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You Can’t Go Home Again, Part II

Often,  young people who have just been diagnosed with OCD—or are dealing with a flare-up—”go home again” and move in with family to regroup. My strong opinion is that this isn’t a good idea. Going home again can often undo the progress that you’ve made in your life, such as having a good job, having a nice apartment, having a social circle. When you go home again, you risk dismantling your life. More crucially, going home again usually allows OCD to fester.

Instead of going home again, plant your feet in your life and take advantage of every support system around you.  Here’s how you stay:

Brush up on OCD basics.

When you’re having a prolonged tussle with OCD, make sure you have what you need in your toolbox. Remember mantras like, “Okay, so I’m having that thought” and “I’m just gonna ride it out.”

Tell your boss.

Please don’t leave your job. Instead, have a conversation with your boss about what’s going on and that you may need time to go to doctor’s appointments. You can say you’re struggling with a health problem (that’s true—it’s just your brain wiring misfiring) and it’s personal.  Legally, your boss can’t ask, “What is it?” If she persists and you don’t want to tell her, you can say, “I’m struggling with a common mental health issue and I’m getting help. I would appreciate having some flexibility in my schedule in the coming months.” Propose strategies you’d like to put into place so you can keep working while you work on you.

Make this point first: “I care about my career, I care about the company’s success, and I care about growing with the company. But right now, I can’t give 130%.  I need to slow down for two months while I take care of my health.” Then, you can propose solutions such as, “I’d like to have a hard stop at 5pm two days a week” or “I would like to establish that I’m not accessible by email after hours.”

Your boss probably really likes you. Or at the very least, your boss wants to keep you. Replacing employees, or figuring out staffing needs while an employee takes medical leave, is an extremely expensive aspect of running a business. It’s likely that your boss will want to work with you on this.

If you’re scared of this conversation, don’t be. If you were considering “going home again,” that means you were probably considering leaving your job anyway!  So, say what you need to say.  Also, tell your boss that you want to have an open dialogue: encourage her to tell you if she senses your performance is flagging at any point, so you’re aware of it, and so you can make adjustments.  (Then you don’t have to worry about it.  If there’s a problem with your performance, someone will tell you).

Reframe the way you think about work.

It’s also important to stay at your job because work provides a place to refocus and practice your OCD coping skills. When you feel your OCD flaring up, you can say to yourself, “I have OCD. I have some thoughts or sensations that I find really uncomfortable or frightening. I’ll just nod at these thoughts and acknowledge them.  Then I’m going to focus on work, and focus on doing my best, and nod at the thoughts whenever they pop up again.”

Tell your roommates.

Frequently, OCD thoughts and fears revolve around the home: fear of leaving the water running, fear of someone messing with the way the contents of your room (or the refrigerator) are perfectly arranged, fear of not flushing the toilet, etc. You could even be struggling with irrational, looping thoughts about your roommates “catching you” performing a ritual or acting strangely.

Here’s how to get in front of the story: tell your roommates. You can make it super casual: “Just so you know, I’m really struggling with anxiety. So if you see me acting odd, or if I seem distressed, that’s why.  I wanted to tell you, so you know that I’m getting help, and also so you don’t think I’m losing it.”

Then, it’s out in the open, and you can make your home your sanctuary

Create a sanctuary.

Find a place where you can be fully, completely comfortable.  An easy option is your bedroom (especially if you have your own room). Buy a few things to make this space comfortable, like a soft blanket, attractive art for the walls, or a new pillow. Consider other places where you can easily go to feel safe. Make a list of places that can be your “happy place.” This could be your favorite grassy spot in the park, your favorite chair in your local coffee shop, your favorite elliptical at the gym, or your favorite nook in the library or the bookstore.  When you feel like curling up into a frightened, anxious ball, know there’s a place where you can safely uncurl and spread out, cuing your brain into feeling totally at ease.

Whatever you do, just keep living your life. When your OCD flares up, instead of dismantling your life, focus on building your life. Instead of taking shelter, show yourself that you have the strength to handle the storm.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

Frequently when I meet people with OCD and they tell me their story, I often hear the phrase, “so I went home again.” Taking shelter with one’s parents or other family members when one is first diagnosed with OCD, or during a prolonged OCD storm, is part of a lot of peoples’ stories, including mine.

But you shouldn’t do it. In fact, I’d argue, you should avoid it at all costs. I’ve met a lot of college students who have taken a semester off, or left mid-semester, to move back in with their parents because of OCD. I know 20somethings who have left their jobs to move back home while they regroup and find treatment for their OCD. I also know a handful of people who have moved back home more than once (“so I went home again”).

Alas, there are a few problems with going home:

 

1. Odds are good, “going home” won’t actually be restorative.

Picture a severely anxious person carving out time specifically to relax. While it would be lovely if that made way for a restorative or therapeutic experience, odds are good, that blank space would simply make more room for anxiety. OCD tends to fester if we’re not keeping busy. And many of us have probably had the experience of OCD flaring up during blocks of unstructured time.

 

2. “Going home” gives OCD power.

Part of why moving back in with your family isn’t a good idea—and part of why so many people go home “again”—is because pressing pause on our lives in an effort to heal from OCD paradoxically does the opposite: it gives OCD power. It’s retreating.

When you have OCD, the best thing you can do for yourself is to say, “Okay, so I’m anxious. I’m going to keep living my life.” When you “go home,” you’re doing the exact opposite.

When you find something to be scary or menacing, if you avoid it and run from it, it reinforces that whatever it is (whether that’s a snarling dog or a snarling thought in your head) is in fact dangerous, especially if you didn’t get close enough to explore it.

 

3. “Going home” may kill your confidence.

There are lots of benefits to living with family. You get to see your family, you get a slowed-down pace of life, and odds are good there will be more—or better—food than you tend to keep in your house. But odds are good, you will at some point resent that you live with your family. You may even feel like a loser. For that reason, keep your apartment.

 

4. “Going home” may put serious strain on your relationships with your family.

OCD is really hard for families. Family members’ reactions to a loved one’s obsessions can range from surprise, to irritation, to a full-on “Mama Bear”-esque desire to do anything to help. Alas, it doesn’t help things—on real-life level or a brain wiring level—when family members assure someone with OCD that there isn’t a problem or when family members participate in or help with rituals.

Most importantly, living with family will inevitably put a strain on one’s relationships. That’s too high of a price to pay.

 

5. “Going home” means you have so much more stuff to figure out.

Best case scenario, when you go home again, you find help and get better. But now you’re faced with the task of rebuilding your life. If you can return to your job and your apartment and your friends, that’s terrific. But it’s unlikely that everything will be so effortless.

During a prolonged OCD storm (an OCD hurricane, perhaps), the urge to flee and take shelter makes sense. It’s normal, even, to crave someone else taking care of you.

 

Instead, this is the time to prove to yourself that you can take care of yourself. You have a good life and you are willing to fight for it.

You are going to need to adopt a new way of living. You have OCD, and you need to master living your life, even when you have OCD. There’s no time like the present.
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You want to ground yourself in your life. The best way to heal from OCD is to keep calm and carry on.

When you’ve been diagnosed with OCD and you’re scared, or you’re having a prolonged OCD storm, this is the time to put down roots.

What to Do When You’re Having a Freak Out

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One major challenge of living with OCD is that you feel like there is a serious threat or a huge, major problem… when you intellectually know there isn’t one. Call it an OCD storm, a freak out, a tizzy, whatever. You know there is not actually a time-sensitive crisis, but you want to feel better now, so you’re thinking yourself in circles.

This disjuncture is maddening. You know there isn’t an issue, but it really, really feels like there is one.  And God damnit, it’s Saturday!

[I wrote this with people who have OCD in mind, but all of this also applies to anyone having a freak out].

Here’s how to calm down and talk to your brain:

1. Establish that this is just OCD.

You know you have OCD.  You know that OCD is basically neurological malfunctioning.  The danger detection center of your brain says, “There’s a PROBLEM!” when there is no problem. Except right now, the problem feels so big and so dark, it’s like the last twenty minutes of a Harry Potter movie.

Take a step back and establish that this is OCD, and this might as well be a scary movie. Or a really dark children’s movie.

2. Pick a mantra.

You know that you don’t want to push away your thoughts.  That tends to make intrusive thoughts bigger. But you also don’t want to engage your thoughts or debate with them or invite them in for coffee. Articulate to yourself: “This is just OCD. This problem doesn’t justify a response. No action is needed on my part. I am going to go about my day.”  When intrusive thoughts pop up, nod at them, and use a mantra: “Okay, but no action is required on my part” or “Okay, but I’m just going about my day today.”  Accept the thoughts—don’t push them away—and then go about your day.

3. Do something really different.

Now it’s time to refocus.  If you have already started to freak out, you want to do something to reset your head.  So do something a little unusual.  Watch YouTube videos of reporters getting into laughing fits on air. Watch clips of your favorite standup comedian on YouTube (I love John Mulaney’s bit about an out-of-control high school party). Think of one of your favorite songs that has unclear lyrics, look up the lyrics, and listen to the song and read along. Make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.  Make a list of your top 10 favorite moments from your life.  Give a stranger a compliment.

Do something positive to change the channel.

4. Don’t Google the problem.

Seriously, please don’t Google. No matter how much you want to Google, for reassurance or for comfort. Don’t give the “problem” another ounce of your energy.  If you can, close your laptop and do something else. If you don’t have plans for the day, make some. (And stick to them!)

5. Reach for support.

Personally, this happened to me a few months ago.  I had a small, real life problem that did not require any action on my part.  But it felt like I was being crushed by the pressure of this big, enormous problem, to the extent that it had become an OCD storm.  I was sitting in the parking lot outside Whole Foods—where I went because I wanted to treat myself—taking deep breaths and trying not to fully freak out.

So, I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. This friend knows I have OCD and has agreed to be a support for me when I need it.  (If you don’t have a person like this in your life, ask someone!)

The conversation went as such:

“Hi, do you have a second?… Okay, I just need to sound something out with you…. It feels like I have a massive, urgent problem.  I’m about to cry. But I know that there is no crisis.  It’s just my brain.  So as I have these thoughts, I’m going to say to myself, ‘Okay, okay, I hear you. It feels like there’s a catastrophe going on right now, but there’s nothing I need to do or think about today…’”

My friend said, “Sounds good!” We exchanged goodbyes and got off the phone.  If you look at our “transcript,” I didn’t tell her what was going on at all or ask for reassurance in any way.  It’s important not to ask for reassurance.  Instead, I simply shared my game plan with her, sealing it in.

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And then I went about my day, and bought some sweet-ass palm plants* from Whole Foods.

*Despite my best efforts, the palm plants almost immediately died. But life goes on. And freak outs fade away.

An OCD-Heavy Day

It’s very normal for people with back pain to have some days where they feel practically limber and other days when their chronic pain is much more severe.  For migraine sufferers, sometimes they have a day–or a long stretch of days–with no migraines. And other days, they have migraines that knock them off their feet.  People with depression can have great days where the blue sky looks clear and gorgeous and all feels well in the world. And they can also experience days where they have no idea how to muster the energy, enthusiasm, or life force to pick up the takeout they just ordered. And it’s the same deal with OCD.

Whether you’re new to managing your obsessive-compulsive disorder or you’re an obsessive-compulsive disorder veteran, it’s normal to experience your symptoms to varying degrees on different days. Some days, your usual triggers may occur and you react to them as you usually do.

DentistOther days, your brain feels like it’s full of knives.  In the span of three hours, you may experience a trigger, get “stuck” on a thought, experience a steady sequence of irrational worries, and then have an intrusive thought that really disturbs you and pops into your head every three seconds.

There’s a natural response: Why is this happening to me?!

“David After Dentist,” 2008 YouTube celebrity.

Because it happens, unfortunately.  It’s the same way that people without chronic mood issues can unexplainably have a good day or a crappy day (there’s the adage: “Some days you’re the pigeon, other days you’re the statue” for that one). OCD can vary in intensity from day to day, without any warning.

It’s not a good idea to analyze each obsession that bothers you; instead, try to be as “chill” as possible about it.  Think to yourself, “Okay, so I’m having an OCD-heavy day. This sucks.  Okay, whatever…” If you feel like you are getting pummeled by your thoughts, ready your stance to take the punch so you go down gracefully.  “Fighting back” with OCD thoughts only makes them bigger and more complicated.  But if you can roll your eyes at your OCD thoughts as you go about your Saturday errands, and not feel shaken, you’ve paradoxically won this round. Because when you don’t take action or react to OCD thoughts, you’re actively rewiring the frontal lobe of your brain when your amygdala says there’s a problem.  Over time, this response–non-reaction, over and over again–will heal your OCD.

Naturally, if you sense that you’re having a really intense OCD day because you’re not fully acknowledging that someone is inflamed in your life, then it’s okay to pause and check in with yourself.  If you’ve been really stressed, or you’re avoiding a problem, perhaps that is making your OCD boil over. But usually, that’s not how OCD words.  OCD isn’t logical. OCD isn’t logical, given the way a fully-sane person can stare at an unplugged space heater, pulse racing, and not feel confident that the space heater is off.

It’s better not to look for reasons as to why you’re having a flare-up. It’s better to not validate the part of your brain that arbitrarily pulls the fire alarm.

Go about your day, practice good self care, and take solace that tomorrow will probably be easier. And if it isn’t–you’ll know how to handle it.

10 Things to Do When You Can’t Stop Ritualizing

In OCD, “ritualizing” is performing some kind of activity intended to neutralize an obsessive thought.  It could be washing your hands, going to the bathroom again, or repeating a recent conversation in your head to reassure yourself that you didn’t offend the person you were talking to.  Or it could be parsing out a problem in your head, trying to prove to yourself that something bad you thought of won’t happen, because of x, y, and z.

Once you start ritualizing, it’s really, really hard to stop.  But you can stop, and you can stop before you get to the place where you feel like your head is going to explode, or you feel like you need to engage in destructive behaviors to make the thought go away.

When your head feels sucked into an OCD swirl because you’re on a ritualization loop, stop and take a breath.  Take four more breaths. Then, make a pact with yourself to stop ritualizing–for thirty minutes, for an hour, or for the rest of the afternoon. Then, try something from the list below to train your focus on something else.

I don't get stuck on this often anymore, but I've spent *hours* of my life checking to make sure I turned the faucet off before leaving the house or going to bed.
I don’t get stuck on this often anymore, but I’ve spent *hours* of my life checking to make sure I turned the faucet off before leaving the house or going to bed.

 

The idea here isn’t about pushing away the thought.

In fact, the last thing you want to do is push away your thoughts.  Pushing thoughts away tends to make them swing back like wrecking balls.  The idea of refocusing on something else is that you’re giving your brain some distance from the thought and giving it something new–and ideally, something enjoyable or challenging (the good kind of challenging)–to think about. But it’s a gentle activity: you don’t want to yell at yourself or yell at your intrusive thought. When you’re trying to refocus, if the thought pops up, shrug at it.  Say, “Okay, so I’m having that thought…” and go back to whatever it was that you were doing.

 

Eight Things to Do When You Want to Stop Ritualizing:

1. Go through Facebook, your Pictures file, and the catacombs of all your computer files, and pick out your favorite photos to have printed at the drugstore or by a new service like Parabo or Pinhole Press.

2. Create the best playlist ever. Imagine you are throwing an epic party: it could be a low-key holiday gathering, a bustling birthday party, or even your imaginary wedding.  Create a playlist of all your favorite songs, creating crescendos and valleys with slow songs and fast, euphoric songs.

3. Trick your brain into being on a mission.  Focus fully on your work and commit to doing an exceptional job for the next thirty minutes.  If you’re driving or doing chores, make a goal to be totally mindful.

4. Spend thirty minutes working on something thirty days in the future: apply to speak at a conference for people in your industry. Nominate someone in your life for an award.  Nominate yourself for an award! Enter a sweepstakes.

5. Google “celebrities with OCD.” You may be comforted to find Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Charlize Theron among our ranks. Even Winston Churchill.

6. Provided you don’t struggle with hoarding or cleaning, declutter a drawer or two.  Outer order equals inner peace.

7. Take on an engrossing activity: re-read your favorite book. Read your favorite trashy magazine. Read your favorite top shelf magazine. And every time the urge to ritualize pops into your head, say to yourself, “Yeah, I’m having that thought. I’m having an urge to ritualize. It’s just my OCD. Okay.” And then go back to reading about Kim Kardashian’s problems.

8. Tell yourself, “I’m teaching my brain something new.” Even if the urge to ritualize is interrupting your attempts to do something else like a child tugging at the hem of your shirt, you can say this really powerful mantra back.  When you make the decision not to ritualize, you are rewiring your brain.  You are rewiring a brain that doesn’t feel compelled to ritualize. You are teaching your brain that you don’t have to do this repetitive thing to feel okay. You are creating new grooves in your brain that will eventually lead to a more relaxed version of you.

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