Unattainable Perfection and OCD | A Decade after Self-Diagnosis
As someone who has never seen a psychiatrist, nor a therapist until about a week ago, I have devoted an enormous amount of time to independent psychological research and self-evaluation.
Twelve years ago, I was in the seventh grade. I was a scrawny, quiet little thing. Not quiet, in the sense that I didn’t talk. Actually, I was incredibly chatty and giggly. On multiple occasions, my teachers rearranged the seating assignments so that I wouldn’t disrupt my classmates.
But it never worked. I talked wherever I went. Quietly, so that I would only disrupt the few sitting nearby. But nonetheless, I talked. In fact, I never shut up.
Nothing in my outward appearance would have suggested that I struggled with anxiety. In many ways, I portrayed the antithesis of anxious — chatty, giggly, always goofing around and having fun!
And I was having fun!
But amidst the hearty chuckles, tension loomed. Emotional tension buried deep within my being. Perhaps laughter was a way to cope with the unsettled anxiety — and I truly do believe that laughter is an incredibly effective medicine.
Nonetheless, I struggled with certain obsessive thinking patterns and compulsive behaviors that were highly distressing. Couple that with a strong sense of intellectual curiosity, and where did I end up?
During lunch period, I’d sneak off to the computer lab, when it was always deserted. I’d creep in quietly, choose a bulky Dell desktop computer at the far end of the room, and sit down.
Obviously, the computer lab wasn’t open during this time, and students weren’t allowed to be unsupervised. Why this went unnoticed for so long is beyond me. But I made these trips daily during lunch period for several months.
The purpose of my visits was research. I’d become so consumed with these distressing thoughts that I decided to consult the internet — the vast interconnected network of information that completely disrupted the 21st century.
Luckily, my research skills — although rudimentary — were decent. Even as an adolescent, I was an avid reader with a scientifically-inclined curiosity, so the need to conduct occasional informal research experiments unfolded quite naturally.
At the moment, my research project was a psychological self-evaluation. My mind was in an utterly chaotic state; I sought out to understand it. What I found was a plethora of educational sources devoted to the dissemination of information regarding obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Of course, not everything on the internet is credible. Which is why I meticulously — I daresay obsessively — combed through the results to ensure that only the most credible sources with accurate information prevailed. What I found was revealing.
Self-help guides, diagnostic tools, support groups, various individual accounts of experience with the mental illness. Forums dedicated to those experiencing the disorder, as well as forums for those with loved ones experiencing the disorder. Scientific explanations, educational psychology resources. Scientific journals dedicated to extensive psychological and biological research of OCD. Articles, videos, journals, blogs — you name it, Google revealed it.
Fingers typing ferociously, eyes scanning aggressively, I was captivated. What had devoured my mind mercilessly for several months now lay sprawled out, uncensored and exposed, right before my eyes.
As I read, and read, and read, I learned that what I was experiencing firsthand could accurately be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was undeniable.
Despite the copious advice against self-diagnosis, which I would discover years later, I pursued my investigation with scientific precision. By all means, I self-diagnosed. Even further than that, I compiled a collection of resources that I would utilize to formulate my very own self-treatment plan.
My motivation was propelling. Each day, I’d scurry eagerly to the computer lab. I’d come equipped with a notebook, pen, pencil, and a binder full of several printouts. A few were educational articles, while others focused more directly on treatment techniques.
It was during this time that I first became acquainted with cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as exposure and response prevention. Each is a highly effective form of therapy that focuses on a unique approach. Oftentimes, they are used simultaneously, in cooperation with one another, to treat mental illness.
My self-treatment plan was built primarily on cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. In order to accomplish this, I read extensively about negative thinking patterns such as mind-reading, catastrophic thinking, and all-or-nothing thinking.
Ultimately, my objective was to establish an effective treatment plan that would alleviate my mental distress and eliminate the need to visit a psychiatrist or therapist. Not that I had anything against mental health professionals, but it was uncharted territory. Nobody in my family had ever been to a psychiatrist, so it was an entirely foreign affair.
Not to mention that as a child, I had always been incredibly stubborn. So when I decided to pursue a project, no matter how unconventional, I committed to it.
As an adolescent, I was ambitious. Perhaps, this was the most ambitious project I ever undertook. And I succeeded, for a short time.
Utilizing cognitive-behavioral self-help techniques such as psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz' “4 Rs: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, Revalue,” I began to tackle the most intrusive thoughts.
Initially, I would practice identifying the thoughts and acknowledging that they were merely a product of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Such overt acknowledgment immediately diminishes the legitimacy of these thoughts, lifting the burden from my shoulders, so that I have less of a responsibility to entertain or justify them.
It forces you to recognize the thoughts for what they truly are: obsessive-compulsive thoughts.*
*It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between obsessions and compulsions. Using the terms together, as I did above, was done solely for organizational writing purposes, not to imply that the terms are synonymous! They are not. Each is a unique unit that contributes to the expression of OCD. Although the terms are often used interchangeably and rarely fully understood, it is crucial to understand their independent nature in dealing with OCD. To complicate it further, thoughts can constitute compulsive behaviors, shattering the common misconception that
OBSESSIONS = THOUGHTS
COMPULSIONS = BEHAVIORS
^Not necessarily. Although they often coexist, obsessions and compulsions are two distinct, unique features. Perhaps in the future, I’ll write an article specifically about that. For now, this bite-sized explanation will suffice.
Such concepts might be difficult to grasp for an individual who has never experienced intrusive thought patterns. Nonetheless, I will do my best to explain effectively. As always, questions and comments are always welcome!
After effectively labeling the thoughts as “OCD thoughts,” I began to experience a new mindset. It was a sense of open-mindedness coupled with a sense of consolation that I was not solely responsible for these thought patterns. Acknowledgement is always the first step.
Finally, I understood what I was experiencing! It was immensely refreshing and gave me a fledgling sense of romantic optimism. Perhaps I would tackle this myself, once and for all!
But alas, there is a reason mental health professionals exist. A reason they dedicate years of study and practice to learning how to recognize, identify, and treat mental illness effectively. In fact, there are many reasons. None of which I willing considering as an anxious, stubborn adolescent. So I chose to go it alone.
As I said, for a short time I succeeded.
My acknowledgement and relabeling was fairly effective in relieving the burden of responsibility. I no longer regarded these thoughts as legitimate, but rather a result of cognitive dissonance in my brain. Such thinking helped me immensely.
Now, for the difficult part.
The next step in my self-treatment plan would encompass an array of scenarios in which anxious thought cycles actually played out. It involved various techniques that would challenge my response to anxious thoughts. Rather than challenge the thoughts themselves, it is the thought patterns that must be challenged.
By thought patterns, I mean how you respond when these thoughts appear. A thought itself elicits no anxiety, but a negative response to that thought can initiate a vicious cycle of negative thinking. Hence, cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on accepting the presence of thoughts while modifying your response to them.
Mindfulness is an indispensable weapon against anxiety. At its core, it calls for being present and calmly accepting anxious thoughts. Mindfulness is a practice that I wholeheartedly encourage. In fact, I devoted an entire article to it.
As I practiced the techniques consistently, I gained confidence. Walking myself through the steps, occasionally using a notebook to organize my thoughts, I would embrace the challenges and praise myself for the small victories — when I effectively halted the endless stream of compulsive thoughts and achieved peace of mind.
For about a year and a half, I practiced religiously. Then, I began high school. As a dedicated student who loved challenging herself, I eagerly enrolled in as many honors-level classes as was allowed. A rigorous schedule combined with the demands of everyday life led me to inadvertently sweep my self-treatment plan under the rug.
In retrospect, then would have been an excellent time to pursue professional therapy. Plentiful resources were available, through the school system as well as my pediatrician’s office.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t yet comfortable sharing my disturbing thought patterns. The prospect of speaking to someone openly gave me immense anxiety and discomfort. Paradoxically, this course of action was exactly what I needed. Alas, hindsight is a beautiful thing.
Long story short, I fell off the wagon. Slowly, the obsessive-compulsive thoughts crept back in, hitting with full force. Eventually, lack of practice eliminated my effectiveness entirely; when anxious thoughts struck, there was nothing to cushion the blow. No go-to techniques. What a disaster.
And so, I lived my life. Functioning as well as I could, but never fulfilling my potential, never living as fully as I deserved, as we all deserve. Throughout most of high school, despite my intellectual curiosity and genuine interest in learning, my academic performance suffered.
Oddly enough, I still received quite a few As. But overall, the grades were varied. I performed very well on tests, projects, and assignments…when I could actually complete them.
Completing the work was the most difficult part. Not comprehending the concepts, or applying what I had learned, but actually getting the work done.
When I’d open up a textbook to begin reading the assigned chapter, it was immensely time-consuming and distressing. My desk and homework supplies had to be arranged perfectly, the noise level and lighting had to be optimal, my mindset had to be just right, my outfit and posture had to be perfect. Assuming I could get through the initial preparation and meet all those standards, which often took 30 minutes or more, I’d sit down to begin. But I could never start.
I vividly recall rereading the introductory paragraph of the photosynthesis chapter in my AP Biology textbook several times, over and over again — not because I didn’t understand it, but because I felt I hadn’t absorbed it adequately, I was afraid I would miss a crucial detail.
On several different occasions, I attempted to complete the reading, but I never did read that photosynthesis chapter. Perhaps the worst part of it all is that I LOVE biology and I genuinely enjoy reading!
Since then, I have created reading habits that effectively enable me to get through novels, textbooks, articles, and even the most dense scientific journals. Of course, it’s a work in progress, but I have definitely come a long way.
Regardless, most of the time that I dedicated to homework throughout high school was wasted rereading, rewriting, and redoing tasks that were perfectly fine to begin with. That is, when I could actually sit down and start. Many times, I couldn’t even begin the assignment.
Furthermore, I had developed a crippling phobia of public speaking, making class discussions and presentations a source of utter dread.
I have since learned cognitive-behavioral habits and self-talk techniques that allow me to deliver presentations comfortably. Honestly, today I actually enjoy giving presentations.
Among my teachers, classmates, and even my parents, there was a myriad of reasons that presumably explained my performance, namely laziness and lack of motivation. Most of the time, that simply wasn’t the explanation. But sadly, I would struggle for many years to come.
It became the norm. Today, I still struggle immensely with obsessive-compulsive thinking patterns, and it has a significant negative impact on my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life — many reasons to be grateful. But that doesn’t negate the internal cognitive struggle that simply acts as an enormous obstacle to achieving the ultimate peace of mind.
A mediocre ending to an otherwise uplifting, optimistic story. But happily, as of last week, I was finally able to pursue professional therapy. I intend to couple therapy with extensive introspection and self-treatment. An immense amount of patience and diligence lies ahead, and I am thrilled.