Looking For The Lion

I have a tattoo of a lion on my ribs. A lot of people ask me if I’m a Leo because of it. I’m not, but I’m always really glad they ask.

I’m glad they ask because it gives me a reason to explain my tattoo.  I originally got it for me, as a reminder. But it turns out it also gives me a reason to open up the conversation about mental health with anyone who asks, something that I think is important if we’re going to change the way people view mental health.

This is my tattoo, done by the absolutely amazing Dr. Woo at Shamrock Social in Los Angeles (it was well worth the 3-month-in-advance appointment I had to make):

dr woo lion

So this is the spiel I typically give whenever anyone asks about the meaning behind it: When I was in high school I went to a therapist who told me a really great analogy for anxiety. She said that back in the caveman days the biological purpose of anxiety was so that if you saw a lion outside your cave you would feel anxious and therefore know to run, or protect your family etc. But when you have an anxiety disorder the process is flipped. Instead of

  1. See Lion
  2. Feel anxiety

its

  1. Feel anxiety
  2. Go-looking-for-the-lion-that-must-be-there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We’re always “looking for the lion”. In modern society however threats do not look the same, there are no actual lions waiting outside your apartment. That mechanism is still in place though and sometimes any little thing can set it off.

After hearing that analogy I knew I wanted a lion tattooed on me so that I didn’t need to go looking for the lion anymore. Now I know where it is.

Of course I still have my anxiety disorders (like the one telling me this post doesn’t “feel right” so I shouldn’t post it) ….but it sounds really poetic right?? ;p

The Book That Changed My Life

I’m feeling a bit down today which is making it hard to write, so I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about someone else’s writing. Terry Spencer Hesser’s writing. If anyone hasn’t read the book Kissing Doorknobs I’d say now is the time to go buy a copy. Because it changed my life.

Kissing Doorknobs

It is a very short book. Only 149 pages. And when I read it for the first time I was only 9 years old with no words to describe what I was experiencing.

I don’t really know what all I believe in and what I don’t because my anxiety makes me over analyze anything that could possibly be other-worldly. But I have to say, the story of how this book came into my life is pretty perfect.

I was in 3rd grade and I’d only heard the words “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” once. When my dad found out I was bringing my own soap to school because the school’s soap was causing my hands to break out from using it so much. I think at the time he was joking but I remember feeling a connection with the words as I was grasping for an explanation for why I felt the need to make sure I used the bathroom EVERY time our class left the classroom out of fear that I would get stuck somewhere and not be able to go (totally irrational…it was a public elementary school, there were bathrooms everywhere).

My mom had a cabinet of books in the living room and I was a voracious reader so I would often go in there looking for a new read. One day I came across this slim book called Kissing Doorknobs. I flipped it over and read the back, freezing when I saw the sentence “She didn’t like behaving so oddly; she only knew she had to if she wanted to feel better.”    …………………………………………………. My little 9 year old mind was blown. Was I not alone?

All throughout the story I connected with 11 year old Tara, although we didn’t have all the same compulsions we shared a core fear of something happening to our parents. When I got to the end (I won’t spoil the book) it was essentially my first exposure (ha. ha. pun intended) to Exposure Response Prevention Therapy. The idea of just NOT doing the thing you felt you had to do and then sitting with the anxiety and allowing it to be there. I decided to give it a try. It was hard and I mostly failed, but I knew what it was. And I truly believe that learning about it that early on, even though it took almost 15 more years for me to be properly diagnosed, helped wire my mind to be open to that type of therapy.

To this day my mom doesn’t remember where that book came from, she thinks she must have just gotten it in a book trade or something. She never even read it until more recently when I asked her to. But all I know is that I’m very thankful that that book was in that cabinet that day.

So. If you haven’t read it yet. Do.

Scripting

Tonight I pulled out a tool that I learned in my Exposure-Response therapy over a year ago. I have been slacking on doing my exposures and it is time that I get back into practice.

“Scripting” isn’t writing a stage play (although you never know!). It is an exposure to your fears. Here are the steps:

1.) Choose your current fear/obsession

2.) Write out that worst fear in as much gruesome detail as you possibly can. It works best as a narrative, like you’re writing a story.  Here is an example (apologies if this triggers anyone): “I leave for work one morning and check the stove my normal 8 times. I feel really anxious still but I have to leave for work or I will be late and my boss has told me that if I’m late again he will fire me. The whole way to work I am anxious. Two hours into work I get a call from the fire department that my apartment has burned down with all of my belongings and my cat inside. My life falls apart, I have nowhere to go, and I have nothing. My worst fear has come true.”

cat ablaze

3.) By this time your anxiety should be through the (non-existant) roof. You. Must. Do. Nothing. Get up and do something non-compulsion related until your anxiety goes from a 10 to a 5, or lower.

4.) Re-read your story (and remind yourself that it is just that, a story. Nothing more) and again allow your anxiety to go up, then do something else until it comes down to a 5 or lower

5.) Re-read your story every day, focusing on the most anxiety provoking parts or words until eventually your anxiety only goes up to a 9, then an 8, then a 7 and so on (look at me ending on 7, one of my “bad” numbers. Woo-hoo!)

I know it sounds crazy to purposely raise your anxiety to a level 10, but that is the key to reclaiming your life and no longer being a slave to that story you created. The idea is to expose yourself to the story enough times that you start to become numb to it. That’s human nature! Just like on Thanksgiving when you’re allowed to eat an entire pumpkin pie (oh wait…you don’t do that?) and then suddenly 2 slices in it’s not as exciting anymore.

So this is what I did tonight. I “Scripted”. I sat down and wrote a full page story about how my choice to move and change careers came crashing down around me ending with me alone and depressed for the rest of my life. I used a lot of descriptive words and things that stirred fear and emotion. I was crying by the end of it. Now I have to be strong enough not to ask my boyfriend to read it and give me reassurance that the story won’t come true.

One of my biggest compulsions is reassurance-seeking, and I’ve gotten sly with it over the years. I will find ways to maneuver into a conversation that I’ve already had with someone a million times just to hear them give me the same reassurances that they’ve essentially already given me a million times. So not doing this will be difficult. But that is part of the process…

To Be or Not To Be….That Is The Question

Making decisions can be hard for anyone, but for someone with OCD and anxiety decisions can be an agonizing ordeal. It took me awhile to connect my difficulty making decisions with my OCD, I just figured it was a part of my personality (which I suppose it is). But one day I wondered if it might be connected to my anxiety disorder so I tried to observe my thought process when making decisions. I realized that I approach decisions with the same cyclical thinking process that I do my other obsessions.

I can’t simply make a decision.  If it is something seemingly unimportant, such as which box of cereal should I grab from the shelf at the store (no not which brand…literally which box…these are the things I worry about *sigh*), I go back and forth weighing my decision on the thoughts that might pop into my head or how “right” it feels.  Then if it is something very important, such as wondering if I should make a career change or not, I:

Compulsion 1: Spend hours Googling

Compulsion 2: Ask Mom/Dad/Boyfriend/Person-I-Just-Met for reassurance (multiple times)

Compulsion 3: Play out every possible outcome all the way to the end (multiple times)

Compulsion 4: Check my feelings as I think about options to see what feels “right”

On the surface these might not initially seem like compulsions, but they fit the definition. Things that I feel I must do in order to get rid of the anxiety I am having about the decision. I talked a little about the Googling compulsion in my previous post so I’ll talk briefly about the others I’ve mentioned.

Reassurance-seeking is a pretty common compulsion.  Again, most people like some reassurance about things that are making them anxious but the difference between someone without OCD and someone with OCD is that the person without OCD usually only needs to hear that reassurance once or twice. Then, even though they may still have anxiety about the decision they will not continue to ask for reassurance. Someone with OCD however will not only ask for the same reassurance over and over but possibly even the exact same words over and over. Its not that they forgot but more that the reassurance did not shut off the doubting thoughts replaying in their head so they will need to keep hearing it until it does.

Playing out possible outcomes over and over is another unhealthy anxiety-resolving behavior. The way it works for me is I have a bad thought such as “If I choose to go back to school for Psychology I will be miserable AND in debt”. So then I must picture myself and how it would feel to go through the entire process of going back to school and starting over in a career etc. This might be something anyone would do briefly but for me it feels like something I have to do in order to feel like I’m making the most informed decision and I cannot focus on anything else until I finish thinking through the whole process. I will do this one day and then the next day have the thought again and have to do it all over again.

Lastly, checking for that “right” feeling. Another pretty common compulsion that can be applied to anything from choosing the box of cereal or putting on a shirt in the morning to making big life decisions. It is something that is hard to explain to someone that doesn’t have OCD but this is the best way I can describe it: That feeling you get when you cross the last thing off your to-do list and you sit down on the couch to chill. It is when there are no negative thoughts or feelings tied to something. If you were to plop down on the couch while you still had things on your to-do list you might not feel quite right, you wouldn’t feel settled. Someone with OCD might put a shirt on in the morning and randomly have the thought that they will die in a car accident that day (because their brain knows it’ll get a strong reaction out of that one, so it likes to throw it out at random times throughout the day). They will then not feel quite right, not settled, and take the shirt off and put it on again (and possibly again and again and again until they can get one without any negative thoughts), rather than deal with that not-right feeling. For big decisions it is more anticipating and “checking” for that right feeling when thinking about different options.

Once I realized difficulty making decisions was another part of my OCD it became easier to notice when I was following those OCD patterns and try my best to break them.  Sometimes simply being and observer of your thoughts can do wonders for helping you overcome things (even if it is small steps at a time).

OCD…GAD…WTF

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the fact that I have OCD that I forget about my GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder).  I was diagnosed with that long before I got a proper diagnoses for my OCD as well. People often don’t realize that many times different disorders go hand in hand, with a lot of overlap. I know, one mental disorder is confusing enough right?

So with the Exposure-Response thearpy I’ve had its easier for me to identify when I’m doing compulsions, and what their corresponding obsessions are. But sometimes when I’m laying in bed at night going over all the ways my future could go horribly wrong, and looking a lot like this cat:

FullSizeRender

I don’t stop to realize my Generalized Anxiety Disorder needs some tender loving care as well. It is important for people to learn about all aspects of their mind and it has been a while since I read up on GAD so I gave it a gander.

Mayo Clinic describes the symptoms of GAD as follows (with my additional tid-bits in parentheses):

Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can vary. They may include:

  • Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that’s out of proportion to the impact of the event (yup)
  • Inability to set aside or let go of a worry (check)
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling keyed up or on edge (check re: cat above)
  • Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind “goes blank” (………………….)
  • Worrying about excessively worrying (bahaha…sadly….yes)
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision (this is one of my major issues right now)
  • Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion (over and over, and over and over, and over and over. OCD overlap?)
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness (#CANTEVEN)

Different things come in waves and since those seem to be a lot of what I’m experiencing now I am going to take the next few days to read up on some tips for handling GAD fears.  We are all always a work in progress and there are always new things to learn.

Googling As A Compulsion

Today was full of the usual anxious routine:

Think of a new way to rephrase my google search

Glance at boss

Write down the google search for later

Try to google on my phone during lunch

End up with a million tabs open because new ways to google my fear pop into my head as I go

OCD-pg5_499x305

Sigh – it never ends. The googling compulsion is probably currently my most time consuming. I mean I can spend hours doing it. There really are a million ways to google one fear, and even when all the links on the page are purple because I’ve already clicked on them I can of course click through them again to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

The way this one works for me is I have the anxious thought (the obsession), such as: am I going into early menopause (…I’m 25…). Then in order to resolve the anxiety I feel from that thought I Google that fear in multiple different ways (the compulsion). Its super fun! NOT.

I guarantee most people don’t realize that obsessively googling the same thing over and over again is cousin to checking to make sure the stove is off over and over again. They are just two sides of the same coin and its important that people understand the many different forms that OCD can take. Lack of awareness can lead to people going undiagnosed for years too long.

Lucky for me my boyfriend gets me and he knows to tell me that I have 10 minutes left and then he is taking my various electronic google-linked devices away from me!  It’s also important to have someone if your life who refuses to enable your compulsions.

So here I am, attempting to channel some of my obsessive energy into a blog which will hopefully give others a glimpse into the many faces that OCD can wear as well as help to raise awareness.