It started out as enjoyable and relaxing, but mutated to lock up my brain and take over my life. This update is my story of confronting the Marvel Civil War.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
Ironically, after sharing how well I had been doing with impulse control last week, I struggled this past week. My first clue was that I started getting more and more irritable. Little things were setting me off, and I couldn’t pinpoint why.
My wife and I were chatting one evening, and she asked what my hobbies are these days. Then she laughed a bit, and rephrased the question to be singular. We both know that I tend to hyper-fixate on one activity at the exclusion of all others, so I rarely have more than one active hobby at a time. As I thought about my answer, I said it was probably reading comics.
A couple years ago, I got really into Star Wars comics and signed up for Marvel Unlimited. It really is a fantastic deal to pay a subscription fee for a year and get access to thousands and thousands of comics. I’ve gone through a couple phases of reading Star Wars comics for hours a week. About a month ago, I decided to read Avengers instead.
Growing up, Calvin and Hobbes was my dad’s favorite comic, and we owned every book as it came out. I remember eagerly getting the newspaper and finding the comics page. I would read the dailies in a specific order so I could end with the best. The Sunday comics were even more of a delight. I would start in the back with something like Prince Valiant or Doonesbury, and work my way through, saving the front page for last. Calvin and Hobbes was always the highlight.
Comics were a big part of my childhood.
However, any kind of superhero comic was off-limits. I don’t actually remember if we were explicitly forbidden to read them, or if it was just looked down on. In my young brain, I knew that the glorified violence and scantily-clad women were wrong. Definitely not ok for me to be reading.
As a result, I discovered my love for comics only as an adult.
Even now, reading comics, especially Marvel comics, seems slightly illicit. Which makes it a great activity to challenge my scrupulosity OCD. Much of my healing is identifying areas where my mind creates exaggerated moral quandaries from innocuous activities.
The problem for me with something fun, like reading comics, is when the fun ceases. The activity gets hijacked by my brain. This often occurs when there is something of a finish line. I become compelled to continue, in order to complete, in order to achieve, in order to have value and be loved.
Many of us experience this at times—we believe that we have achieve our way to being accepted or feeling better. The truth is that we are enough as we are. We are worthy of love.
This is exactly what happened to me. I started reading the New Avengers (2004) series. Pretty soon, that led to the Civil War event. Marvel Unlimited made it really easy to read every issue of the complete event across different comic series.
It was so fun!
Then, as I started getting closer to the end, it started to feel like a slog. I just needed to make it to the end. I couldn’t have told you why, but it burned in my mind. I would watch a football game, and read during commercials, only to find that I had ignored the game for half an hour while I kept reading.
Finally, last Tuesday, I had to take the afternoon off work sick. My mind was spinning out of control, and I was becoming physically ill. The anxiety was mounting, and it seemed that a panic attack was rapidly approaching. This is something I have prepared for, as I wrote about over the summer.
Often, the thing that helps is to engage in a relaxing activity to allow my mind to focus on something else. Naturally, I thought of reading for a bit. “It’ll help you relax,” my brain told me. After a little bit of that, I wanted to take a nap. But I couldn’t. I had to keep going. Then it was time to go home. I couldn’t do that. I told my wife I needed the evening off, and kept reading.
Finally, I finished. I read the last issue in the Civil War event. Unsurprisingly, it set up another story line. I also remembered that I got into the Civil War event from a specific series, and thought I should go back to that series. Dutifully, I downloaded a few of those, and went to eat some dinner. I was finally able to tear myself away and go home when the restaurant closed.
The next morning, I realized that I was feeling dread. The comics had taken over. I remembered a similar situation about six months ago. I could hear my therapist asking me how I felt at the idea of stopping without even saving my place. As I did back then, I again felt a wave of distress. As that passed, I felt a huge sense of relief. I deleted the Marvel Unlimited app from my iPad and immediately felt better.
One of the major effects of a disorder like OCD is the loss of insight. It can be difficult to see the negative effects in your life. Before getting help and treatment, I had no concept of the toll my rules were taking on my life and relationships. They were just the right way to do things.
As I have been in therapy for these past three years, one of the greatest skills I have learned is mindfulness. The ability to sit in the present moment without trying to change or judge it unlocks so many other possibilities. Through practice, it becomes easier and easier to notice emotions in my body, which allows me to decide how to act on them with intentionality.
This past week was a reminder of the importance of the practice of mindfulness. It is so easy to get caught up in the business of life. But taking time regularly to check in brings so many benefits. Even from a purely economical view, if the cost is the time spent, my frequent reward is much more time saved from getting lost down OCD spirals.
In this upcoming week, my challenge for me and for you, if you will accept, to engage in intentional mindfulness every day. Even if it is just a 30 second check-in to see how you are feeling, it is so important. Sit still, be quiet, and identify what is going on in your body. If possible, name and locate the emotions. Resist the urge to judge what you are feeling. Just acknowledge it.
Sprinkle in a dose of compassion, and something magic just may emerge. You’re worth it.