‘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.

The Monkey Will ALWAYS Be On Your Back

I’m standing at a bar in Boston with my wife and stepmom. They order wine and I order coffee. My stepmom beams and says something about how awesome it is that I beat my demons.

I appreciate the pride and the sentiment. But it’s also dangerous when someone tells a recovering addict that they’ve pulled the monkey off their back for good.

Mood music:

Here’s the thing about that monkey: You can smack him around, bloody him up and knock him out. But that little fucker is like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. He won’t die.

Sometimes you can keep him knocked out for a long time, even years. But he always wakes up, ready to kick your ass right back to the compulsive habits that nearly destroyed you before.

That may sound a little dramatic. But it’s the truth, and recovering addicts can never be reminded of this enough.

Dr. Drew had a good segment on the subject last year, when he interviewed Nikki Sixx:

Sixx talked about his addictions and how he always has to be on guard. Dr. Drew followed that up with a line that rings so true: “Your disease is doing push ups right now.”

So painfully true.

I know that as a binge-eating addict following the 12 Steps of Recovery, I can relapse any second. That’s why I have to work my program every day.

But Sixx makes another point I can relate to: Even though he’s been sober for so many years, he still gets absorbed in addictive behavior all the time. The difference is that he gives in to the addiction of being creative. He’s just released his second book and second album with Sixx A.M. Motley Crue still tours and makes new music. He has four kids, a clothing line and so on. He’s always doing something.

I get the same way with my writing. That’s why I write something every day, whether it’s here or for the day job. I’m like a shark, either swimming or drowning. By extension, though I’ve learned to manage the most destructive elements of my OCD,I still let it run a little hot at times — sometimes on purpose. If it fuels creativity and what I create is useful to a few people, it’s worth it.

The danger is that I’ll slip my foot off the middle speed and let the creative urge overshadow things that are more important. I still fall prey to that habit.

And though it’s been well over three years since my last extended binge, my sobriety and abstinence has not been perfect. There have been times where I’ve gotten sloppy, realized it, and pulled back.

But the occasional sloppiness and full-on relapse will always be separated by a paper-thin wall.

I’ll have to keep aware of that until the day I die.

The monkey isn’t going anywhere. My job is to keep him tame most of the time.

Drawing by JUSTIN MCELROY (imaginarypeople26@yahoo.com). Click the photo to see more of his work.

Strong Too Long, Or Weak Too Often?

There’s a saying on Facebook that depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but simply the result of being strong for too long. Somewhat true — though weakness does feed the beast.

Mood music:

I’m feeling it this morning.

I’ve always taken a certain level of satisfaction from my ability to stay standing in the face of death, illness, family dysfunction, depression and addiction. Sometimes, I get an over-inflated sense of survivor’s pride.

People love to tell you how awesome you are when you emerge from adversity stronger than before. The victor is placed on a 10-foot pedestal and life looks hunky-dory from up there. But it’s only a matter of time before the person on top loses balance and crashes to the ground.

I’ve fallen from that pedestal a bunch of times, and my ass is really starting to hurt from all those slips off the edge.

All this has me asking the question: How much can you blame depression on being strong too long when many times it comes back because the victim has been weak?

I don’t think there’s a precise answer. I only know this: I feel like I’ve been trying like a motherfucker to be strong 24-7. But I don’t seem to have the fortitude to maintain it, and I give in to weakness.

In the past, that weakness would involve indulging in food, alcohol and tobacco until I was too sick to function.

Today, the weakness involves getting angry and self-defensive and distant at the drop of a hat.

For all the progress I’ve made in managing my OCD, there are still moments where I go weak, put the blinders on and do some stupid things.

It’s the compulsion to keep staring at the laptop screen when one or both kids need me to look up and give them some attention.

It’s stopping in the middle of a conversation with my wife because the cellphone is ringing or someone has pinged me online.

It’s spending too much money on food and entertainment for the kids because it’s easier to me at the time than  cooking the food myself and playing a board game with them instead.

I’ve been working double-time at bringing my compulsive tendencies to heel, going through some intensified therapy. The short-term result is that I’m an angrier person than I normally am.

My therapist made note of that anger at our last meeting. The trigger in the room was him taking me back to my younger years in search of clues to present-day debacles. I thought I was done with sessions like that five years ago.

But I’m learning that the road to mental wellness is not linear. It goes in a circle. It’s like driving to the same place every day for work. The drive to work and back is a loop of the same landmarks, the same traffic patterns and the same behind-the-wheel thinking sessions.

I’m learning that managing my issues is going to involve frequent trips back and forth from the past to the present. This pisses me off. But I know I have to keep at it.

I guess I’ll always have my weak moments because of the events that shaped me.  But you can still be strong throughout it, learning to regain your footing more quickly  and being better at the kind of discussion with loved ones that prevents endless miscommunication from adding up to a mountain of pain.

I don’t know when I’ll truly reach that level of strength. But for now I’m leaning hard on all my coping tools, including the music and the praying.

When The Going Gets Tough, I Disconnect

I’m leaving my weekly therapy sessions with a headache these days, because I’m working through another deeply embedded flaw in my soul.

Mood music:

It’s not nearly as bad as the therapy I had in 2004-2006, when I had to endlessly churn the sewage of my childhood memories in search of clues on what was wrong with me and how I got that way. Back then, I didn’t know myself very well. Now I do.

Knowing myself as I do, I’ve started to zero in on the ongoing flaws that hold me back and hurt loved ones. That apparently requires a few more trips to the sewer.

I’ll give you a fuller account further along in this process. For now, let’s just say I have a wall I tend to hide behind when the going gets tough. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if not for the fact that life is ALWAYS tough. Not just for me, but for everyone. We all have our Crosses to carry and difficulties to endure. In my case, it’s a lot harder with a wall in the way.

So here we are again. Back in the mental sewer. I know my way around now, but the stench can still be too much to take.

The first question from the therapist was if I had talked to my mother lately. No, I told him. I thought Mom and I were making progress in December, but she couldn’t handle this blog and went off the deep end. I won’t defend myself. She’s entitled to her point of view. But let’s just say I was hoping to be writing posts by now about how we were reconciling.

So no, I told him. We’re not talking.

Then he asked about how I handled my brother’s death when I was 13. I told him I pretty much disconnected from the world. Same thing after my best friend killed himself in 1996.

“You’re starting to see the pattern?” the therapist asked.

Yeah. When the going gets tough, I disconnect. The bigger events caused that self-defense mechanism to take root all those years ago. But it kicks in during life’s more routine challenges. And when the wall goes up, my anger level kicks up a few decibels. I don’t do what I did in my teens and 20s: Throwing furniture through walls and plotting endless ways to find those who hurt me so I could hurt them back.

I’m not THAT guy anymore. But I do still get angry. When I do, I turn in on myself and brood.

But I knew that already.

Now the question is, what to I do about it?

I love my life now, and I’m blessed beyond measure. But the better my life gets, the more of an eyesore the wall becomes. It’s got to go.

My therapist has seen this stuff before. He knows the wall is rooted in the memory sewer.

So I guess I’ll be here for awhile longer.

Working-Class Hero Syndrome

I’m a sufferer of working-class hero syndrome, a condition that makes me look down on everyone who doesn’t work as hard as me, all while wasting hours on work that proves fruitless.

Mood music:

My favorite cinematic version of a working-class hero is Quint from the movie JAWS, who relentlessly needles boat mate Hooper for being rich and having a bunch of excess gadgetry to do his job. Of course, Hooper survives while Quint gets eaten by the shark.

The disease takes different forms.

There’s the white-collar working-class hero who thinks he-she is so much better than the person bagging groceries. I probably fall closer into that category, because I’ve often labored under the delusion that working 80 hours a week in journalism made me better than everyone else.

There’s the blue-collar variety who will look down at the guy in the desk job because that person isn’t out there getting dirty and operating big, dangerous machinery.

The common symptoms:

–Moments of extreme irritability from too much work and too little sleep.

–A tendency to dive into a self-righteous rage at the drop of a hat, blaming all the problems of the world on everyone but yourself. This usually leads to many hours spent complaining about people at work, in your family and in your town.

–An addictive personality that grows more ravenous with each of those rage moments. You do more drugs, drinking and binge eating to comfort yourself and hold it together, all while carrying on with the belief that you’re somehow better than the people who look at you with worried eyes.

–A tendency to lie about how exciting your job is and how well-payed you are upon learning that the person you’re talking to is better payed and has a more exciting job than you.

I’m pretty sure I got this disease from my father, who allowed the family business to become the center of his universe. He didn’t have a choice. My father was the middle child of his generation, but he was the only son. My grandfather, who came off a boat from the former Soviet Union with all the typical old-school values, expected the world of my father. As my grandfather descended deep into old age and illness in the mid-1960s, my father became increasingly responsible for the family business.

My father always had the attitude that you were useless unless you were working 24-7. He once joked that he was indeed prejudiced. “I hate lazy people,” he’d say.

I started my life as the youngest of three kids, the proverbial baby of the family. My late brother Michael was the oldest and, as such, was the kid my father expected the most from.

Michael was encouraged to chart his own course and was studying to be a plumber. But he was expected to help out with the family business and do a lot of the grunt work at home.

I was the baby, and a sick and spoiled one at that. I came along almost three years after my sister Wendi, and by age eight I was in and out of the hospital with dangerous flare ups of Crohn’s Disease. I got a lot of attention but nothing hard was expected of me. I was coddled and I got any toy I wanted.

The result was a lower-than-average maturity level for my age. At age 10 I acted like I was 5 sometimes. I would crawl into bed with my father for snuggles, just like a toddler might do.

My maturity level hadn’t changed much by the time I hit 13. I probably regressed even further right after my brother died. But as 1984 dragged on, I was slowly pulled into the role of oldest son.

All the stuff that was expected of my brother became expected of me, and I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with it. My brother had a lot of street smarts that I lacked.

As I descended into my confusing and angry teen years, I would be sent on deliveries for the family business. I’d get flustered and lose my sense of direction. One time my father sent me to Chelsea for a package. It was 4:30 and the place I was going to was closing at 5. I got there at 5:10 and had to drive back to Saugus without a package. I felt humiliated and ashamed.

As I reached my 20s all that immaturity and feeling of inadequacy hardened into an angry rebellious streak. I started getting drunk and stoned a lot and would hide behind boxes in my father’s warehouse, chain-smoking cigarettes and binge eating while everyone else did the dirty work.

And yet working-class hero syndrome took hold anyway.

Because I was going to college, I developed the idea that I was better than the guys I worked with. Learning how to write and crash-study for days at a time made me feel like I was the hard worker who deserved life’s biggest prizes.

After college I dove head-first into a journalism career and put in 80 hours a week. I worked so many hours that I began to lose my health. I binged regularly and ballooned to 280 pounds. I lost track of family and friends.

By the time I began my big turnaround, I didn’t have many friends left.

I manage the disease better than I used to. I’ve forced more personal time into my schedule and I stopped working 80 hours a week once I realized I’m better at my job when I cut those hours in half.

But it still surfaces on a regular basis.

When I’m running my kids to appointments all over the place and cleaning the house from top to bottom, I tend to see it all as part of the working-class hero’s life.

When someone tells me about their job and it isn’t something I would choose to do, I sometimes catch myself thinking I’m better.

The remedy is a daily look in the mirror and a lot of prayer.

Work-life balance has become the Holy Grail. But I’m still digging around for it.

When I find it, I’ll let you know.

Was ‘Hunger Games’ Star Too Fat For The Role?

There’s a controversy swirling around online regarding “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence. With one critic suggesting she was too curvy to play the role of emaciated heroine Katness Everdeen, the anger is on.

What is making some people bristle is that this smacks of the bullshit talk that sends girls into the hell of eating disorders.

Mood music:

I’m not a girl. But I’ve dealt with an eating disorder for much of my life. So, naturally, I have some thoughts on the matter.

First, let’s look at what people are saying, starting with the movie review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times that set people off. In the review, she makes a point that the character Lawrence plays is a starved teen with bones sticking out everywhere. Specifically, she wrote:

A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.

The L.A. Times “Ministry of Gossip” column ran with that single comment, calling it a “bold indictment” of a 21-year-old star “who currently captivates the attention of impressionable young females and her same-aged peers in show business.”

Are the critical sentiments — Vulture has a comprehensive roundup — correct? On the one hand, the content adapted from Suzanne Collins’ dark novels dictates that these oppressed citizens are in fact emaciated. But by all standards Lawrence is hardly overweight, though widely attributed with that dread celeb magazine buffer of “curvy.” 

My colleague at CSO Magazine, Joan Goodchild, expressed her outrage in a Facebook post, which is where I saw all this for the first time. She wrote:

This is the kind of b*llsh*t story that pisses me off. I haven’t seen the film, or read the book. But if it is a “Hollywood interpretation” of the book, then this is hardly the first time the film deviates from the book. Yet here we have an article about how a thin, yet healthy, young actress was “too well fed” to play the part she had. And we wonder why so many young women have issues with food and eating disorders in this country? This is ridiculous!

I agree in the sense that there is a lot of this bullshit in Hollywood. How “curves” got to be synonymous in Hollywood with overweight is beyond me. Media in general has perpetuated the myth for years that stars need to be super thin. That warped view is especially glaring in the case of women.

There’s a certain evil to how Hollywood carries on this way, because filmmakers know their work influences young people and instills them with the idea that they have to look a certain way to fit in and be loved.

Did Hollywood influence my own eating disorder? Absolutely, though my relationship with food was corrupted long before by growing up in a family of compulsive over-eaters.

For me, the Hollywood part stemmed from my love of Heavy Metal music and the culture built up around it. The heroes in this world of musicians were the skinny guys with long hair. To be emaciated was to look good. Wanting to be like my heroes, I did a lot of things I covered in a recent post called “Skinny Like A Fool.”

I think, to a certain extent, I abandoned my earlier goal of being a musician and got into journalism because in the latter profession, you could be fat and cool at the same time. Of course, I took that to the other extreme and became a 280-pound pile of waste before it was over. While I’m some 80 pounds lighter than that today, I’m still a big, stocky guy who had to drop flour and sugar and start weighing all my food to regain some sanity.

I was never trying to make it in Hollywood, and, being a guy, there were certain pressures I never felt. But what I did and why still left a lot of scars.

Having been down that road, I share Joan’s anger. But I also think some of the rage over calling Lawrence well-fed has been blown out of proportion.

In the original New York Times review, the words “too well fed” are never used. “Seductive” and “womanly” are over the top, but not the same as calling someone fat. The L.A. Times gossip column is where the “too well fed” came into play. Of course, that’s the newspaper of Hollywood, so spin that as you will.

Maybe someday we’ll move beyond looks and start judging each other by what’s in our heads and hearts. But not today, apparently.

Hey, Kids! Here’s Something For ‘When Your Brain Gets Stuck’

I just got a book in the mail called “What To Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide To Overcoming OCD” by psychologist-author Dawn Huebner. I asked for a copy so I could review it, but it might warrant more than one simple review.

Mood music:

Someone I’m connected to on Facebook got a copy to help her OCD-suffering child. Since the upcoming relaunch of THE OCD DIARIES will have an expanded section for children’s mental health issues, reviewing this seemed natural.

The book, published by Magination Press with illustrations by Bonnie Matthews, guides kids and parents through cognitive-behavioral techniques used to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’ve learned a lot of techniques in therapy over the years, but my first impression from this book is that a few more simple tools could have helped me nip this disorder in the bud BEFORE I reached adulthood.

From the synopsis:

Did you know that people have brain sorters that keep their brains from getting cluttered with unnecessary thoughts? Sometimes these brain sorters get mixed up, though, holding onto thoughts that frighten kids. If this has happened to you, if it’s hard for you to feel safe or sure of yourself because scary thoughts have gotten stuck, this book is for you.

Two-plus years into this blog, I’ve never been able to explain it that clearly. I came closest in a post comparing the brain to a car engine.

What To Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck guides children and their parents through the cognitive-behavioral techniques used to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This interactive self-help book turns kids into super-sleuths, able to recognize and more appropriately respond to OCD’s tricks. Engaging examples, activities, and step-by-step instructions help children master the skills needed to break free from the sticky thoughts and urges of OCD, and live happier lives.

First impressions:

–The illustrations are terrific. Cheers to Bonnie Matthews. She managed to give OCD a face in the form of this little furry guy who resembles the tribbles from Star Trek — with legs. When you can put a face on your nemesis, it’s easier to fight him.

–Huebner scores points with me by setting the exploration of OCD up as a game. Right off the bat, if you can make something look like a game, dealing with it becomes less scary.

–She covers several coping techniques that deserve more attention than I could offer in one post.

I’m going to approach my study of this book from the perspective of a kid who lacked the right tools and allowed OCD to follow him into adulthood.

The author takes kids on an important journey, and it seems fitting to show their parents what happens when their little OCD cases miss out on that journey. I’m the guy who went through puberty and into adulthood with that insidious fur ball following me around. It grew up with me and got a lot uglier and menacing than the little guy in the book.

I’ll look at the different symptoms the author lays out and explain how they manifested themselves in the younger me. From there, I think I’ll be able to tell you how this book — though designed for kids — can be a life-saver for grownups, too.