perfection

Baggage, Jealousy, and the Shame Caused by Both

Recently, I had a breakthrough that might be categorized by most people as a completely unimportant event. I had an “impure” thought and said it out loud when it occurred. My significant other didn’t react perfectly to it, and immediately I began to feel shame for A) having the thought, B) expressing the thought, and C) potentially hurting his feelings. It was one of those moments where I had a hard time articulating what I meant, and there was a blip in our usually-very-effective communication. I got nervous as I was trying to explain, and he seemed to let it go, but my stomach tied in knots and I began to feel guilty. Instead of wallowing in the guilt and abusing myself in my head, I said to him “Now I’ve made myself upset.”

Expressing this, for me, is an extreme challenge. Because I had completely circumvented my rumination process and got right to the point: I was ashamed for what I had said even though the thought, feeling, and expression of it was completely normal. I think the standard issue with obsessives is that they think the thoughts they are having (that are upsetting) are abnormal and that other people don’t experience them.

The truth is, most people have disturbing thoughts all the time. Mostly everyone empathizes with a villain momentarily, or perhaps has an image of being violent towards a person, or has sexual thoughts about inappropriate people. But the difference is, most people are able to ignore them, or even don’t realize they have them. Because I (and other people like me) are so obsessed with perfection, purity of thought is of the upmost importance. At some point, in my mind, I made the connection that having a thought makes something true.

This aggravates a lot of standard feelings and thoughts I have, specifically in my relationship. Because of my previous experiences in relationships, I somehow have put all the responsibility on myself for this relationship to succeed and, because of my penchant for perfection, and irrational paradigms of what it means to be a good partner by people who treated me poorly in the past, I have unreasonable standards for how I am supposed to behave.

Case in point: jealousy. This is probably the most obvious issue I have in trying to exist in my relationship with obsessions. Most of my obsessions are wildly untrue and fabrications of an incredibly warped reality in my head. I can talk myself down from them easily because they are counter to behavior (by myself or my significant other). Jealousy is different because it exists almost entirely internally. My significant other does not do anything that really merits a jealous reaction (what I mean is: he doesn’t flirt with other people, doesn’t talk about other people in such a way as to raise red flags, is faithful and shows no interest in the doings of most other people). Jealousy is simply common for most people in any kind of relationship. It’s natural to feel like we cannot fulfill the people we love in every way they need to be fulfilled. It just isn’t possible.

But, because of how my previous significant others reacted to jealousy, I have categorized it as “bad girlfriend behavior” in my head and therefore punish myself for having jealous thoughts. Almost everyone I know has some minorly-serious jealousy about one of their significant other’s exes. Why not? Why shouldn’t you be jealous that your significant other, at one time, loved and slept with another person? Of course it’s upsetting.

My problem is not the jealousy itself (or the ex, for that matter); my problem is that I cannot tolerate a single thought about it. And because my mind is so efficient with making associations (thank you English degree) and has such a vivid memory, it’s hard for me to break connections or forget about things I’ve heard.

My poor boyfriend, in the midst of all this, has to deal with my coming home one day, sobbing and telling him that thoughts about his ex, who I don’t even really know anything about, have plagued me all day.

I try to contextualize it. If I think about my exes, it isn’t a fond thought. It usually isn’t even an angry or resentful thought (unless I’m considering one who was emotionally abusive). A memory of an ex is usually, for me – since I’m constantly psychoanalyzing myself – a way for me to explain my own behavior to myself. “Why do I hate myself for feeling jealous? –Well, self, because your ex-girlfriend did shit constantly on purpose to make you jealous. Or your ex-boyfriend cheated on you relentlessly and lied about it. Self, I think that’s a fair reason to chastise yourself for feeling jealous.”

I had a realization recently: I have never been the primary desire in an adult romantic relationship until now. Everyone who I have had an intimate relationship with has either A) openly desired another person or people or B) slept with other people.

If I’m being honest, I’m ashamed that this still has an effect on me. I feel stunted. I feel like a fucking thirteen year old. Everyone around me seems to have no fucking problem letting go of their baggage or getting over shit or dealing with day to day relationship things like jealousy and here I am obsessing over my boyfriend’s ex existing somewhere and relentlessly not forgiving myself for having somehow failed in the past as a mate.

As if all of the ways I was mistreated in my past are my fault. Of course they’re my fault. Because I’m unworthy of a good life or have somehow misbehaved in those relationships and caused my significant others to be driven away from me.

No wonder I’m so petrified that my anxiety will drive my boyfriend away from me. Because I’m the only one responsible for the success of this relationship.

I know what the solution is. I have to forgive myself. For what? Not being perfect? For being with shitty people in the past who certainly didn’t create my emotional problems (I had OCD long before I met them) but didn’t do anything helpful and in some cases may have made it all worse? That isn’t really their fault either. Life isn’t fair and sometimes you’re incompatible with people you end up with for a time.

But then I say to myself: how do you forgive a person who was abusive? Who has made you so fearful of having normal emotional reactions that it causes panic? And then I have this self-hatred that comes from these thoughts – I hate that someone I used to be with could have such control over who I am today, even though they may have been manipulative and abusive.

Is the expectation that I shouldn’t have baggage from an emotionally abusive and sexually coercive relationship too high of an expectation? Is this me being too hard on myself?

All of these very normal, common relationship difficulties that we all have to learn to navigate through and on top of it, I’ve got to deal with an incredibly visceral fear of abandonment AND the baggage of an emotionally abusive relationship. And I somehow expect myself to just be over all of the hardship that I’ve somehow managed to endure. Don’t get me wrong, I have grieved the death of my father, and I have gotten over the pain of the previous relationship, years and years ago. But these are the things that drive my panic, and I have to confront them.

I know my significant other. I know that he will not abandon me or mistreat me. This confidence in him is not the same blind, repressive trust that I put in that abusive and manipulative ex. I know that. My boyfriend is not the same as the people in my past who have hurt me (however they have hurt me). He is a safe place.

And I suppose that’s why I feel so much shame for all of it: the unfounded jealousy, the obsessions, the occasional anger towards people who have mistreated me in the past. It makes me feel stunted an incapable. And most importantly: it makes me feel like a bad girlfriend.

A few days ago, in a fit of PMS-induced emotional outburst, I said this to him: “I feel like a bad girlfriend.” And I couldn’t articulate why. I’m not perfect, that’s why. And the rational, reasonable side of me feels terrible for the abnormal, Mean Voice-induced Child Me. When the machine is running at full speed, I’m in a constant state of being two people at once. The Me that understands how this all functions and wants to comfort the other Me who is screaming and angry and sad and afraid. I’m trying to nurture that “lesser” side of me. I’m trying to drown out my Mean Voice and talk to it the way I would talk to my boyfriend or a close friend or any person I loved.

I have to learn to love that “inferior” side of me instead of ridiculing it. Because, after all, it IS still a part of me.

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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.

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.