Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lent lessons: Filling in the gaps

This year I gave up two things for Lent: playing solitaire on my phone and getting food out of a snack machine at work.
Maybe I should say I am fasting from them, a term my minister used in his sermon this past Sunday to refer to anything given up in order to prepare ourselves for self-examination and the sacrifice of Jesus.
I am fasting from solitaire because I have days when I spend way too much time playing it. It’s like a nervous habit. When I don’t want to do anything else, or when I’m stressed, I grab the phone and start fiddling with the electronic cards.

I am fasting from the snack machine because I do too much mindless eating at work, out of stress and sometimes boredom. It’s easy to stick my dollar or coins in the machine and have instant “food comfort.” But I’m eating when I’m not hungry, and I’m turning to food rather than more healthy choices to cope with life.
Giving up the snack machine has been the easier of the two. I can always take the time to fix healthier food choices at home to eat at work, and I am trying to eat only when I’m hungry.
It has been more difficult with the phone. I’m not having trouble resisting the call of solitaire. I’m having a difficult time knowing what to do with myself without the game.
My plan was to spend the time with more useful and meaningful pursuits, like reading and writing, or, if I’m at work, with work.
That’s hard for me when I’m tired and feel anxious and I just want to avoid doing anything that takes effort.
During Sunday’s sermon, my minister talked about giving things up for Lent. He said something like, if you’re fasting from food but not praying, then it’s just a holy diet.
Therein lies my problem.
Should I be praying during at least part of the time that I could be playing solitaire? What do I do since I have such a hard time praying, and I haven’t really prayed much since I realized how compulsive I still am with the process?
I’ve written about the obsessions and compulsions I have about praying. I’m working to no longer attend to the compulsive prayer thoughts. How do I bring in real prayer?
That’s my quandary. What other ways can I reach out to the divine?
Meditation is one way, but I’m still at the 10-minutes-at-a-time stage.
I’ve tried prayers that someone else wrote, like the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Sometimes I still get lost in the words, though.
I’ve considered writing prayers.
I still think reading and writing are meaningful and have a place in my Lent practice. Prayer is not the only way to learn and grow.
But I want to do some kind of praying too.
Do you have any ideas or suggestions?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

OCD: Picking up sticks

It seems like a stick looking straight down, but at an angle, it looks like a nail. When I nudge it with my foot, it rolls a little, but I still can’t tell.
People are coming. I turn and walk in the direction of my original destination, the student services building.
But it might be a nail. Somebody might step on it and get hurt. It would be my fault.
I turn around again, and I walk back the 10 feet. People are passing by.
I lean forward, put my head down and move it around, like I’m looking over the ground below. Maybe they’ll think I’m just looking for something I dropped.
After they pass, I touch the stick/nail again with my shoe. I can’t tell.
I pick it up. It’s a stick. But it’s a hard stick. I can’t break it. Maybe it’s not a stick.
I place it at the edge of the sidewalk, right where the concrete meets the grass, out of the way of walkers.
I take up my journey again.
But someone could still step on it. And it might not be a stick.
I go back and pick up the stick. Maybe if people see me do it, they’ll think it’s something I dropped.
I carry it with me into student services, into the bathroom. I throw it into the trashcan. Then I wash my hands.
That’s a small illustration of one of my harm obsessions. It was strongest when I was in graduate school.
When I walked on the street or on campus or through a parking lot, I checked for things on the ground that could harm someone.

At one point in my life, a walk along here could cause me a lot of anxiety.

I don’t remember ever finding any nails. But I found lots of sticks and rocks that could potentially be harmful. Or so I thought.
Walking somewhere was never a quick trip or a straight journey from A to B when this OCD symptom was at its peak.
I had to check every stick I saw, every little rock and anything that looked like it could be harmful.
I had to stop and examine it. I had to pick up a lot of things to figure out what they were. And sometimes that wasn’t enough.
This harm obsession was sometimes at odds with my contamination obsession. If I picked up a stick or an unknown object, I was contaminating my hands. But I had to pick it up in order to keep other people safe.
That was what it was all about. Keeping other people safe. It was my responsibility.
So harm trumped contamination long enough for me to get to a sink to wash my hands.
When I started taking medication for my OCD and depression, some of my symptoms got a lot better. The picking-up-sticks was one of those.
My eyes are still drawn to potentially harmful objects on the ground, in the driveway, in the parking lot. But now I have a new tool. I can call the obsession for what it is—OCD—and walk on, refocus.
Have you experienced a checking or harm obsession like this?

Friday, February 24, 2012

CBT session #3: Anxiety triangle

Today’s session of cognitive behavior therapy was the best yet. I felt my mind figuratively expand, and lots of bells and lights of recognition went off.
My therapist reviewed the anxiety triangle with me, and it helped me tremendously in understanding my OCD and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
I won’t go into nearly the detail that my therapist did, but here’s an overview.

A copy of my therpist's notes. He illustrated his points as he explained the anxiety triangle. All the lines show the connections that the physical, thoughts and behavior have.

The three points of the triangle are the physical components of anxiety, thoughts and behavior.
A big message for me was that we cannot control what thoughts we have, but we can choose what thoughts to attend to and how we behave in response to our thoughts.
So we can control our attention and our behavior.
Another big message was this: the more we learn to tolerate and embrace our anxiety, the more we can appreciate and enjoy the time we have, the people we love and the small moments we live.
We’re going to work on this, my therapist said, a moment at a time.

The physical

As someone with OCD and GAD, I’m sympathetic dominant. I stay in the fight or flight mode a lot of the time.
That means tension, shakiness, fidgeting, difficulty relaxing, numbness, light-headedness and sometimes a feeling of floating.
Yeah, that’s me.
Interestingly, I revealed something about my level of anxiety without even recognizing it myself. I told my therapist about my writing exercise a couple of weeks ago, which I described here.
I told him that during the writing exercise, my anxiety level rose to a six or seven, but after the exercise was over, it quickly went down to a three or four.
“Like you hadn’t even done the exercise?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Well, what I was saying was that I am nearly always at a level three or four of anxiety. As my therapist put it, I start out at about 5,000 feet on the mountain. My anxiety level rises to about 20,000 feet, and then returns to 5,000 feet. But I’m still at 5,000 feet.
Oh, my, I thought.


Someone like me, a worrier, tends to be biased towards danger. I pay attention to danger and ignore safety.
As an example, my therapist said someone with social anxiety might enter a room with a lot of people and wonder immediately, which ones don’t like me? That person would ignore the people with smiles on their faces and pay attention to the ones with frowns, even though the smiles and frowns had nothing to do with that person.
Along with the bias towards danger goes the tendency to underestimate one’s coping ability. A worrier like me would tend to think, I can’t handle it.
People with OCD also tend to experience meta-cognition, thinking about thinking. We tend to believe we should be able to control our thoughts. We tend to believe that if we think it, it’s as if we acted upon it. (He said you see this in scrupulosity sometimes, where people may have learned that thinking something bad was as sinful as doing it.)
The only things we can control about our thoughts are which ones we attend to and how we respond to them: our attention and our behavior.


My therapist said situation A might cause anxiety, but when we practiced a particular behavior that lowered the anxiety, that behavior was reinforced.
OCD offers lots of examples of this. We may be very anxious about our hands being contaminated. But after washing them for 30 minutes, the anxiety lessens. So our brain associates the behavior—washing the hands for 30 minutes—with less anxiety. And that is what the brain is going for—less anxiety. Avoidance can also lessen anxiety.
We get caught up in rituals and avoidances in order to lessen anxiety. But really, we’re perpetuating and reinforcing behavior that causes us much pain and suffering.

What comes next?

My next appointment is in a week. Until then, I’m to work on the writing exercises more. But I’ll also include timed editing sessions and then—the hardest part—I will show the writing to someone.
I also need to self-monitor. When I have the symptoms of anxiety, I need to note what I’m thinking and what I’m doing and share that information at next week’s session.
I am so excited and hopeful!
Does this anxiety triangle make sense to you? Would you agree that the physical symptoms of anxiety, your thoughts and your behavior can feed off each other?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The imaginary shield of prayer

“Please forgive me for anything I did wrong today. Please forgive me for what I did do that I wasn’t supposed to do and for what I didn’t do that I was supposed to do.”
   I wish I were home. I wish I were alone in my bedroom, with the door closed. I’d be able to close my eyes or bury my face into my pile of stuffed animals, be alone with the whirl of prayers in my head.
“Please forgive me for not being happy where I am. Please forgive me for not focusing on you.”
I’m on the van that is carrying me home from school. I have to keep my eyes open so that the other riders won’t know that I’m praying. Everybody is so noisy. I can’t keep the rhythm of the prayer going.
“Please forgive me, Lord. Please forgive me for everything I’ve done wrong. Please forgive me for the mean thought I just had about the kids in the back of the van. Please bless them. Please bless them. Please forgive me for all my sins.”
Those were my prayers when I was a teenager, when I kept the journals that I wrote about in my last post.
I don’t pray like that anymore. I don’t feel like I’m physically straining to get the prayers right anymore.
I’m not all better. But I have begun to understand.
Late last night, or early this morning, as I got ready for bed, I knew I was too keyed up to fall asleep right away. My husband was still up, in another room. I sat in the dark on top of the bed and meditated.
When I meditate, I concentrate on the sounds around me. Starting out, I hear the larger sounds, the furnace running, perhaps, or the train passing through town.
But as I continue to listen, I hear the smaller sounds. The faint tick of something rolling around in the dryer in the basement, in the load I put in before bed. Or one of the cats munching a midnight snack.
Last night, as thoughts distracted me, I pictured myself apart from my thoughts. I pictured my hand holding a globe, with the thoughts swirling around in it, in pictures. I tried to be that Impartial Spectator that Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz writes about in “Brain Lock.”
My thoughts slowed down. I felt calmer. I felt like my mind was empty enough to go to sleep.
I put my head down on the pillow. But my mind wasn’t empty enough, after all.
I don’t remember now what I was thinking. I don’t even remember what I prayed, but I prayed one of the “spurt prayers,” something like, forgive me, God, or help her, God, or oh, Lord, be with him.
They’re not real prayers. They’re not directed at God. They’re compulsive chants. They make me anxious, restless. They’re meaningless, but necessary to quell . . . what?
I wanted to think. I wanted to answer the question. Why did I feel like I had to pray like this?
I’m beginning to understand that it’s because somehow I don’t believe that I will live a good life, in the care of the grace of God, that my loved ones will be safe and well, unless I think these meaningless chants.
It’s not for my salvation from an eternal hell. It’s to build some kind of shield against all that might hurt my family and me.
Somehow, I don’t believe God can take care of it all, that nature will run its course, that life will happen. Somehow, I believe I can control it all with my compulsive thoughts in the form of prayers.
I’ve been working on that shield for most of my life, and it hasn’t done anyone any good.
I feel like I had a brief moment of insight last night. Perhaps it came because of the stillness and quiet that I experienced during meditation.
It’s time for me to work on refocusing, on letting go of the imaginary shield. Do you have any ideas on how to do this? How do you deal with OCD when it’s all happening in your thoughts?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Showing my scrupulosity

I’ve been reading a record of my scrupulosity OCD.
I recently dug out journals that I kept when I was in high school. One covers the period from June 28, 1978 to Dec. 31, 1979. I used the other one more for poetry and stories. That one runs from Dec. 22, 1978 to July 4, 1981.
I was hoping to find some insight into how I was coping with OCD at the time, and what my ideas about life were.
Do you know the writing advice, “show, don’t tell”? It means it’s better to paint a picture of something, or give an illustration of something, rather than telling it.
Well, I didn’t write directly about any of my obsessions or compulsions, but I sure showed them.
On his Psychology Blog, Dr. Steven J. Seay recently wrote about scrupulosity. One of the compulsions that people with this manifestation of OCD may display is “Compulsive writing (e.g., Jesus loves me).”
I exhibited that on many of the pages of my journals. For example, different versions of “I love God” and “Praise God” intersperse entries describing my activities, sometimes for no obvious reason.
But what was most telling was evidence of my cycle of doubt and reassurance.
Part of my scrupulosity when I was young involved the idea of being “saved” in the fundamentalist Christian way. Sometimes I felt saved; sometimes I felt I wasn’t.
And, yes, my doubt and reassurance were based on feelings. I prayed until I felt right. I prayed until I felt saved. I felt fear, sadness and doom when I didn’t feel saved.
In my journals, on Jan. 4, 1979, I wrote, “From this day forth, my life belongs to God. Thanks, Lord!”
On March 4, 1979: “I just surrendered my life to God. Praise the Lord!”
On April 24, 1980: “Tonight God told me that I am saved, was saved May 2, 1975. No more doubts.”
Ah, but on April 27, 1980: “I committed myself to Christ tonight, and I KNOW I’m saved.”
I didn’t ever name my doubt in writing. I suspect it was because I thought I was the problem. I was a sinful person who just couldn’t give myself over to Jesus like I was supposed to. I had no knowledge or understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I no longer have that kind of scrupulosity. I’ll write more about that part of my journey in future posts.
I learned about myself by reading my journals. It just wasn’t what I expected to learn.
Have you experienced this manifestation of OCD? Do you have old journals that offer a look at your past self?

Friday, February 17, 2012

A year with no meat

Last year, sometime in mid-February, I became a vegetarian.
I don’t remember the exact date that I last ate meat. I had been eating less and less with the idea of going meatless. At some point, after eating no meat for a few days, I decided to keep on going.
I don’t eat animal flesh of any kind, including seafood.
I stopped eating meat chiefly because I just couldn’t eat animals anymore. I’ve done a lot of reading about the meat industry and factory farming, and I don’t like it. It’s not necessary for me to eat meat to live. And the bond with animals that I have makes it unethical for me to eat them.

Vegetable fajita quesadilla at El Cazador

Let me say now that I am a vegetarian for my own reasons, but I don’t think everyone should follow my example. I don’t judge others if they eat meat.
My husband is a true carnivore. He loves steak, pork chops, country ham, etc. I think he eats too much meat, but that’s because I am concerned about the health effects.

Choripollo at El Cazador

I do wish that all those who eat meat would be more mindful about where it comes from. And I think all of us should be mindful of where all of our food comes from and eat it with gratitude.
I thought I would lose more weight than I have being vegetarian, but I’ve learned that calories are calories. I eat too many simple carbohydrates and too much processed food and just . . . too much food.
I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to learn more about what foods to eat to get all the nutrients I need.
I do think my digestive system works better overall without meat.
Anything I do for overall good health is going to help me in dealing with my OCD and depression.
It hasn’t been difficult for me to give up meat. And I’m happy to say that I really haven’t obsessed about it. I’ve ended up ingesting some meat accidentally when it was part of a dish I was eating, and I didn’t panic or think I had to start all over again.
Being vegetarian has been a learning experience. My husband adjusted well. He understands how I feel. When we’re choosing a restaurant to eat at, he kindly considers places where there are choices for me.
Today we had lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, El Cazador. I had a vegetable fajita quesadilla. He had choripolla, a dish with chicken and sausage.
We’re eating late tonight. I’m having a frozen dinner that I love: Amy’s Indian Mattar Paneer, which is curried peas and cheese with rice and chana masala, with rice, tomatoes and peas. Larry is having hot wings.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


When I was a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time waiting.
Some of this waiting happened in actual waiting rooms, places of concentrated calm in the midst of the sadness and fear of hospitals.
I was surrounded by sickness growing up. I’m the youngest of three, with two older brothers. My oldest is 11 years older than me. My next oldest is two years older.
My next oldest brother was born with spina bifada and clubfeet. As a result, he had to have multiple surgeries as a child and spent a lot of time in the hospital.
My father had a major stroke when he was 54. I was 12 at the time. His speech and movement were badly affected, and he had to retire from his job as a rural letter carrier for the post office. Later that same year, he suffered a blood clot in one of his kidneys and almost died before the kidney was removed.
My mother also had her share of illnesses and hospital visits.
So the waiting rooms in the hospitals in the nearby city were very familiar to me.
The nicest one was at the then-private, church-supported hospital. The large main waiting room had real furniture, like you’d find in a private home. Chair railings ran along the wall. Paintings covered the walls.
There were volunteers stationed at a counter who watched over things. They were usually older women who wore the pink-jacket “uniforms” of hospital volunteers. They were called “Pink Ladies.”
Though people came and went, there was a hush over the room. No one spoke loudly or laughed or cried where you could hear. It was like a church.
At that time and in that place, my parents felt safe leaving me alone in the waiting room while they went up to be with my brother.
I always had a book with me, and I would sit and read in one of the nice green armchairs, my always-present purse tucked up against me. Sometimes, I would look up and stare at the paintings or the signs on the wall and on the swinging doors that went back into the main part of the hospital.
I started reading signs and dividing the letters into threes—my counting ritual—in that room.
If I wasn’t in a waiting room, I was usually with a relative. I grew up in the same community with many of my relatives. I stayed a lot with my father’s great-aunt or his cousin, who had two daughters near my age, or my mother’s sister.
My great-aunt made over me, and I felt safe with her. If I stayed overnight, she would sleep in the same bed with me.
I remember waking up in the early mornings. I could look out of the top of a nearby window while I was still lying down, and I’d watch the sky get lighter until my aunt woke up and then got me up.
I brushed my teeth in her bathroom and ate breakfast on her dishes and got on the school bus at the end of her driveway, feeling comfortable and homesick at the same time.
I never knew when a medical emergency would occur and somebody would have to go to the hospital. I got used to waiting somewhere.
My mother told me years ago that one morning when I was a child, I asked her, “Who’s going to keep me today?”
She said it made her feel really bad.
But it couldn’t be helped. The sick person needed her, and she couldn’t be everywhere at once.
I felt guilty sometimes because I didn’t have lots of illnesses. I thought that since I didn’t suffer as a child, God would have me be sick as an adult.
What was ironic was that even though I wasn’t physically sick where anyone would notice, I was beginning to suffer from OCD and depression.
My therapist told me that the content of OCD symptoms can be influenced by different things. I think my scrupulosity was probably affected by my life experiences. My prayers were meant to protect my family from harm and illness. They had to be said a certain way, and I had to be free from sin, or my family would not be under protection.
In a real way, though, I was praying for myself too. Because when my family got sick, I was back to waiting for someone to get well or die, for everything to be back to normal.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Starting to believe in new possibilities

This has been a weekend where things I’ve experienced and things I’ve read have given me new hope and a new sense of positive possibilities.
As I wrote about in my last post, my therapist gave me my first cognitive behavioral therapy assignment on Friday. It was to sit down at my computer at 8 a.m. yesterday and write for a cumulative 30 minutes. I was not allowed to edit or check my writing.
I did it. I sat down at 8 and started writing. A lot of it was freewriting, where I just typed without thinking. Out of that grew some ideas for my memoir, things that I will explore more in the future.
I took two minutes to operate my coffee machine and make myself a cup of tea, so I actually stopped writing at 8:32.
It was strange sitting down to write with no real preparation or rituals. I literally got out of bed a little before 8, went to the bathroom, started the coffee machine, started up the computer, and started writing.
It was hard not to stop and make corrections or read over what I had written. Usually I stop frequently and read over what I’ve written so far, making changes as I go along.
This exercise was supposed to push through the avoidance that I bring to my writing.
I rated my anxiety at a 6 or 7 during the exercise. Some of it was related to the non-editing; some of it seemed more generalized.
I rated my anxiety at a 7 when I was done. After that, for the next two hours, it was not more than a 3 or 4.
It wasn’t so hard, so I’m thinking that maybe it wasn’t hard enough. But I sure did feel good after it was over. Part of that came from the fact that I got myself out of bed to do it. And I realized that I could keep on doing it when I wanted and deal with the anxiety as it came.
I plan to set a schedule for doing my own writing. I know sometimes those of us with OCD get wrapped up in schedules so much that we tend to ritualize it too much. But I believe I need the self-discipline. And I am starting to believe what my therapist told me on Friday: motivation comes after action, not before it.
I read a lot yesterday and today. I almost finished “Brain Lock” today, and the chapters on revaluing, on the four steps and freedom and on OCD and family really hit home with me.
I gained a new understanding about the freedom to move forward that treatment can bring me as I get better. I began to think about how I can begin to accomplish so much more and be a person who reaches out and helps others more rather than one who sometimes hides from connections and responsibilities.
I’ll explore these thoughts in future posts.
And one more thing happened this weekend that gave me hope.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not trying to toot my own horn. I want to share how I was given a whole new perspective on my work.
A while back, I wrote a post about my job and how I feared it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. I have been feeling bored and at loose ends on the job, and I hate feeling like that. I need to feel that I’m making a positive difference.
On Friday, I received an email from one of the officials that I often turn to as a source for my stories covering county government. It was a surprise, because this official is not a “touchy-feely” kind of person.
He told me he thought I did an excellent job on an article I wrote about the county’s budget concerns for this week’s paper. He wrote that I had “the ability to report very complex issues in an understandable manner.” And he noted “the community service that you provide.”
I almost wept when I read it. Maybe I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing by continuing to work for the newspaper. Maybe I am providing a service. Maybe my work has meaning. Maybe all of my writing can have meaning and help others.
The possibilities, I think, are endless.

Friday, February 10, 2012

CBT session #2

I had my second session of cognitive behavior therapy with my psychologist today, and I left his office with my first assignment.
We talked first about the experiences I’ve had since I saw him a week ago. I’ve been trying to apply the reattribute and refocus steps to my checking rituals, and I’ve had some success.
For example, with the lights and lamps I’m particularly vulnerable to, I try to be as mindful as possible when I turn them off. I tell myself that it’s the OCD that is urging me to check some more. I then walk away to another activity, even if it’s to leave the house to go to work or somewhere else.
I have found that the anxiety I feel fades eventually, sometimes fairly quickly. Later, I realize that I haven’t thought about the light in hours.
I am finding that refocusing is key for me.
I still check too much, though. I stare at the light bulb or lamp too long before I turn away. But I’m working on it.
My big question today was how to apply the steps to avoidance. The answer? Exposure.
I chose to work first on my anxiety surrounding my writing.
My therapist said the OCD might not be responsible for all my writing anxiety, but it’s there when I check the writing over and over, or avoid the writing altogether, because of my obsessions about plagiarism or inaccuracies.
Now plagiarism and inaccurate writing are always possible for anyone. But my conscientiousness goes too far and results in compulsive actions.
At work and at home, I can feel the anxiety ramp up as I start a writing assignment or try to work on my own writing. Once I get going, if I get going, I often am able to go ahead and write.
And I do a lot of writing on my job. I’m getting my assignments done, though not without a lot of anxiety.
But my own writing? That’s a different story, and it has been going on for years. I want it to change.
So, my assignment: Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m., I am to sit down in front of my computer for 30 minutes and write. I cannot do any editing or checking. I have to just sit and write. If I get interrupted, or if I decide to do something else (like check my email), I have to stop the clock (literally if I use a stopwatch) and then restart it when I restart the writing. In other words, I have to write for a cumulative 30 minutes. Then I have to put away the piece of writing.
I will rate my anxiety level during the assignment and for two hours afterwards. It will be an assessment, he said.
He said often we think the motivation has to come before we act, but actually, the motivation follows the action.
Doing this just one time seemed too easy, and I asked if I could do it more than once. He said I can try it as many times as I want, but to not try things that would push my anxiety level over a seven or eight.
He really stresses the goal of learning to tolerate the anxiety that goes along with the obsessions and compulsions.
I think dealing with my contamination issues will cause me higher levels of anxiety, but that will come later.
In the meantime, I’m going to be writing.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


On her blog “Into My Own,” Elizabeth recently wrote about her experiences in school as a student with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she reminded me of my own experiences.
There’s a word that appeared multiple times on my report cards as I went through school: conscientious.
“Tina is very conscientious with her work,” my teachers would write.
And I was. I always wanted to do well in school. I loved school for the most part. I was the type of student who got excited when I picked up my textbooks for the new school year, and read as much as possible in them before classes even started.
I loved to learn, and I did very well in school. I realize now that it became part of my identity. Tina was the smart girl. Tina got good grades. Tina was conscientious.
My OCD symptoms started when I was a child. I was worried about being “saved” at church, washed my hands compulsively, counted compulsively and confessed my sins, real and imagined, to my mother. But my OCD symptoms didn’t affect my schoolwork at first.
That changed when I entered seventh grade.
That year my conscientiousness became extreme. I read and reread passages in assigned books, waiting until I felt like I’d thoroughly read the words before moving on to the next paragraph or page.
Obviously, it took me longer than usual, and longer than necessary for a student of my abilities, to finish reading assignments.
I also became very slow in completing my assignments, reviewing my work repeatedly and beyond necessity to make sure everything was correct.
The curriculum the school used incorporated self-grading. In other words, I had to check my own work against the answer books.
This slowed me down even more as I struggled to make sure that I really did have the right answer. If I made a mistake and counted an answer correct when it wasn’t, then I would be cheating.
And if there was any hint of discrepancy between the answer book and my work, I sought out my teacher for reassurance, over and over.
So I became the problem student. My parents and my teachers thought that I was being contrary, deliberately working slowly or not at all.
I didn’t know how to explain my fears, or even that I might have an explanation to give them. I agreed with them: I must not be trying hard enough, and I must be bad.
I was no less frustrated than my parents were. I knew that they couldn’t understand why I just didn’t read the book, or finish my schoolwork. I couldn’t understand either.
I didn’t know why, if I didn’t reread a paragraph at least once, I felt anxious and guilty. I fidgeted or daydreamed, trying to avoid the torture of never being sure that I had “really” read what I was obliged to read because it was a school assignment.
I also developed obsessions regarding writing. In high school, when I began writing research papers, I became obsessed with the possibility that I would plagiarize.
My writing became painfully stilted as I carefully and sometimes awkwardly worded sentences in response to my fear of not giving proper due to my sources.
These reading and writing symptoms have remained in varying degrees since then, and I still struggle with them.
These symptoms break my heart. They get at the heart of who I am and what I love: reading and writing.
I have been studying “Brain Lock,” by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. Reattribution and refocusing make sense to me. I want to use the steps to deal with my OCD symptoms.
But I think deep down I’ve been thinking they would be most helpful with my contamination and checking issues.
This evening, as I read about the importance of refocusing, one of the patient examples was about a person who had issues with reading.
I really considered for the first time that the reattribution and refocusing of the CBT could be used for my reading and writing. I felt more hope than I had been feeling.
I’m determined. It won’t be easy, but I want to get back to a healthy conscientiousness and a full enjoyment of the things I love.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I have been coloring and creating mandalas for several months, and I’d like to share what I’m doing with you.
A mandala is at its very basic a circle. According to the book “Mandalas in Nature,” by Sonia Waleyla, and other sources, the word mandala is Sanskrit for “circle.”
The circle is used by many religions and traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.
According to Wikipedia at, spiritual traditions may use the circles for such practices as focusing attention, teaching spiritual lessons and meditation.
May stained glass windows in churches can be considered to be mandalas.
The many pictures of mandalas that I’ve seen use different shapes, figures and other drawings, some of them symbolic.
I started coloring mandalas when my cat Waddles became very ill last fall. I had trouble sleeping, reading or focusing on much of anything. Full of anxiety, I sat beside her.
I can’t remember why I turned to mandalas, but I found some free ones on the Internet and printed them out, got out my colored pencils and started coloring.
It gave me something constructive to do when I faced the loss of my Wa but couldn’t yet face the emotions it brought up.
I continue to color mandalas. It is relaxing to me. When I am focused on coloring, especially small areas of the mandala where I have to concentrate, I don’t dwell so much on what I’m worried about. If symbols are involved in the drawing, then I think about those. And looking at the finished product soothes me.
I am making a collection of my mandalas to use in my meditation practice.
As I learned more, I started making my own mandalas with symbols that mean something to me.
I have expanded my collection of pre-drawn mandalas. Those and the mandalas that I downloaded and printed from the Internet are much better drawn than the ones I create, but because of copyright concerns, I didn’t want to post those on my blog.
So here are some that I have drawn.
The first is a mandala that includes symbols of the most important things in my life. God and my spiritual life, my husband, my cats and my writing are the most important. Other important aspects of my life are music, animal welfare and animal rights, nature and the spreading of peace.

The second is an illustration of mindfulness. I got the idea for this one from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Wherever You Go, There You Are," where he writes, "In every moment, we find ourselves at the crossroad of here and now." (p. 7 in e-edition).

The third is just a collection of pretty things.

If you’d like to learn more about mandalas, one resource is The Mandala Project at

Friday, February 3, 2012

CBT session #1

   Today I had my first real session of cognitive behavior therapy. It was my second appointment with the new therapist, a psychologist. The first appointment was taken up with giving him a history and overview of my OCD.
Today we talked a lot about how the brain works, how it works differently in people with OCD and how we can learn to override the obsessive thoughts.
Last night I made a list of my main obsessions and the compulsive actions and avoidances that I practice to try to rid myself of the anxiety caused by the obsessions.
I printed it out and took it with me to the doctor’s office. While I was in the waiting room, I added a few more compulsions that I hadn’t thought of last night.
My main obsessions revolve around my writing, contamination, checking, driving, harming others and talking.
The list I made up helped guide today’s session, but we won’t actually set up a hierarchy or decide what to work on first until our next session.
The therapist described how the brain stem, the amygdala and the prefrontal lobe work together. I won’t go into all the detail that he did, but basically there’s a disconnect between the amygdala and the prefrontal lobe, and the negative thoughts, or obsessions, get stuck in the amygdala.
About thoughts, he said many people believed that all thoughts were volitional, but it wasn’t true. He also said it was impossible to get rid of the negative thoughts, but I could learn to override them.
I’ll do this using three steps: I’ll reattribute the obsessions to OCD, to my brain. I’ll turn my attention elsewhere. And I’ll do some other behavior instead of acting on the compulsions.
There was no need to try to rationalize my way out of obsessions, he said, because it wouldn’t work.
I would learn to be mindfully aware of my thoughts so that I could observe a thought, acknowledge it, reattribute it and move on.
He demonstrated this in an interesting way. He held his hand like he was holding something (a negative thought) and looked at it in his hand. That reminded me of the Impartial Spectator that Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz writes about.
He said I would have to challenge myself with things that ramped up the anxiety. I would gradually update my brain. My brain would learn that even though I didn’t follow up on a compulsive urge to, for example, check the stove, the house didn’t burn down.
I would learn to tolerate the anxiety and, in what he called a paradox, I would eventually learn to accept it.
Our next appointment is in a month, but he said he’d like to see me on a weekly basis at first. So I’m on the cancellation list, and I’m to call the office Monday morning to see if there have been any cancellations.
In the meantime, I will start working on these steps and really consider which of the OCD categories I want to work on with him first.
I asked him about mindful awareness meditation, and he was all for it.
I’m excited. I feel like I’m on the road to real recovery. Not a cure, but recovery.
On a side note, I was off work today, so I went to the bookstore and the craft store after my early-morning appointment.
While I was in the craft store, I started feeling anxious, like something bad was going to happen. It’s like my heart was on high alert. Even after I got home, I still felt like that.
I wasn’t obsessing about anything, and I have no idea where the anxiety came from. Perhaps it was the generalized anxiety making itself known, and maybe I was more nervous about my appointment and the changes ahead than I thought I was.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


That is how I’ve been feeling for a while—overwhelmed. It has been worse this week for some reason.
I have so many things I want to accomplish, and I feel like I arrived late to the game. I feel like I’m behind, and how in the world am I going to catch up?
I am talking about several things here.
Therapy for OCD is one. I have my first session of cognitive behavioral therapy Friday (the first session with the psychologist was more of an introduction), and I feel like I would be better off today if I had started this earlier.
For so many years, I depended on medication alone and my own little tricks. I thought I was doing OK since I wasn’t washing my hands until they were raw or spending hours checking the stove or cleaning the bathroom like a wild thing.
But in the last year or so, I’ve begun to realize that OCD has been holding me back.
I’m also feeling overwhelmed about the therapy session on Friday because I feel like I should go in with a list of my obsessions and compulsions, and I haven’t done one yet. Procrastination rears its ugly head again.
My writing is also causing anxiety. I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. But I’ve always had some other job, done something else. Oh, I’ve written a lot, in spurts, but nothing sustained.
I found a note that I wrote in a little journal a few years ago. I still haven’t gone through menopause, but every time I see my gynecologist for my yearly exam, he talks about menopause. This is what I wrote: “I never thought I’d get to the age of menopause without having written a book.”
I’m 48 years old, and I’ve been writing off and on most of my life, and I still haven’t pulled together a book.
There are so many things I want to write about. I want to write about my OCD and depression and try to be a comfort and advocate for others who suffer from these and other mental illnesses.
I want to write about my cats and animal rights. I want to be an advocate for them.
I want to write a children’s book about cats.
I want to write about my spiritual life.
I want to write essays about nature and other things I’m interested in.
With any of these things, I need to research, learn and sit my butt down in the chair.
Overwhelmed. That’s what I am when it comes to what I want to accomplish with my writing. I end up not doing much beyond what I have to do at the newspaper.
I also want to get healthy in body, mind and spirit so that I can do the things I want to do. I know I need to exercise, eat better, meditate more, etc. That’s about as far as it gets.
I don’t mean to moan and groan. I am just so frustrated with myself. I know it’s a good thing that I am even trying. I know that it’s never too late to find some way to accomplish the things you want to accomplish.
I am just afraid that I’ll never do it.
I am taking tomorrow and Friday off from work. I have the vacation time, and I need the break. I hope I can calm down and make some starts over the next four days, and continue on from there.
Do you ever feel the way I do? What do you do about it?