When I was 18, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Since then, I've occasionally considered writing about my experiences, but I've tended not to trust my motives. Writing about my experiences, I thought, would be a way to redeem them, to justify an early adulthood that hadn't measured up to my adolescent hopes and dreams. I may not have been happy in my 20s, I thought, but at least I'd have a book -- and perhaps the beginning of a writing career -- to show for it.
It was a cracked notion, of course. I was so caught up in the grip of OCD -- and in my flight from it -- that I could never have written about those experiences. I didn't want to spend any more time with them, didn't want to be anywhere near them.
But at some level, I felt like I was owed. I've had to suffer day in and day out for years. Maybe I can cash in on that suffering. This didn't feel like the noblest of impulses, of course, but I was floundering: What else was I going to do with myself? I was in my mid-20s, moving around a lot and working a series of jobs that didn't mean much to me. I hadn't found much direction, and when I looked, OCD was usually in the way.
As I came to see, however, the idea of cashing in on my suffering was itself compulsive -- a way to feed an insatiable feeling of insufficiency, to measure up to some external (and endlessly receding) standard. I wanted to write a book because of what it might teach me or might allow me to express, yes, but also because I suspected that lurid stories of suffering would sell, and because I couldn't imagine how else to feel good about myself. When I saw this -- that part of my desire to write was a product of OCD -- I decided to treat it that way and did my best not to give in.
More recently, though, things have shifted. I feel less and less need to apologize to the world (or to myself) for the way my life has unfolded. And as I've begun to feel more free to live this life -- as opposed to something more grandiose -- I've also begun to feel more capable of spending time thinking about some of my more painful experiences.
These new forms of resilience have many roots. Some of them -- including five years of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as an exposure to Buddhism and the beginnings of a meditation practice -- are quite specific. Others feel like more general products of growing up and listening to the lessons of my life.
The upshot is that I have begun exploring my OCD in a public-facing way. I started by making a series of videos entitled "What OCD is Like" and publishing them on my blog. (There are five in total; they're available here.)
As the series title indicates, these videos focus mostly on the phenomenology of OCD -- what it feels like to undergo an often-constant assault of painful, intrusive thoughts. When I made the videos, I didn't feel comfortable prescribing anything, musing about the meanings of mental illness, or delving into contemporary neuro-psychological research. Instead, I simply tried to relate what it feels like to have a brain that works the way mine does.
Making these videos was surprisingly gratifying, and more gratifying still were the responses I received. Every now and again, I would receive a blog comment or an email in which someone thanked me for sharing my experiences. Often, my correspondents would offer up deeply personal experiences of their own. I didn't have a phrase for it at the time, but looking back, these dialogues were the beginnings of what felt like a mutual ministry.
The work you are reading now represents something slightly more ambitious. In the pages that follow, I attempt to weave my first several years of experience with OCD into the larger story of my life. In doing so, I hope to provide myself a bit more coherence about where I've come from and where I might be headed.
Just as importantly, I hope to offer up a raw and naked account of a disease that is too often trivialized or misunderstood. I want to share something that others can relate to -- both OCD sufferers and those who simply wish to understand more about this condition.
Along the way, I'm going to describe some episodes in graphic detail. When I do so, I will always strive to keep my eye on the true and the useful. Our lives are far too precious for me to waste yours by rendering mine as some exotic grotesque.
One open question for me has to do with the therapeutic value of writing works like this (or reading them, for that matter). As my advisor, the anthropologist Michael Jackson, has pointed out, our culture places a great deal of faith in the power of storytelling to untie mental knots. Sometimes, however, that faith is misplaced, and OCD can be one such venue. I have described my experiences hundreds of times to friends and family, often at the risk of reliving those experiences. On occasion, doing so has helped me escape my own dimly lit inner chambers, connect to the people I love, and enjoy momentarily relief.
Many times, however, sharing in this way has functioned as a trap, a covert way of seeking reassurance by tracking down evidence that my worries are ill-founded. Seeking reassurance in this way is deeply counterproductive for OCD sufferers; doing so exacerbates tormenting feelings, strengthens obsessive and compulsive patterns, and undermines successful therapy.
[The full essay is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]
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