obsessive thoughts

Seasonal Depression and Obsession Over the Years

It’s the beginning of February, which means I made it through January without losing my mind (though, I think a couple of times I came close). January is the toughest month of the year for me. Every year, the same week, I get severely depressed and my obsessions become a constant problem. Two years ago and one year ago, I ended up back in therapy on the same exact day of the year. My cycle of mood is THAT pedantic. Same day every year, I get virtually suicidal, because the second I have several suicidal thoughts, I rush into therapy. I don’t fuck around. I’ve been to rock bottom before. I’m not going there again.

Anyway, two years ago, at the end of January, is when my really disturbing thoughts occurred. (You can read about this incident in more detail on a previous post.) Last year, at the same time, I was obsessing about breaking up with my awesome boyfriend whom I love. A thought that so very obviously did not align with my desires. It drove me mad for weeks.

And this last week or so, I’ve been trying to beat off obsessions with a stick. I’m becoming more efficient, and I can DEFINITELY function now in a way I couldn’t before (last year, I was sobbing in the bathroom for half of the day – not an exaggeration). Now, I can talk about my obsessions with my significant other and tell him what’s going on. I can work, cry a little in the bathroom if I need to, and move on relatively quickly.

This weekend, I had a tough day. Like, a really bad day. I was on the verge of panic several times. But the operative phrase here is “on the verge.” The day was awful, and I felt terrible shame and guilt (Oh no, anything but shame!). But it didn’t form into full blown panic attacks. My hyper-focus on my feelings and actions fueled my Mean Voice and then I felt guilty for having “bad” thoughts. It was a bad spiral that lasted the entire day.

I bounced back from it, though. My obsessions are still threatening to bug me, I’m hyper-focusing on myself in a way that isn’t productive, and now I can feel the old jealous thoughts starting to threaten the edge of my emotional periphery. My mean voice is more active than it has been previously.

Luckily, I have more tools. I have been seeking reassurance less and less (correct me if I’m wrong), I’ve taken notice that I apologize compulsively regardless of whether or not it’s merited and if it’s already been forgiven, and I’ve been working to try and correct these behaviors on a daily basis. I’m taking vitamin D supplements, and I’ve been using one of those light therapy lamps as often as I can remember. The vitamin D helps immensely.

A year ago, I couldn’t control my head. I was wrought with grief over my obsessions and crying incessantly. And while I do still feel guilt and shame over my obsessions sometimes, I’m learning to forgive myself.

That awful obsession I had two years ago that started all of this? I don’t worry about it anymore. It doesn’t affect me. Fuck you Mean Voice, I’ve forgiven myself for it. Therapy is working. The work I’m doing on a daily basis is converting into long-term growth. I can see my growth week over week, month over month, and year over year. Yes, sometimes, it gets a hold of me and I get tired. I am tired of dealing with this bullshit. But I am not my obsessions anymore. I can feel myself splitting off and moving away from being a part of the Mean Voice. It is isolated in my emotional being and tucked away in a corner for now while I try to deal with it. And forgive myself for it being a part of me.

Hopefully, this time next year, I won’t have any obsessions at all.

Avoidance, Confrontation, and Safe Places

As people with anxiety and obsessive behavior are often wont to do, I spend a lot of time reading about my own dysfunction, on the one hand to understand it, but on the other because I obviously have to obsess about obsessing. Because sometimes obsessing about obsessing is better than obsessing about upsetting obsessions.

Ya feel me?

Anyway, recently, I was reading about what’s called “Pure O OCD” which most accurately describes my experience. Here is a pretty good rundown from the OCD Center of Los Angeles:

However, it should be noted that the term “Pure Obsessional OCD” is somewhat of a misnomer. While it may at first appear that these individuals experience obsessions without compulsions, a careful assessment almost always uncovers numerous compulsive behaviors, avoidant behaviors, reassurance-seeking behaviors, and “mental compulsions,”. These behaviors are not as easily observed as other, more obvious OCD symptoms, such as hand-washing and lock-checking, but they are clearly compulsive responses to unwanted obsessions.

This is the kind of thing I read and say: why won’t my psychiatrist listen to me when I say I have compulsive behaviors? Oh, I don’t wash my hands over and over again and therefore I don’t have compulsions? Try living in my head for a minute, madame.

The article goes on to say:

Some common examples of compulsions seen in Pure Obsessional OCD include:

  • avoiding numerous situations in which one fears the possible onset of unwanted thoughts
  • repeatedly asking for reassurance that one has not and/or will not commit an act that one perceives as being “wrong” or “bad”
  • compulsively “checking” one’s body in an effort to get evidence that one is not sexually attracted to someone who he/she considers inappropriate (especially in cases of POCD, HOCD, and ROCD)
  • silently praying or repeating certain phrases in an effort to counteract or neutralize thoughts that one considers to be sinful, immoral or sacrilegious
  • performing superstitious behaviors in an effort to ensure that bad things don’t happen (i.e., counting, tapping, knocking on wood)
  • repeatedly confessing to people, even total strangers, that one has had thoughts which he or she considers to be unacceptable
  • continually ruminating about obsessions in an attempt to prove to oneself that he or she has not done and/or will not do anything “wrong” or “inappropriate” or “sinful”

I’ve underlined the ones that I experience regularly.

My biggest problems are rumination and avoidance. Since I read this article, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own avoidance, and I’ve decided for the purposes of bettering myself to put out into the world some of the things that I avoid or have avoided because of my condition. This is a limited list to what I am willing to admit and is not, by any means, a comprehensive one. I’ve explained them where I am comfortable doing so:

  • Pearl Jam’s song “Better Man” [this song triggered the first big wave of obsessions relating to my relationship back in January]
  • Days when I am anxious or particularly susceptible to ruminating, I will not listen to any music for fear that it will trigger anxious obsessions.
  • Children
  • Family members
  • Some of my friends
  • As a general rule, I won’t look at any strangers for fear that I will find any piece of them attractive or alluring.
  • Coworkers
  • A street near my work that has the same name as my significant other’s ex. The association sometimes will send me into jealous ruminations that drive me insane and are totally unproductive.
  • People who remind me of my significant other for fear that I will find any piece of them attractive or alluring.

You’d think that avoiding triggers would be a good idea, you know? If you’ve ever quit smoking or drinking or some kind of addictive behavior, you learn to keep yourself away from addiction triggers. But it works differently with anxiety. It seems sort of counter-intuitive, but avoidance is a major part of the problem.

Using the street name as an example, I had to force myself to walk down this street and repeat multiple associations other than my S.O.’s ex’s name so that I could rewire my brain. It’s like changing muscle memory. By making multiple associations, you’re eliminating the potency of the “bad” association and therefore remove the “bad” from, in this case, the street near my work. But in order to do this, you have to confront it. You have to force yourself to be near the thing that you fear. And what I fear is the thoughts. I don’t want to think about these things. No one wants to think about their significant other being with another person, regardless of when it was or if you even knew them. But instead of it being common jealous thoughts like most people have, the ruminating is what makes it unhealthy. It’s not that I will think about it for a few minutes or for an hour.

I will think about it for days.

Weeks, sometimes.

When I write that out, when I admit that I think about such inane things as my boyfriend’s ex for weeks at a time (not constantly, mind you; it does come and go), it makes me ashamed and it makes me sad for myself. That so much of time is consumed by a person who I don’t even know and will probably never know. And who will never really have any bearing on my life.

So why do I think about it?

Well, to be honest, it probably is because I can’t fathom being a person’s first choice. That being the best thing that ever happened to a person just isn’t possible. Clearly, says my Mean Voice, clearly you are just filling in for some other person. You’re a replacement for a person who he can’t have anymore. Clearly, you’re a consolation prize. You don’t deserve happiness. You don’t deserve this amazing person. This amazing person was clearly meant for someone else.

This doesn’t just happen with jealousy. It happens with everything. Last year when I had that thought that ruined my year, I spent the entire year thinking about the thought and convincing myself that I was a horrible person who was just going to hurt someone. Sometimes, I obsess that my boyfriend doesn’t love me. Or that I don’t love him. Because either A) I don’t deserve a healthy relationship so clearly he must be lying about loving me or B) I am a bad person and am manipulating him on the daily.

Anyone who knows me or my significant other would probably say this is the very furthest from the truth.

And see, that’s just it. I can’t say it enough: the content doesn’t matter. It isn’t that I’m ruminating about my S.O.’s ex or not loving him or thinking I’m going to hurt someone – it’s the fact that I’m having the rumination IN THE FIRST PLACE. It isn’t about the actual thing, it’s about the rush of thoughts you can’t control or forget.

I think that’s why people who don’t have this problem say: well, just don’t think about it. Because I don’t think that they can conceive of a headspace where your thoughts are your greatest enemy. And because of this, you’re a prisoner in your own mind.

Because of all this, I don’t know how to trust myself. I am rebuilding. I’m telling myself it’s okay to have thoughts sometimes. That my thoughts do not determine who I am. That my thoughts and I aren’t always one. That sometimes I am a Harvey Two-Face. Sometimes I have an evil voice in my head that wins.

And I suppose once i start to accept that this evil voice isn’t a part of who I am or who I want to be, that is when the thoughts will go away.

But right now, I feel like I’m doing all this work and I’m still waiting. I’m getting a lot better, believe you me. Things are much better now. But I want my head to be a safe place. Not a place where I see disturbing images or think about my significant other with another person. I want to be my own safe place.

Life Without Meds and the One Thought that Ruined My Year

Last week, I stopped taking my daily low dose of klonopin. I’ve been up and down, had a couple anxiety attacks, and faced my standard non-medicated, 4 AM, wake-up worry. But, in truth, I don’t mind all that. I can deal with escalating anxiety at work or whatever it is that might cause some frantic moments. (Though, when I’m in those moments, I would say that they are a living hell and I’d do anything to not have them.) Honestly, what bugs me out more than anything is having the thoughts.

While on my medication, mostly the thoughts were only around when I was stressed out. Now, they come and go as they please. For several days, I felt great. No problems, no thoughts. Now I feel like I’m back to square one.

Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not back at square one. I’m doing better. I can live without meds right now. Six months ago, I couldn’t go a week without a panic attack. Now, I’m not letting the anxiety get out of hand. And that’s more than I could’ve said for myself even just a few weeks ago.

More than anything, it’s the shame.

Shame for having thoughts. Shame for doubting myself. Shame for letting the doubt take over. Shame that I can’t handle this better than I am. Shame that, even for a moment, I might buy into a delusional thought. Not in the sense that I actually think it’s reality. That isn’t the case. It’s that…I worry that it’s real. Which is different than believing it’s real.

The content of my thoughts generally has to do with honesty. And perfect behavior. My particular brand of obsession has mostly to do with lying to myself, lying to people I care about, and being caught up in self-worth battles that never seem to end.

Am I good enough? Will I ever be good enough? What if I hurt somebody?

Last year, I was working in a toxic environment that constantly devalued me and made me second-,third-,fourth- guess my self-worth. When I started working there, I thought I had finally found my Place outside of college. And at some point, it became apparent that I was not of value, despite all of my hard work, overtime, and dedication.

I (along with my coworkers) knew I was getting laid off for about six months before it happened. Going into work every day was like…walking into the deepest reaches of hell. Everyone around me was depressed and anxious. People were clearly not coping well. And on top of it, our management didn’t seem to give a shit about any of it.

At some point, very shortly before I was laid off, my anxiety disorder started (probably not as suddenly as I think it had). I had a singular, instantaneous thought. One. Single. Thought. I ruminated about this thought for…a day straight. I’m not comfortable with sharing what the thought was, or what the rumination was. But, essentially, it was this: I had a thought about hurting someone I care about.

I thought that I was a horrible person who was going to hurt someone I love.

It threw me into this horrible, isolated depression. I couldn’t tell anyone. How could I tell someone that I had thoughts about hurting someone? I’d become a pariah.

I felt totally alone.

I started thinking things like “what would happen if I jumped in front of that train?” And as soon as those thoughts came, I called a therapist that very day. I knew I was headed down a destructive road.

I was shaking when I walked into my therapist’s office. I thought somehow I had already done something wrong. As if having the thought itself was committing the action. But it isn’t. It isn’t the same.

My therapist told me recently: “I knew the moment you told me about the thought that you weren’t going to hurt anyone.”

People with OCD commonly have disturbing, depraved thoughts that are totally contrary to things they would actually do. Usually, these thoughts are triggered by stress or trauma. But the problem is that the person focuses so much on purity and perfection that the thought itself is like committing the action.

The person I had the thought about…I still struggle to be around them. It makes me hesitate to be near them. It makes me question my morality, who I am, what I’m capable of. I’ve avoided that person for the better part of a year and a half. And nobody close to me or that person (outside of a very, very few people) knows about it. They must think I’m being selfish, because I’m not around as much.

And I can’t tell them, or anyone around them, why. I risk alienating myself from the people close to me. Because of one thought.

Do you have any idea what that feels like? To think you are the worst kind of person? And truly believe it?

Essentially, I protect the people I love from myself.

The thought never happened again. Only that one time. But it’s the worry that it will come back that drives me away from the person it was about. Other “intrusions” (as I call them) alienate me from other people that they involve. Likely, I have so many anxiety attacks around my boyfriend because so many of my obsessions thematically involve him, my feelings for him, and his feelings for me.

But I love him more than I need avoidance. It isn’t even fucking close. And, honestly, I think working through the anxiety that is brought on by my relationship (however healthy and fantastic it is) is making me stronger. It’s making me confront my anxiety and deal with it head-on. And, honestly, I couldn’t do that if he didn’t grant me the safe space to be honest. I can tell him some of my thoughts. I can have a conversation about them. I feel as though I can trust him to never judge me for them.

This monster that lives inside me, I’ve isolated it. It used to be a fog, or a poison, inside of me. Now, I’ve pushed it into a corner. I’ve located it, I’ve named it, and I’ve got its number. I’m done with this mean voice. I’m done giving it power. And I’m done letting it ruin my life and my relationships.

For any of you who have mean voices, loud or quiet, beat them back with everything you have. I believe in you, even if you don’t.

Broken Patterns, Obsessions with Longevity, and the Problem of (Un)Certainty

I’ve written about how obsessions work for me, how they make me feel, and why I have them. For the most part, since I’ve been in therapy, I’ve managed to severely reduce the frequency and potency of my obsessions by not allowing them to have power. I’m getting better at truly ignoring them, or by just letting them happen without having them affect me emotionally.

But I haven’t really explored the sort of long-range obsessions that plague me. Some obsessions happen for a day or an hour. But some go on for months. They’re usually just thematic, and unspecific. Like…a recurring dream that happens every day for three months. These obsessions are usually less potent, calmer, and easier to ignore (in the sense that I can carry on with my everyday).

Every couple of months, though, they’ll change. And that’s where the anxiety with long-range obsession occurs for me. For three months, I’ll have a minor, background obsession about – well, the last few weeks it’s been: my significant other’s ex. I really know nothing about this person, nor do I know much about their relationship, but the obsessions are more like minor ruminations.

I get on a ground-out track of thought processes, and let my brain do its thing: How did he feel about her? Does he miss her ever? Is anything about me the same? What if I’m just a replacement for something he misses? These kinds of thoughts drive me mad. Because no one wants to think about their significant other with another person, regardless of who that person is. Regardless of what my reality is. I think thoughts like these are common for many people – I just happen to think about them more actively. Or, the difference is, I spend the energy trying to find some sort of conclusion utilizing evidence.

This month, that obsession has converted itself/evolved into: what if my significant other doesn’t love me enough and doesn’t know it? This is a dangerous obsession. Because it’s totally impossible to disprove. If the obsession simply were “what if he doesn’t love me?” I could use a series of syllogisms and evidence sets to override this obsessive doubt. I could have a conversation with the Doubtful, Mean Self and say: “If he didn’t love you, he wouldn’t do A, B, C, D, E…and all this other stuff he does all the time. He very obviously loves you and treats you well, so this thought is bullshit, and you know it.” But the addition of “he doesn’t know it” will withstand this set of evidence. The conversion of the previous obsession into the new one presents a new challenge: Is this real doubt? Is this a real red flag? Or is it Just. Another. Obsession? If it’s real doubt, I need to actually evaluate my relationship – a pretty big deal. But if it isn’t real – if it’s a delusion conjured up from the darkest, most jealous and insecure parts of my psyche – the content doesn’t matter.

I’m going to repeat this for any of you who struggle with obsession as my therapist repeats to me: the content doesn’t matter.

The more likely scenario is that this is just another obsession. But, the logical difficulty here is that there’s no way to prove that it is just another obsession. Usually, this is the core of why obsession is so difficult to overcome: the impossibility of disproving the obsessive thought.

Most obsessions require certainty. A person with an obsessive mind will set a parameter of: I must know with absolute certainty that [my spouse loves me, my boss approves of me, I care about my family, etc.] Here is where the obsessive mind becomes problematic. How CAN you know this with absolute certainty? You can’t. No one can. Everyone pretty much always lives out life accepting that grain of doubt that exists in all of us. Life is simply imperfect. The person who is obsessing sets an unreasonable exception (i.e. perfect logical evidence and proof), an expectation that can NEVER be reached, and has therefore set themselves up to fail. If I set the standard that I must know with absolute certainty that my significant other loves me unconditionally, through and through, my mind won’t be satisfied. Because although my significant other could (and does) tell me over and over and over again how much he really does love me and wants to be with me, the truth is, neither of us can really know with 100% certainty. That’s just the reality of life right there. It has nothing to do with our relationship. This uncertainty causes me to seek reassurance constantly, a behavior that’s very common in people with OCD.

But, let’s for a second imagine his frustration with having to constantly tell me this over and over again. Imagine how this must make HIM feel. To know that I am gripped by these irrational doubts. It makes me sad, the potentiality that my thoughts have to hurting his feelings, regardless of how resilient and impervious he is to them. I know he can handle my anxiety most of the time. I’m just terrified of the moment when his patience runs out. But, I digress.

To someone with an obsessive mind, or – more specifically – with OCD, imperfection is unacceptable. Imperfection and doubt cause anxiety. The same with pattern and consistency. I have an incredibly difficult time accepting a change in pattern.

Every Friday, my team gets free bagels. My manager brings them in, and I set them up for everyone. It’s been a part of my weekly routine for months. Today, my manager wasn’t in and passed on his title of Bagel Santa to one of the other managers. The new Bagel Santa, not usually in as early, didn’t know how Bagel Friday was handled every week and went ahead and set them up without me.

When I found this out, my entire emotional well-being came to a crashing halt. I was devastated by this tiny, tiny, insignificant event. On top of it, when I tried to express my frustration and anger (irrationally, at this other person) to a couple of my friends, I could tell they were thinking that I was blowing things out of proportion. I could tell they didn’t want to listen to my irrational rampage. It was incredibly alienating.

For the record, I was blowing things out of proportion. But, also, I have had a really bad week; this was just kind of the icing on the cake. Setting up those bagels gives me a sense of stability. It also makes me feel useful. So when that stability is yanked out from under me, I freak out. And on top of it, some people can’t understand that. Because my friends reacted in a way that wasn’t up to my standards (i.e. validating my feelings), my anxiety over it compounded. I was behaving imperfectly. I couldn’t handle myself. And I was getting down on myself for not handling the situation well.

Dudes, this bagel thing upset me so much, that I actually had to go to the bathroom to cry so I could let out.

Imagine my self-embarrassment; my self-harassment: “You’re crying over bagels, you little baby. Get yourself together.” This is how I speak to myself in these instances. But, frankly, as much as I am empowered and in charge of my emotions, getting down on myself for getting upset is the real problem. I felt misunderstood, I felt unheard, and on top of it, I was ashamed.

It wasn’t until I spoke to another friend, who has difficulty with obsession (and, additionally, a family member with autism), that I felt understood. She recognized that just the dramatic change in event alone was enough to drive me out of rational and into irrational, suddenly-heightened anxiety. She gave me the permission to be upset. It was the validation I needed.

Immediately after, my significant other gave me the permission to complain about the event later, which was extremely helpful. Because it A) indicated that the event was of enough importance (to me, and therefore to him) that it meant he was willing to set some time aside to hear me bitch, and B) therefore, validated my (albeit irrational) feelings and made me feel less ashamed. I was then able to bring myself back down from an 8 to a 5 and put the anxiety off until later.

The truth is, by later tonight when I am allowed to complain…I probably won’t need to. This, my friends, is how I overcome anxiety, emotional distress, and the driving force behind my obsessions: my mean voice. Not by pushing the feelings down or ignoring them, but by taking hold of the emotions, screaming at my mean voice to fuck the hell off, and say:

No, you will not control me.

Panic Attacks, Pills, and Progress

Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve been having fairly regular panic attacks. Once they started, the frequency increased exponentially, starting at once a month to once every two weeks. That doesn’t count all the times I almost had panic attacks and managed to calm them down.

At some point in the middle of developing a panic disorder, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t actually having panic attacks. That they were just “anxiety attacks” – this may still be true, though. What I would call a panic attack might just be a very severe anxiety attack.

There is a difference between the two. Panic attacks generally are rooted in the fight or flight physiological reaction in the brain and are often unprovoked (a stressor is not required). Anxiety attacks are physical symptoms of anxiety that are as a result of stressors.

Often, a panic attack itself would cause anxiety. My body would freak out and then my brain would go: oh, this is like anxiety, let’s think about stuff that’s awful and scares us. And it would escalate the physical symptoms further.

One particularly bad week, a panic attack sent me home from work.

Afterwards, I generally feel depressed, which started to worry me more – I fear depression almost above all else. I’ve been down the dark road to rock bottom, and, more than anything, I don’t want to go back there. I’ll take the anxiety and relentless obsession any day over that. At least with anxiety I can be an active participant in life and other things.

Anyway, it hadn’t occurred to me until relatively recently that the depressed feeling was most likely a “come down” from all of the heightened physical symptoms. So, I told myself over and over again that lethargy was just lethargy and the “depressed” feeling was not necessarily a sign of depression.

My panic attacks have become less regular since I started on a daily low dose of an anti-seizure/anti-panic medication called Klonopin. I take it as a baseline to prevent early-early-morning anxiety that was waking me up around 4 AM daily. This has a sort of “trickle down” effect. If my anxiety is lower in the morning, it won’t escalate as quickly into an anxiety/panic attack.

For weeks at a time, sometimes without a single day off, I started obsessing before I was awake; thus, I begin my day at an already-heightened anxiety and stress level, and then it really only increased from there. I would spend my entire time in my morning shower (which is my wake up and focus time) beating back obsessions like “Do I ACTUALLY love my boyfriend?” “Does my boyfriend ACTUALLY love me?” “What if he’s lying to me about [fill in the fear]?” “What if I’m an awful person?”

Much as I hated the idea of taking medication (and I still do, every day), the daily 0.25mg of Klonopin I take really takes it down a LOT. I still have some obsessions and still have to work sometimes at it, but now I feel more ABLE. Now that a lot of the really high-level anxiety nonsense is gone – for the most part – I can focus on tackling the bigger issues, including panic attacks.

I think that because of this, I don’t have the panic attacks “often” anymore (this is a relative term). To boot, any incident or episode of anxiety has now become a minor anxiety attack (minor hyperventilating mixed with a crying spell), and they are easily diffused by me when I’m alone and even more quickly and easily when I’m with my significant other. Even with friends near, the anxiety diffuses more quickly. I have one friend in particular who sometimes rescues me from the stairwell when I trap myself there.

I had been going to therapy every week for months and months, and I recently moved to a different town, making it more difficult for me to get to my therapist’s office. Up until my most recent session (two weeks ago), I hadn’t been there in a month.

This month, I had a really severe panic attack at work. Then a few days later, I had two minor anxiety attacks. In the week following, I was down on myself for all of the piled up anxiety attacks. I felt that I had lost control of myself or “let” myself have the anxiety/panic attack(s). That I was somehow responsible for not being in control of myself enough (perfection alert, perfection alert).

When my therapist asked me how my month went, I said “Well, I had a panic attack on a Friday at work and then two minor anxiety attacks the following Sunday.”

She asked me what had been happening in my life this month and this is the list:

-I moved out of my parent’s house. (Moving is fucking stressful, yo.)
-I didn’t get to take my dog, whom I adore, with me.
-This is the first time I’ve been on my own since I was 20.
-I had been working overtime with a lot of pressure to perform daily and produce double volume while maintaining quality.
-My significant other has been undergoing some pretty major life changes in the last month and there are a lot of uncertain things in his life.
-I’ve been training for a marathon which is now into some pretty high mileage runs on the weekend.
-I get up at 4:50 AM every morning for work and I have a 3 hour round-trip commute.
-The only down time I have anymore is on the weekends.

My therapist’s reaction to all of this, including my panic attack and anxiety attacks, was a big smile and: “You only had one panic attack this month?? Even with all of that going on?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that it was JUST one panic attack, on top of everything that was going on AND no therapy for four weeks. I had pretty much endured a hellish month without really batting an eyelash. I had that moment of realization that makes me hopeful for the long-haul: I am getting better. Slowly but surely, I am getting better, and maybe sometime soon I won’t need the medication anymore.

That’s a pretty big victory, I’d say.

The Crippling Power of the Mean Voice: Self-Sabotage and Flawed Logic

I’m in the kind of relationship that doesn’t really have any major conflict. My partner is supportive and kind, patient and understanding, and we operate on this “we’re a team” paradigm that permeates even our rare arguments. It’s essentially as close to the utopic relationship as I’ve conjured in my imagination in my days of singledom. I’ll stop my gushing now and say simply: I have exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Though my significant other (S.O.) and I don’t really have any problems, there’s certainly a lot of potential for conflict, trust me. My obsessions and abandonment issues alone could tear us apart if two things didn’t happen: 1) I’m as up front and honest and forthright as I can be about my obsessions, including the ones that involve my partner. Including the ones that could potentially hurt his feelings. 2) My partner recognizes that my obsessions are not based in reality – they are a sort of delusional thought process that is there to create conflict.

The only time that conflict arises from my anxiety is when it becomes really overwhelming for both of us at the same time. An understandable circumstance, really. But a fairly rare occurrence, nonetheless.

Ironically, a major problem arises from the lack of conflict itself. For a person, like me, who fears loss so much (“everyone I love is going to leave me”) and has an unbelievably low self-worth (“I don’t deserve happiness”), my mind doesn’t know how to cope with this excellent thing that I have. My mind wants to create conflict, because that’s what makes sense. The world is an unfair, unforgiving place, and I am clearly unworthy of good things, because everything I love either leaves me or hurts me in some way. So, therefore, (in my mind) my great, awesome, healthy, and productive relationship will fail. And then I start preparing myself for it emotionally. Or, I react to things I think are happening that aren’t.

This is called self-sabotage.

The self-sabotage manifests itself in a few ways, most of them seemingly minor incidents. But with me, mountains are made out of molehills. Everything that happens has a pattern or meaning, OBVIOUSLY (this irrational paradigm is a result of the diabolical combination of being an English major and watching nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother). So, that one time at dinner when my S.O. looked away from me when I was speaking, that clearly means that he was A) looking at someone else and therefore is cheating on me, B) is bored because I am uninteresting and therefore will leave me tomorrow, C) is annoyed because I am an annoying person and therefore he is lying about loving me. And so on. And so forth.

These syllogisms are obviously flawed and irrational. None of these conclusions come even close to having any truth value whatsoever. My partner is faithful and loving and very much enjoys my company.

I’ve spent a lot of energy, in recent weeks when this happens, focusing on what is more likely. The likely explanation for this action is: something happened over there and my S.O. probably looked over in that direction for no particular reason. This helps me overcome the irrational syllogism, and it has been fairly successful; I will repeat it to myself over and over (maybe a positive obsession?) until the “more likely” reasonable voice is louder than, as I like to refer to it, the mean voice. That evil bitch that lives in my head and tells me lies. (I had a close friend mention that she has one of these. She calls it “Crazy Girl.”)

These flawed syllogisms don’t happen all the time. When I’m not anxious….when I’m “together” and “reasonable,” I don’t think this way at all. I see my relationship in a realistic way, am understanding and reasonable about certain behaviors or actions that I could misinterpret in the wrong frame of mind, and recognize that those syllogisms are ridiculous and unfounded.

Sometimes, even the stark contrast and dichotomous nature of my mind causes me to get down on myself. If I can manage a reasonable response to shit on a fairly regular basis, why the hell do I have to make all this crap up in my head? Why do I put myself through it? This, occasionally, in and of itself will cause me to get down on myself and start a negative cycle of thinking. But usually already when I’m in that irrational frame of mind. That bad headspace, as they say.

That’s the fucked up part, really. Even when I’m having these irrational moments, I recognize that they are falsifications. That I’m ascribing meaning to something that isn’t meaningful. My boyfriend, who is very forgetful, mixing up an event (like where we were when something happened) is NOT evidence that he is seeing someone else. It is merely a result of his flawed memory. The notion that I know better, even in the moment, frustrates me more than anything else – because even when I’m in it and I know that it’s all wrong and dumb and bad for me and only causing problems where none exist…I still can’t pull out of it. And then I either have escalated anxiety attack (read: panic attack in potentia) or I get depressed.

It’s like one of those nightmares, where you’re running from something terrifying and your legs just won’t move faster. You’re running like you’re in water, and you know you can run faster, you know HOW to do it, but your body just WON’T respond. It should be no surprise that I have these nightmares all the time. That I’ve had them regularly since I was young.

Honestly, these are really the only nightmares I ever have.

Perfection, Purity, and the Merry-Go-Round

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.