Obsessions about OCD

Contact with Blood.

I was about twelve years old and in sixth grade at prison block number two, otherwise known as the local intermediate school. The building was square, nearly windowless, and soulless. It was the annual round of sex education, when school teachers round up the children and talk about one of the great mysteries of life as if it were little more than a mathematical formula. Of course, this is how they talk about everything. I remember dozing through classes on, of all things, Gothic architecture.

We had just switched rooms and gone back to our normal class schedule. I sat down at my desk in the room that was painted with somniferous combinations of baby blue and beige. The florescent lights heightened the devastating effect of the color.

And there it was on the board, under a list of ways to contract HIV, which in those days was more often carelessly called AIDS: Contact with Blood. It was written in white chalk, but in my mind it screamed red. Hints of Wozzeck. Das Wasser ist Blut!

I had always been a worrier. One or two doctors diagnosed me with something like excessive fears. My mother thought I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but she could never convince a shrink of this. At different times different worries dominated my life, and on that day in the early nineties, I developed a new obsession: Blood. And AIDS.

From that moment on, every citing of blood or a blood product like a scab set me into panic mode. If someone got a bloody nose in gym class and it dripped somewhere, I was afraid. And the red stones in the terrazzo floor of the school gave me a great deal of anxiety. Is it a stone? Is it a spot of blood? I seem to recall staring straight down as I made my way through the hall so that I could avoid any possible spots of blood, which made for a scene not unlike Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) avoiding cracks in the sidewalk in the movie As Good as it Gets.

Finger food like cheeseburgers and pizza could make lunch a nightmare. I would eat these things with a fork and knife, quite content to deal with the curious looks of my classmates. It was a small price to pay if it kept my nerves a little bit calmer. But this is important: I wasn’t just warding off anxiety. I thought that I was in real danger, that blood could somehow get onto my hands, into my food, and into me. This was completely consuming; it was how I spent the majority of my days.

Pretty soon I had developed a whole system to deal with measuring the risk of infection from any blood that I had sighted. I asked one of the duly appointed sex ed teachers how long the HIV virus can live outside the body. He surmised fifteen minutes or so, which, like a true obsessive-compulsive, I formulated into a hard and fast rule.  (A recent Google search I conducted suggests that HIV, like any virus, is a parasite and cannot survive long without a host, but that the exact time varies with different circumstances.)

I also developed rules out of whole cloth. I have to back up a bit to explain this, though. In school, we would sit at our desks with our backpacks next to our chairs. One of my concerns was that a spot of blood, say, on the floor, could track from my shoe to my backpack to other places. In dealing with this, I developed the notion that blood, or germs contained in blood, could not “track” anywhere beyond the third surface.  Floor, shoe, backpack: anything beyond this was safe according to my way of thinking.

Other areas of concern were less clear. I was unsure, for instance, if the mixture of water and dried blood might reinvigorate any dangerous germs. I worried about this a lot when I practiced the trumpet, wondering if the condensation from the “spit valve” could be a factor in this. This is, of course, beyond absurd, but to someone who doesn’t have all the necessary information and is afraid to share his obsessions with anyone else, these things happen. It meant that at times I was afraid to practice my music, which was, I think, more painful than I realized at the time. There were also times when I was afraid even to reach into a freezer to get something. If I had been obsessing about AIDS, I would be concerned that germs could get from me into the freezer, where they could be preserved for future attack against some unwitting victim.

This was in the days before the internet, and I suspect that at the time one would have to have access to some pretty recent scientific studies to have gotten enough information to dispel these kinds of worries. The only alternative was talking to someone about my obsessions, which I was too embarrassed to do.

You might guess that this was time-consuming, and you would be right. I spent most of my class time obsessing about this, not paying attention to the teacher. Yet, I managed, for the most part, to get acceptable grades. The trouble is that the anxiety from all this created depression, and the depression created more anxiety, which caused more obsession. It was a vicious circle. The absence of windows in the school did not help, especially in the Winter, when I would get essentially no exposure to daylight. I’m pretty sure I had and still have Seasonal Affective Disorder—something that we didn’t discover until a few years later.

Eventually I became convinced that I had AIDS. One year my father decided to take the Christmas tree down on New Year’s Day. This is a good week before Christmas (i.e. the twelve days) actually ends, but this is how upstate Pennsylvanians think, so the tree came down. I wanted it to stay up. There’s something about the color in Christmas decorations that lessens the harshness of Winter, and now it was gone. I snuck away to the attic to cry. I was absolutely convinced that this would be my last Christmas, that I would be dead by the next year.

I feel the need to pause here and mention something. My parents are not responsible for this. They were seeing signs of depression and doing what they could, but about these specific obsessions I told no one. I was locked up like Fort Knox, afraid to share this with anyone. There is a difference between what you believe and what you know. I believed the thrust of all these obsessions, yet somewhere in my mind I knew it was all a bunch of crap—enough to be too embarrassed to get help. But the beliefs held sway. We’re funny things, we humans.

Back to being convinced of my own impending doom. This apprehension eventually shifted the focus of my obsessions from contracting disease to spreading it. This was a whole new ball game, and I don’t mean to sound self-righteous when I say that it was actually more frightening than my obsessions about my becoming sick.

Interestingly, I was never and have never been much of a compulsive. Besides washing my hands excessively, OCD has mostly manifested itself in my head and not in ritual. I could analyze until I was paralyzed. Some days I would lock myself in the bathroom so that I had a quiet place to think—to obsess, really. Inside my mind was constant chatter that was hard to keep track of. Sometimes I kept checklists to make this job easier. The sheer brainpower that I expended on this astounds me, and I wonder what opportunities I wasted by diverting so much energy into these useless ruminations.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, which is about Nobel prize-winning schizophrenic Dr. John Nash. As the movie tells the story, he thought that there were messages embedded in newspaper articles, and he was looking for them. The movie depicts a frantic chatter in his mind as he sorts all this out. I have never been schizophrenic, but I can identify with that chatter. Noise, noise, noise. It’s enough to make you want to scream.

The most disconcerting factor in having lived through this is the complete uncertainty about where reality ends and the craziness begins. I have decided, after much reflection, that insanity is essentially a loss of perspective, and I think in my case OCD was a latching on to one or two ideas to the exclusion of others, which created a warped sense of reality and a gigantic mountain of anxiety to go with it. “There is no maniac who is not a monomaniac,” said G.K. Chesterton. I think he’s right.

But imagine the frustration. You know you’re not quite in touch with reality, but you can’t get back there, and because you know you’re being ridiculous, you’re afraid to tell anyone about what occupies your mind. So the suffering continues, untreated.

I have never told anyone about this particular set of obsessions. If you’re reading this you’re one of the first to know. Why am I writing about it now, a good twenty years later? About a month or two ago, something happened—I’m not even sure what anymore—that re-triggered a similar obsessive episode.  I saw blood somewhere, and it triggered all the old reactions. Those who’ve taken CPR courses talk about an interesting thing that happens: Years go by, they think they’ve forgotten it, and then one day they’re next to someone who goes down with a heart attack, and it all comes back to them in an instant. That’s what it felt like to me with these obsessions: There I was, totally blindsided, but nonetheless remembering my whole system and nomenclature for dealing with these kinds of things.

This has not been the only relapse, but something about it felt more severe than usual. I don’t know why. The scariest part, though, was not the idea that any germs might actually pose a risk to my health. Instead, there was a thought that sent shivers down my back: “Oh God, I hope I don’t end up like I was in middle school.”

I am happy to say that the worst is over, and that things are under control, but for the day or two when I wasn’t sure, I was genuinely frightened. My OCD has gotten more manageable with age, as I have learned how to keep things in perspective and see the big picture. Experience has also taught me not to worry so much. After doomsday scenarios fail to materialize so many times, you relax a little bit. (Knocks wood.)

I would never dare to tell anyone else how to solve their own problems, so what I have to say here applies only to me: Having tried it in my college years, I am not particularly fond of medication to treat this disorder. In my experience the medication turned off not only the bad parts of my psyche but many of the beneficial parts as well. I felt disconnected, unable to experience any emotion except a hazy indifference. It has been far better for me to work through the underlying causes and behaviors. Dr. Elio Frattaroli, in his book, Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain, offers the thesis that OCD is misdirected anger. I honestly can’t find any evidence against that, and generally speaking the more upset I am about certain things in my life, the more out of control the disorder is.

Many of my obsessions have revolved around life and death, as my present-day dull hypochondria attests. When I was child I was terribly afraid of death, but from my position now, still a good distance below the crest of the infamous “hill,” I can see that a lot of things in life are worse than death. I have come to the realization that something is going to get me eventually, and without becoming careless, I have relaxed a little bit. That much has done more for me than any kind of therapy could do.

I have learned, slowly, how to divert my mental energies into useful tasks. Part of my problem in childhood, I think, was that I was subjected to an enforced boredom. This improved when I got to high school and there were more activities available to me that an actual human would want to do. Moreover, my interest in philosophy, which bloomed many years later, might have usurped much of the energy I once put into worrying. There is great comfort and delight in reading some of the greatest minds in history as they struggle with the ultimate questions about life and yet come up short. A lot of people think this a waste of time; maybe I’m somehow perversely in an advantageous position to see how it is anything but a waste of time.

Along with this rambling personal story I suppose I have some useful things to say about OCD, but I have hesitated to comment on it publicly, and even much in my private life, because of the way I’m afraid people will react to it. I couldn’t care less if people think I’m strange. They already think that, and judging by the behavior of most of them I consider it to be a compliment. The real reason I hesitate is that many people jump to conclusions, as if being obsessive-compulsive is like being blonde. A blonde is always blonde, unless hair dye is used. But an obsessive-compulsive is not always employing the techniques of OCD to tackle the problems of life. I mentioned earlier my being disconcerted by the tendency of OCD to confuse the sufferer, to make reality hard to discern. However, in most areas, especially work, I can be ruthlessly realistic. I can make good decisions, raise worthy objections, and offer good suggestions. I’m also very good at sizing people up. But some people, seeing a certain obsessive tendency in my personality, discount most of what I say because of that. “Oh you know how heeee is,” I can hear them saying. Some have dared to intimate this to my face.

I often wonder, too, if people think that obsessive-compulsives are cold-hearted eggheads. They are lost in their own little world, after all. I have dealt with numerous misunderstandings because of withdrawal. People have been hurt by this. I am sorry. But they should know that I have been hurt more.  I really do have feelings, but often they have been bottled up in this strange methodology that can make me extremely quiet.  A friend of mine has a list of favorite quotations on Facebook, as many do. The first one on his list is, “You have shy/asshole confusion.” I can identify with the sentiments that would prompt someone to say that.

I’m tempted to say that many obsessive-compulsives have suffered far more than I have, but maybe that’s a hasty conclusion. We’re all very inventive in what we worry about. Judith L. Rapoport, in her fantastic book, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing, relates the story that many with this disorder look at the compulsions of others and say, “Why would anyone do that???” So I suppose the point is that the suffering is different for each of us, and there probably isn’t much point in trying to quantify it. I will say that I feel lucky that I have never really been house-bound by this disease, a fate that many others haven’t been able to escape.

Living or being with an obsessive-compulsive can be a maddening experience, especially if they like to worry aloud. You probably just want them to shut up. My advice is this: Don’t let them go on all night, but listen to them, and let them know that you are listening. I can tell you that nothing infuriates me more than feeling like I’m talking to a wall, especially when I’m feeling anxious. At the same time, I appreciate it when someone says, “Alright, we have gone over this enough now, and we have decided such and such.”  I value that, because it helps me to get a grip on the real nature of whatever it is that’s bothering me. It rescues me from deep within the forest of anxiety.

I am not entirely over my OCD, but at this point in my life I feel like I can truly live. In the Winter I take plenty of Vitamin D, and I’m even working on being awake for more of the daylight hours. As I get older, too, I feel like my personality gets younger. There is a picture of me at the age of six, on Christmas Eve in front of the tree, in which I am wearing a bony, dour, humorless expression. I could have passed for a Methodist minister. I was, in the words of my grandmother, “a little adult.” I am now working on being a big kid, and I have to admit that this wards off the kinds of insanity to which I am prone. (Can we admit that all of us except the most incredible people have their own kind of madness? Anger, lust, drunkenness, workaholism, anxiety, puritanism, politics. The list is endless.)

In the meantime, I will gladly borrow some useful skills from my struggles with OCD: the ability to concentrate on small things for long periods of time, the willingness to follow an idea to its logical, if absurd, conclusion, and the sensitivity to know when I’m tied up in knots over an insoluble problem, which is most useful. There is great freedom and joy in knowing what you can’t know, and that opens the possibilities for love.

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