and I mean actually chill, not the racy connotation). Oh, and I started dating someone seriously and we moved in together to a suburb of Boston. So yeah, as my friends kept reminding me, socially, I was done. But I was I loving this new life too.
Living with someone I was in a relationship with was something very new to me but felt familiar. Probably because it was closer to who I am innately. An indoors person who loves to lounge and be cozy. And now I was cozy with and loved by another, whom I loved back. We cooked dinner together, went on day trips, traveled to Europe, and eventually even got a dog together, that we discovered is the best dog in the world and became the true love of our lives. We became a little family.
But as I settled more into this new comfort zone, my social exposure diminished further. At first willingly, because coziness reigns supreme. But as I withdrew, the prospect of any newness started to take on a familiar sinister connotation – fear of the unknown. It crept in quietly, masked as an innocuous desire to “just stay in.” But soon it was recognizable as that demon foot soldier of OCD better known as “avoidance.” In my comfortable isolation that turned into reluctance to venture into the unknown, OCD recognized an opportunity to finally get its foot back in the door and it seized it. But rather than continue to just tiptoe in, eventually it kicked the door down with steel-toed combat boots.
What OCD sufferers don’t often hear enough after receiving treatment is that there are always ebbs and flows to OCD. Perhaps, this is because therapists don’t want to dampen the thrill of accomplishment and blissfulness that comes when sufferers first get their OCD in check. Sufferers who receive successful treatment want to feel that bliss, that exoneration, at its maximum and believe that feeling will last infinitely. That all the mentally taxing therapy to get OCD in check was a one-time thing. Perhaps to be hopeful, therapists want OCD sufferers who come out of the other side to believe their freedom will be eternal. And perhaps for some it is. But more commonly it seems, when it comes to OCD, nothing gold can stay. So it would be tremendously beneficial for therapists to emphasize that until there’s a cure, OCD looms, even after successful treatment. Consequently, until that cure comes, the vital importance of management should receive greater emphasis. Staying cautious to signs and actively tending to OCD upon the onset of an ebb must be stressed. Otherwise that seemingly small, harmless ebb can continue, inch by inch until there’s a massive retraction and a huge ugly sand bank where the tide of progress once flowed. (I have to see this tide metaphor through).
Yes, it’s nothing short of the greatest merciful reprieve that OCD sufferers who get better through proper therapy, like the kind I received at McLean, are given the tools to keep OCD in check. But the longer time passes from when we first received those tools, the more challenging it becomes to use them. The discipline to apply them wanes. We had to be so hyper-vigilant when we had OCD, and anticipate every possible “danger” and every exhausting irrational association to it, that often, post-treatment, we just want to let our guard down and be. For OCD sufferers who get proper treatment and get better, it’s quite the catch-22; indulge in the serenity you earned which eluded you for so long and be at complete peace at your own risk. We want to believe a subtle avoidance is only a desire to “just stay in” and nothing more….despite knowing better. We tend to look the other way a little because we don’t want to believe there’s any slippage occurring. A small ebb – an avoidance. Then another. So the tools start to rust a bit from disuse. Subsequently, when OCD, now emboldened, rears its demon head unexpectedly after an extended dormancy, the tools aren’t sharp. And it’s hard to slay dragons with blunt instruments.
Despite holding the tools, challenging OCD again felt more overwhelming than expected. Probably because I knew how involved and demanding and depleting it would be at this stage. The inordinate discipline and mental endurance it takes to resist ritualizing so as to achieve tangible, lasting results, all without the support of a large hospital staff to keep me accountable this time, and while still trying to live as routinely as possible.
And there’s the other chink in the armor – immunity to medication. After taking the same dose of the same medication for years after leaving McLean, it definitely lost some of its effectiveness on my brain. So the combination of rusty, dulled tools and diminished potency of medication didn’t leave me well armed for OCD’s resurgence. I mean it certainly didn’t ever become nearly as bad as before I went to McLean. Before treatment, I had little idea as to how to combat OCD. After treatment, I knew what I needed to do. It’s just that doing the things I needed to do became increasingly daunting. But still I would challenge myself enough to never revert to pre-McLean days. But for my friends and my family and my relationship, that didn’t prove to be enough.
I just want them to know the diluted version of me they were getting; the one with the avoidance issues and excuses; the one who was absent for so much, that wasn’t really me. And there’s a long list of people I need to know this. But I will start with the ones who were blessed with the closest proof I have of miracles – my friends who had babies. This is actually an interesting category in relation to my OCD. I have long claimed that when it comes to OCD, babies and pets get a pass. There’s no avoiding them and trying to keep them away feels heartless and would be futile anyway. They crawl and run where you don’t want them to, touch things that are “danger items,” and receive petting and gentle contact from many a kind stranger who may not adequately comply with OCD’s visual “safety” criteria. But they’re babies and pets – two of my most favorite things on earth. So whenever I encountered them, I avoided avoiding them. I steeled myself and gave OCD the finger. And often it worked. Babies and pets get a pass. I won’t relinquish that rule. I won’t avoid them.
But the “logic” behind OCD rules is also completely illogical and irrational. When it comes to OCD there is no appealing to reason. It’s irrational fear so I found my “babies and pets getting a pass” rule also irrationally altered. When my OCD resurfaced significantly again, I developed this idea that meeting babies, beings so pure and precious, when I had pronounced OCD would somehow taint them. Babies are perfection and deserve to be surrounded by the energy of unconditional love and adoration. Exposing them to love and adoration tempered with OCD seemed unjust and almost cruel. I didn’t want to pollute their aura with my agony, my OCD. I know that is nonsensical, but again, OCD = irrational fear.
I wanted those babies to meet me for the first time without my being accompanied by a terrifying evil. Without OCD. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t bring myself to meet them while my OCD was pronounced. But delays and avoidance only made the OCD even more potent, so it was a long waiting game. What must my friends have thought of me? How rude is it to avoid meeting someone’s new child?! Yet, they never gave up on me. They continued to ask. They tried to guilt me into it (as if it were possible to feel any guiltier than I already did), they tried to jokingly bribe me, they tried and tried and for that alone I love them so dearly. That they didn’t give up on me meant the world. I just couldn’t show my gratitude to them. I couldn’t meet their children.
Of course they were aware of my past OCD, but they didn’t know it had returned. They didn’t know it was the culprit, mostly because I wouldn’t let them know. But perhaps they all did know. In any case, I handed them excuses in vain effort to maintain my façade of normalcy. But I would have done well to remember that they care about the real me, issues and all. There’s no need of pretense with them. I don’t need to be perfect and always happy. They want their true friend, not his Instagram profile.
And I have to remember to practice what I preach – to always tell my story. The non-fiction version. Openly. In its entire, flawed, truth. Because only then can I do any good – for myself. For others. It took my moving back to the other side of the country, back to Los Angeles, to gain better perspective and see more closely that in allowing OCD to be at my side, how much wanted companionship and living that leads to cherished memories I missed out on. And I need to speak my truth, again, and atone and answer for past missteps driven by OCD, to repair the cherished bonds OCD tried to sever. So….
To Will and Nikki who had a beautiful son that they asked me to meet so many times, but I never did because I was always armed with an excuse. Please know I desperately wanted to meet him and hold him and hear him laugh and look into his eyes and feel the clasp of his small fingers. Desperately. And some days I got close and thought, “This is absurd! They had a son! How have you not yet met him?! You are close to Will’s family! What do they think of you? Why are you letting OCD rob you of this joy?!!!!” But alas, even on the days I got close, OCD ultimately won. But please know, the person who avoided you and your boy, that’s not me.
To Jimmy and Danny who also had a beautiful son and implored me to see him, I’m so sorry I never did. I don’t know what was worse, the yearning to meet your miracle child, the extremely cute human embodiment of what’s possible in our better, more accepting world, or the guilt of not holding him and seeing the three of you together with my own eyes. The most I could do was convey my awe of him and his ever increasing cuteness that I was missing out on by “hearting” his pics on social media. How trite and shallow that must have seemed. How I yearned to hold the perfect, ridiculously cute wonderment in my arms. There were days when I got close, but again, OCD won. The endless excuses you were given when you persisted in your kindness and invitations, that’s not me.
To Joe and Alissa. I hate to think what you think of me. Not only have I not met your beautiful, perfect new girl, but I missed the celebrations that came before. Your wedding. And Joe, even more important to you and me than the big events, I missed the small ones. Sitting together at a meal and philosophizing about a preferred alternate reality. Commiserating about the unnecessary social norms that vexed us and conjuring up outlandish scenarios to remedy them. And then your dad passed. And despite not having made an effort to be a proper friend to you in so long, Alissa reached out to me in the middle of the night to say, “I know Joe would want you to know.” I cried myself to sleep that night thinking about the seemingly inconsiderate monster OCD made me out to be. I had forsaken my obligations to you as a friend and the happiness I felt when we hung out together, just to oblige OCD! I’m so sorry. But please believe, that’s not me.
To my Boston group, somewhat disbanded by geography and life’s responsibilities but always connected by liked-minded bonds of friendship and our past shenanigans. I wish I hadn’t isolated myself. I wish I had continued saying yes to every opportunity to spend time together. Those rare occasions when I did say fuck you to OCD with enough resolve to choose what I truly wanted rather than what was OCD-sanctioned, well, it was glorious. In those rare times when I did manage to partake in normal social activity that shouldn’t have felt like a psychological challenge requiring days of anxiety-ridden back and forth in my head and exhaustive mental preparation and safeguard rituals to be able to show up for a wedding, or birthday, or a dinner, I felt such happiness being in your company again. The exuberance of those moments in comparison to the advance anguish it took to show up for them, should have enforced my mettle to say fuck you to OCD more frequently again, until it was like the old days – managed and not much of an issue. But I didn’t do enough to make that true. For that I’m truly sorry. It’s not at all what I wanted. It wasn’t like me because it wasn’t really me.
And to my partner. My curmudgeon. What can I write that you don’t already know? Perhaps I should have said more. I definitely should have done more. But I always heard you. I always understood. Most often I even agreed, despite my defensive behavior and words to the contrary. I always, always, was so very appreciative of everything you did for me, which was a lot. More than I deserved. I was always grateful for you. I still am. I always will be. I wish you knew that. I wish I knew how to convey it. Properly. Meaningfully. So you would really believe and know. Because I always felt it. Deeply. And always will. You always just asked for truth. For the true reason for my avoidance and excuses at the moment of an OCD trigger. And I tried. I was more truthful with you than I have been with anyone in my entire life. Even myself. And I think you may already know that. I wanted to be everything we both wanted me to be. That we both knew I was capable of being. But still OCD got in the way. Yet, that initial happiness, those earlier days. That was closer to who I am. The real me. And the real you. But OCD cannot allow my happiness to last. Its only purpose is to ruin. To torture. To end what is good for the sake of groundless fear. (Groundless, because falling down the hole is dark and grows increasingly opaque with an intensifying sense it lacks any eventual bottom.) And while you endured and shouldered so much as OCD took more and more, while we both did, there’s only so much burden one can bear. And that I understand too. But for all you did for me, I still need to say thank you properly. I promise I will. I won’t let OCD take that away from me too. I will show my gratitude. I will get better. I will get back to being the person you love. Because I love him too. And because I love you.
I know everyone, my family, my friends, readers, anyone with a pulse will be beyond perplexed how I could let OCD take so much. Again. Those who care about me are angry about it. Angry at me. I understand that. But that’s how formidable an enemy OCD is. I wouldn’t ever accept that or believe how powerful OCD is myself if I didn’t have it. I would blame me too! And in many ways I do. Because I’m not a victim. I’m not weak. I’m very aware. I’m versed in and hugely in favor of reason and science. So how? How could I let this occur? How could I sacrifice so much for something so hateful? Well, again it’s a war. And I let my guard down. Consequently, OCD has been winning battle after battle after battle. But….BUT there’s still a war to win. And as I would say to myself at McLean, “Fuck you OCD. I will win.”
I will. I’m ready to fight again. In earnest. It’s a new year. I want and deserve all I’m capable of achieving. I want and deserve to be happy again. To do that I have to prevent OCD from assuming the reigns and guiding direction. It’s my life! I want to start living it again. But these are words. You have heard them before. Yet, intention and resolve have set in. They have permeated my being. I feel the solution flow through my veins, into my bloodstream, straitening my spine, and defying gravity on a steadfast course to my brain. My mind is watching the biology respond to resolution. I have to become my own moon and pull the tide out of the ebb. To infuse my moon, myself, with so much light it will gleam into every darkened crag, crevice, and shadowed crater, burning so brightly that the tide will flow, and flow, and flow. And should there come that inevitable ebb, it will be near imperceptible to all but me. Just enough to remember to always infuse light, so the tide will move forward again with blazing resolve. To flow and flow.
I preach asking for help whenever needed and it’s time to practice what I preach again. To that end, I have initiated the practical measures needed to return to myself. The real me. A regular workout regimen, eating healthier (but keeping those cheat days!), getting back on a revised medication regimen, and getting therapy – both psychiatric and physiological. The help I need to again realize my mantra, “Fuck you OCD. I will win.” The help to sharpen those tools to get OCD back in check. A very necessary tune up.
I have a lot of people whom I need to thank for their unrelenting love and support by getting back to a place of solid mental health. Above all, for love of myself. So stay tuned. I believe the next chapter will give you and me something to smile about. An indication I’m back to being my self. Something that will allow me to write about perhaps the most seemingly mundane span of time between now and then, replete with daily nonevents that elicited ordinary, fleeting, garden-variety thoughts and unexceptional, socially expected, customary responses from yours truly. It may be the most boring thing about the most uninteresting time you will read. But I believe I will be able to claim in that next chapter, that the things I write about and describe – most of my thoughts, almost all of my actions, and all my intentions will be my own. Mine. My life day in and day out where I can claim, yeah, that and that and that….that’s me.