This week, I share a personal experience that highlights how my OCD gets triggered. Thankfully, the story includes some help from my therapist that provides some hope for the future.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
The sky was dark and heavy, threatening the storm I had adjusted my schedule to avoid. I was on the freeway headed to my office after spending the afternoon with my brother.
Earlier that morning, he had asked to get together in the afternoon instead of the evening. I deliberated and then adjusted my expectations for the day. I shot my wife a text letting her know I would be working that evening instead.
Now I was on my way to the office, eagerly looking forward to what I had planned. My podcast was interrupted by the phone ringing. I know it is irrational to be annoyed that my listening time was interrupted, but that only makes the irritation worse as it mixes with hot and sticky guilt. As I saw my wife’s name pop up, I felt shame at the stab of resentment that coursed through me.
“Here we go,” I thought. “My evening is shot.” I knew she was calling to ask me to change my plans. I just knew it.
I answered with a false smile, and sure enough, she wanted me to come home and help put the littles to bed. Then I could work the rest of the night in our room and she would leave me alone. It would save the time driving past the house down to my office. It would all work out.
I pointed out that working at home is not the same as working in the quiet of my office. And I didn’t even have my computer with me. The one I needed for the work I was planning on doing. At least, my mind said I clearly needed it.
I pulled out the line from my therapist like an arrow from a quiver. “Why don’t you tell me what you feel and what you need?” And then I added, “Don’t tell me when and where to work.”
We argued for a few more minutes until a scuffle in the background demanded her attention. She would call back in a minute.
The call hung up and I screamed in frustration and rage. Just like I thought, my evening was ruined. I could either go home and help with the kids and be resentful, or I could go to my office and feel guilty. Either way, I wasn’t going to be able to do the work I was looking forward to. I’d been robbed of that chance.
She called back, and I calmly, and with self-congratulated skill, asked what she was thinking and feeling. The veneer over my irritation cracked open when she pointed out that she had already told me that. My response escalated us into a heated argument. And then the two-year-old fell off her chair and she had to go.
I screamed again. And then told myself I was deciding for me and for the kids. I would go home and see them before bed and help out as I could. Plus, the baby had just fallen and might be in danger.
I got off the freeway and turned around, speeding back to the house. I screeched into the garage, jumped out and ran inside. “Where’s the baby? Is she ok?” As if I really believed she was at risk.
The next hour or so was reading, changing, playing, and then putting the babies down. I even apologized, of a sort. “I’m still upset and don’t trust myself to say the right thing, but I’m sorry that I yelled at you.”
There was half a Kneader’s sandwich I could eat, and I gallantly decided to eat in our room with my wife, and then head my office. The silence felt oppressive, and I wanted it clear that I was doing the right thing. So I asked about her day and how our oldest was doing. After a few minutes, I realized I was standing, waiting for a long enough pause to justify leaving. I forced myself to sit, clearly demonstrating I was engaged in this conversation. When the pause came, I announced I was headed to my office.
As I walked out, my wife commented that I could have done that from the beginning if I needed. Instead of recognizing that she was giving me reassurance I had clearly been wanting the whole evening, my emotions boiled over. I felt so much guilt, and knew that I had been handling things poorly, but felt trapped by my brain. I said more dumb and hurtful things before finally catching myself and disengaging to head out.
I drove in to my office and blasted angry music while playing Sudoku for a while. Then I watched a movie and went to sleep in my chair.
The next morning, I felt immensely better. My wife and I texted apologies and I did my best to work normally. By the time I went home, I was pretty well recovered, and had a nice, normal evening at home.
When I met with my therapist a few days later, we talked through the incident at length. While also supportive and validating, it was one of those tough love sessions. She called me out on my bullshit and made me admit what I had really done.
There were a number of aspects of what happened that were reframed. I told her that one thing that made me mad from the beginning was knowing that my wife would not have asked me to come home if I was with my brother that evening instead of reading to my office.
“Of course not! Don’t you think she was relieved that things worked out that way and there was a chance that you could help when she really needed it?”
That thought came as an epiphany.
I told her that I had done what I was supposed to—I repeated back what I had heard that she felt and needed.
“Great! So then why did you keep forcing her to say it in the way you wanted? You knew from the beginning what she was asking.”
Cue rueful chuckle. Yes, I knew exactly what she needed, but I was mad and feeling justified at making her phrase things in the right way.
I complained that my wife was being controlling. She was trying to arrange when and where I was going to work and why it would be ok to change things around.
“She’s not trying to control you. She’s trying to show how easy she can be. She’s trying to make things ok so she doesn’t have to deal with the irritation that comes her way. She’s terrified to ask for something because of how you react.”
That was sobering. And illuminating. I knew immediately she was right.
One of the most frustrating parts of the whole situation was feeling trapped. I knew it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t see any other possibilities for the evening than either complying and feeling resentful, or refusing and feeling guilty. My therapist said that now I could identify the lie, I will be able to combat it next time.
The key is to be emotionally honest, starting with myself, and identify what I can offer. What do I want to do, and what do I feel capable of in the moment.
I asked what to do when I get the phone call about a plan change and am immediately pissed off. How do I move to responding calmly and honestly?
“First off, let’s reframe it. You are not actually pissed off. Your OCD is activated and as a result, you are irritable. So take a minute to realize what is causing the distress—what is setting your OCD off. Then you can be frustrated for a moment, because life is frustrating, and then choose how to respond. You could say, ‘I’m scrambled right now. Let me take a couple minutes to process what you asked, and I’ll call you back.’”
It was a revelation! So simple. So doable.
She gave me a phrase to practice. When I notice my wife getting anxious, or trying to arrange things to soothe my OCD, I can kindly cut in and let her know she doesn’t have to worry about that—I can handle that part. Then I can say:
I hear you feeling anxious. Don’t worry, I have your back. Here’s what I have to give right now: _____.
I’ll be honest. This intimidates me. I am not good at acknowledging and allowing my emotions. I have a hard time identifying what I want. It feels herculean to be able to honestly assess what I am capable of giving.
But I also feel hope.
This is a hint of a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. This is the possibility of shedding an impossible weight crushing down on me. This is a glimmer of what could be escape from the constant hell I’m living. A reprieve from the torture of never enough.
I have work to do. But for maybe the first time, it feels freeing. As I practice exploring what I actually think and feel and want, I might just get to know myself. The prospect is exciting.