Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Mind with a Mind of Its Own

Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder  It conjures images of hand washing, repetitive light switch manipulation, etc.  In truth, the "first hand experience" is far more complex and nuanced.  Like an iceberg, the majority of the "mass" of the disorder lies hidden.  Let's again pull back the curtain.  Time for another "view from the inside".

As with Tourette's and Autism, living with OCD is largely misunderstood.  Describing it is a bit like describing color in a black and white world.  I can start with common points of reference.  Most times, the description goes far enough afield that those who wish to understand it gain only a nebulous and abstract view of the experience.  It's a bit like viewing a picture of a head of garlic.  The real experience can't be taken from the page.  The taste and smell must be experienced to be understood.

At its core, OCD is about fear and pain.  We fear what may happen if we don't fulfill a ritual.  We think thoughts, look at objects, analyze interactions, etc. in an attempt to diminish neurological and emotional discomfort (pain).  The clearest analog I've developed to describe the drive to perform behaviors and rituals (compulsions) is a bit of a mental stretch, but it works, at least in my own head.  Everyone has things they just can't stand.  For some it's fingernails on a chalkboard.  Others can't abide having things in their ears, etc.  Imagine that I am a mischievous imp.  I do things to people that they hate.  I do to you that thing that just runs you nuts.  It causes you stress.  It makes your skin crawl.  The only way to make me stop and flee is with a magic ritual.  If you flip the light switch 7 times, I'll stop bothering you and flee.  I won't be gone long, but you'll get a little relief.  I'll be back.  You'll again banish me with the ritual, but I'm persistent.  Welcome to compulsions.  You now experience fear of my coming and stress when I'm bothering you. Relief is short lived.  The fear of my next visit returns even faster than I do. 

Obsessions are a bit more difficult.  They're a bit like being told "don't think about monkeys".  You were reading along, enjoying the blog (hopefully), but now you've got monkeys on the brain.  Good luck getting rid of them.  Every time you decide that you're not going to think about monkeys, you are, by default, thinking about monkeys.  Fun, ain't it?  Obsessions interrupt normal cognitive function.  They hijack the mainframe so to speak.  What's worse, they're often fun and relaxing to think about.  Many of my hobbies have spent time as obsessions.  Others are embarrassing.  One could be driven to look at and analyze people's hands, noses, etc.  Fighting the drive to indulge the obsession causes anxiety, stress, and a form of "neurological pain" that I can't quantify or describe.  Going with the flow lowers these discomforts, but negatively impacts our social interactions and productivity.  Compulsions are the most visible sign of OCD, but the real war for control rages against obsessions on the battlefield of the mind.  Many compulsive behaviors are caused by the drive to fulfill the demands of obsessions.  Performing the behavior provides gratification to the obsession and forms a self-perpetuating loop. 

Strangely enough, I've found benefit in OCD.  Observational obsessions seemed to have opened my mind in ways I don't fully understand.  My brain records volumes of observations that I'm not fully conscious of.  These integrate to form a supplementary image of people, places, and things.  The aggregate of these things form a view of reality that allows me to "see" details, particularly with people.  I know their mannerisms, gait, tones of voice, etc.  Even miniscule variances in the norms that my brain recognizes stand out like a flashing beacon.  A disconnect between body language and spoken language appears stark and undeniable. 

This part of the disorder causes me great cognitive dissonance.  It's taken years to understand and integrate what my brain is showing me and to learn to trust it.  On the positive side, I see great beauty in the things that I'm forced to look at.  The simple and mundane come alive with endless, minute variation.  I see and hear peoples' moods and emotions in the small deviations from their normal tones and posture.  Unfortunately, I don't always like what it shows me.  I hear kind words, but see hostile body language.  I intuitively sense lies.  Worst of all, I can see very clearly the disdain that some have for me, even when they are working hard to convince me of the contrary.  Often times it's the one part of this whole package that I'd most like to "switch off" for a while. 

Confused yet?  Questions are always welcome.


  1. NOt confused, but I do remember you telling me my gait was different. It was-I have been more cognizant of my knee(s) and trying to prevent the stiffness. So sometimes the OCD benefits others. Honestly, things I do will drive you more nuts, then the things you do driving me nuts.

  2. You may perpetually consider yourself 'exempt' from all comments relating to those who 'don't get me', or that I 'drive crazy'.

    Yours is a category of one sweet Deb.

  3. Thanks for opening up your world Brian. I'm on the other end of the scale. I don't notice much unless it's in my face. I appreciate you.