Wednesday, February 27, 2013

OCD, teaching and the fear of grading papers

It was one of the scariest days of my life.
It was my first day of teaching English. I was 22 years old, and I had a classroom full of 18-year-old college freshmen looking at me. I had to do something.
I followed the script I had carefully worked out before class. I could barely speak, but I managed to call out the names on my class roster. I made a pen mark beside each name.
But I was so nervous that I had to slide my arm along the desktop as I made the pen marks down the list. If I had lifted my arm, everyone would have seen how badly I was shaking.
As scary as that day was, the scarier times were soon to come, when I had to start grading papers.

I was in the first year of my master’s program in English at Bowling Green State University. I was teaching composition classes, where I reviewed the basics like sentence structure and paragraphing.
It stands to reason that if you’re teaching writing, the students have to practice it. And if they practice it, the teacher has to read it. And evaluate it.
That triggered my obsessive-compulsive disorder, especially my checking.
I was obsessed with fears of not reading each essay completely and fairly. I was afraid that I would miss something important or judge the paper unfairly.
So I compulsively read and reread each essay. I painstakingly wrote long comments explaining my critiques. I reread my comments and rewrote them when necessary, using liquid eraser fluid to cover the changes.
If I completed grading one 500-word essay in 30 minutes, I was making good progress. It took me hours to review and grade 20 to 25 papers.
This fear and this ritual continued as I taught English for four years while in school, and then for about two and a half years after I left school.
Even though during that time I started treatment for OCD in the form of medication, which tremendously helped my obsessions and compulsions, it could never wipe out the reading and checking OCD related to grading papers.

How this expression of OCD would have benefited from Exposure and Response Therapy.
I can just imagine how I could have “exposed” myself to a student essay, to read once, then again as I made comments. Then I would have worked to prevent my compulsion to do the whole thing over and over again. I would have worked at living with the anxiety of not checking each essay “just one more time.”
I enjoyed much about teaching: the interaction with the students, the joy of seeing them learn and practice new concepts and reach their goals. But memories of the joys of teaching are overshadowed by the memories of the fear I had of grading papers.

Have you ever had a job or volunteer task that caused you a lot of anxiety? What did you do about it?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The power of the thoughts we choose

It was early morning, a Sunday, and I didn’t have to get up at any particular time. It was still dark outside. Larry had fed the cats, so they were full and ready to go back to sleep. The blankets had settled just so over me, and I was warm. It was quiet.
I love mornings like that, when it’s still dark and quiet.
I kept saying those words to myself. Dark and quiet. Dark and quiet.
I waited to drift off to sleep again.
But then the thoughts came. Intrusive thoughts. Thoughts about the past, about situations that hadn’t turned out the way I wanted. Thoughts about people who had said things that hurt me. Thoughts about all the things I needed to get done.
“You don’t have to think about these things,” I told myself.
Then I decided to change my wording.
“I don’t have to think about these things,” I said to myself.
I imagined that thought overlaying the other, painful thoughts.
“I don’t have to think about those people who hurt me. I don’t have to think about anger right now. I don’t have to worry now. It’s dark and it’s quiet.”

I believed that my conscious thoughts, what I was telling myself, could drown out the intrusive thoughts. I believed they could be stronger than the thoughts that made my heart beat faster and brought on the anxiety.
Thoughts come and go. I could choose the ones to pay attention to.

“I don’t have to think about these things.”
And I concentrated on the darkness and the quiet that surrounded me. I concentrated on the sounds I could hear. The clock ticking. What sounded like Chase Bird having another bite to eat. The almost-silence of the morning.
And I fell asleep.

How do you cope with unwanted thoughts?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Checking OCD and harm obsessions—again

Here’s another example of checking OCD and the harm obsessions that drive it:

It couldn’t have gone far. I had heard it lightly thump the carpet when it hit the floor. Yet, I couldn’t find it.
I was looking for my ring. On my way to the bedroom to put it in the jewelry box before I washed dishes, I was pulling it off my finger as I walked through the living room. That’s when I dropped it and it hit the floor.
That’s why I was crawling around on all fours, running my hands over the carpet, searching for my ring by sight and touch.
I finally found my ring.
I also found two small pieces of dried grass or a part of a weed. And a few pieces of lint.
I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there on the floor. Just that day I had vowed to “stop looking down so much.”

It seems like whenever I look down at the carpet or floor, I see such things: pieces of grass or a pine needle from outside, dragged in on a shoe, or pieces of lint from blankets or clothes.
Sometimes I’m able to overlook such finds. But lately it’s harder for me not to pick up every piece of foreign matter I see—or think I see. Sometimes I pull up only carpet fibers when I reach for what I think is a piece of lint.

Is the white spot in the middle a piece of lint or a part of the carpet? Turned out it was part of the carpet.

Last year I wrote a post called OCD: Picking up sticks, where I described my old rituals of checking for harmful objects outdoors.
What I’m doing now is only at home and only inside.
But the obsession is the same: I’m afraid that harm is going to come to another. I’m afraid, in this case, that I’m going to leave something on the floor that one of the cats will eat and be harmed by it.
Vacuuming cuts down on the amount of lint and other debris on the floor, of course, but something is always left behind. And it might be harmful. Or so goes my thinking.

I never seem to be “all done” with checking OCD. I get rid of one ritual, only to have another take its place.
It’s frustrating, but it’s part of having OCD. I have to continue taking on the rituals as they come. I can’t give up because one ritual is particularly difficult to deal with.

I could pick up stuff all day long. But I have other things to do with my time and energy, as we all do.
And I no longer want to be captive to this checking ritual.
So I am trying to stop looking down so much. I’m trying to keep my feet moving and my eyes facing forward as much as possible (I don’t want to fall on my face!).
And if I do see something that I want to pick up, I’m trying to avoid reaching down and checking it.
I’m not always successful. But with practice, I hope to get rid of this checking ritual.

Do you ever want to be “all done” with self-improvement? How do you keep up your motivation to become a better person?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anger: Working through it

In the moment, I feel like I’m having an anxiety attack that has come on quickly. My arms and legs feel numb, my heart rate increases, I feel like I can’t breathe deeply. I have trouble speaking, and I usually get tears in my eyes.
Later, when I’m reliving the moment, I feel agitated and hyper, and my mind fills with the words I wish I’d thought of saying.
I keep reliving the moment, day after day, and sometimes, month after month, year after year.
That’s what anger does to me.

I don’t handle anger very well. I tend to feel guilty about feeling angry.
I also don’t like conflict and avoid it when the better choice might be to face it. When I avoid it, I sometimes end up angry over situations that I could have attended to sooner, if not for my fear of conflict.

I’m holding on to a lot of anger, some from years ago.
My goal this year is to let go of what I don’t need in my life, and that includes harmful emotions. Anger that I hold onto, that turns into grudges and resentment, is something that I want to let go of.
From a health standpoint, I know anger that I keep stuffed down inside can aggravate my OCD and other anxiety.
It affects my depression, too. I tend to feel helpless in my anger, and the helpless feelings are directly related to chronic depression.
But I want to let go of anger for a bigger reason. From a moral standpoint, I don’t want anger and resentment to ever get in the way of having compassion for others.
So how do you let go of anger?

I talked with my therapist about this recently, and he told me it’s not really a matter of letting it go.
It’s a matter of working through it.
It’s a matter of being assertive and friendly and expressing myself honestly and completely so that I don’t feel helpless.
Because when I tell myself I’m helpless in the face of conflict, my brain shuts down and I stay mired in the chronic depression.
I’m practicing this friendly assertiveness in therapy, reviewing situations that have come up in my interpersonal relationships, thinking about and talking about what actually happened and what would have been the best outcome.

I’m not going to wake up one morning and not feel any anger anymore. But I will gradually get better at working out anger and conflict so that I don’t feel helpless. And with that, I will get better at not carrying around anger.

How do you work through anger so that it doesn’t interfere with your peace of mind?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Getaways that help my depression: A guest post on Wendy Love’s blog

Today I am guest posting on Wendy Love’s blog Depression Getaway: Encouragement, information, inspiration and hope as part of her series “February’s Favorite Depression Getaways”:

I have had depression since I was a teenager, perhaps even earlier, but I wasn’t officially diagnosed by a doctor until I was 26 years old.
Since then, I have been in treatment for it. That treatment has included medications and therapy.
Recently, I was diagnosed by my therapist as having not just episodes of depression, but chronic depression.
Medications have helped me tremendously, but I have learned that they can’t help with every aspect of depression. So I have learned other tools for helping when the darkness descends and I need relief. Here are some of those tools:

To read the rest of the post, please follow this link to Wendy’s blog.

Friday, February 15, 2013

OCD, depression and the need for community

The other morning in the shower, I really, really wanted to open and close the shampoo cap just one more time. I was having anxiety about it, and I wanted to lessen it.
OCD checking in the shower has been a real problem for me lately.
Then I remembered Krystal Lynn. I remembered the way she was forging ahead with her OCD exposures. I remembered what she had written in her post “My ERP,” on her wonderful blog Sprinkle Some Sugar On Me: I Am More than OCD: “I know for the ERP to work, I need to do the opposite of what makes me less anxious and keep up the risk of doing what makes me feel uncomfortable.”
I thought, well, Krystal Lynn is doing it. I need to do it, too. So I didn’t open and close the cap a second time. I put down the bottle and went on with my shower in spite of the anxiety I felt. Pretty soon, the anxiety dissipated.

That is an example of the beauty of the community of bloggers and readers that I’ve been blessed to find.
I no longer feel alone.
I know I’m not the only one with OCD, with obsessions and compulsions that sometimes leave me at my wits end. I’m not the only one with depression or anxiety, or the only one that sometimes wonders how to get through the hard times of life.
I’m inspired daily by the blogs and comments that others write.
And I learn from what others’ are doing, from their experiences.

We all crave community, connections with others. Even those of us who are introverts need to be a part of communities.
They can be small communities and large ones. They can be in-person communities and online ones. They can be made up of people who are going through similar experiences, and they can be made up of people who are different from us but who bring their own light to the table.
I had a hard time in my “in-person” life admitting to many people that I had mental illnesses. And I didn’t find many others through the years who told me about their own mental health issues.
When I started reading blogs written by people with mental illnesses, and then when I started writing a blog, I made connections that have made a positive difference in my life, for the reasons above.
I also found blogs and made connections with people who don’t have mental illnesses but have a sensitivity about others and an understanding of how to be supportive of others. I’ve learned so much about the beautiful things in life from them.
This online community has been a true blessing in my life. I read what you write, I feel your support, and I think about you and hope for the best for you.

How do you define community? Why is it important to be a part of communities?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Remembering Thunder Cat

Thunder Cat

Thunder Cat had gray, luxuriant hair. He was stalwart, regal, a king of a cat.
He was Larry’s first cat. In the mid-1990s, Larry lived in Lynchburg a city 20 miles north of Altavista. He didn’t have any pets when he moved into his neighborhood.
One night, as Larry sat out on his front steps, a neighbor’s cat, Thunder Cat, walked right up to him and rubbed against his leg. Larry was surprised because he didn’t really consider himself to be a cat person.
But later that night, he went to the grocery store and bought some treats to give him when he visited.
When Thunder’s original family moved, they asked Larry if he’d like to take in Thunder. Larry jumped at the chance.
When Larry and I started dating and I met Thunder, I was a little afraid. He was a grouchy cat and didn’t like to be touched except on his very limited terms. He would bite if he didn’t want to be touched—not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to hurt.
When Larry moved to Altavista, everything was different. Larry kept him inside all the time, and the new environment seemed good for him.
He calmed down and would even sit on our laps for short periods of time.

Here are some things I remember about Thunder:
*He could leap long distances. One day Larry was playing with him and was lying on the floor with his knees bent. Thunder jumped over Larry’s entire length. Larry looked up and saw only a blur of gray fur.
*I loved watching Thunder. When I sat in our living room reading, I had a view of the kitchen and the hallway leading to the bedrooms and the litter boxes.
Sometimes I’d look up and see Thunder quietly walking by, his paw steps mere puffs of sound, winding his way back to the litter boxes.
After he used the litter box, he would run back by me, his paws pounding the floor, hurrying back to his domain, the den.
*Thunder loved my shoes. When I took them off, he would stick his nose in them, then wrap his front legs around them and lie on them.
At night, he would usually stay in the den, not coming into the bedroom. Sometimes he would cry in the night. If I went and got him and brought him into the bedroom, he wouldn’t stay. But I could take him one of my shoes, and it would calm him.
*Just as Waddles helped me overcome a lot of my OCD and the fear of responsibility I had, so did Thunder. I loved being his mother and taking care of him. I embraced the responsibility.

We lost Thunder Cat to kidney failure on Feb. 12, 2009. I can’t put in words how devastated Larry and I were and how much we miss him.
We still feel his gray presence.

Is there a pet or other animal that you have admired?

Monday, February 11, 2013

OCD and logic: an unworkable mix

In my journey with OCD, I find myself having to learn some of the same lessons over and over.
I know intellectually that logic can’t play a part in combatting the obsessions and compulsions. I even wrote a post about my therapist’s advice on not using logic.
And, yet, I’ve continued to try to use logic to reach a “satisfied” state while checking, to feel that I don’t need to check again because I don’t feel anxious about it anymore.
For example, I store my razor in the medicine cabinet in my bathroom. I take it out and use it in the shower when I shave my legs. After my shower, I return the razor to the medicine cabinet.
When returning the razor, I’ve been placing it on the shelf and then staring at it, trying to memorize what it looks like on the shelf, waiting to feel satisfied enough with its safety to close the cabinet door.
I’m trying to convince myself that the razor is indeed on the shelf.
It’s orange. It’s sitting on the top shelf. It’s there. It’s there. It’s there.
I do this until I feel the anxiety lessen.
That’s not what I should be doing.
What I should be doing is placing the razor on the shelf, closing the door, and then going on about my business, focusing on something else.
Otherwise, I get caught up in the obsession that the razor really isn’t on the shelf; it’s lying in a place where the cats can get to it and possibly get cut. I get caught up in the compulsion of staring at the razor, moving it around on the shelf.
I get caught up in the OCD and try to use logic to get out of it.
Another example: I did a load of laundry this evening. We have shut-off valves on the washing machine that we turn on when we do a load and turn off when we finish. My husband installed them to lower the chances of a flood in the basement if a pipe bursts.
After I was through with the washer, there I was, pushing on the valves, trying to convince myself in my mind and in my feelings that they were in the off position.
I was waiting to feel no anxiety about it.

But I have to stop doing that if I want to get better. I have to walk away from situations like the razor and the valves while I still feel anxiety about them, when the OCD is still raising doubts.
I have to allow the anxiety to lessen away from the site or situation of the obsessions and compulsions.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to do this. I have to work at it. I have to keep on facing situations that I know bring out the obsessions and compulsions. I have to keep on trying to stop the compulsion even though I still feel anxiety and move on to something else.
I have to put up with not being perfect at it.
And I have to do it over and over and over until it becomes easier, second nature, until the lesson is not just learned but ingrained.
No, it’s not easy. But I have to believe the work is worth it in the end.

Have you ever had lessons that you’ve had to learn over and over until they sunk in? What helped you through the process?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Making plans when you have depression and OCD

Thursday morning I recognized two things: I need to make a plan, and I’m not a very good planner when it comes to my personal life.
I had this mini-epiphany as I was getting ready to go to work—at 11 a.m. I had spent most of the morning in bed, not sleeping as much as just lying there trying to figure out what to do with my day.
It was the last day of my pay week. I had already worked 31.5 hours. I’m working a new 32-hours-a-week schedule.
But I had a court hearing to cover at 3 p.m. And I needed to try to set up an interview for a story I’m working on.
Because of this combination, I couldn’t decide when to go into work, how many hours to work, and how to spend my time before work.
Having a plan would have helped.

Over the years, I’ve developed certain habits as I’ve dealt with OCD and depression. Some of those habits influence how I plan my time.
OCD is very restrictive. It tries to dictate how you do things and when you do things.
When I started getting treatment for OCD, I was glad to begin to be free from many of the restrictions. I started to avoid adhering to a strict schedule when I didn’t absolutely have to. Too much of a schedule can feel like OCD.
Also, I made many plans over the years that got interrupted by OCD rituals like checking. I disappointed myself and others many times by being late for something or not finishing something because I was taken up in an OCD storm.
Unfortunately, I translated that into the habit of not making plans so I wouldn’t disappoint myself or anyone else.
Having depression also influences me. When I’m in a depression slump, planning a day seems to be useless when there’s nothing I want to do. Planning for the future is too difficult when I can’t look forward to anything.

OCD and depression have influenced me, but I know that I can’t stop there.
I’m responsible for how I spend my time, and I’m responsible for my habits. I’ll have to rise above the influences of OCD and depression.
Having a plan for how many hours I’ll work a day and for the time I’m not at work will help me get out of some of those bad habits I’ve developed.

Here’s what I will do:
*Figure out a schedule a week at a time.
*Use my calendar of work tasks to figure out how many hours a day I’ll need to work.
*Make a list of things I want to accomplish each day.
*Include in my lists chores and errands I need to take care of.
*Block off times to do the things that I value the most.
*Develop the habit of getting up early every day.

How much of a planner are you? Do you plan out your day, week, or month? Do you have any suggestions for those who have trouble coming up with a plan?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What do happy people do?

Recently, my therapist and I talked about the difficulty I was having in doing some of the things that we knew would help my mood, such as exercising.
He has told me before that action comes before motivation.
During this conversation, he put it a little differently.
He said people who are happy don’t go around feeling happy all the time.

What they do, he said, is choose to do things according to their values. They do things that are meaningful to them, that make their lives meaningful.

Which, for me, begs the question, what are my values?
Of course, I can tell you my basic values. I believe in loving my neighbor, in treating others with goodness, in not doing things like stealing and lying.
But how am I allowing those values to filter down into my everyday life, my everyday choices?
If I choose to exercise, what is my value behind that? If I choose to have a positive attitude, what is my value behind that?
I’m especially focused on this right now because of my new work schedule and the new choices I’ll have about how to spend my time.
I think I can work on clarifying my values in two ways. Both include writing.
I can write down what I think my values are.
And I can write down how I spend my time and how I want to spend my time, and see how my values align with that.
I believe that by being able to name my values, I’ll be able to make better choices in the things I do.
I’ll let you know how it goes!

How aware are you of your values as you make your daily choices?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Making a decision, making a change

I made my decision.
I was faced with making a big decision, which I wrote about last week in a post about OCD and making decisions.
I am making a change in my work life.
Starting this week, I am lowering my work hours to 32 hours per week.
It may not seem like a big change, but for me, it’s huge.

As you may remember, I work as a newspaper reporter. My main beats are county government, the sheriff’s office and the courts.
I write about activities in local government, crimes when they occur, and the outcomes of some of those crimes in court.
Some of my days are very long, especially Tuesdays when we lay out the paper, which I also assist with.
If I have meetings in the evenings, it also makes for a long day.
Sometimes I feel like I miss the entire day in a blur because I’m wrapped up in making phone calls and conducting interviews, or I’m hunched over my computer writing a story.
I’m away from home more than I like, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by what I have to do at work and by what I’d like to do at home.

I think this sense of being overwhelmed stems from several things, such as my temperament; my OCD, depression and anxiety; and my energy level.
It’s also affected by the nature of my job. There’s always another deadline looming ahead, another paper to plan for, another interview to conduct, more story ideas to generate. It’s easy to stay in a state of anxiety.

For a while now, I’ve been fighting the job. I’ve had a hard time getting up in the morning to go in to work. I’ve dreaded Mondays. I’ve basically lived for the weekends, and some weekends I have to work.

After I first got the idea for cutting my hours, I talked with my husband, then the newspaper’s publisher, then the editor. Then I thought some more and talked some more and asked more questions.
I prayed. I meditated.
I knew it would mean less money. Not a lot less per week, but it would add up over a year’s time.
Also, I’ve worked full time for many years. Being a full-time worker was part of my identity.
But things worked out. I made my decision. And I’m at peace with it.

Why is this a huge change for me?
It means more time.
I’ll have chunks of days or even whole days free from the confines of the job.
More time to do the writing that I want to do. To do more things at home. To perhaps start an editing business.
More time with Larry.
I hope with the step back, I’ll be able to enjoy my job more.
And I hope that I’ll feel less overwhelmed, more ready to tackle the mental health issues that affect me.
I’m so grateful that I’m able to do this now. I don’t want to take the opportunity for granted.

Have you ever made a change in your work life that had big effects on your life?

Friday, February 1, 2013

OCD and making decisions

“Are you sure you want to do this?”
As soon as he asked the question, I started doubting the decision that I thought I was satisfied with.
That’s all it took: a question, and I became uncertain about something I had been sure about for days.

I was faced with a decision recently that, depending on the route I took, could result in important changes in my life.
I came up with the idea for the change in the first place and pursued it, at first hesitantly, and then with more desire and confidence.
Then the doubt came.
I’ll write specifically about that decision in a post soon, but today, I’m focusing on the decision-making process and how obsessive-compulsive disorder can affect it.

Having OCD means having a lot of uncertainty about things that others don’t even think about. Those of us with OCD wonder about things like whether or not the stove is turned off, whether or not we hit someone with our car, whether or not we read a page in a book thoroughly, whether or not our hands are clean, whether or not we harmed someone.
The uncertainty about these things—the obsessions that trap us into thinking about these things—can lead to the compulsions that we do to try to alleviate the extreme anxiety we feel.
I have found that the same uncertainty that surrounds the obsessions and compulsions also filters into my decision-making process.
It isn’t always easy for me to make a decision, even about something as innocuous as what restaurant to eat in or whether or not to make a phone call.
I obsess over whether or not I’m making the right choice. I’m afraid of making a wrong choice. I’m afraid of hurting someone or otherwise adversely affecting someone with my decision. I’m afraid of ruining my life with one bad decision.
So I quite often practice avoidance. I leave decisions to others, or delay decisions until they’re made for me.
I also compulsively ask for reassurance from others. I want someone to say, “Tina, you are making the right decision. I have no doubt about it.”

What I’m really looking for is for someone else to take responsibility for the decision. And that’s not fair to others. Others deal with uncertainty—why shouldn’t I?

So after the setback by doubt, I did more research, asked more questions, thought more about the decision. And when I felt a great sense of devastation when it seemed things weren’t going to work out, I sensed that I may have been on the right path to begin with.
I had to let go of my fear of making a decision.
None of us can ever be 100 percent sure all the time that we’re making the right decisions. Uncertainty is a fact of life. Those of us with OCD may have more doubt than those who don’t, but we can still be responsible enough to make decisions. We just may have to try harder.

What goes into your decision-making process? What do you do when faced with a tough decision?