My obsessions are driven by very simple core issues that I think stand for many people with similar difficulties:
- Perfection. This is a big, obvious one. Remember Danny Tanner on “Full House”? He had to use the dust-buster to clean the vacuum. But it isn’t just about things being in their right order. I have some very serious difficulty making mistakes. Even in innocuous situations like…playing a game. I’m super competitive, and if I make a mistake that causes myself to lose, I get legitimately down on myself. This permeates every aspect of my life, including work, my friendships, and my relationship.
- Purity. OCD often manifests into “themed” OCD – many people have a religious-themed OCD where they compulsively pray or hyper-focus on what God will think of their behavior. I’m not religious, but I have an almost impossible standard for myself when it comes to morality and ethical behavior. I never should have read Kant – I sort of operate on this “always do the ethical thing” plane that is very unforgiving and inflexible.
- High Standards. This ties into the other two quite a bit, but it’s separate, in a way. I believe that people can be better than how they are generally. I believe in being progressive and moving forward. And being self-aware and avoiding hypocrisy. Because I have these standards for other people, I often feel as though I have to be some sort of…model for good behavior. I’m fairly certain every single person I know would say that I am “too hard” on myself and that I should “give myself a break.”
Part of the major problem people with obsessions face is the hyper-focus on a single (or multiple) thought(s) mostly because they don’t want to have them. This can include some of the most depraved and disturbing ideas and images to simple things that make them uncomfortable and anxious, such as cleanliness (avoiding germs which yields hand-washing compulsive behavior).
Most people have thousands of fairly troubling thoughts a day that they don’t even notice. They think about their boss naked, or kicking a child, or some inappropriate person happens to flash through their mind while they’re having sex, or they think about what it would be like to stab a person themselves or jump in front of a train. A person who doesn’t obsess will just let the thought pass through their mind. They don’t pay any attention to it. But the content of the obsession doesn’t matter. The obsessive thought itself isn’t the problem (like, really, are you going to kick a child?), it’s the obsession. And what drives the obsession is a person’s pathology. When I asked my therapist why I never had violent thoughts about harming myself – basically trying to understand why my thoughts took on particular themes over others – she said simply that it was just my own brand of obsession. Other people may not obsess about the things I do, but they obsess about things that I never bother to pay attention to, the thoughts’ existence in my mind notwithstanding.
The issue is that I’m so hyper-focused on perfection (including purity of mind), that I can’t ignore thoughts that trouble me. I then become my own Thought Police. Watching my thoughts so carefully, that I often lose focus on the world around me. Imagine you think of someone you know naked. Someone who you are not attracted to nor would any have any sexual interest in. Thinking of this person naked might upset you for more than one reason: A) you don’t want to be a sexual deviant. B) You want to remain faithful to your significant other and you think that just because you have a thought it will turn into action. C) Depending upon who the person is, having an attraction to a purely platonic person would be awful, because it would make every single encounter with that person an anxious encounter. Therefore, the thought itself creates an anticipated anxiety, because you think you’re a sexual deviant (you’re certainly not), or you’re going to cheat on your significant other (something you would not do), or every encounter with that person will be awkward and anxious (well, now it will be).
Then, you’ll say “I don’t want to have this thought, because it makes me anxious.” Now, you have this tiny pit of anxiety in your stomach. The thought will recirculate through your mind, and you’ll watch it. Think of a merry-go-round: if you just watch a merry-go-round without focusing, odds are you won’t see details on the horses or whatever’s on there. You’ll just see a blur of horses. But if you focus on one particular horse, you’ll watch it go round and round and round and round and after a few revolutions, you’ll see every detail of it and now it stands out among the herd. This is now the only horse on the merry-go-round you can see.
This is how I watch a thought. And because I’m watching it, it won’t leave.
This is the major irony of obsession and OCD. The person with it is doing it to themselves. Meanwhile, every time it goes around the thought-merry-go-round, you’ll get sicker and sicker with anxiety, and it escalates in to some pretty serious physical symptoms: shortness of breath, raised heart rate, irritability, heart palpitations, ill feeling in the stomach. And because of all of this physical stuff compounded on the merry-go-round, how can you focus on the problem you’re trying to solve at work right now? Well, you can’t, because now you’re going to have a panic attack.
You’re worried about people seeing you like that. You have to find a way to make it to the stairwell before anybody sees you starting to cry. When you finally sit down in the stairwell, in the quiet, you’ll start crying from that really deep place in your stomach. You’ll start shaking, grab a hold of the banister, shut your eyes, and the world around you will disappear. And you’ll have is this thought that ultimately turns into one conclusion:
“I am a horrible, pathetic person.”
And then you sit in the stairwell at work, the merry-go-round at full speed, you’re crying and hyperventilating and HATING yourself for having a singular thought that doesn’t mean anything.
So how do you stop the merry-go-round? Well, once you reach panic attack level, you don’t. Trying to stop it only will make it worse. Panic and anxiety attacks generally last about 20 minutes. So, you ride it out. You wait until it goes away. You endure all of the physical and emotional pain, because you can’t stop a speeding train. You’re only one person.