Coffee Date with OCD

The second part of my three-part “Coffee date” series is focused on OCD. OCD, like other mental health conditions is highly individual. Thus, anything mentioned in this article as being helpful is purely based on my own personal experience with OCD.

What things trigger my OCD?
Is it an action? Is it a thought? Something on the news? A smell? Knowing your OCD and knowing it well is honestly a huge part of getting past an episode. I’ve lived with OCD since I was very young (before the age of 10). As a result, I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what my triggers are over time. One of them related to my fear of contamination (especially connected to the smell) is rubberbands. To this day, if I touch a rubberband, it feels like there are literal bugs crawling on my the skin where I touched it. When it comes to the main focus of my OCD (people), there is nothing that terrifies me more than someone asking for space. It automatically triggers a compulsive response to ask the person repeatedly for confirmation that it isn’t forever, that they still care about me, etc. When I get those urges, it is incredibly hard to control myself, but I do, because I know if I don’t that it can impact my relationships with other people (and it has in the past). When I was a kid, the form of OCD I have (relationship OCD, also known as ROCD) was not as widely recognized. As a result, I had a great deal of self-stigma thinking I was weird, strange, and every other synonym for those two in the book. However, now that there is more research around ROCD out there, I can say confidently that I am not alone in the struggle of OCD, and if you live with OCD I guarantee you aren’t either. Do you think the things that trigger your OCD are weird or strange? Check out the list of different kinds of obsessions/compulsions on almost any website, and you will soon come to the realization that what you’re experiencing is actually pretty normal. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) is a fantastic resource that I highly recommend by the way.

What do I tend to focus on or think about (obsessions) most when I have an episode of OCD?
Knowing what your own thought patterns are is so incredibly important. Do you focus on a specific item? A specific texture? A specific feeling? When you know what it is you tend to negatively focus on, you can better utilize certain coping skills (such as positive self-talk). For example, I know that when I have an OCD episode that I am likely to doubt people around me, and to become suspicious of their actions and their intentions with me. By anticipating this, I know that when I am NOT going through an episode but yet I know I still have specific trigger(s) that I can find a way to remind myself that when I do go through an episode I have something to count on. For example, if there is a certain person that I tend to doubt, when I am in a good place with them I can write words of affirmation for myself and for my relationship with that person.

What behavioral changes (compulsions) occur when I have an episode of OCD?
This looks different for every individual, depending of course on what form of OCD they have. For me, my friends may describe me as acting a bit more “needy” or “needing reassurance” when I am having an episode. Honestly though, saying I get a little needy is kind of a compliment compared to how I used to be, asking the object of my OCD 25x or more per day, “Are you my friend?” “Do you love me?” “Are you still mad at me?” For others, this may look like taking showers more frequently than normal (I’m talking like 3+ times a day), checking the stove or locks more often, or seeking reassurance that you did.

What are some signs that I might be going through an OCD episode?
I am a huge advocate for providing education to those around you about your OCD (if you feel safe to do so). This can be a family member or friend, or really anyone you surround yourself with, just as long as you have someone who can act as a mirror, or be able to show you where your “blind spots” are. Personally, there have been times when I’ve struggled even recently, and it has been a friend who knows me well who is able to point out to me things that I don’t even notice yet. In my case, I am likely going through an episode or approaching an episode if I am isolating myself from people I normally spend time with (especially to spend time with one person in particular), if I seem particularly anxious or more forgetful than normal, or if I am placing too much mental energy on a particular person. For other people, it may be more or less obvious.

Am I willing and able to try to challenge my OCD-related fears?
If there is one thing I have learned about OCD, it is that the key to overcoming it is saying “no” to it. This is different from the other mental health conditions I live with. When I was younger, my therapist did Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) with me to try to lessen my anxiety around certain aspects of my OCD. I will talk more about ERP and my thoughts on it later, but for now, just know that I have adopted some of the techniques from that and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) modalities to help me challenge my OCD, the thoughts I’m having, and to try to stay more grounded in what I know to be reality. A friend of mine describes this process of challenging OCD to be like trying to get the monster back in the cage, or the worms back in the can, or however you want to look at it. I sometimes do this in a way that is similar to exposure therapy too by exposing myself to what it is that bothers me, and then slowly desensitizing myself to it over time. I can talk about this in a future post as well.

Do I have anyone I can talk to about this?
OCD is slightly less common than anxiety and depression, so in this case I find it particularly helpful to have a friend or family member who can support me through this, and remind me that I am not my OCD, and check-in. For example, I got my OCD from my dad, so I know if I want to relate to someone about it I can talk to him, or one of my other good friends.

How do I know when it is time to reach out for help?
I say it again, I know it is time to reach out when my OCD is interfering with my daily functioning. Is the checking getting in the way of my working, or am I being too open with coworkers about it? Is it getting in the way of my usual activities? Am I still going to church? Is it keeping me from doing things I love with people who love me? We are our own best judges when it comes to what is normal for us, so having an awareness is really the key here.

Be on the look-out for my final post in this series about depression!

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