A Man's Gotta Do...

By Christopher Dale 10/26/14

My struggles with OCD in recovery.


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"Are you being crazy again?"

My wife, upon noticing my awkward, intentional and all-too-familiar hand gestures, has asked me this question scores of times over the past few years. I will complete an apparent pantomime audition of just seconds, starting with a short series of pronounced arm movements and concluding with a full backward head tilt that culminates with my eyes in a direct sightline with the ceiling.

Then... back to sipping a diet soda and watching TV. Except for the mild amusement of a snickering spouse, the motions served no definitive purposes whatsoever. My wife had just witnessed what for others would be a formidable WTF moment, but for her had become a common constant:

Her husband has low-grade obsessive compulsive disorder.

Obsessive–compulsive disorder, or OCD, is an anxiety disorder generally characterized by intrusive thoughts that cause uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry that, in turn, induce repetitive behaviors aimed at alleviating this associated anxiety.

Like many anxiety disorders, OCD symptoms run a broad range that, at their summit, include severe, often life-altering obsessions such as excessive washing or cleaning, extreme hoarding, or preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts. These compulsions can be alienating and time-consuming, and cause severe emotional and financial distress. (Think of Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets, bringing his own silverware to a diner that, to reach, he had to navigate the New York City sidewalk without stepping on cracks or pavement panel partitions.)

Most, however, show far milder symptoms such as repeated checking of locked doors or stovetops; opening and closing a door or turning a light switch on and off a certain number of times; a non-mandatory yet defined aversion to certain numbers (for example, I don't like the number 24 - it's the age at which my mother died - but it's not a situational non-starter); or other brief-yet-pointless gestures such as my patented arm waving, head tilting routine.

The mental anguish of obsessive compulsive disorder is exacerbated by self-awareness. OCD sufferers almost always know that what they are doing is wholly irrational, that their ridiculous routines are detached from whatever consequences, defined or vague, they have placed on these chores. Someone with OCD realizes that, for example, the way his shoes are placed on the floor at home has nothing to do with the success or failure of an ongoing project at work. Regardless, he arranges them until they meet his preconceived criteria of conformity.

Some people with OCD perform compulsive rituals because they inexplicably feel they must, others act compulsively so as to mitigate the anxiety that stems from particular obsessive thoughts. Regardless of specificity or lack thereof, the common thread is that the feelings-based compulsions simply override fact-based reality. The logical "if this, then that" reasoning of normal thinking is replaced, albeit on a temporary and finite basis, by "If NOT this, then THAT." If the lock on that front door isn't checked exactly five times, or if I don't leave a rug laying juuuuust so... then something BAD will happen, and that something can be entirely removed from anything associated with that door, or that rug. "After all," an OCD sufferer mis-rationalizes, "I'm getting on a plane next week..."

A brochure published by the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation contains perhaps the most in-depth description and extensive symptoms list for this highly varied, intricately customized personal affliction. In perusing the lists of compulsive acts, I most identified with a subset known as Repeating, which entails:

  • Repeating body movements (example: tapping, touching, blinking).
  • Rereading or rewriting.
  • Repeating routine activities (examples: going in or out doors, getting up/down from chairs).
  • Repeating activities in “multiples” (examples: doing a task three times because three is a “good,” “right,” or “safe” number).

In addition to the aforementioned hand-and-head routine, some of the specific acts I perform with irrational compulsiveness include:

  • Turning my car lights on and off a few times before exiting and locking the vehicle. I've confused a lot of deer in my day.
  • While showering, scrubbing certain body parts, including armpits and feet, exactly 12 back-and-forth strokes. No idea how I came up with 12 but, apparently, an even dozen - exactly an even dozen - is suitable for sufficient cleanliness. I am, however, one damn efficient showerer; no time for singing leisurely when you're counting compulsively.
  • Retyping the entirety of mistyped words, rather than just the portion of the word that was mistyped. For example, if I typed the word "baseball" as "baesball," I delete all eight letters and retype the whole word, rather than just correcting the erroneous portion of the existing word onscreen.
  • Curling my big toe, for exactly two strokes at a time, while on a rowing machine at the gym. One time I did this after failing to appropriately strap my feet into the machine's stirrups. Upon flying off the machine (after just one stroke - how OCD unsatisfying!), I played it off as a mechanical failure.

I perform these tasks begrudgingly, knowingly, and with a vague, irreversible sense of dread should I not conform to my mind's rigid orders. Some of these tasks have remained constant for decades, others have appeared gradually as the general routines of my life have changed. (For example, I didn't start curling my big toe while rowing, of course, until I started rowing about a year ago.) Conversely, other compulsions have disappeared due to circumstantial lifestyle changes, such as moving, changing jobs, or no longer frequenting certain places where compulsions once occurred.

This list, of course, suggests a very mild, non-threatening compulsive disorder that, while crazy, carries little in the way of consequences. However, this line of limited effects was recently crossed by one of my handful of other compulsive habits: teeth grinding.

Also known as bruxism, occasional teeth grinding usually does not cause significant harm. When occurring on a regular basis, though, bruxism can lead to tooth damage such as chipping, cracking and accelerated wear and tear.

Most people who grind their teeth do so subconsciously while engrossed in some other task or, even more commonly, while sleeping. In these cases, bruxism can be combatted by tools such as nighttime mouth guards or, in the case of preoccupied teeth grinders, the simple act of increased vigilance.

However, my own teeth grinding - an act in which I have engaged, with varying degrees of severity and frequency, for decades - is compulsive. I've always been aware of bruxism's risks and, against my own will, have thus far been unable to cease the telltale gnashing and clenching that, over the years, have taken a diminutive yet distinct dental toll.

This past month saw the first true consequence of my bruxism, in the form of a weekend’s worth of excruciating pain, followed by a root canal, which is exactly as painful as its unwieldy procedural description suggests. So afflicted was the tooth, in fact, that it had begun to swell my upper lip and infect one of my paranasal sinuses. The swelling caused by both the dying root and invasive dental procedure is, just now, finally beginning to subside.

My upper right front tooth, then, is both painful physical evidence of my OCD’s potential consequences, and a sort of throbbing, mocking challenge to overcome its irrational hold over my mashing mandible.

Recovery via Repetition: The Discipline Dilemma

The most significant feat I have ever accomplished is my initial recovery from alcoholism. A complete rehash of the difficult life preceding this point would be too lengthy for the purposes of this article (click HERE for my expanded background). Suffice it to say that decades of anxiety and depression – punctuated by a two-year period in my early 20s when, inexplicably to a team of medical specialists, my eyesight deteriorated from 20/20 to as low as 20/60; a nervous breakdown that led to hospitalization a few years later; and three years of sharply spiraling, low-bottom alcoholism – all led to October 10, 2011: the first day of my current and unprecedented tenure of continuous sobriety.

Early recovery is tenuous because it is tool-less. At age 32, I came to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous with shameful self-awareness of my drinking’s destruction but without any idea how to avoid further damage. What I did have is the willingness to do absolutely whatever it took to get sober. We call this the gift of desperation.

“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.”

– Alcoholics Anonymous (book), page 58

For many in early recovery – especially those who, like me, came into the program an ardent atheist averse to even the slightest idea of spirituality – sound sobriety is built on a foundation of disciplined action that, at its most granular, moment-to-moment level, is executed through setting and sustaining healthy habits. I got sober, in large part, due to a strict weekday regimen of work, AA meetings and exercise and, on the weekends, via a vigilant wife whose sight I seldom left.

Today, though the tools I’ve gained through the Fellowship of AA have allowed me to be less rigid, I still prefer to stick to a set routine. I have – I am – proof that sobriety can stem from structure, with the wisdom of AA at its root. I have no reason – indeed, given such profound blessings, no right – to stray from this solution. I am free, yes, but not free-wheeling.

I am, then, still a creature of habit - better habits, but habits nonetheless. Building my life in sobriety has been a practice of persistence and consistency. Reliability as a husband. Dependability at work. Dedication to physical fitness. Responsibility as a friend, as a family member and, most recently, as a sponsor to an AA newcomer. In each case, my progress was gained incrementally through taking, step by step and day by day, the next right action. I have thrived by living in action.

But to tackle obsessive compulsive disorder, I'll have to live inaction. And I have absolutely no idea how to do that.

In combating OCD, I am asking myself to do something incredibly foreign to me: stop doing something that, in and of itself, has no real or immediate consequences. My root canal may stop me from teeth grinding (but it probably won't), but stopping one symptom of OCD is not a recipe for long-term freedom from it. Such a piecemeal approach would be akin to seeking long-term recovery from alcoholism simply by deciding not to drink: the root of the problem - namely, oneself - is left untreated, rendering such symptomatic stopgaps devoid of depth and, inevitably, limited in duration.

As I write this, it is barely a week since I began earnestly fighting the irrational urge to conduct my little movements that, though harmless, make no sense and cause anxiety that, though by no means overwhelming, is entirely unnecessary. I've had moments of success. "The car lights are off," I said aloud to myself yesterday, slamming the door behind me despite the nagging need to blink them on and off again a few more times. But last night, in the shower, I'm embarrassed to report that each armpit received exactly you-know-how-many scrubbing strokes of soap.

I've found these initial struggles to overcome OCD half humbling, half humiliating; for the starkly self-aware, there is gut-shot shame in lunacy. I cringe at my craziness.

Still, I try to approach this battle against my latest anxious, addictive compulsion - one far less serious than alcoholism but, in a way, more perplexing - with gratitude. My OCD is one of those annoying yet non-debilitating foibles that, as I continue to grow in sobriety, I can work on overcoming because - incredibly given my condition just three years ago - none of the other problems in my life are at all urgent, or even mandatory. This isn't life-or-death; this is progress. And it's time to take this next step in its name.

That said, I suppose a good first step is admitting the problem's existence. That, I think, is the inspiration behind this essay. Through admission in so public and permanent a forum, I am also committing myself to this problem's eventual erosion and, hopefully, eradication.

And now, as I review and spellcheck this piece before submitting it, I will fiercely fight the urge, inane yet somehow innate, to correct quick-fix typing errors by unnecessarily retyping entire words.

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues.  He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.