‘Fixing OCD’ Article Is Badly Misleading

An article in The Atlantic called “5 Very Specific Ways to Fix Your OCD” blows it from the start — in the headline.

OCD sufferers know damn well that you can’t fix OCD. You can only learn to manage it and make it less of a disrupting force in your life.

Mood music:

Knowing that as I do, I’m dissapointed that the writer would give OCD sufferers false hope, followed by five pieces of advice that are not totally unhelpful, but also not very realistic.

I still write some clunkers with the best of ‘em. All writers do, especially when you produce articles daily. But here, I think the author was mislead by Concordia University psychologist Adam Radomsky, who spelled out the five strategies.

What follows are portions of the article in italics and my responses in plain text.

Re-examine your responsibility. Many of the symptoms of OCD can be caused and/or exacerbated by increases in perceived responsibility. The more responsible you feel, the more you are likely to check, wash, and/or think your thoughts are especially important. Ask yourself how responsible you feel for the parts of your life associated with your OCD, then take a step back from the problem and write down all of the possible other causes. For example, someone who would likely check their appliances repeatedly might feel completely responsible to protect their family from a fire. If this person adopted a broader perspective, they would realize that other family members, neighbors, the weather, the electrician who installed the wiring in the home, the company that built the appliances, and others should actually share in the responsibility.

Radomsky misses the point — OCD sufferers usually know the reality of these situations. But our minds spin with worry anyway. Like the addict who knows he-she will eventually die from their bad habits but can’t help but continue with them anyway, the OCD sufferer knows that he-she shares responsibilities with others, but can’t help but take on all the problems of the world anyway. The brain is constantly in motion, taking small concerns and sculpting them into huge, paralyzing worries.

Repetitions make you less sure about what you’ve done. This is bizarre because we usually check and/or ask questions repeatedly to be more confident of what we’ve done. OCD researchers in the Netherlands and Canada, however, have found that when repetition increases, this usually backfires and may lead to very dramatic declines in our confidence in our memory. To fix this, try conducting an experiment. On one day, force yourself to restrict your repetition to just one time. Later that day, on a scale of 0-10, rate how confident you are in your memory of what you’ve done. The next day, repeat the same behavior but rate it a few more times throughout the day. Most people who try this experiment find later that their urges to engage in compulsive behavior decline because they learn that the more they repeat something, the less sure they become.

I appreciate what he’s trying to do here with the role-playing game, and it can be helpful to try tracking how much you repeat an action and what it does to your memory.

But he again misses the crucial point: We OCD sufferers already know these repeated actions fuck with the memory of what we have or haven’t done. One of my OCD habits has always been going over the checklist for what I need to do before leaving for work the next morning. Clothes laid out? Check. Coffee maker programmed? Check. Lunch made and in the fridge? Check. Laptop bag stuffed with all the necessary work tools? Check. Then, even though I know full well what I’ve just done, I run through that same check list over and over. I’m not as bad as I was before treatment, but it’s still in me.

Treat your thoughts as just that — thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are normal, but they become obsessions when people give them too much importance … Spend a week making this distinction between your OCD thoughts (noise) and thoughts associated with things you are actually doing or would like to be doing (signal). See what happens.

I’ll tell you what happens: Your thoughts continue to run wild despite the exercise. Not that you shouldn’t try it. For a few people, it may help. But one of the very first things we learn is that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts and reality are not the same thing. But this is like the responsibility example above. We keep thinking because we can’t help it.

Practice strategic disclosure. People with OCD fear that if or when they disclose their unwanted intrusive thoughts or compulsions, other people will judge them as harshly as they judge themselves. This sadly often leaves the individual suffering alone without knowing that more than nine in 10 people regularly experience unwanted, upsetting thoughts, images, and impulses related to OCD themes as well. Consider letting someone in your life who has been supportive during difficult times know about the thoughts and actions you’ve been struggling with. Let them know how upset you are with these and how they’re inconsistent with what you want in life. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response. If not, give it one more try with someone else. We’ve found that it never takes more than two tries.

This piece of advice is sound, but gets buried beneath the unhelpful material.

Observe your behavior and how it lines up with your character. Most people struggling with OCD either view themselves as mad, bad and/or dangerous or they fear that they will become such, so they often go to great lengths to prevent bad things from happening to themselves or to their loved ones. But ask yourself how an observer might judge your values based on your actions. If you spend hours each day trying to protect the people you love, are you really a bad person? If you exert incredible amounts of time and effort to show how much you care, how faithful you are, how you just want others to be safe and happy, maybe you’re not so bad or dangerous after all. And as for being crazy, there’s nothing senseless about OCD. People sometimes fail to understand how rational and logical obsessions and compulsions can be. Remember, your values and behavior are the best reflection of who you are, not those pesky unwanted noisy thoughts.

This too is sound advice. But it leaves out something incredibly important: You can’t review your character and reconcile it with your OCD habits in this simple step he lays out. It takes years of intense therapy  — and for some, like me, the added help of medication — to peel away the layers and get at the root of your obsessions.

You can learn to manage OCD and live a good life. But it’s a lot of hard, frustrating work. And that work is ALWAYS there, until the day you die.

Know that before you dive into the search for simple solutions. If it looks simple, it’s probably too good to be true.

Addiction — And Security Journalism — Showed Me That Anonymity Matters

Journalists like me have never been particularly comfortable using anonymous sources. When you don’t name names, someone inevitably questions if your source is real or imagined.

But after dealing with some addictions in recent years, I feel differently about it.

Mood music:

There are some important distinctions to be made from the outset: I’ve written opinion pieces in my day job as a security journalist that have been critical of the hacker group Anonymous for hiding their identities while doing damage to others.

Going behind a mask so you can launch protests is fine with me, because honesty can be difficult when you fear the FBI agents at the door. I’ve been specifically critical of cases where I thought their actions had harmed innocent bystanders. In cases where innocents are hurt, hiding behind a mask makes you a coward, in my opinion.

That aside, we do live in a world where speaking your mind will get you blackballed, investigated or unfriended and unfollowed — if the latter two matter to you.

In one example where we were covering a data breach, a former employee wanted to tell us what really went on in the lead-up to the breach. But the person didn’t want their name used for fear that the company would try to sue them or hurt their chances of landing future employment. I agreed. A few days later, the person decided not to tell their story because people still in the company were snooping around the LinkedIn profiles of former employees. I can’t say I blame the person.

Indeed, covering security has made me understand the importance of anonymity compared to my experiences in community journalism.

But my experiences with addiction are what truly brought the importance of anonymity home for me.

Though I chose to tell everyone about my dependence on binge eating and, to a lesser extent, pain pills and alcohol, I’ve met a lot of people in OA and AA who never, ever would have started dealing with their demons if they had to do so publicly  — in front of friends, family and workmates. The prospect of being blackballed, fired or worse would have kept them on the same path to self destruction.

But because they can go somewhere where everyone is going through the same ugliness and not have their names exposed, they can be brutally honest about themselves and take those few extra steps to get help.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone honored naked honesty. But as Ice-T once rapped in a Body Count song: “Shit ain’t like that. It’s real fucked up.”

I was lucky. I was able to out myself and my demons without getting blackballed. It’s been an immensely positive experience. But you can’t always depend on the loving, respectful response I got.

In that environment, if anonymity can help a few more people get at the truth about themselves and the world they live in, then let it be.

Godspeed, Barney Gallagher

Update: Barney Gallagher passed away this morning. He was a wonderful man who lived his life in a way we should all learn from. Godspeed, Barney.

Like everyone else who has worked at The Eagle-Tribune, my life has been touched by Barney Gallagher, an old-time journalist who reminded us young ones what the profession was about.

Mood music:

I’ve been informed that Barney is gravely ill. This post is to honor the man and ask that you all say a prayer for him.

I first met Barney when I interviewed for the night editor job at The Eagle-Tribune in 1999. Then-managing editor Steve Billingham was asking me questions when he stopped, looked up, and said, “Hey, Barn!”

I looked up to see an old timer perusing items on a cork board at the back of the newsroom, next to where Billingham worked at the time. Barney walked around smiling, stopping every few feet to say hello to someone.

He was ALWAYS smiling.

As night editor, I got to know Barney well. It seemed as though he could magically appear at the scene whenever a fire, car crash or other incident happened on the streets of his beloved Haverhill — camera in hand.

As I’d sit there frantically working my way through a pile of stories I had to edit for the next morning’s papers, he’d breezily walk in with that smile of his, looking as relaxed and fresh as if he’d just had a 10-hour nap, roll of film in hand for the dark room to process.

Haverhill Editor Bill Cantwell once said, only half-joking, that Barney slept with a police scanner under his pillow.

Barney’s insight became immensely important to me when I moved to Haverhill to start my family in early 2001. I knew little about the city other than that my wife grew up there. I turned to Barney’s “My Haverhill” columns for an education on my new home.

Through his work, I learned the history of the city, names of the most noteworthy characters (the late harbormaster, Red Slavit, comes to mind), and, with his columns in hand, I set out to explore the neighborhoods, the river and the open spaces. He taught me where the seediest parts of town were located, as well as the most beautiful.

Above all, his columns always captured a theme we imperfect beings tend to overlook in the hustle and bustle of daily life — that a community is only as good as the people living there, and that anyone could make a difference for their neighbors.

When I’m having a bad day, cranky from all the petty fires fate likes to light in our path, I often think of Barney and his smile. By the time I got to know him he was already well into his senior years. He had been through it all and carried on secure in what few could understand — that life’s storms always passed into oblivion, and that if we kept our cool, we’d be left standing.

His life is a case study in how we should conduct ourselves. I thank God that I was lucky enough to know him.

I’ll end with this picture of a young Barney Gallagher, drink in hand, cigarette in mouth, symbolizing the old-school journalist. Thanks to The Eagle-Tribune’s managing editor, Gretchen Putnam, for posting it this morning on her Facebook page.

You’re in our prayers, Barney.

This National Grammar Day, A Revere Kid Celebrates With Some Punk-uation

My wife is very excited because today is National Grammar Day. For writers and copy editors (she is both), this is kind of like St. Patrick’s Day and Easter rolled into one.

Mood music:

Being a writer and editor myself, I should be just as excited. But I’m from Revere, Mass., where destroying grammar is a rite of passage. And, since I write more often than I edit, I’ve developed a rather cantankerous relationship with the copy editors I work with. Sure, I love ‘em and all, but sometimes I can’t help but slip in deliberately bad grammar for fun.

Split infinitives? Love ‘em. One line paragraphs? Love ‘em. Saying “love ‘em” instead of “I love them” — love that, too.

And, coming from Revere, I usually speak without the use of the letter “R” at the end of a word when it’s supposed to be there. I also use things like “killa” and “pissa” at random.

There was a time when I tried to conform. Once I realized I wanted to write, I chose English as a major and communications as a minor. I buried myself in the art and law of sentence structure, punctuation and even speech. I took a public speaking class specifically to work on saying the R at the end of the right words.

You could say I was turning my back on my Revere heritage.

As I hit middle age, my rebellious streak has re-asserted itself.

All that said, I am grateful for the editors in my life, especially my wife, for trying to keep me on the write path.

Happy National Grammar Day, y’all.

The Changing, Frightening Face Of Plagiarism

Plagiarism used to be such a simple thing: If you stole someone else’s work and passed it off as your own, you were a liar and a thief. But in the cyber world, it has become something much grayer, though no less sinister.

Mood music:

In the security community I write about for a living, sites such as Attrition.org have vast sections devoted to those who plagiarize. To be called out for such an act is to be given the kiss of death. Once you’re exposed as a plagiarist, your career is pretty much over, though plenty of busted people have gone on to fool others in their new careers as “consultants.”

I was talking about all this with a friend, Dave Marcus, yesterday. Plagiarism is seen as a growing pandemic in the 21st Century, the result of everyone’s ability to post someone else’s content in their blogs without giving proper credit. In most cases, the plagiarist gets away with it because in the tidal wave of content in the digital age, it’s damn near impossible to keep track of what everyone is doing. I have a lot of respect for sites like Attrition.org for at least trying to keep watch.

But here’s the thing that scares me: These days, you can be a serial plagiarist and not even realize you’re doing it. It’s so easy to find information on sites like Wikipedia and copy and paste. Some call it research. But when you use it without sourcing it, it’s plagiarism.

I’ve been in journalism for 18-plus years and I’ve always lived in fear that at some point I might falter and forget to adequately source someone. Staying clean from that was already difficult enough before the Internet became the fast and easily-switched-on fire hose it is today.

In my day job, I write about a lot of research reports. The name of the game is to take the complex detail and break it down into language most of us can understand. In this blog, I draw from a lot of studies about mental health, addiction, etc.

I do a ton of cutting and pasting. In my security blog, I’ll use chunks straight from the horse’s mouth, first identifying who it’s from and then italicizing the borrowed passages. It’s my way of keeping it honest. I do the same thing here.

Other times I’ll copy and paste and then convert something into my own words. In those cases, I tell you where it’s coming from. But it’s also easy to see how simple the careless omissions of credit can be.

In the push to get a piece of writing finished, oversights will happen — no matter how hard the scribe tries to avoid it.

The result of all this is that plagiarism is becoming something that’s no longer black vs. white, good vs. evil. It’s becoming something more like sleepwalking. You get up in the middle of the night and walk around the house. Someone else in the house might see you and make note of it. But the next morning you wake up with no memory of it. As far as you’re concerned, you spent the entire night in bed.

It’s more forgivable when you don’t know you walked into a priceless vase in the middle of the night and sent it crashing down the stairs in a million pieces. But it’s still a sorry state of affairs.

The point of all this is that I never want to steal someone else’s work. But I’m awake to how easy it is to slip up.

If I ever do, I won’t feel evil. But I will feel terrible, all the same.

I can promise you that I’ll always do everything I can do get it right.

The Future Of THE OCD DIARIES

After lots of feedback, I’ve decided to change this blog rather than kill it. Erin is going to be my partner in crime in this endeavor. She’s my soul mate and has lived through much of what I’ve written about, so it makes perfect sense.

We’re in the brainstorming stages, but here are some ideas we’re kicking around.

Mood music:

I kicked around the idea of changing the name, but most of you have advised against that. The blog is rooted in my desire to raise awareness of OCD and other illnesses of the mind, and readers have suggested I should keep the name as a reminder of where this all started. Others pointed out that it’s become a brand name. When you change the name of a known brand, you confuse the audience.

The tagline of the blog will definitely change, though. It started as the blog that kicks all those demons in the teeth, but the topics have expanded so much that it’s really a blog about dealing with life. Maybe I’ll hold a contest for new tagline ideas.

I think the banner will have to change in other ways, but we’ll see. If my cousin Andrew, the artist behind my banner, is reading this and has any ideas, get to work!

I’m going to switch platforms from WordPress.com to WordPress.org so I can further customize the blog and allow for ads. There are many great organizations out there that can help people with their demons, and I want to offer them a place to get known.

I also want to invite more guest writers in.

Erin has a good idea for readers who have followed my no-flour, no-sugar posts: A section with recipes for those who want to live it without getting bored by the same old food.

Since my love of hard rock is an ongoing theme, I want to devote a section to exposing new and local bands I think you should know about.

Faith has been another main theme, so maybe we can create a special section for that.

The possibilities are endless.

This thing is still in the planning stages, and we welcome your ideas.

Chain Smoking In Bickford’s Was The Best

Though I no longer smoke or eat the kind of food they served, I’m feeling nostalgic about the days of old when you could sit in any of the dim, dank coffee shops in the local Bickford’s chain for hours, hanging out, chain smoking and drinking those awful, bottomless cups of black coffee.

I blame The Doors for this trip down memory lane. I’ve been listening to their first album this morning and when “Soul Kitchen” came on, the lyrics transported me back.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets 
Speak in secret alphabets 
I light another cigarette 
Learn to forget, learn to forget 
Learn to forget, learn to forget 

Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen 
Warm my mind near your gentle stove 
Turn me out and I’ll wander baby 
Stumblin’ in the neon groves 

Well the clock says it’s time to close now 
I know I have to go now 
I really want to stay here 
All night, all night, all night

It makes sense that I was going through the Jim Morrison phase in those days. I used to sit at the table for hours and hours, with friends or alone, tearing through a pack of Marlboro Reds and filling notebooks with song lyrics, bad poetry and, occasionally, an essay I had to write for school.

I had two favorites: A Bickford’s in Swampscott and another in Lynnfield, right off Route 1 North at the Peabody line. The latter location is now a pretty good Greek restaurant. The former is now an Uno’s Pizza restaurant.

The food at Bickford’s was pretty bad, too. But it always hit the spot for a 20-something kid who had just spent the night drinking, smoking marijuana or both. I would often end up at one of these places at 5 in the morning after a late night. We would order the junkiest breakfast food they had, drink the coffee, smoke and be generally obnoxious. But everyone else was usually there under the same circumstances, so we fit right in.

On Tuesday afternoons, me and a couple friends would sit in the Swampscott shop laughing at how we were the only people there under the age of 76. Tuesday afternoons was when they had the senior citizen dinner specials.

It always puzzled me that they would eat there, since the food quality was no better than what you would find in any given nursing home. I felt the same way about the old-timers who would flock to a place on Route 1, Saugus called the Hilltop Steakhouse. The food there was a little better than Bickford’s, but not too much better.

Here’s where we get to the big point of this post.

When we’re in our 30s, 40s and 50s, I think we go through a long phase of food snobbery where only the more sophisticated bistros will do. But when your very young or up there in age, all that really matters is the change of scenery and hanging out with friends and significant others.

Of course, we live in a much different world now. Smoking is almost universally banned. Restaurants kick you out if you don’t buy something.

True, you can sit in Starbucks for hours nursing the same coffee and not be bothered, but that’s different. Starbucks has a cleaner, more comfortable environment, and the food and drinks cost more than it used to cost at Bickford’s.

Meanwhile, the food is usually steeped in some “artisan” concept. The quality ain’t much better, but the packaging is a lot more slick than, say, Bickford’s corned beef hash.

I love that Starbucks has so many blends and roasts to choose from, though I sometimes laugh over how they over do it with their seasonal and holiday blends.

You have the Christmas Blend, Thanksgiving Blend, etc. They could go on with this shtick indefinitely, with a “Good Friday Blend” that has no taste or color, in keeping with the Christian obligation to fast. Or they could do a “Back To School Blend” with traces of speed in the mix to jolt students back into the studious frame of mind.

I’ll tell you what, though: It was far cheaper and efficient to get back into studying when you could make pennies for bottomless coffee and smoke your way through assignments.

Those are happy memories, but today’s scenario is a better fit for who I am.

I don’t smoke anymore. I’m sober. I don’t eat flour or sugar. I sleep at night and work by day.

It’s good to have the memories, though.