You’re stuck in “the darkness.” You know all the things you should do for things to be different. The days, months, and even years slip by while you’re still overwhelmed, frustrated, stressed, and sick. The endless to-do lists and urgent/unexpected demands of modern life drown out the goals and activities that are important to you. You feel that you can’t do what you want and have to keep doing what you don’t want. Instead of enjoying life for today and preparing for tomorrow, you are just trying to get through the day. You’ve read the books. You’ve heard the advice. But in the heat of the problem, fear, anger, loss, depression, confusion, etc., you turn on the autopilot and regress back to what is comfortable/familiar even if it is painful. So, how will life ever change?
The problems, people, and position in your life may not change, but you can. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, limited aspects of you are the only things you can change or control to any significant degree. These include your thoughts, your attitudes, and your responses/behaviors as well as your body. For a control freak like me, this was very difficult to realize and accept, but finally it was clear. The bad thoughts will come; I have to recognize the lies and replace them with truth. The bad attitude will come; I need to count my blessings and choose a better one. The bad news/crisis will hit; I need to respond with prayer, hope, patience, and grace. I will do my best to care for my body with the resources I have available during various seasons and trials of my life; a disease could still appear. And when the worst of the storms hit, whatever form they take, your paper or electronic to-do list will quickly seem insignificant.
Instead of adding tasks to your already packed to-do list, stop some of your current not-so-great habits and free up some time and resources. This will allow you to add new, better habits as well as reprioritize your schedule and tasks. Easier said than done, I know.
I know because my darkness happens to be a particularly slimy, black pit of despair called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Most of my life, I used to joke with friends about my “quirks” and being a “germ freak” (e.g., taking longer when using a public restroom), but they never really affected me or my ability to function. Years of chronic stress levels combined with the physical/hormonal changes of a difficult pregnancy and birth finally resulted in me breaking down with moderate/severe OCD. Stress is our perception of a threat for the purposes of preserving our lives and the lives of others; the body releases adrenaline in preparation for fight or flight. Perceiving every little problem, deadline, or inconvenience of modern life and work as a threat led to a point where I could not distinguish real threats from OCD thoughts.
To truly understand what OCD is and how to fight it, or support the loved ones in your life who suffer from it, I highly recommend reading Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz. I disagree with Dr. Schwartz on one point: whereas he believes that medication may be used on a temporary basis as a “waterwings” approach, I believe that psychotropic medications should not be used at all. The dangers and side effects far outweigh the benefits, even on a temporary basis. If “help” and energy are needed to fight the OCD, the best recommendations are: 1) reduce stress and excessive commitments/responsibilities, and 2) sleep/rest to allow the body to begin healing.
I describe OCD this way: OCD is my brain not working properly, getting “stuck” on certain anxiety-based thoughts that I’m tricked into believing will go away if I perform certain activities/rituals. OCD has the same “form” in all who suffer from it (a person has obsessions and compulsions); however, each person with OCD has different symptoms or “content” based on their life experiences (we often don’t realize how much our environment and experiences from birth have shaped who we are, how we think, how we behave, etc). One person may obsess about violent thoughts…someone else might hoard certain objects…I am obsessed with safety and cleanliness – for myself and my loved ones around me. Numerous things set the OCD off; some are rooted in real safety concerns that OCD blows out of proportion while others are completely irrational. Still, OCD makes them feel very real to me.
I still worry about tiny pieces of broken glass on the floor that may have been missed during the clean up 1 year ago. I can’t use or put anything in the drawer where we found the leaky batteries even though it’s been cleaned. I can’t touch anything made of wood without being concerned with splinters. I can’t touch public handles, etc with my bare hands. I feel as though the dirty, dusty walls of our narrow doorways and living spaces are closing in on me. OCD keeps telling me that I touched things (e.g., inside of sink, garbage bag/can, etc) when I haven’t and that I have to wash my hands again or my family or I will get sick/die. I can’t cook with raw meat at all; and if I use eggs, I need to shower when I’m done. Things become contaminated; they spiral out of control as one thing touches another and then another. The thoughts keep attacking, one after the other, all day long. At night, I dream about the same anxieties and wake up feeling like I ran a marathon. OCD tells me I’m worthless, I’m too tired to fight, the thoughts will never go away, I should just end this miserable existence since my family would be better off without me. Thank God that who I am would never allow me to play God and take my own life, or act on these lies.
Fighting is exhausting, but I will not let OCD destroy me or my family. I am not crazy. It’s OCD; it’s not me. The more I feed OCD by doing what it wants, the worse I become. The main way to overcome this enemy within is to practice Dr. Schwartz’s four steps, which in essence involve relabeling the thought as an irrational OCD thought, reattributing the thought as OCD (separate from who I am as a person), refocusing on a positive activity for at least 15 minutes instead of doing the compulsion (which involves still withstanding the attacks by the thoughts/feelings), and finally revaluing the OCD as the “useless garbage” that it is. Doing these steps consistently retrains the brain to start working normally again, getting easier each time to dismiss the OCD thought and move forward. To perform these steps on an almost constant basis requires a lot of work and discipline, but the progress I have made in these last few months has been significant and I celebrate each wee victory to not wash my hands, not change my shirt, go out somewhere in public, do the laundry, make something to eat in the kitchen, wash a dish, etc.
So speaking from this experience, take baby steps. Do not set yourself up for failure by taking on more than you can handle. Your life is a sliding scale – any step (no matter how small) toward health and peace is a positive one. The guidelines I will outline in Part 2 next week are really about shifts in perspective. Start with changing the way you think about just one thing, and make deliberate choices regardless of your temporary, and often deceptive, feelings.