I’m going to get infected and be part of the percentage that dies.
Through something I do (or neglect to do), others will get infected and die.
In either case, I’ve ruined my life forever.
Many people have been struggling with these types of troubling and paralyzing thoughts over the past several weeks, and wrestling through how to live with this extreme discomfort while still doing their best to stay informed and follow proper medical advice.
It’s not easy.
I say this because this type of thinking is something I’ve (for the most part quietly) dealt with for the majority of my life, and I guess this is as good a time as any to open up a bit more about it, in the event that some of what I’ve learned over the years might help anyone having a hard time under the current circumstances.
Here goes: I’ve had severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for around 25 years.
Not so much the “I wash my hands a lot” or the “I have to organize things a certain way” type that you typically see in movies or on TV (though there’s definitely a splash of that), but primarily the “Pure-O” version.
For those not familiar with Pure-O OCD, here’s a brief overview:
The nature and type of primarily obsessional OCD varies greatly, but the central theme for all sufferers is the emergence of a disturbing, intrusive thought or question, an unwanted/inappropriate mental image, or a frightening impulse that causes the person extreme anxiety because it is antithetical to closely held religious beliefs, morals, or societal norms. The fears associated with primarily obsessional OCD tend to be far more personal and terrifying for the sufferer than what the fears of someone with traditional OCD may be. Pure-O fears usually focus on self-devastating scenarios that the sufferer feels would ruin their life or the lives of those around them.
They will understand that these fears are unlikely or even impossible, but the anxiety felt will make the obsession seem real and meaningful. While those without primarily obsessional OCD might instinctively respond to bizarre, intrusive thoughts or impulses as insignificant and part of a normal variance in the human mind, someone with Pure-O will respond with profound alarm, followed by an intense attempt to neutralize the thought or avoid having the thought again. The person begins to ask themselves constantly, “Am I really capable of something like that?” or “Could that really happen?” or “Is that really me?” (even though they usually realize that their fear is irrational, which causes them further distress) and puts tremendous effort into escaping or resolving the unwanted thought. They then end up in a vicious cycle of mentally searching for reassurance and trying to get a definitive answer.
Fun, right? 🎉
In my case, I had some tolerable flareups as a teenager, but things really escalated following the birth of our first son (if I had to guess, probably due to the rapid escalation in responsibility at a fairly young age).
I won’t go into detail on the endless, often extremely-intricate mental scenarios I’ve dealt with over the years (my wife could write a truly terrifying/hilarious book), but they generally all follow the same pattern:
- I encounter a trigger/catalyst (could be visual, could be a conversation, could be a daydream) that causes me to immediately obsess that something terrible has happened, or will happen
- Intellectually, I know that what I’m feeling involves something extremely unlikely to happen (or even something that’s impossible), and that I should ignore it and move forward
- Despite this, I feel paralyzing anxiety (often taking physical form) over the fact that by ignoring it I’m dooming myself or others
- I either give in to the obsession by engaging in a compulsion (boo) or try to make a better choice (yay)
- The obsession fades, then the next one begins
A few examples of compulsions I’ve danced with over the years:
- Checking and re-checking (sometimes even going as far as to involve car trips back to a location that triggered an episode)
- Going deep down a web search rabbit hole (this almost always ends in exhaustion and disappointment in myself for having “caved”)
- Posting something online to relieve guilt (“it’s my moral duty to post this” behavior, which often snuggles up nicely with intense religious OCD, a topic for another future post)
- Up until a few years ago, self-medicating with alcohol to press pause for a brief time
While cognitive behavioral therapy and proper medication are powerful primary helpers in anyone’s lifelong fight against OCD, I thought I’d also share a few other tools and tips that I’ve collected over the years (a few of these are shamelessly stolen from a post I did a while back).
I hope that maybe a few of them might be helpful for anyone struggling through Coronavirus-related anxiety:
- Start meditating: I’ve used both Headspace and Calm, and have found that ten minutes a day has had a noticeable effect on me over time.
- Try ASMR: I have no idea how, but this stuff really works for me. If I put on an audio track during a big anxiety spike, it’ll often calm me down within minutes.
- Get a weighted blanket: My bedmate is not a fan, but (as with many things about me) she tolerates it, and using it has really led me to appreciate Temple Grandin as an anxiety prophet.
- Exercise: I’m pretty terrible at following my own advice on this, but strenuous physical activity really does offer pretty powerful relief.
- Fidget with things: I find that constantly fidgeting with things brings a small amount of welcome distraction (some favorite items include this, this and this).
- Accept that anxiety-inducing triggers are everywhere: While keeping your head in the sand is never a good strategy, it’s an especially bad idea right now. Make sure you’re staying on top of news and advice from valid sources, and work on properly reacting to incoming sources of anxiety instead of trying to avoiding them.
- Lighten up online: Of course this situation is off-the-charts scary, but there’s a reason that release valves are important. Less dramatic Instagram posts and more sassy tweets!
I’ll leave you with this quote from The Aviator, for my money the best OCD-themed movie ever made.
Howard Hughes : Does that look clean to you?
Ava Gardner : Nothing’s clean, Howard. But we do our best, right?
Indeed, friends. We do our best. 💖
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