I want to know—does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock?
For some reason, when people ask about my disorder, they’re always surprised when I explain the obsession part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People seem to believe that following “obsessive” with a dash and two qualifiers completely changes the word’s meaning, the way “reality” means something different when it precedes “television,” or how “literature” changes when you add “young adult” or “paranormal romance.”
But disorder or not, obsession is still obsession. And anyone who knows obsession, anyone who has ever been obsessed with something, has had a little taste of OCD. Think about the last time you were really stuck on a problem—hung up on a puzzle with pieces that just didn’t fit. At first you mostly feel anger and frustration. But at the same time, there’s also a little bit of self-awareness, a nagging sense of how futile your efforts are, a little voice asking why am I doing this; and you feel helpless and trapped and frightened.
That’s basically what OCD is like, with the qualification that the disorder can sustain these feelings of distress for weeks, months, years. But the feelings themselves aren’t so different. It’s a question of duration and degree.
So what baffles me is how non-sufferers can think they understand obsession, can have experienced obsession firsthand, and yet so totally misunderstand what activates OCD symptoms. Tell me: when was the last time you were really hung up on a problem? When was the last time anxiety made you feel like crazy? Was it when you were out and about, enjoying yourself and accomplishing things, your mind occupied by the situation at hand?
Or was it when you were turning in bed at 4 AM, somehow unable to sleep?
Or waiting in a dentist’s office, peeking at the clock, fifteen minutes after your appointment was set to start?
Or stuck in traffic? Or struggling through a mumbled sermon from your septuagenarian pastor? Or smiling and sipping a diet cola at your spouse’s high school reunion? Or in a theater, suffering through what must be the single dullest motion picture in the history of man’s creative enterprise?
Waiting is the hardest part.
There is absolutely nothing more toxic to an obsessive-compulsive than boredom. Boredom is to obsession as an incubator is to an egg, or a compost bin is to rotten fruit: it adds heat and pressure and that accelerates the process exponentially. It’s never pleasant to find your thoughts drifting to a horrible image or irresolvable problem—but when you have nothing else to distract you, when there’s nothing to occupy your mind, such thoughts can quickly escalate from annoying to excruciating.
I’ve had concerned friends and coworkers ask me if my OCD gets worse when I’m busy, when in fact it’s almost always the opposite. If I have a task to concentrate on, even if it’s something as mundane as shopping for groceries or organizing my desk, then my mind stays occupied, and obsession has trouble finding purchase. It’s when things are quiet that I get into trouble. In my experience, the absolute worst activities are those that are just uncomfortable or disruptive enough to keep me from relaxing, without actually being challenging or interesting: stuff like cardio exercise, dusting and vacuuming, or (God forbid) waiting for my number to be called at the DMV.
So I’m not writing this for other obsessive-compulsives, who I’m sure are well aware of how bad obsession can be in moments of quiet and boredom. This is a plea to the friends and loved ones of OCD sufferers. Next time you’re planning an outing or asking for a favor, please: be considerate. Recognize that tasks that you find to be merely monotonous or dull, or even activities that you think are relaxing, may be incredibly difficult for a person with OCD symptoms.
When their eyes glaze over, it doesn’t just mean that they’re bored—they may also be agonized.
When you have an unquiet mind, silence can be the scariest thing in the world.
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.
Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”
Visit my website: http://www.fletcherwortmann.com
Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered
Image: Adrian Measures, http://www.fotopedia.com/users/adrian