In this week’s update, I discuss moving, playing games, and losing time.
These weekly updates are an ongoing series in which I share what it is like to live with OCD in an effort to reduce the stigma around mental health, particularly in the workplace.
I find myself in my van, writing this update parked near a serene spot, hoping both to distract myself from the thoughts going through my head, and also to find purpose in the pain. Life can be challenging, but we can choose how we respond and what we make of it.
We moved this past weekend. Not houses, but rooms within our house. As our kids are growing up, they need more space. Sharing arrangements that were fine before no longer worked out.
We decided that the bedroom I had been using for an office would become the eight-year-old’s. The upstairs master bedroom would become our actual bedroom, as well as having a desk and chair to make it my office space. The basement family room that was previously our bedroom would become the playroom and bedrooms for the six-year-old and three-year-old. Those children would have their portions of the room walled off in some way, maybe with large LEGO bricks1.
One complicating factor was that I had surgery to repair a hernia just a few weeks ago, so I was not supposed to lift heavy things up and down the two flights of stairs. It was hard for me to be carrying the light loads, and then just watch as my wife and fifteen-year-old and eleven-year-old carried all the heavy things. We didn’t get everything moved around—mostly we have a number of bookshelves whose contents still need relocation—but everyone is able to sleep in a mostly clean and decidedly new place.
As the kids saw how we had arranged our bedroom upstairs, they exclaimed that it was just like a hotel. It had an office setup in the corner, a TV facing the bed, and an armchair to relax in. Best of all to me, it was directly connected to a bathroom. No more walking up a flight of stairs to brush our teeth or do anything else. It hasn’t been true yet, but I’m sure this will be beneficial for my dental hygiene.
When I got up Sunday morning, my back and legs made it clear that I have not been exercising sufficiently to prepare for that level of exertion. In many ways though, the hardest part of the experience for me was mental. Even though I had agreed to the adjustments, and even liked them in the end, the amount of change was staggering. Added to that was the blatant unfinished-ness of the project. One struggle I have with my OCD is not finishing things. Having large portions of the move still not done festers like a splinter in my mind. It is a helpful exposure for me to sit with the distress, and find ways to continue life even without the project being done.
As the weather turned cold and started snowing recently, we got out some games to play as a family. After a couple rounds of SkyJo2, we played Pass the Pigs3. As the game went on, my wife noticed I was becoming more and more irritable. That is one of the main warning signs that OCD is starting to flare up and take over for me.
Whether it was young children taking too long to roll their pigs on their turn, or too much noise from the babies running around, or kids whining that a sibling looked at them wrong, every little thing was starting to get to me. I could feel it my body—my heart rate was increasing, my senses were becoming heightened so that every sound seemed louder, and a knot of anxiety was building in my chest. More than a couple times, my wife reached out to squeeze my hand and help me calm down for a moment before I responded in irritation.
After we had been playing for a while, we paused for a minute to reflect on the situation. My wife commented on a couple things: first, it was crystal clear that I was symptomatic, and second, she realized that this is pretty common for me with games. She said that she didn’t see that before because it wasn’t all that different from how I was most of the time. But now that I have improved so much, my state during the game was in stark contrast.
We turned to each other and just embraced. We realized how much distress and pain we had been living with for years, without even realizing it. I was struck with how much my wife has been carrying in trying to manage the stress and keep things as calm as possible with all the children as well as my distress. And she was quick to point out how much I was living with for all that time, which was exhausting.
While things are not perfect, life is so much better now that we have been able to get more of a handle on my OCD.
In some ways, this section comes in ironic contrast to the last section about how much better things are getting with my OCD. One lesson I have learned with mental health challenges is that we are constantly faced with apparent paradoxes.
Following the major upheaval of our living arrangements I described above, I became more and more symptomatic the next day. My level of irritation continued to rise, especially in the late afternoon. I was unloading the dishwasher, and my wife tried to ask me something, and I responded that I was barely holding it together and couldn’t talk right then.
I went up to my new room for some quiet. My wife and I discussed whether I needed to be done dealing with the kids for the rest of the day, which was uncertain, but I definitely needed a break. After that conversation, I stood in the room staring at the wall, with my thoughts swirling around for a number of minutes. I recognized that I was getting flooded emotionally, so I thought I would try a free-writing exercise, which often helps me identify and even process my emotions. I have written about that before.
As I started writing, I quickly became unable to form letters or words. I just starting scraping the pen back and forth and filled the rest of the page. My wife commented that it seemed I was becoming more agitated, and I responded that it was helping, and I wanted to keep going. As I flipped the sheet and kept scribbling, I had the thought that I didn’t want to destroy the nicer pen I was using, and stepped out to grab a cheaper ballpoint pen. I was scribbling so furiously that my arm became tired. I tried stopping for a few seconds to rub my shoulder and felt an intense need to continue to let out the emotions, so I switched to my left hand. I figured since I wasn’t writing any words anyway, it didn’t really matter if it was legible. I kept going, switching off arms, until I had filled the page in both directions. As I ran out of room, I lost the pen and the page and my hands flailed for a few seconds and then I collapsed forward on the desk. I wanted to just breathe and almost needed to recover.
After a minute or so, I laid down on the floor in the fastest way possible, which meant facedown. I stayed there for maybe ten minutes, wishing I could just fall asleep in order to stop thinking. I finally gave up and sat and noticed crayon and smudges on the bathroom door and grabbed a wipe and started scrubbing at it. That lasted for nearly ten minutes until I was able to tear myself away.
Then I saw the ink all over my fingers and went in to the bathroom and washed my hands. After standing there scrubbing with soap for about five minutes, my wife came in and turned on the water, helped me rinse off and hugged me. She led me back to our armchair and gave me a weighted blanket and I watched an episode of The Office and laughed until my recovering stomach ached.
One of the signature characteristics of OCD is a loss of time. Motions or thoughts or actions end up on a loop, and we who experience it lack insight into what is happening. Often, part of diagnosing OCD is gaining an understanding of how much time in the day is being taken up in these activities4. With my personal diagnosis of scrupulosity OCD, I am usually able to present a high-functioning front. Most of the obsessions and compulsions that occur for me are mental, and so they are harder to recognize, and nearly impossible to acknowledge the time that is being spent on them.
This slight breakdown was an exception to my usual pattern, and highlighted for me how easy it can be to lose time in activities that appear to have no purpose.
In some ways, I feel like things can only go up from here. Of course, that is not completely accurate. But I know that when I have these down moments, I just need to hold on and make it through and better times will come. These emotions will pass, as all do.
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We’ve heard that is a thing. Apparently museums and other places that need to regularly build temporary rooms use them as walls. We’ll see… ↩
At least in my limited personal experience. I am not, nor do I imagine myself to be, a trained professional capable of diagnosing someone with OCD. ↩