I went through my daily life fighting serious impulse control issues and borderline-diagnosable OCD. Here’s what a normal day included for me back in my early twenties:
- On the way out of the house in the morning, pick up the level that I left in the exact perpendicularly-aligned spot on the counter and go through the whole house making sure everything hanging on every wall was perfectly level.
- Drive the same route to work every day, counting the dashed white lines in the pavement along the route. If I got the number wrong on a block, I would circle back around and drive that block again to correct my count.
- Perform the same work tasks in the same order and for the same duration every day, organizing tasks by seasonal necessity
- Keep my desk meticulously clean with items lined up parallel and perpendicular at all times.
- Everything must be organized alphabetically, numerically, and even my closet was organized by color and season
- Everything I bought must be of the correct brand, package size and quantity. This never deviated.
- Falling asleep by repetitively counting the folds in my bedroom curtains until I couldn’t keep my eyes open from sheer exhaustion and I’d finally pass out.
This list could be much longer… seriously. This is just the regular stuff. I’m not listing the cray-cray stuff for fear of sharing with the world how bad I really was. As ca, be learned via this awesome article about OCD, OCD is really nasty to experience. I’m about to quote here so read this:
“OCD is “ego dystonic,” which means “out of sync with your ideal self” or “making you look and feel like an asshole.” People with personality disorders usually think they’re always in the right, and people with psychosis often don’t realize that their delusions are coming from their heads. But one of the defining aspects of OCD is knowing that your thoughts are bizarre and your rituals are senseless.
Additionally, OCDers don’t even get any joy out of their compulsions. Relief, sure, but it’s temporary, like scratching a mosquito bite or responding to a YouTube comment. You don’t want to count all the leaves on every tree you pass, you have to.
Panic attacks, Tourette syndrome, hypochondria, body dysmorphic disorder, and eating disorders are all so-called OCD spectrum disorders. They’re diagnoses in their own right that exist on their own but also hang around in the background while OCD fucks your mind. They’re like its creepy cousins.”
So at that time, for me, if something was out of place or happened to come out of order in my day, I could quite literally feel my heart rate increase, my anxiety increase, and I was for the most part a nervous, neurotic, anxious mess of a semi-depressed person who couldn’t control my impulses most of the time.
This created problems in all areas of my life, including dating and relationships.
Because I had such poor impulse control as a young adult I was rather voracious sexually (I joked this morning to a friend that it’s amazing to me that I’ve been friends with this guy for a while now and I still haven’t eaten him.) Yeah. I used to hunt men. Simply because I had such poor impulse control that I couldn’t help myself doing what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and now I look back and I’m just so thankful that I never got into drugs or alcohol because with my habitual tendencies and lack of impulse control I would have been on a one-way trip to Amy Winehouse town.
So imagine a very nervous, tightly-wound young woman who could at any given moment start attacking pictures with a level, or compulsively organizing a friend’s refrigerator without having been asked (I did that once) or pulling an all-nighter just to clean the floor boards (in the entire apartment. Yeah.) or spontaneously experiencing a panic attack or bursting into weepy messy tears for no apparent reason.
I didn’t look like a mess most of the time – I was way too tightly wound to allow that. But I was a wreck all the same.
Then came my wonderful husband.
When he and I first started dating, he didn’t exactly help. Because he thought me going bonkers over a crooked picture frame was damn funny. It pissed me off to no end. But gradually, I realized what he was doing beyond the joking aspect, and I started to get on board with it.
It’s called “Exposure” and you’ve probably heard of this technique in the past when people tell you to “face your fears.” It’s a legitimate psychological therapy technique whereby the patient talks about their fear or the source of their anxiety with a therapist, and then gradually, in a safe environment, confronts their fear as a way of overcoming it.
Here’s a real quote about the exposure technique from some therapy book somewhere:
“Exposure is the most important behavioral technique that you can use to help you overcome anxiety-provoking situations and your fears. In essence, the principle of exposure is to deliberately put yourself in contact with the situation or cue that causes you anxiety. As you remain in the situation, you learn that the feared or negative consequence does not occur and that you do not have to avoid your fear in order to feel relief from the anxiety. Thus, your anxiety diminishes or habituates with time, and with repetition it eventually extinguishes or disappears.”
In my case, I was definitely experiencing anxiety from a whole host of triggers and cues that made my heart pound in my ears and my hands grow clammy – like the uncertain nature of my work environment requiring me to do a random task out of order. Yeah. Nutso.
I found it near impossible to relate to other people – because I couldn’t wrap my head around the way other people kept their office or their house or their bulging purse. “How can you live/work like this?” used to run through my head on a daily basis – and I couldn’t fathom how they didn’t notice the clutter, the filth, the lack of any straight-hung decorations.
So when my hubby (then boyfriend) started putting things back into the fridge in a different spot than where he got it from, or closed the front door of the apartment a little too hard making the pictures go all wonky; I had to sit myself down and make myself be mindful about what was happening, and start to make a change.
Here’s how I thought about it at that time:
“Ok; he made that picture crooked. He did that purposefully, knowing that I would freak out and immediately neurotically straighten it because I think I have to. But do I have to? No, I don’t have to. Does it really matter if the picture is crooked? Nope. Will anything bad happen by this picture being crooked? No. So what should I do now? I think I’ll leave it that way. I’ll wait till tomorrow – maybe even the next day – and then I’ll straighten it by eye and I won’t use the level”
So I started a new obsessive habit – making myself not straighten things, not over-organize things, not crazy-clean things, not uber-control things. This was really hard. Much harder than you might think, you not-crazy reader you. I had to be mindful of every action and every behavior I allowed myself for a period of months, perhaps even a year, before I began to feel my anxiety level and average blood pressure begin to drop to seemingly normal levels. All the while, my boyfriend was there helping me feel safe and emotionally secure enough to actually allow this process – because he made sure I was always in a safe place, that I was always supported and enabled and encouraged.
And over time, this began to have an effect. It no longer made me boiling mad when a coworker would randomly borrow some piece of office thingy off my desk and then put it back any-which-ways other than parallel and perpendicular. I could actually have a slightly-crooked picture hanging on my wall and not interrupt a social situation to dash across the room like a loon to straighten it. I could just notice it and leave it, go right on talking with whomever and wait to straighten it later, or maybe even never.
This created a widespread ripple effect throughout other areas of my life as well – particularly in my then-new relationship with the man who is now my husband. Because this problem with impulse control had been not only related to everyday things like crooked pictures and untidy desks. I’d had what I now realize was a problem with my impulse control regarding men and dating, and without this exercise in controlling my anxiety-riddled compulsive behaviors I don’t think I would have made it to marriage or be successful at it as I am now.
Because as soon as I’d gotten to a point where I could say, “Hey; that picture’s crooked. But there is nothing at all that says I have to do anything about it.” I could also look at the hot guy in the bar and say, “Hey, he’s totally edible. But there is nothing at all that says I have to do anything about it.” and I could go on about my merry way totally not cheating on my boyfriend.
Fast forward to today; and when other people come over to our house they invariably comment on how clean it is. And I grant them that our home may be relatively cleaner than theirs seeing as we have only one child and we live in a fairly small house and I work from home and all sorts of other factors besides the fact that I do still insist on keeping an uncluttered and relatively clean home in general. But where I’m at now within myself is so significantly better that I can’t help but look around every once in a while, sit back and take a deep breath, and experience a low anxiety level within my bodily systems that I wouldn’t ever have thought possible in my early twenties, and which I now enjoy thanks largely to my husband and what he helped me do for myself.
It’s safe to classify me, at this point in my life, as a definite Type A personality – but I no longer exhibit the chronic anxiety, OCD and other various harmful behaviors which I definitely did not enjoy back in my early twenties. YAY ME!
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