29 December 2011


I've had a lot of thoughts lately about things I want to discuss here, but finding the time to put those thoughts into words has been a real problem for me over the past six months.

Today, I read two interesting articles on memory (specifically forgetting) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The first article discussed willful forgetting and the second discussed compulsive behaviors. Related, but not directly and interesting to me because they applied to me equally.

My experience with OCD revolves around compulsions, not obsessions. Once, I was dumped by a boyfriend. I know. But I didn't see it coming. At all. It took my legs right out from under me. And in response to this, he and I began an exchange of emails. It may seem silly, but I couldn't make myself stop re-read those emails. It was borne out of stress and, according to my therapist, the re-reading was somehow calming to me. Perhaps I was looking for clues. Perhaps I was hoping the words on the screen would change to something I wanted. I suppose I was calmed or maybe I was just distracted from the pain, but that sense of calm was erased by the anxiety I developed over not being able to make myself stop. I spent hours at a time reading the emails. Four hours. Five hours. Six hours. I had to make myself get up and go to school. I had to make deals with myself that I would let myself do this for X amount of time, but that I would NOT allow it to cause me to miss school or work. After a while, the anxiety over the email time became a bigger issue to me than the boyfriend.

I only had extreme anxiety one other time in my life and that was during my divorce. My now ex as determined to crush me. It worked. I wanted nothing more in life than to erase that man from my life. To this day, I never want to lay eyes on him again. I have never hated anyone in my life so thoroughly, for so long, or with such venom as I do my ex-husband. If I saw him on the street today, I'd wish inside that something would hurt him.

And for those of you who know me, that isn't me at all. My divorce wasn't a normal kind of stressful. I feared for my life and that kind of fear, when dealing with a paranoid, impulsive ex is a kind of constant fear that doesn't go away. I was afraid to stay in my home. I feared that he'd show up at work and try to hurt me or my coworkers. He was a monster. He was purposefully driving my anxiety over the cliff. It wasn't fair. It wasn't nice. It was extreme. It was, in a word, my own personal holocaust. It ended three months after the divorce when my brother pulled out a shotgun, ordered my ex off his property, and the man finally drove away.

I don't remember what I did at that time. I do remember not wanting to go home and driving for hours until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and then I'd fall into bed. Those behaviors were not, of themselves, problematic. Driving a car around or reading emails harms no one, not even me. But, the time that I had to devote to these useless activities was problematic. Life is all about how you choose to spend your time and I didn't envision my precious down time being devoted to reading emails that conveyed no new information and conjured up bad memories or driving in circles on the highway. It was obvious that these were counter-productive stress relievers. For the first time in my life, I almost wished I was my sister.

My sister suffers from OCD regularly. If her compulsions are borne of stress, then she is under constant stress. As far as I can tell, most of it is self-induced. To her credit, she is a tireless worker. She shares our family trait of not enjoying being idle. She cares about her family and does everything for them. But she also worries a great deal about what other people think, about other people's behavior, and she has an extraordinarily strong moral compass. She always believes that her way is right. She is, quite simply, vastly judgemental of herself and others. She cannot seem to let things go. So when, for example, my mother was dating two men at the same time, my sister was beside herself with disgust and could barely contain her anger in any interaction with my mom. My mother said sister was practically spitting on the phone when they spoke. In response to this steady stream of stress, my sister cleans. It's like it's her hobby. She looks forward to it. It calms her.

That's the thing about compulsions. You feel almost powerless to stop. But the difference between me and my sister, relative to our compulsions of course, is that I saw them as disruptive and she sees them as productive. Now from my perspective, a house can only be so clean and only needs to be be so clean. For my sister, it is never clean enough. She will worry and fret and lament about the shape of her house on days when I wished my house looked that nice. And I know where that feeling comes from. There is this electrical impulse in your gut that makes you feel the need. It is different than an addiction. I was addicted to cigarettes and that impulse to smoke came entirely from the brain. But this compulsion literally makes your stomach knot. And it can only be relieved by giving in. But here's the thing. The relief is marginal. It doesn't go away; it is just held at bay. Because the minute you stop, there is that tingly little knot again. You must keep at it. It makes you keep washing clean hands. Or straightening something that no one has moved. Or wiping down clean counters.

In college, my sister was anorexic. She compulsively exercised, too. You cannot tell me all these things are not related. My sister needs therapy, but she'd never admit it. She needs a more productive way to relieve her stress. She needs to exercise. But to my sister, with her absolute moral compass, to admit a need for help would be as foreign as taking a mud bath. As she has told us time and again, she's been like this her whole life, and just wants to be left alone.

So what does this have to do with forgetting? For me, it has everything to do with it. It was only when the pain of the breakup subsided that I was able to walk away from the emails. It was only after deep reflection on my ex's behavior that I have been able to come to terms with that stress he brought. And since then, I've had no recurrence. So mine was a coping mechanism borne out of high-stress traumatic events (let's say). But my sister. Poor thing. Her's is a coping mechanism borne out of daily stress. Out of the slightest difficulty. Out of this self-imposed rigor. This article indicates that we can willfully forget. Through practice.

I have often maintained that we must protect our mental health and work at keeping our emotional lives in shape just as rigorously as we do our physical health. For me, with a family history that includes compulsive hoarding, compulsive cleaning, and compulsive email re-reading and compulsive overeating, I'd do well to watch for warning signs that stress is getting the better of me. I'd do well to exercise regularly, avoid sugar and caffeine, and keep tight control on my diet.

That's my take on mental health. Watch for the warning signs and head them off at the pass. I don't allow myself obsessive thoughts. I think of other things. Sort of the way you try not to remember some tragic wreck you saw on the highway, or beating yourself up for saying the wrong thing.

Several things have helped me cope with stress in my life. The first is the acceptance that I am not perfect. I don't have to try to be perfect. I am not expected to be perfect. And I have no desire to be perfect. So when I fuck up, it's part of life. I don't have to obsess over it. I don't have to beat myself up over it. I need to recognize mistakes for what they are, try to make right what needs to be made right, apologize if necessary, make up work if required, and move on. Guilt, I am convinced, is one of the most useless emotions we carry. To be humane is to forgive.

Secondly, I have learned to keep control over where my mind goes. I don't always succeed. Sometimes it gets two steps ahead of me and I'll lose a day or two to thoughts I'd rather not have. But once I recognize that those thoughts are getting in my way, I work to get them gone. I set schedules for myself. I make myself do the things that have to be done. And in doing my needed activities, I find my mind eventually lets go of the obsessive thoughts.

I do mental housecleaning. I look at the behaviors that have manifested themselves in my family. Compulsive cleaning. Hoarding. Controlling. And I look at the outcomes of these behaviors. Guilt. Shame. Unsanitary conditions. I don't want those outcomes to be part of my life so I must guard against letting those behaviors creep in. When thoughts of the ex's behavior come around, I push them out. I don't allow myself to judge other's behaviors. I don't care if my mom is dating two guys at the same time or sleeping with the entire second string of the Dallas Cowboys. It's just not my business. And while I am concerned about my sister's happiness, if she wants to spend her entire life cleaning counter tops, who am I to tell her she is wrong? I take things to the Goodwill rather than let them pile up. I look at things before I buy them to determine if I really need/want them. I tidy up my mental condition when I tidy up my house, you might say.

I don't know how common this problem is. I do know that I am not powerless unless I just give in to it.

I'm curious though. Do other people have similar struggles? Do other people have to work at their mental health like I do? Are there actually people out there who just go through every day without having to do mental sit ups?

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