One Day at a Time

Because of OCD, I spend most of my time worrying about various and sundry catastrophes – when I’ll die, whether my kids will survive childhood, the countless ways I might be destroying my marriage, financial disasters, losing my job, etc. These songs are the never-ending background music to my life. The other day I was asked to reflect on some major event/success/change from 2013 and to think about a goal for 2014.

The answer to both, for me was encapsulated in one simple word: survival.

I don’t mean that in an I-might-kill-myself sense, but just in the sense that any variation of thriving doesn’t seem realistic for me. I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt I was thriving for any prolonged period of time. (Let me add that I’m in about as good a mood as I have ever been in as I write this, so I’m not saying this from a place of despair.) Childhood, adolescence, college, young adulthood, marriage, parenthood, career growth, promotions, accolades…none of them have created an “ahhhhhhh” period for me. Each one has come with new kinds of angst and new ideas for how my world might fall apart at any moment.

Lately I’ve been pondering the one day at a time philosophy from various vantage points. Christianity says, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Buddhism says, “Let go of desire and be present with whatever exists in the moment.” AA says, “One day at a time.” Judaism’s God, when asked what his name is, says, “I am”…meaning, to me at least, “I exist in the present and nowhere else. I am not ‘I was’ or ‘I will be” but ‘I AM.'”

It seems more and more foundational to me that embracing what the moment has to offer is a fundamentally meaningful way to live, no matter who you ask. Thinking of the future leaves one anxious. Thinking of the past leaves one nostalgic (unrealistic) or regretful. But a radical commitment to making the most of the moment at hand can be life-changing.

My OCD wants me to live in the “what ifs” of life, all of which are outside the moment. In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard stories of a man finding his wife and daughter murdered in their home and a story of a man throwing his toddler and himself off of a 52 story building in the wake of a nasty custody battle. My natural reaction to these sorts of stories is to begin wondering whether God exists, how he allows this sort of thing, and whether it will ever happen to me.

But in this moment, I have what I need. I have life, my family, things to enjoy (food, friends, a home, etc.). So I’m working on being radically committed to the moment at hand. I want to force myself back into the present when I start to wander out of it into the what if world. Will the greasy cheeseburger I want to eat kill me ten years earlier than I should’ve died, denying me the chance to know my grandchildren? Will the cigar I want to smoke kill me at age 45, leaving my children to resent me for smoking cigars in the first place? Will tending to my own needs despite knowing that I could be more generous with my time and energy lead me to a life of selfishness and isolation?

Who knows?

Who could possibly know?

But in this moment if these minor choices will lead me to embrace the day, to be more patient with my kids, to go to bed a bit more at peace, why not sink my teeth into them (pun intended) and let tomorrow’s troubles take care of themselves.

This isn’t a treatise on hedonism. It’s a treatise on taking my life back from the what if monsters. All of those what ifs may well happen…but they aren’t happening right now, so I might as well soak up what the moment/day has to offer  – cherish it, enjoy it, embrace it, lean into it. The other alternative is to lose the moment by pondering all that might go wrong tomorrow. It won’t be easy; nothing is when OCD is an ever-present friend. But it’s worth trying – moment by moment, day by day.

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To Light or to Curse?

Just saw a bumper sticker that says, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

This after I had spent an hour drafting one of those “should I keep going?” journal entries over breakfast. My depression is a chicken/egg sort of thing: there’s the chemical side of it and the existential side of it. They feed each other ruthlessly, so I never quite know which one led to the other. The chemical side is the part that feel like my brain is in a vice of negativity and despair, and nothing can or will loosen the vice. The existential side is made up of all the “why?” and “what if?” and “wtf?” questions that I ask the universe or god or Goddess or the empty void I fear is actually in charge of all this.

Today’s questions about life’s meaning revolve around why I am incapable of being the great dad I want to be. The truth is, young children have always driven me crazy. I thought that my own young children would be different…and they are…they drive me EVEN MORE crazy than the kids I could walk away from or roll my eyes at when they used to bother me. So after berating them last night for being demanding and rude and insensitive to each other, I woke up feeling like an asshole…an asshole who desperately wants to be the Father Knows Best sort of kindhearted man who never raises his voice but who, in actuality, is prone to fits of rage and leaves his children (and wife) never quite knowing which daddy will be around – the asshole or the fun-loving, All-American Dad. I feel bad for my kids, my wife, and even myself because, after all, I AM trying, dammit.

So that leaves me pissed off mostly at whoever/whatever is in charge of this absurdity. Whether it’s evolution or God who had designed this world, it seems to me that the designer sucks at his/her/its job. If I designed a car that had the most powerful engine on earth, but I only gave it 4 flat tires to run on, I would’ve designed something with amazing potential that can never be fully realized. That’s how I feel about humanity. No matter how many great dads there are, or how many Mother Teresas, or how many Ghandis, there are still abusive fathers, Hitlers, and men like the guy in the news this week who left his toddler in the backseat of his car for 7 hours, most likely on purpose, to kill the kid. And my cruel brain won’t stop reminding me of the latter sorts of people.

WTF?!

But then there was the bumper sticker. I’m really good at cursing the darkness, and frankly, I’ve tried as hard as anyone to light some candles in my day. But I grow increasingly convinced that the candles aren’t doing any good. I’m growing more and more despondent about the winds of darkness that seem to put out all the candles I light. Still, one thing I’m sure of is this: cursing the darkness is no way to live because it only increases the prominence of the darkness inside my own head. What I like about this mantra is that it doesn’t ignore the darkness, and it doesn’t make dubious claims that frustrate me…things like, “Just one candle can light up the whole world!” or “If everyone just lights one little candle in their own dark place, the darkness will finally realize it has lost!” Frankly, I find those sorts of sayings overly optimistic.

But this one, in it’s simplicity and realism, I can buy into. It is indeed better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Want a bumper sticker? Click here.

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Placebo Effect…aka Hope

Not too long ago, I was paying a doctor $190/hour of my parents’ hard-earned money for me to tell him how to treat my OCD and depression. After a few thousand dollars, my OCD was no better at all. BUT he did leave me with one beautiful thought: When I referenced the placebo effect, he off-handedly said it is “also known as hope.” He was right of course…that’s exactly what the placebo effect is, but the idea behind the choice of words is so much more powerful.

I’ve been reminded of what hope feels like over the past few days. I’m sad to say that I had quite literally forgotten. My wife and I were talking about how bad my depression has gotten lately, and I put it to her this way: “All the carrots that used to urge me onward are gone.” Lately I have felt like my mental health is ruining my best efforts at everything I care most about – my marriage, my kids, my friendships…I told my wife I literally could not keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Not surprisingly, this led to a lengthy and serious discussion.

After convincing her that I did not need to be driven to a hospital to be admitted for suicide prevention (just yet), we talked about how trapped I feel by my current work situation. We started to brainstorm about other options for our family than the current set-up, and gradually, slowly, the light at the end of the tunnel began to show up again (usually, I assume this light is an oncoming train, but this time it had the unmistakeable quality of actual daylight). It was like I was once again a young, single man again who dreamed he could do whatever he wanted to with the rest of his life, not a trapped, overwhelmed, depressed, mental case who was looking at 15 years before the kids are through high school when I can finally do something for myself again.

For the past 48 hours (the fact that I’m celebrating 48 hours of optimism shows you where my brain has been living lately) have been filled with that magic thing called hope. The depression has knocked at the door a few times, but it’s been kept outside for 2 WHOLE DAYS IN A ROW! Now I’m not naive enough to think that my problems are all solved because I have hope again, but I am reminded of how vital hope is to life. To be truly hopeless is to be suicidal. I’ve been there. A. LOT. But today, it feels nice to see 18-wheelers as something to be avoided rather than a possible way out!

What’s the takeaway here? After all, it’s not like you can just decide to be hopeful again, right?! For starters, keep taking your meds because no amount of hope will cure chemical depression. But beyond that, if you’re feeling hopeless, see if you can pinpoint the culprit of your existential (not chemical) hopelessness and ruthlessly, relentlessly pursue hope, no matter the cost. The other night, I had come to the place that the cost of proceeding as I have been may well have been my life. Obviously, no job or income or other barrier to making a change is worth my life (says the hopeful version of myself). So, no matter the cost, I am going to make a change in my career.

Stay tuned for how this all plays out.

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Religion and Mental Health

I almost titled this post “Faith and OCD” but then I realized that faith and religion are two separate matters entirely. For me, religion, specifically the Southern Baptist Christian variety, has been the source of tremendous pain when it comes to my OCD. Religion earns its keep by telling us that there are simple answers to complex questions. OCD loves to ask “what if” questions. Get these two fighting against each other and you have a perfect storm! It goes something like this:

OCD: I just thought that guy was a handsome man. Am I gay? What if I’m gay? How can I figure out if I’m gay…

Religion: Being gay is a sin. You need to figure it out, and if you are gay, you’d better get right with God.

And this little dialogue can become so all- consuming that one can’t get out of bed, go to work, look at anyone without it triggering this question, etc.

In my own faith journey, lately I’ve been distancing myself more and more from organized Christianity (was it ever intended to be organized anyway?!) and I’m finding some freedom. The OCD is still there, but the religious answers aren’t as fear-inducing as they used to be because I no longer buy into them. What do I buy into these days? Well, the beauty of uncertainty for one. Even if uncertainty isn’t beautiful, I’m never going to have certainty so I might as well try to embrace whatever beauty it holds. Second, I’m finding freedom in the “f@&$ it!” Point being: if God isn’t aware of how hard I’m trying to do the right thing, there’s not much I can do about it. I worry so much about whether I’m doing the right things in life, but lately, when I start to feel anxious or confused, I simply say, “F@&$ (I actually say the real word, but don’t want to offend anyone reading this (but what if they’re offended? What if someone whose my superior at work reads this and has me reprimanded or fired? What if I can’t feed my family because I get fired…then my wife will divorce me and I’ll end up destitute and probably kill myself? What if a future employer won’t hire me because they find this entry online when they are searching to find the skeletons in my closet? Ahhhhhhh! I should rewrite this whole thing. Or maybe I should just delete it and forget it…(there’s a little glimpse of the OCD at work for those of you who don’t know it first-hand))) it…I have no real idea whether what I’m about to do will be the best or worst decision of my life. I can only do the best I can right this moment and jump in.”

I used to think I needed to understand exactly what God wanted from me at all times so I wouldn’t upset him. Now, my theology is more like this: if God wants me to know precisely what to do, he’ll have to be more clear in showing me. Otherwise, I simply hope he will understand that I’m doing my best and love/forgive me for the flaws in my own system.

Everyone has a theology of some sort – whether or not they are religious. Given that, for those of us with OCD, the voices of OCD and the voices of God(s) are likely the two strongest in our heads, it helps to see God in a way that allows for the OCD rather than seeing her as a tyrant who demands that we find certainty despite the overwhelming confusion this life offers us most of the time.

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Permanent Decisions

This summer, in honor of my 10th anniversary, I got a tattoo – something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s on my wrist and can be hidden by my watch (had to be practical, you know!). The aftermath has been unsurprising – obsess, obsess, obsess. Will it heal right? What’s wrong with that little spot that doesn’t seem to match the rest? Are those letters perfectly proportioned? Did I ruin it when I wore a watch the other day? It looks a little different than I remember. What if I get in trouble at work when a student sees my tattoo (I’m a teacher)? What if I regret it for the rest of my life?

And on and on, endlessly.

What I’ve realized is that the more substantial the decision, the more my OCD kicks in. If you’ve read my book, you know that my marriage has been the cause of my last 10 years worth of OCD thoughts. On a much sillier and lighter note, every time I buy a new pair of shoes, I obsess about every little spot where something might be a little off. I can’t even count the pairs of shoes I’ve returned or tried to return after a week of obsessing about them. I really like shoes, and my feet bother me a lot in general, so I care a lot about shoe decisions. Obviously not as much as I care about choosing the right marriage partner or liking my tattoo, but the same principle holds true: the more I care, the more I obsess.

The temptation, then, is to avoid major decisions. I know the ERP idea would be to embrace the anxiety of the major decisions, but let’s be honest, exposure sucks. It may help me in some way but I haven’t had much success with it to this point. Then again, I even obsess about decisions like where to eat dinner and what to wear, so there really is no way around it. Argh.

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Abandonment Issues

In response to the upstart of this blog, a friend wrote to me about how all of her OCD issues ultimately stem from her abandonment issues. I can relate! As a child, my obsessive fears began with a fear of being left by my parents. My parents had their flaws, but they weren’t the sort one sees on the five o’clock news, having left their car full of kids in some isolated parking lot while they fled the scene. Nevertheless, my abandonment issues ran so deep that I structured my young life in such a way as to be surrounded by responsible adults as often as possible. Being left with a random friend’s parents or a baseball coach sent me over the edge. The fear went like this: My parents won’t come to pick me up from baseball practice; the coach will wait awhile and then tell me he has to leave but he’s sure I’ll be fine; I’ll wait until dark when I will begin wandering the streets, alone and in danger; the rest of my life will be a homeless, friendless existence. The end.  To a rational mind, this is absurd. Any number of people would help a stranded kid, and my parents weren’t likely to jump ship on me.

Today during a counseling session, I was sharing this fear with my counselor but I worded it differently. I told her that I had a “feeling of abandonment” moreso than a “fear” of it. This was an aha moment for me; there’s a big difference between a fear and a feeling of abandonment. My parents never abandoned me in the physical sense of the word, but there were countless emotional abandonments. I was one of five kids, and during my obsession-filled child, my parents were going through a very rough time in their personal lives and marriage. Even then admit that I got the brunt of their turmoil. To cope, I became a reader of people and a people pleaser. I would (and still do) read people as best I could in order to figure out how to get them to accept me and like me. Anxiously, I would (and still do) look for little clues as to how well I was doing in my efforts to be accepted…in my attempts to ensure that I wouldn’t be abandoned by this new friend.

I suppose this post is related as much to anxiety and childhood psychology as it is to OCD, but for me, as one with OCD, my feelings of abandonment have led to many, many obsessions that center around a quest to be accepted – truly accepted with no hope for rejection. I’ve found it in my marriage, yet ironically, I obsess about my marriage more than anything else these days. I still don’t sense it from my family of origin…while I may be wrong, it feels more like a “be like us or you’re out!” family.

So, friends, I’d like to hear from you…how has the idea of abandonment played a role in your mental health?

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