What OCD is Not

OCD’s unusual in that a lot of people who don’t have it, think they do. We’ve all heard someone describe themselves as being “so OCD.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself. You’d never hear someone who doesn’t have cancer claim to have cancer, yet that’s kind of what people are doing whenever they equate their fastidiousness with having a debilitating mental disorder. I know, I know: it’s not exactly the same and language evolves and blah blah blah. But it’s also illustrative of how we diminish mental illness, like when people claim they’re depressed after their favourite team loses.

OCD isn’t about being fastidious. Allow me to illustrate:

  • Person A: “I like being organized! Organization makes me feel calm and in control. I don’t do well amidst chaos.”
  • Person B: “I have to be organized, because if I don’t arrange things just so my family’s going to die in a fire.”

Spot the difference? To be sure, some people who do have OCD like being organized, just like some people who have OCD are left-handed or eat a pescatarian diet or listen to Blue Rodeo. Some people have OCD and couldn’t care less about being organized; I am one of these people. But don’t think I’m exaggerating about Person B: that’s an actual example of an obsessive thought, the kind that get stuck in a loop inside our brains and make OCD so debilitating. I’ve never had that particular thought, but it wouldn’t take long to find someone who has.

I think it’s also important to mention that OCDers don’t necessarily have comorbid (or simultaneously occurring) depression. Some do; I’m among the lucky ones who don’t, or at least hasn’t yet. It’s easy to say “choose optimism,” and I know that’s a tough thing for some people to do. But if you can then cling to it: optimism can be a powerful recovery tool.

So OCD isn’t depression, and it’s not a quirk either. One thing OCD is, at least in my case? A positive thing. I’ll explain in my next entry.

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Gratefull

My OCD’s at a point where it hardly ever affects me: I haven’t had a flare-up since last October, if not last July, and while that doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or anything (since there is no cure) it’s still a wonderful development.

I wrote that on Thursday, May 18, shortly after learning that Chris Cornell had killed himself. A few hours later I was in the initial throes of what’d turn out to be the worst OCD lapse I’ve had in years – if not ever.

Cornell’s death was the the triggering incident – the McGuffin, if you will – but the real culprits were me messing around with my medication and, more broadly, becoming complacent with my recovery. I hadn’t had obsessive thoughts in so long I was starting to let myself think that maybe, just maybe, I’d kicked OCD once and for all. Which is difficult to do, if not quite impossible: OCD’s a chronic illness, and even if it’s been dormant for a long time it’s liable to rear its head at a moment’s notice (like, for instance, when your favourite singer dies by suicide). Moreover, I’d been doing great on 15 mg of Trintellix, which is the antidepressant I’ve been taking since January. It seemed logical therefore that I’d do even better on 10 mg. My doctor agreed. Of course, neither of us could’ve anticipated the McGuffin.

So that’s how the lapse began. But something else happened, too: I got pissed. How dare OCD force its way back into my life? How fucking dare it? And so I got pissed, and then I started fighting back.

This is part one of what’ll be a series of entries about my latest recovery from OCD. It might not be the last recovery – but two months in I’m feeling (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating) better than I’ve felt before.

Like, ever. I feel better than I’ve ever felt before. There have literally been times this week where I’ve sat back and marveled at just how good I’m feeling. (I am now knocking furiously on wood.)

I’m also working harder at my recovery than I’ve worked at almost anything. It’s been all-encompassing and my commitment’s been total. And each day the work starts as soon as I wake up and doesn’t end till right before I fall asleep with things called gratitude meditations. (This is the earth-y part of the process.) They’re a great way of starting and ending each day; plus, gratitude’s been shown to stimulate serotonin, which is also what antidepressants do.

Gratitude meditations are short and simple. In the morning I give thanks for…

  • My bed
  • My senses
  • The rest of my body, including my brain
  • Sam
  • My family
  • My friends; this’ll often expand to incorporate my broader community, including neighbours and co-workers

At night, meanwhile, I give thanks for three things. Sometimes they’re big (my fiancée!). Sometimes they’re not (dark roast coffee!…scratch that, dark roast coffee’s the best; once, though, I gave thanks for an aircraft that’d passed overhead earlier that evening, and while I do love to fly that one particular plane wasn’t especially meaningful to me). By enumerating things I’m grateful for at night I’ve begun finding all sorts of things to be thankful for during the day. Cumulatively, gratitude meditations have turned into a simple technique for appreciating my everyday life and being more aware of all the awesome in the world. Because when you’re looking for it, you’ll find it almost everywhere – sometimes, even, in mental health recovery.

This morning I’m grateful for light roast coffee, the British Open on TV, deliberately adding a second “l” to words, and the chance to share my recovery strategies with you. Have a gratefull day, everyone.

There’s Just One Thing Left to Be Said

Chris Cornell is dead – those words still don’t make sense – and I’ve hardly stopped thinking about him since I got HLP Paul’s text (which read, simply, “Chris Cornell,” followed by the shocked emoji) and became catatonic early Thursday. At first I avoided his voice (and music in general), then actively sought it out: I listened to Temple of the Dog, which helped, then “Seasons,” which didn’t, before moving onto Audioslave for the first time in ages. The thoughts about him haven’t been coherent, which I guess is inevitable when someone who’s been in your life for twenty years, suddenly passes away.

One thought, though, has stuck, and that’s the awful image of his final moments on this earth: Chris Cornell – husband, father, beloved rock star, and my favourite singer of all-time – dead in a casino hotel bathroom. He changed the world; he changed me. And he died alone, by his own hand.

I’ve never been suicidal, so I can’t imagine the sort of hell Chris Cornell must’ve been occupying in order to consider ending his life, let alone acting on those thoughts. His lyrics offer the best clues (see “When I’m Down” from Euphoria Mourning, for instance), but beyond empathizing with his plight we can’t know what he was thinking or feeling when he arrived back at the MGM Grand Detroit following Soundgarden’s concert at the Fox Theatre. However, when someone kills themselves, especially someone rich and famous, someone else will almost invariably offer the opinion that he (or she) shouldn’t have been depressed because he (or she) was rich and famous. That opinion is bullshit. And that’s because mental illness doesn’t. give. a. shit.

Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Chris Cornell was a rock star worth an estimate $60-million. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Robin Williams was funny. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Kurt Cobain had been crowned as the voice of his generation; it used that against him, actually. Mental illness didn’t care about those men; it didn’t care about their wives or kids or careers or money. It doesn’t care about me. And it doesn’t care about you, either.

That, to me, is the lesson to be drawn from Cornell’s death. To borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda: mental illness doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. Thinking that it does is how stigma metastasizes. Rich Larson, who wrote a far more eloquent Cornell eulogy than mine, nailed this point when he wrote:

Cornell is speaking to us all one last time. This isn’t something we left behind with our twenties. This isn’t something cured by age or financial security. This isn’t something you “outgrow.” If it’s allowed to fester, depression is stronger than wisdom. Depression is insidious and tenacious. Depression can get to anybody. It can make you feel like an old man at 27. It can make you feel lost as a child at 52.

Chris Cornell was sick. In some cases, depression is little more than a blip in a person’s life. In others, it can be fatal if left untreated. Please: don’t let it get to that point. Reach out (or reach down, if you prefer). Don’t assume mental illness can be outrun, because in a lot of instances it can’t. But it can be managed, and that starts with a single conversation. If there’s a silver lining to Chris Cornell’s death – and I have to believe there is – it’s that it might help one single person open up. And that’s something to cling to, even as we continue to mourn.

On Last Night’s Bike Ride

Last week I slashed my antidepressant dosage by a third, from 15mg a day to 10. My OCD’s at a point where it hardly ever affects me: I haven’t had a flare-up since last October, if not last July, and while that doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or anything (since there is no cure) it’s still a wonderful development.

But. Psychotropic drugs are meant to mess with your body, and any sort of adjustment, big or small, is going to have an impact. I’ve felt “off” since last week, and yesterday I was so lethargic I could hardly sit upright, let alone stand. Nonetheless, after work I came home, hopped on the bike, and went for a ride. We’re just a little over three weeks out from the Ride to Conquer Cancer; I need to get my miles in, withdrawal symptoms be damned. On my way back, riding alongside Lake Ontario into a brilliant early-evening sunset, I passed the Molson Amphitheatre, whose new corporate name I refuse to use.

I started thinking about some of the shows I’d seen there. Weezer. Aerosmith. Oasis and Pearl Jam twice each. Tom Petty. Robert Plant. Black Sabbath. And then another thought occurred to me: in spite of all I’ve seen there I’d never seen a truly transcendent Amphitheatre show. It’s my least-favourite major venue in Toronto. I don’t like the amphitheatre-style setup to begin with; the chore of entering and (especially) exiting the venue puts a damper on pre-show anticipation and gnaws away at any lingering post-concert bliss. It’s a tough room.

And then I realized: “Hey, this is where I saw Soundgarden for the first time!” It was one of the most special nights in my life as a music fan, the thing I dreamed would one day happen but that didn’t seem possible until I was actually down in the pit looking up at Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, and Chris Cornell. Isn’t Soundgarden playing Detroit tonight? I thought to myself. Sherkin and I had talked about getting tickets, but neither of us was sure if we’d be able to make it and then let the subject go.

And so I biked home, ate dinner, and went to bed. When I woke up, Chris Cornell had died of suicide, aged 52.

Your Bell Let’s Talk Challenge

I have a Bell Let’s Talk challenge for you:

Stop saying “I’m so OCD.”

Lots of people do, but speaking as someone who actually has OCD I have an important message. You’re not OCD. And you almost certainly don’t have OCD, either, because if you did you’d never describe yourself as being “so OCD.” (Unless you were being ironic. And even then.)

OCD isn’t something you are. It’s not a quirk, a transient personality trait, or a general appreciation of fastidiousness (regardless of what Monica Geller taught you). It’s a mental illness, and it ruins lives. OCD traps people inside their own worse nightmares and makes escape virtually impossible. It takes, on average, seventeen years to be diagnosed. And it increases risk of suicide by a factor of ten.

I’ve written a lot about OCD over the years. I’m subclinical these days, meaning OCD’s essentially a non-factor in my everyday life. I haven’t had a flare-up since July. These are very good things! But I’ll never stop advocating for mental health. Today, while you’re trying to bankrupt Bell Canada, challenge yourself to change the way you talk about mental health. Stop using OCD as an adjective. You are not OCD.

Lapse Into Now

I haven’t brain-blogged in ages, which is a good thing: it used to be the more I blogged about OCD, the worse it was (and, conversely, the worst it was making me feel). Prior to Sunday I’d been symptom-free for months. Like, completely symptom-free. It was glorious.

And then, on Sunday, I lapsed.

What happened? A bunch of things, actually. Consider this:

  1. I got engaged. It was pretty much the greatest day of my life; it was also the culmination of over six months’ planning, none of which Sam had an inkling about until the morning we left for Calgary. Hey, speaking of Calgary…
  2. I went back to Calgary for the first time since moving away. The weirdest part is how it didn’t feel weird at all.
  3. I’ve been going non-stop since April. Since April 7 I’ve flown around the world; gone to Nashville for a bachelor party; seen Pearl Jam three times, including once as part of a weekend in Ottawa; planned a surprise anniversary party for my parents; stood up for my cousin at his wedding; finished the Ride to Conquer Cancer; gotten engaged; and, just this past weekend, gone to Stratford and Buffalo.
  4. I didn’t sleep well Saturday.
  5. I gorged on sugar candy last week.

Et voila!

A lapse isn’t the same thing as a relapse, which can happen when a OC sufferer lapses and immediately discounts all the gains they’d been making. I don’t think I’m at risk of doing that…but that knowledge doesn’t make me feel better right now, which of course is what I want.

And so now I’m taking evasive action, starting with two of the pillars of any successful recovery: I’m going to bed earlier* and eating better. (* – this will absolutely not apply Saturday when I see Guns N’ Roses.) I’m also aware I’ve been slacking in the personal fitness department since crossing the finish line in Niagara Falls, and so it’s back on a regime of biking (and biking to work, if the TTC could deign to reopen the College bike lanes) and running with Sam. (I’m going to fail spectacularly at my goal of running a half-marathon this year; I’m willing to blame my knees for one more year, and in fairness they still do get sore really quickly after I run.) And I’m going to write. I don’t know what I’m going to write about: music? Mental health? Wedding planning? (God help me.) It’s therapeutic. And it’s something I realize now I need to make time for, as opposed to just sitting back and waiting for inspiration to hit. I’m chasing after inspiration now–chasing after it for its own sake, but also because it makes me feel a lot better during times like these.

10 for 2016

Greetings from Coffee and All That Jazz, already firmly entrenched as my favourite Toronto coffee shop. I’m drinking a nuclear-strength dark roast, listening to X’s More Fun in the New World record, and basking in the early-morning sun. The sun hates Toronto during the wintertime; one of the hardest things about moving here was simultaneously abandoning Canada’s sunniest city, although it’s a bit easier to stomach cloudy and grey when it’s +6 in February.

Anyway. This is an updated version of an entry from 2013. It’s a list of health goals, mostly centred around mental wellness, that I’ve committed to this coming year! Leave some of your own suggestions in the comments, why don’t ya?

  1. Resume mental health blogging. I used to blog about mental health so often I started a separate blog, Brain of SNJ (awkward Pearl Jam references FTW!). My output slowed as OCD became little more than a dull roar in my day-to-day life. But it got loud again last summer–long story, and an overdue one–and that, combined with some of the inspiring personal mental health accounts I read during Bell Let’s Talk day, convinced me to start telling my story again. Stay tuned.
  2. Re-commit to Partners for Mental Health…and commit to #SickNotWeak. A follow-up to point #1. In the meantime, I’ve also signed up to volunteer with Michael Landsberg’s #SickNotWeak initiative. Together, these organizations are helping blow up the stigma surrounding mental illness. I can think of no cause more important.
  3. Fully commit myself to my exposure therapy. That means no shortcuts, no stepping down from challenges, and not skipping any days unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. And it means being honest with myself. That’s one of the hardest things about exposure: it isn’t pleasurable, at all, and the temptation to slack off is high. Being honest means calling myself out when I’m showing signs of slackening commitment.
  4. Wake up in the morning. I should clarify: not “wake up” in the literal sense, since I quite clearly do that, but rather “wake up earlier.” Last year I dabbled briefly with getting up at 6am and getting my day started earlier. And I loved it! I was waking up to start my day, not simply waking up so I could go to work, and that subtle paradigm shift made a world of difference. It’s been harder since I’ve been looking for work. In that vein, here are sixteen tips for getting up early.
  5. Develop my Go Hard Idiot Gene. Yesterday I ran 5km for the first time since injuring my knee three years ago. Together, the run comprised several small, tentative steps towards accomplishing my two main running goals for my thirty-fifth year. I’m excited to report I’m relatively pain-free this morning. On a related note, I’m currently reading a book called Spark, which delineates the staggering relationship between exercise and good mental health. Check it out!
  6. Write. Self-explanatory.
  7. Go to the movies. Among the many benefits of no longer being in a long-distance relationship is having a steady +1 during Oscar season. Plus, there’s an independent cinema around the corner from our new place (moving in March 1, same day as the first of two Who concerts in Toronto!). I think I’ve seen more movies in the past two months than the entire eight years I lived in Calgary.
  8. Perform. I want to play the drums again. I want to keep learning guitar; I want to pick the piano up again. And I want to perform in front of an audience. Performing galavanizes me like few other things.
  9. Socialize. OCD loves cancelled plans almost as much as it hates rational thought. Yet getting out and socializing can be as important to recovery as any form of medication or therapy. Socializing can be as basic as reading in a coffee shop instead of in a living room or as complex as hearing The River live in its entirety…which I’ll be doing tomorrow evening, by the way!
  10. Explore Toronto. It’s funny: I spent most of the past eight years clamouring to move back to Toronto, yet now that I’m here I’m feeling profoundly discombobulated. And while it’s perfectly understandle why I feel like this, getting out and exploring my “new” city–fully inhabiting it, as opposed to merely living here–will both help me adjust and reduce the anxiety surrounding the move.

So? What do you think??