Archive for the ‘OCD’ Category

I’m Alive. I think.

Posted: May 31, 2012 in anxiety, healing, OCD

I know, I know.

I fell off the edge of the planet.

Just for a little while.

It’s been a crazy few weeks.


So much to write about…it’s hard to know where to start.

I’ll try to play catch up.

I made some big changes this month.

I ended a relationship that has been the cornerstone and central focus of my life for the past six years (give or take a couple of weeks where this boy and I hadn’t really decided if we were officially “dating” or not).

I packed everything I own into U-Haul boxes, secured them with brown tape, marked the sides with a bold-point permanent marker, and moved it all to a little bedroom at my brother’s house. (Thank you, brother, for the free storage space).

I packed everything that was left (minus the cat) into a few more boxes and moved into a single bedroom in a tiny apartment with a roommate I’d never met.

It’s been two weeks and I still haven’t seen very much of her, come to think of it…

So now, after six very up and down, roller-coaster kinds of years that have included some of the happiest and most miserable moments of my life, and after that same amount of time spent envisioning rings and flowers and white dresses, I suddenly find myself alone, without most of my belongings, without internet (the horror!) and without a plan for what I’m doing with my life.

It’s liberating and nerve-wracking all at the same time.

It’s been incomprehensibly difficult and strangely easier than I thought it would be.

It’s been mixed with laughter and tears and a lot of second-guessing myself along the way.

I doubt it will get any easier for at least a little while.

There are still a lot of things up in the air, and a lot of things to question. If there’s one thing I really, truly suck at, it’s navigating through the world when I don’t know what’s coming at me next. I blame the perfectionism, and the OCD, but really this is just how I’ve responded to life in the past and it’s hard to change that now, even though doing so is going to be a big step in changing how I move through the rest of my life.

My therapist thinks this will be good for me.

My brother thinks I’ve done the right thing.

My friends all say I’ve made the best decision I could have made under the circumstances.

My mind tells me I did what I needed to do.

My heart, on the other hand, is just confused and hurt and sitting in my throat.

Good inspiration for songwriting, right?

Visiting Seattle is a strange experience for me sometimes. I lived here for four years, but for most of that time, my anxiety prevented me from getting out and exploring the city in any meaningful way. When I come back, now, it’s a strange mixture of familiarity and newness.

Boyfriend has a work conference this week, so I get to stay for free in a suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. It’s lovely. It comes with designer-brand sheets, an assortment of bath goodies, plush bathrobes, and $8 bottled water. It’s the kind of place that I usually feel out of place in – like I’m pretending, because I can’t really afford this stuff.

It’s nice to be in Seattle and be able to get out an explore it now, without feeling anxious or overwhelmed at every new turn. Last night, I met up with one of my roommates from my undergraduate years. It’s always interesting to see people who knew me back then, and hear their observations of the person I was. I compare that girl to who I am now, and sometimes I wonder where she went. Other times, I feel like she’s looking over my shoulder, waiting to see if she can force her way back in and turn this new life I’ve been building upside down. She’s the voice of self-doubt that always wants me to give up on things; who tells me it’s not worth it to keep trying whenever the slightest hint of disappointment crops up.

I’m doing a much better job, lately, of shutting her up.

I had a very interesting conversation with former roomie, over a Dry Blood Orange Soda and a delicious snack platter of roasted nuts and olives:

What was most intriguing to me, on this particular night, was her view of me, from back then.

When I look back, on the girl who struggled through undergraduate school, I don’t see much that’s positive beyond the school part. I was an excellent student. I earned grades commensurate with the hours and hours I spent locked up in my bedroom, or the library, or (on really good days, when I was feeling adventurous) a coffee shop. That part of my being then tends to fade into a background of student loans, bad fashion, damaged skin, anxiety, and bad decisions. I didn’t know how to function in that world, away from my parents’ dysfunction. I didn’t know how to be social, or how to have fun. Literally – that was a new phenomenon to me, when I worked through the walls OCD and anxiety helped me put up so early in my life.

When I look back at my undergraduate years, I tend to only see what I missed. In reality, there were parties at my house that I didn’t attend…even when I was in the house. I’d lock my door, stuff in ear plugs, and do homework. Not because I didn’t want to be social, but because I genuinely didn’t know how.

I look back, and see that girl – alone, and isolated, and miserable. I knew then, even before I got help, that I wanted something different, but it took time to make those changes. Time that I tend to look at, even now, as lost years.

I looked at my roommates as my polar opposites – friendly and outgoing; smart and funny; fearless and uninhibited. I wanted to be like them, but I assumed it just wasn’t possible.

When I finally started to unravel the deep dark secrets that hoarding and anxiety had kept hidden in my past, I learned there really was a whole new, big, exciting world out there. When I moved to Seattle, I was filled with that excitement and wonder, because back then, at 18, I really thought that if I could just get out of California, everything would be different. I would be different, because people in Seattle were different. Something had to change.

It wasn’t that easy. But it is more rewarding now, in a strange way, to come back to Seattle and see it with brand new eyes. What I wasn’t expecting from this conversation was to hear that my smart, funny, beautiful, fabulous roommate had found things to admire and envy in me, too.

While I was wishing for just a tiny bit of her talent for navigating the world, she was looking at my dedication to my studies. While I was hoping to learn from watching her how this business of making friends worked, she was watching me push through classes. She tells me I did a very good job of hiding my misery, and loneliness. Which is also interesting to me, because I assumed I must be transparent; that everyone could look right inside to see how pathetic I really felt most of the time.

Which led to another turn in the conversation. One I won’t talk about here, because there is too much at stake for too many people in its revelation. But I will say that it made me consider just how far I’ve come, that in the course of this conversation, I felt capable of doing something I didn’t feel like I could do for most of my life: I told the truth, even though it was scandalous and ugly. And I didn’t feel bad about it, because being able to take responsibility for my mistakes while also recognizing that not everything that goes wrong in the world is my fault is a big accomplishment for me. It’s been a long time coming.

We moved the conversation to a nearby sushi restaurant, where little bites of heaven came to a dark lacquered table on fancy white plates:

We sat there, talking about our hopes and dreams, and it came home to me that I’ve turned a corner here, somewhere, when I wasn’t really paying attention. The past is still there, and still a part of me, but the future is brighter and more promising now than it ever was in my wild, desperate dreams when I first left California almost a decade ago. Being realistic about the future used to mean giving up on long-shot dreams to me. Now it means finding new ways to harness and build upon them. That something real, and worthwhile, could come out of all this has been a hazy, troubling thing to try and wrap my head and heart around for a long time. But it’s there now, and real, and it’s been worth fighting for.

Boyfriend is wrapped up with conference duties all day, so this morning, I took myself to breakfast at the same little coffeehouse that served me a delicious Dry Blood Orange Soda and wonderful conversation last night:

Boyfriend seemed a little surprised that I left the hotel room by myself this morning. He’s still catching up to the place where my being alone is a choice and a treat, and not a byproduct of being too afraid to make friends. I already have dinner plans this evening… with myself.

And as for the scared, anxious, girl that spent so many nights alone when she lived in Seattle – maybe I’ll take her too. To tell her one more time to look around and appreciate how far she’s come. And that, above all else, even though she still holds me back sometimes, I’m proud of her.

I Heart Thursday.

Posted: June 2, 2011 in anxiety, healing, OCD, weight loss

Friday isn’t bad either, because it’s massage day. Tomorrow I also have some therapy scheduled with my first therapist, who I haven’t been seeing very much lately, since I’ve been working with my OCD therapist. It is always good to check in with her, and it’s pretty amazing to see how far I’ve come since I started working with her. She often says she wishes she had a picture of me when I first came in to see her, and would huddle down in the easy chair in her office and attempt to become as invisible as possible. It is pretty incredible to think about the things I was terrified of then that I’m doing on a regular basis now without even thinking about it…traveling, meeting new people, spending time in social settings…just to name a few. When I started seeing the therapist, I wouldn’t have even been able to contemplate joining a band, because it opened me up to rejection and nerves. It’s good to be at this vantage point looking back on that progress.

As far as today goes, I’m off to a little bit of a slow start, but I’m getting on top of things. I treated myself to sleeping in until almost 10 this morning and enjoyed listening to the rain outside. It was soothing and very rejuvenating. I made it back to my house from house sitting at about 10:30, and after catching up on email and such I’m ready to hop on the treadclimber and get my work out on. I think after that and a shower I’ll work on my research for a little bit and get ready for band practice tonight. I love band practice, and it’s typically a high point in my week. This week we’re working on polishing off all the songs we’ve learned in order to be ready for our first show, which is coming up in just over two weeks. I’m nervous but excited! Tomorrow I’m going to start putting together outfits for band promotional photos – another exciting step forward!

It’s probably time to start talking about the biggest OCD component in all of this. One of my biggest struggles in getting healthy has been learning to cope with my OCD, and learning how to manage my compulsions. Over the years, there were many compulsions that impacted my ability to function on a daily basis. The earliest that I can remember is checking numbers – mostly on the clock beside my bed. I had trouble sleeping because I’d keep opening my eyes to look at what time it was. At one point, I decided that the number 7 was awesome, and repeatedly checked the clock to watch the numbers change. Somewhere along the way I started writing the numbers down on pieces of paper because I was afraid I’d forget them. The end result was one very tired kid and lots of pieces of paper filled with a progression of noted times that meant very little.

Somewhere along the way that compulsion wore off, and others replaced it. By the time I was a teenager, I no longer placed all my faith in the number 7. I’d moved on and branched out by then, to certain even numbers…multiples of 2 and 4 were preferable, though numbers that repeated (22, 44, etc.), were not desirable.  I was most partial to 4, 12, 14 and 24. By the time I got to college, I’d started setting alarm clocks to those numbers – getting up at 7:00 was unthinkable when it was just as easy to set the alarm to 7:04, or 7:34. I couldn’t turn the car off if the clock numbers ended in 3. I’m not really sure if I thought something bad was going to happen, it just didn’t feel right to do things differently. That’s the scary part of OCD – learning to behave differently.

By far the most debilitating of my OCD compulsions has been picking at my skin. I don’t remember exactly when it started. I know that by the time I was in middle school I was chewing on the skin around my fingers until they bled, and when I reached my pre-teenage years and started to develop acne, I began picking at my face instantly. My parents were never good at following through to make sure I’d brushed my teeth, washed my face, or anything of that sort. Even if I had wanted to wash my face, our water was so full of silt, I’m not sure how much good it did. To illustrate, it got so bad by the time I was in eighth grade that I had to start rinsing my hair with bottled water when I got out of the shower to get the muddy sludge out of it. I felt dirty, and out of control. To compensate, I picked my skin.

The bathroom sink...

...and the bathtub.

I remember the exact moment that I transitioned from picking my face to picking other parts of my body – most notably my upper arms and chest. I was sitting at the dining room table working on something, and absently running the fingers of one hand over my left shoulder when I felt a little bump. I raced to the bathroom mirror to check out the situation and discovered a white-head, which I immediately annihilated by popping it. A new compulsion was born. Within a few days, my arms were a bloody, bruised, scabbed over mess.

I knew something wasn’t right, and most of my major milestones in life were marked by my desire to stop picking at my skin. I’d do it when I turned 15. No fifteen year old picked at their skin. Maybe at 16…certainly no sixteen year old did it. 18. No young adult going off to college would pick their skin this way. 21 – old enough to drink, old enough not to pick.

Now here I am, 26, and still learning how to manage my OCD…including not picking at my skin.

My OCD therapist started with the numbers. The first time I had to set my alarm clock to 7:13 I wanted to have a panic attack, but it got better. The numbers have gotten better. Learning to manage the skin picking has been a much bigger struggle, and I’m still working through it.  There’s a strange sense of calm in picking at my skin – the compulsion is like an old friend, and it’s been with me for a long time. Cutting it out of my life has been difficult.

I’m 26 years old, and I still have a hard time wearing tank tops, short-sleeved shirts, and anything that reveals too much of my chest. I’ve picked my skin so much that it’s probably done permanent damage. As my picking has lessened, with therapy and lots of hard work, my skin has healed enough to appear healthy on the outside. Learning to understand my compulsive need to pick and retrain my brain to react differently to the desire to pick, however, is a process that I’m still learning. Knowing that I’m not alone, and not the only one in the world who picks at my skin, is a powerful thing, however, and that’s a big part of my motivation to share my story. I didn’t learn the word “dermatillomania” until a few months ago, but knowing there is a medical term for what I do is an enormously powerful thing. I think if I had known at a younger age that there were other people out there like me, it would have made a huge difference. OCD is a very secretive disorder – I don’t want anyone to be able to see that I pick my skin, so I’ve grown adept at hiding it. Revealing it to the world is scary, but a very healing step. Pictures coming……

Playing Superwoman

Posted: October 22, 2010 in anxiety, OCD

In addition to playing parent (which I also did today), I sometimes get the chance to play Superwoman. Not literally, of course. But I’m in grad school, so I take what I can get in these situations. Since I’ve been a teaching assistant, I’d estimate that I’ve spent about 95% of my time doing two things: grading assignments, and listening students complain that they don’t like the way I’ve graded their assignments.  The remaining 5% gets divided between reporting plagiarizers, organizing study sessions, and helping students I actually like. Unfortunately, since class sizes keep getting bigger, and admissions standards keep getting lower, I usually end up having to focus more of my energy on the former than the latter.

I like helping students who are in school to learn. I don’t mind how much they are struggling, or how much time I have to invest in helping them. I’ll look at multiple drafts of their papers, spend way more time having office hours than I’m required to, and even help them if they can’t find sources for their papers. By the assessment of the professors I’ve worked for, I go above and beyond…both in hammering students who cheat with every penalty I can find, and investing extra time to help the ones who want it. By the assessment of some of my students, I’m the most intimidating TA they’ve ever had. I stand by both of those.

Being a TA has been a difficult learning experience for me on a lot of levels. Thanks to my OCD, I’m physically incapable of not taking my job seriously down to the last detail. I know I’m good at it. But it’s also very stressful. One of the reasons the professors I work for regard me highly as a TA is because of my attention to detail and willingness to grade harshly when students deserve it. Lots of TA’s (and some professors) avoid student wrath by inflating grades. I care about my reviews. But I also have zero patience for students who think they’re entitled to good grades for work they haven’t done. So I grade them how they deserve, and as a result, most of them think I’m the devil incarnate. For someone with anxiety who worries constantly what other people think about them and has spent two decades struggling to find adequate social skills for getting through daily life, this is a challenge.

Sometimes it’s rewarding. And one of the perks of having most of my students think I’m evil is that I have time to help the ones who actually need it. Today one of my former students stopped by to ask for advice about an ordeal she’s having with one of her classes. After two decades of being told (usually in not so many words) that I was responsible for things that were way beyond what was reasonable for a little kid, it’s nice to understand where healthy boundaries are, and be able to give advice. My poor little former student feels like the world is ending right now. If there’s one thing I can tell her definitively, it’s that it won’t. I can’t tell her how things will work out, but I can tell her from experience that life will go on. I’m glad I’ve learned that lesson. Even better? Being able to pass it on.


Playing Parent

Posted: October 1, 2010 in anxiety, childhood, depression, hoarding, OCD

Today, I’m playing parent…to my parents. I HATE playing parent. It’s like an added slap in the face for the non-parenting they did while I was growing up. Not only did they not let me just act like a kid while I was growing up because their inability to take responsibility for having a daughter, but now, as a twenty-something, they still expect me to take responsibility for things that I shouldn’t have to worry about. It’s one thing to have to take care of your parents as they get older. But it’s hard to accept taking on that role when your parents have, for the most part, never taken care of you.

It gets hard to separate out my emotions regarding my parents. It’s very hard to define how you feel about someone when on the one hand, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt for doing the best they were capable of.  My parents didn’t try to be neglectful or absent; I know that deep down, they loved me the best they could. How do you make sense of that? How do you say, “I know you loved me and did the best you could…but it wasn’t enough”?

With my dad, it’s a little easier. He loves me, but he’s incompetent. The hard, cold, sad, honest truth is that he never should have been a parent. Mentally, I haven’t quite figured out what’s going on with my dad. I’m guessing it’s some combination of manic depression and OCD.  There was something just a little bit mentally off about my grandmother on his side of the family, which didn’t really become apparent to me until I was an adult. I blame his side of the family for how I turned out genetically…

Therein lies the crux of my anger as I learn to manage and understand myself. My whole life, when I had panic attacks, or anxiety, or obsessive compulsions that interfered with daily life, I was punished. I was constantly told to “get over it” and that I needed to “learn how to behave.” I was made unequivocally responsible for any issues that I had – no one ever stopped to take into account the fact that I was just a little girl and if little girls act the way I did, there’s a reason behind it. My parents never once stopped to consider the impact their behavior had on me. Even as I’ve gotten older and started to bring the issue up, there has never been any acknowledgment that their hoarding and the condition of the house played a role in how I learned to respond to the world around me. This isn’t something I’ve been able to articulate until recently. In a sense, I’m moving through the five stages of grief for my childhood – or lack thereof. I’m on the anger one right now…

So that sums up dad. Incompetent, but well-intentioned. He was the main hoarder in our family, and I do still harbor a lot of anger toward him for what he put us through. I’m learning to find healthy strategies for managing it, and working with my therapist(s) to get on the path toward true acceptance, where I acknowledge that there is nothing I can do to change either the past or the reality that is my relationship with my father. Being angry isn’t the answer. In the long run, it’s a waste of time. But I also think it’s healthy to recognize that there are valid reasons behind my anger, and learn to understand them.

Things get more difficult when it comes to my mom. I’ll spend more time on her in future posts, because she is the nexus where all the complications of dealing with a family member who hoards come together. I don’t have any sympathy left for my dad. I love him, but I’ve learned to find a place where I can let go of the painful realization that I’m never going to have a healthy relationship with him. Mom is harder to explain.

The difference when it comes to mom is that she legitimately did try. Dad wasn’t capable of that. Mom didn’t always succeed, and she didn’t always do the right thing…but she gave it an honest effort. And I recognize how much she sacrificed to get me to where I am. She was the one who worked two jobs to keep food on the table and clothes on our back. She was the one who drove me to the ice rink for skating practice no matter how tired she was after work, and she was the one that tried to understand me when I confided in her. She was the one who encouraged me to go to college, and was willing to let me go when I started to make my own way in the world.

But she still made me responsible for things that never should have fallen on the shoulders of a little kid. Since my dad always acted like a third child, she was constantly in the role of mediator, trying to placate him even when it was obvious what he was doing was hurtful to me and my brother. There were very few times when she stood up to my dad and did the right thing for us; those times were some of the most central and formative in my life, and I give her credit for that. It gets hard to reconcile that with all the other times when she wasn’t there for me when I needed her because she felt like she had to give more attention to my dad.

On that note, I’m off to their house to load up their garbage and take it to the landfill…because they refuse to pay for garbage service, and have no back up plan for dealing with the situation aside from taking for granted that I will take responsibility for it for them. I already hauled 1,500 pounds of household trash to the dump for them last week. It’s very hard to find the balance between helping them out and finally standing up for myself and for healthy boundaries. I can’t stand to watch the house fall down around them like the one in California did (more on that later), but I also can’t stand to pretend like what they’re doing is acceptable. Unfortunately, it takes competence to recognize incompetence. And we still have a long way to go.

It’s been a pretty typical Tuesday in most respects. I had an appointment with my therapist this morning. Normally I feel a strange mixture of sadness and hope after therapy – I feel better, because I know I’m working on getting healthy in every way possible; but what I’m working through in therapy right now involves the past, and it hurts. It’s a constant, weekly reminder of how bad the past really was.

In all reality, I’m just now starting to come to terms with how bad the past really was.

As a kid, you never want to believe your parents have flaws. It’s natural to try to overlook them, I think…they’re your parents.  I spent over twenty years of my life believing that everything that was wrong was my fault. The house was messy because I wasn’t a good enough child to clean it. The dishes weren’t done because I hadn’t been responsible enough to do them. My hair wasn’t brushed because I wasn’t a clean enough child to take care of it. I grew up with such an overwhelming sense of responsibility for not being perfect that I developed a paralyzing fear of failure. It has impacted every decision I’ve made until recently.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and starting seeing a therapist consistently that I realized it shouldn’t have been responsible for cleaning the house as a little kid. Kids are supposed to help with the dishes, not manage them. A five year old doesn’t know it’s their own responsibility to brush their hair. Sometimes they even avoid it because it hurts. They have to be taught and guided. I wasn’t. If I didn’t figure out how to do things on my own, they just didn’t get figured out. I was told I had to be okay with that. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made the decision to give back the responsibility for things that aren’t my job to take care of. It hasn’t been easy.

When I moved out of my parents’ house at 18, any semblance of cleaning stopped. After years of dealing with a mess, I cleaned my room on my own for the time around age ten or eleven. It was the only clean room in the house for the rest of my childhood and teenage years. A few months before I moved out, I cleaned the rest of the house as best I could. I was dealing with my own personal trauma (something I’ll talk about in a later post in more detail), and I needed an outlet.

Cleaning the house was almost as traumatic. Lots of things I remembered from my childhood had been ruined by mold or mildew or mice.  There were rotting mice everywhere – including the oven, which hadn’t worked in years. Some of the windowsills were so eaten through with termites they disintegrated when I tried to clean them. The floor in the bathroom was rotting from the bottom up. Sentimental items were missing or destroyed. The process was devastating.

By the time I came back on my first break from college, the house was in worse condition than before I’d tried to clean it. My parents had literally filled it back up. That was devastating. After that, it just got worse and worse and worse. Exponentially. By the time I finished college and came back, it was the worst it had ever been. For me, after four years of living in a clean environment, it was too much. It was literally unlivable.

It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I really started to understand that hoarding is a real problem, and it wasn’t my fault that I grew up in the conditions that I did. It shouldn’t ever have been my responsibility to clean them. Watching television shows about hoarding is a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, it’s comforting to feel like I’m not alone. It’s a good thing to know that there are other people out there who do understand what it’s like to grow up with parents who put things before children. On the other hand, it’s especially hard to see people talking about how bad the situation is when the house isn’t as bad as the one I grew up in. I understand the pain they’re going through, but I can’t help but wonder where help was when I needed it. When I was little, hoarding wasn’t a problem that was talked about. It was a big secret to be covered up. It still is that way for a lot of people, but I’m finished keeping quiet. Intentions aside, my parents’ hoarding has hurt a lot of people. It’s time to stop hurting and stop healing.