I am absolutely intolerant of uncertainty.
This statement applies to me when I’m gripped by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s at the crux of the disorder, but it affects every sufferer differently. OCD, particularly of the checking variety, is all about creating a certain outcome with the same compulsion, a compulsion that is alleviating the same obsession.
In particular, a subsection of OCD is a checking variety. Anything can be checked, from stove activity to a partner’s fidelity, and once the fear/worry has presented itself, the check is the path to relief. In an OCD brain, chemical signals disproportionately, frequently fire off that alert the brain that something is wrong! Something is terribly wrong, there is a threat. This threat must be neutralized. The act of the check is really neutralization. I have always commented that once a thought has burst onto the scene of my brain, it’s already over. This is a cynical view of OCD that I no longer subscribe to, but it speaks not only to the necessity of checking but also the difficulty, if not futility, of the process.
I experience two categories of checks. The first I’ll call learned checks, either through upbringing or trauma (the following can be either; I don’t want to disclose trauma just yet). I obsessively check where my parents are at any given moment. I obsessively ask my mother who she’s texting. I used to obsessively check my armpits to see if I’d brushed powder deodorant under them (this could happen many dozens of times a day). I obsessively check if people want to be friends with me, want to be in a relationship with me. I obsessively check to see if I’m bothering, hurting someone. I obsessively check the eyes and habits of others, particularly men, to assess threat levels. I obsessively check my clothing to ensure that it’s situated just so, that nothing is constricted.
I could go on and on, but my point in sharing this laundry list is to double back and name the corresponding obsession that results in that compulsion. Respectively, I am constantly terrified that my parents are delayed, in car accidents, otherwise hurt, or upset with me, therefore rendering them unable to respond. I am terrified that my mother is texting with someone she used to text with that hurt me, or that she’s texting with someone who will get me in trouble, somehow. I am scared of my armpits being the wrong texture, scared of that feeling of dry skin rubbing against itself. I am terrified that my friends are burdened by me- that anyone is- or that I’m inadvertently hurting someone. I am terrified of being hunted. I am scared of constriction, of appearing disheveled.
Obsession, compulsion. Obsession, compulsion. Round and round it goes. There are two ways to confront the cycle. The first, and the healthiest, is to face it head on, a tactic titled Exposure Response Prevention Therapy. It’s at the helm of anxiety treatment, making it also at the helm of OCD treatment. It’s effective at treating intolerance from uncertainty.
The other method for confronting the cycle is, of course, avoidance.
I employ this tactic when the cycle is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with. I’m known for entirely shutting off my phone for hours at a time to take a pause on what is basically a compulsion machine for me, rife with checking capabilities that escalate exponentially until I explode. My brain starts to buzz and crackle and I need to give it room to calm down and clear out. I shut off my phone and engage in something sensory, like eating, drinking, exercising, bathing. I also use these sensory activities to procrastinate doing things that I know will result in intense OCD-based anxiety, most commonly interpersonal interactions.
The cycle makes interpersonal life exhausting. For a social extrovert like me, such heightened anxiety and need for compulsion performance is a major barrier in the way of my actualizing my desires for socialization, connection and meaningful relationships. I know ahead of time that my terror over whether or not someone likes me, is annoyed by me, burdened by me, will be absolutely sapping. I either jump into the world anyways and become extremely sensorily distressed or I avoid, shutting myself in my room. I am diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, but only mild to moderate, and sometimes my OCD symptoms appear to be depressive symptoms because they include barricading myself in my room, under my covers, to neutralize my body and mind and shield myself from certain uncertainty. In these times in my life, I would have been motivated to get out of bed if I hadn’t been so terrified of what awaited me.
As I’ve grown older and experienced more of my fears, it’s been harder to justify avoidance, shutting myself down. I’ve seen the consequences of remaining a room-based recluse: missing a year of school and everything that accompanies that. Been there, done that. I don’t want it. There’s nowhere to go but out, so out I go, forcing exposure that once initiated, is never as bad as the terrorization that my mind made it out to be.
The real solution to fear of the unknown? Experiencing the unknown. Only by forcing yourself to enter into situations that are giant question marks will you understand that question marks aren’t so bad. I was talking to a co-worker the other day, and he asked me if I found that hard, mental illness related situations become easier the more they happen. Oh boy, do I. This summer, I spent a long time sitting in agonal uncertainty that my OCD turned into torture. My brain was “on fire” for weeks, as I put it. As horrifying as that experience was, I’m now more able to cope with others’ delayed response times, among other things, because forcing me into a situation that I was scared of, that presented as the end of the world at the time, showed me that I could live through the things that frighten me the most, the things that I perform compulsions to avoid sitting in.
Maybe my parents are hurt, but they’re probably fine. I should wait a while before checking up on them. Maybe my friends do secretly hate me, but they probably mean it when they say they adore me. I should trust in their assurances and limit asking for reassurance. Maybe deodorant application hasn’t happened in an hour, but nothing bad will come from waiting a bit longer to re-apply. Maybe there is a threatening man around, but the odds are low and I’m safe. I can relax.
Dive right into the things that terrify you, within reason. If you don’t, they’ll continue to terrorize you. The best way to neutralize a threat is to allow it to be, and to know that life will go on if you do.