OCD and anxiety: a closer look

I’m pretty open with folks about having OCD and I’ve also written briefly about my experience before in a previous blog entry, “Living with OCD and anxiety”. When people ask me about it (and I encourage them to), I’m often asked, “What type of OCD do you have?”. Do I wash my hands all the time? Or do I count tiles on the floor? What’s the deal?

I had a bad experience earlier today and while I was resting and focusing on getting better, I thought about writing in more detail what it’s like. Before I go into full detail, I’d like to assure you that (after a lot of horrible years), I’ve finally got this problem under control. But even with mostly perfect days, there are occasionally bad days which are a still a struggle.

The root of the problem is that I’ll get fixated on something and I can’t break out of this topic. What makes me feel better? Ultimately escaping back to my house to rest. Or in severe cases, scheduling and seeing the doctor. But you can’t go through life like that. I’ll usually try to excuse myself and either rest or take a walk. More extreme cases, I’ll pop a Xanex or if I don’t have any handy (and I’m at a restaurant), I’ll order a shot of tequila, even though I don’t drink (and from experience, you can’t mix the two!). Sometimes (but not always) these external experiences are enough to help me break the loop.

I’ve tried some “reprogramming” techniques using book called Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior. These have helped me slightly; more with coping though. Occasionally, I’ll get lucky- like a glitch in the matrix- and my brain moves past the topic and I fully recover, like it never happened at all. But for the times where I still can’t break myself off the subject (and I can’t escape the situation), I’ll start having a panic attack.

These can vary from a “mild” one where I start feeling overheated, start sweating, and feel like I’m going to faint… to as strongly as feeling like giving up completely; laying in bed and feeling that I can’t deal with this anymore and on maybe two occasions (out of hundreds) thinking about ending things. When things get into the panic attack stage, I have to go into coping mode.

As unpleasant as these experiences are, they always pass. Knowing that doesn’t help much when they’re happening of course, because they feel like they’re never going to end. But that’s also something I’ve worked with a therapist on a few years ago and practiced. When you have an attack, there are things you can do to work your way through it. Sit down. Close your eyes. Take deep breaths and focus on the breathing. I got a workbook (which I highly recommend) called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Going through this book has helped me work through many panic attacks. I’ve had enough success that most of the time, nobody even notices I had an issue.

Back to what kind of OCD I have. The closest in words I can explain is that I have hypochondriac tendencies. Usually, there’s a set of triggers that set my brain off. Any one (or a mix) of these can sometimes do it:

  • being around a LOT of people (like an airport, convention, or a restaurant)
  • being overheated; long pants when it’s hot outside or after exercise
  • being in a situation where I am stuck for a period of time (on an airplane, in a food drive-thru when someone is behind me)
  • too much caffeine

Those are just a few examples… and they might sound silly (and they are). But those will sometimes be enough to give me instant butterflies in the stomach and cause my brain to think, “Oh wow, I feel awful”. The ability to feel and sense my body appears to be heightened. I can feel the blood being pumped through my system, or acid burning my stomach walls; food moving through, or I get light headed because it feels like my brain doesn’t have enough oxygen. I raise the topic to myself, “Wow, I do not feel good”. I can assure myself, “Body, this is you being stupid. Stop it!”, but it doesn’t change anything. I know it’s not rational but I can’t change the topic. “Why don’t you feel good?”; “Oh no, maybe I have a stomach issue”; “It does feel like I’m nauseous, I wonder if it’s something I ate”; …

And many times I start to think about what is everyone going to do if I fall over and “cause a scene”. I usually don’t even care about myself, I just don’t want to inconvenience other people with my stupid issue. And there’s been times I have had that happen, and I almost feel ashamed and subconsciously never want it to happen again. Several years ago, when I was working at Intel, seemingly out of nowhere, I had crippling chest pains. I was rushed to the ER and the doctors found nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with me after many tests. And that’s the frustrating thing I’ve discovered: your mind is capable of making you feel physical pain and symptoms even when there’s nothing actually wrong with you.

All of this coupled with the fact that I’ve had several legit medical issues, it compounds the problem. I’ve had pneumonia two times and bronchitis three times (each occurrence confirmed 100% by a chest x-ray). I’ve had severe food poisoning to the point where I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital and my kidneys were in the beginning stages of experiencing failure (and I have the medical reports confirming this). When I’m having an issue, it can seem impossible for me to tell if it’s really happening or it’s just my mind making me feel like this.

If I ever seem on top of my game or brilliant, I think it can only be due to how often I struggle and fight versus myself. It’s a constant mental battle. I can argue with anyone but the person who’s the best at beating me is myself. But with medication, support from family and friends, and taking the time to understand the issue, I basically have things under control.

At the end of the day, reflecting on everything… life is great. I love everything about my life and everyone in my life. I wish I didn’t have these issues, but that’s out of my control. But there’s an awful lot I do have control over and I am proud to have such a great family, friends, and a job that I love. Getting to this point wouldn’t be an accomplishment if the struggle wasn’t as bad as it was.

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