My wife, upon noticing my awkward and all-too-familiar hand gestures, has asked me this hundreds of times. I will complete an apparent pantomime audition of mere seconds, starting with a short series of pronounced arm movements and concluding with a full backward head tilt that culminates with my eyes in a direct sightline with the ceiling.
Then — back to casually watching TV. Except for the mild amusement of a snickering spouse, the motions served no definitive purposes whatsoever. My wife witnessed what for others would be a formidable “what the heck” moment, but for her is a common constant:
Her husband has low-grade obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that cause uneasiness, apprehension, or fear that, in turn, induces repetitive behaviors aimed at alleviating this anxiety. Symptoms vary widely and, at their most severe, include extreme, often life-altering obsessions such as excessive washing, cleaning or hoarding.
Most, however, show far milder symptoms such as repeated checking of locked doors or stovetops, turning a light switch on and off a specific number of times, or other brief-yet-pointless gestures like my patented arm waving, head tilting routine.
The mental anguish caused by OCD is exacerbated by awareness of its irrationality. OCD compulsions are based in feelings rather than facts, and simply override the sufferer’s otherwise accurate perception of reality. The logical ‘if this, then that’ reasoning of normal thinking is supplanted by ‘if not this, then that.’ “The stove must be checked exactly five times, because after all,” an OCD sufferer mis-rationalizes, “I’m getting on a plane next week.”
A brochure published by the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation contains an extensive symptoms list for this highly varied, intricately customized affliction. I most identify with a subset called Repeating; along with my hand-and-head routine, acts I perform with irrational compulsiveness include:
- Turning car lights on and off a few times before exiting and locking the vehicle. I’ve confused many a deer in my day.
- While showering, scrubbing certain body parts exactly 12 back-and-forth strokes. Apparently an even dozen – exactly an even dozen – is suitable for sufficient cleanliness.
- Retyping the entirety of mistyped words, rather than just the mistyped portion. If I type the word “baseball” as “baesball,” I delete all eight letters and start anew, rather than simply correcting the two misplaced letters.
- While rowing at the gym, curling my big toe for exactly two strokes at a time. I once did this after forgetting to strap my feet into the machine’s stirrups. Upon flying off the seat (after just one stroke – how OCD unsatisfying!), I played it off as a mechanical failure.
I perform these tasks begrudgingly, knowingly, and with a vague, irreversible sense of dread should I not conform to my mind’s rigid orders. And though this list suggests a mild, non-threatening compulsivity that, while crazy, carries scant consequences, a line of limited effects was recently crossed by one of my handful of other compulsive habits: teeth grinding.
Also known as bruxism, occasional teeth grinding does not cause significant harm but, when occurring consistently, can lead to tooth damage such as chipping, cracking and erosion. Bruxism is typically combatted by nighttime mouth guards or, in the case of preoccupied teeth grinders, increased self-vigilance.
However, my teeth grinding, in which I have engaged for decades, is compulsive. I’ve always been aware of bruxism’s risks but, against my will, have been unable to cease the gnashing and clenching that, over time, has taken a diminutive yet distinct dental toll.
Last month saw the first non-dismissible consequence of my bruxism: a weekend’s worth of excruciating pain followed by a root canal – a procedure whose infamy among gallows humorists is well deserved. The swelling caused by the dying root and invasive dental procedure took several weeks to subside.
My diseased tooth is both painful physical evidence of my OCD’s potential consequences, and a sort of throbbing, mocking challenge to overcome its irrational hold over my mashing mandible.
Recovery via Repetition: The Discipline Dilemma
The most significant feat I have ever accomplished is my initial recovery from alcoholism. Decades of ailments, anxiety and depression – including a two-year period when, inexplicably to doctors, my eyesight deteriorated from 20/20 to 20/60; a nervous breakdown ending with hospitalization; and three years of steep-spiraling, low-bottom alcoholism – led to October 10, 2011: Day One of my current and unprecedented tenure of continuous sobriety.
Early recovery is tenuous because it is tool-less. At age 32, I came to Alcoholics Anonymous with shameful self-awareness of my drinking’s destruction, but no clue how to avoid further damage. What I did have is willingness to do absolutely anything to get sober. I had the gift of desperation.
For many in early recovery – especially those who, like me, came into AA an ardent atheist averse to the slightest sliver of spirituality – sound sobriety is built on a foundation of disciplined action that, at its most granular, moment-to-moment level, is executed through setting and sustaining healthy habits. I got sober due to a strict weekday regimen of work, AA meetings and exercise and, on weekends, a vigilant wife whose sight I seldom left.
Today, though the tools gained through AA have afforded me more flexibility, I still prefer sticking to set routines. I have – I am – proof that sobriety can stem from structure, with the wisdom of AA at its root. I have no reason – indeed, given such profound blessings, no right – to stray from this solution. I am free, yes, but not free-wheeling.
I am, then, still a creature of habit – better habits, but habits nonetheless. Building my life in sobriety has meant practicing persistence and consistency. Dependability at work. Dedication to physical fitness. Responsibility as a husband, a friend, a sponsor to an AA newcomer. Progress was gained incrementally through taking, step by step and day by day, the next right action. I have thrived by living in action.
But to tackle obsessive compulsive disorder, I’ll have to live with inaction. And I have absolutely no idea how to do that.
In combating OCD, I am asking something incredibly foreign of myself: to stop performing tasks that – unlike drinking – have no real or immediate consequences. My root canal may deter me from teeth grinding (though it probably won’t), but stopping one OCD symptom is not a recipe for long-term freedom from it. Such a piecemeal approach would be akin to seeking long-term recovery from alcoholism simply by deciding not to drink: the root of the problem – namely, oneself – is left untreated, rendering such symptomatic stopgaps devoid of depth and, inevitably, limited in duration.
I have begun earnestly fighting the irrational urges to conduct my little movements that, though harmless, make no sense and cause anxiety that, though not overwhelming, is entirely unnecessary. I’ve had moments of success. “The car lights are off,” I recently said aloud to myself, slamming the door behind me despite the nagging need to blink them on and off again. But later, while showering, each armpit received exactly you-know-how-many scrubbing strokes.
I’ve found these initial struggles half-humbling, half-humiliating; for the starkly self-aware, there is gut-shot shame in lunacy. I cringe at my craziness.
Still, I approach this battle against my latest anxious, addictive compulsion – one far less serious than alcoholism but, in a way, more perplexing – with gratitude. Essentially, my OCD is an irritating yet non-debilitating foible that, as I continue to grow in sobriety, I can work on overcoming because – incredibly, given my condition just three years ago – none of the other problems in my otherwise-charmed life are pressing. This isn’t life-or-death; this is progress. And it’s time to take this next step in its name.