This update describes a week of obsession as well an illustration of making progress.
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.
As I start this update, I just wanted to thank the many people that reached out to me after my last update. It was a great reminder to me that we are all in the this together, and that people all around us are rooting for us and will lift us up.
I mentioned last week that I was starting on a new app. I’m still not ready to give details about it, but I do want to share some of my experience with it over the past week. This is a textbook example of my OCD in action, so I thought it would be worth sharing.
It is often hard to distinguish normal excitement at something new from an obsession that starts to take over my life. At first, things were normal enough. I coded as I watched NBA games, and for a few days, my wife didn’t even know that I was working on a new project.
After a few days, things started to change. When I woke up in the morning, I was thinking through the next feature. I spent all shower working through the idea that I had. And the drive into the office was thinking of other ways I could build it. Breakfast was often skipped as I frantically tried to make progress.
The real clue came for me when my wife and I were getting ready to go out on a date. I found myself sneaking upstairs for a minute and taking my laptop into the bathroom to make one last change. Then my heart started racing as I heard her coming up the stairs, and I hid the computer. I knew that we needed to leave, and I knew that I needed to help get the kids ready, but I couldn’t stop myself.
But that’s a lie.
I could stop myself, but I was giving in to the compulsions. As I met with my therapist on Friday, we talked through what had happened. A couple weeks ago, we talked through a possible hierarchy to work on around stopping when programming. We decided that I wasn’t ready for that one yet, so moved to a different one. As she called me out, I didn’t just put off doing that hierarchy—I went 100% the other direction and gave in completely to the compulsion.
As we talked, she pointed out lie after lie that I was telling, most of them just to myself. I will pause here and be a little kind to myself. It’s not so much that I am lying; OCD is the liar. That’s a distinctive characteristic of OCD, and of most anxiety disorders. My mind is exceptionally good at justification, and if I don’t catch it, things can spiral out of control quickly.
Luckily, this is a pretty mild obsession to get lost in. I didn’t spend a lot of money. I didn’t do anything I am going to regret. I didn’t cause any harm to relationships. And it only lasted a week or so. Even though I am not quite ready to do the full hierarchy, I did put some guidelines in place to help keep myself in check.
I am volunteering again this summer at the Provo Pioneer Village, something that I wrote about in my second weekly update. It is a hidden gem with preserved cabins, authentic period artifacts, and volunteer artisans. Guests can have a guided tour through the village and visit an old schoolhouse, a number of pioneer houses, and different kinds of workshops.
This is my third year as an apprentice blacksmith. One of the guests asked if I am going to be on Forged in Fire. I wanted to laugh, except he was just trying to be nice, or interested, or something. But no, I am nowhere near that skilled. I have not done any forge work outside of my one night a week volunteering.
Being a blacksmith has given me the opportunity to be a novice again. Even though I have learned a few things over the couple of years that I have done it, because I don’t touch it from Labor Day to Memorial Day, I lose most of what I learned by the next year. So I feel like I’ve been starting over again.
One approach that I have taken this year is to repeat the same project over and over. I asked our master blacksmith for an appropriate learning project, and he assigned me to make leaf keychains. The process exercises a number of the fundamental skills required in any blacksmithing project, and the time required is pretty minimal. This means that I can create a number of them in an evening and focus on a particular skill, and improving that skill.
Here are a few that I made in one evening, in the progression in which I made them. The flaws in each are obvious to me, particularly in the earlier ones, but they definitely get better. Being able to see tangible progress, even just in the course of a single evening, is tremendously satisfying.
In so many areas of our lives, we are improving constantly, but also imperceptibly. When we are able to step back and observe our progress, we can gain perspective and encouragement.
Flexibility has been extremely difficult for me. We all struggle at times to adjust our plans and our current focus. OCD has been kicking my ass in this area lately. With the help of a great therapist, I continue to find ways to push back and continue to live my life. As I keep telling my kids, “Show your brain who is in charge. You get to choose.”
We are coming up on a holiday weekend here in the U.S., which often brings lots of family time. That can be great and hard for so many of us. We just need to get up in the morning, and accept the day that is before us. We get to choose what to do with it. And we could all use some kindness with ourselves, whatever we choose.
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