This is going to be one of those posts that some people will read and nod their heads “yep” the whole way through, and others will read and think I am utterly batty.
I’m going to attempt to put into words something that is difficult to describe. Bear with me while I give it a bash.
I used to think that OCD only referred to people with extreme paranoia, or debilitating compulsions, and therefore was not something I had. I’ve since come to understand that like most things, it is a spectrum disorder and that OCD can be very mild and seemingly insignificant. Most people have some degree of OCD. Somewhere there must be an evolutionary advantage to the trait of having complusive and insistent thoughts that badger a person into particular actions. It’s probably tied into having a conscience — which is generally a good thing for the human race as a whole.
When I was a child I remember having odd games I would play that nowadays would probably be classed as OCD. I had this thing where if I touched something accidentally, say, a wall as I was walking past, with one hand, I had to touch it with the other hand too. I had to make it “equal” on both sides of my body. Hence, all our corridors had hand marks along them. In fact, the “equal on both sides” game was a thing for me between the ages of 5-10 (if I remember correctly). If I scratched one knee because I had an itch I had to then scratch the other etc. I grew out of it.
I also had this urge to follow thoughts such as “touch the pen” and if I had that thought, I had to touch the pen. There was no superstition or thoughts around negative consequences involved, simply a compulsion. The main theme as I can describe it, was that if I had a thought like that I had to act on it. As a child, it was always inconsequential stuff that nobody would notice, but it was there. In my head, it was my secret little game. For the most part this completely went away as I moved into my teens.
Many of us who have restrictive eating disorders also have low to high levels of OCD that generally begins to develop a couple months after the onset of our disordered eating and weight loss. In my experience, those of us with compulsive movement also tend towards the higher end on the OCD scale. We get stuck in ritual, rules, and habits, some of which seem sporadic and unplanned but always tend to follow a theme: to assist energy deficit.
When I developed anorexia as a young adult, my mild OCD started to come back, only different. The if-I-think-it-I-have-to-do-it feeling started to come in around restriction at first. It mostly centered around movement. If I was sitting in a lecture hall and I suddenly had the thought “I should walk to the toilets” then I would have to get up and walk to the toilets and back. If I was at home and I had the thought to walk upstairs, I would have to walk up the stairs. If I was sitting on a bus and I had the though to stand, I would have to stand. Mild moved towards moderate, which moved towards extreme OCD around anything to do with movement. It also built, as if I had done something the day before I had to do it again. So that meant every day at 11am I had to walk out of the lecture hall and to the toilets. It was also situational — in certain environments there were certain rules.
I’ll give you another example of that. At uni, my digs were on the 3rd floor. One day I had a visitor and I could see them approaching our Uni house from my room window. I ran down the three flights of stairs to let them in the main door. The next time I watched a visitor approach the house — not my visitor, someone else’s — it occurred to me I could run down the stairs and let them in before they rung the bell to be let in by the person they were visiting. How helpful of me! So I did that. And … you guessed it, now I am obsessively watching the window all day to make sure if someone approaches the house I am there to run down and let them in.
It was very stressful to have to do that. It interfered with my studies. And that’s just one example of one OCD-quirk I had out of many. Ridiculously, I began to dread being in my room because I knew if I was in my room I would have to do this annoying watching-the-window-and-running-down-the-stairs task. I was both irritated and relieved when I would spot someone walking towards the house. Irritated because I had to move. Relieved because I got to move. Over the years, irritation, dread, and hopelessness far overwhelmed any relief about moving. I hated every part of all the complusive movement I forced myself to participate in.
With hindsight I can see I could have stopped doing that, and the rest of it, at any time, but that was before I understood my disorder, and long before I understood how to recover.
The OCD kept developing and evolving. In the winter I was so cold I would stand in my room next to the radiator. In the summer even though not so cold, I wanted to “match” the standing I had done in the winter, so I continued to stand in my room. Very soon I would not allow myself to sit if I could possibly stand. Very soon I had developed and maintained hundreds of rituals that I had to act out at certain times of day, or in certain circumstances. It was truly awful but, as is common among people with eating disorders. I hid it and pretended it wasn’t there and certainly didn’t ask for help because I was terrified of not doing it.
So … how does this work for you in recovery?
Cut to recovery (Yes, I missed out the ten years it took me to get there) and I was actually able to use my OCD tendencies and specifically the if-I-think-it-I-have-to-do-it rule to my advantage. I turned it around on itself. So … if I had a thought that promoted energy deficit, — such as I should move, or stand, or walk up the stairs — the game was I had to do an opposite action that promoted energy accumulation; i.e I had to eat something.
Additionally, should I have a thought that promoted energy accumulation — such as mental hunger — I had to act on it. And if I had a random opportunity to eat or challenge my eating disorder, I had to take it. So for example, if I were in town and I noticed a bakery, I had to go in and buy and eat a cake. If I had noticed the bakery, and if I had had the thought “I could go in and buy a cake,” I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, not having done it would hover around me in the typical OCD thought fashion. It was like I knew that my OCD was “all in my head” but I had worked out how to make it backfire on my eating disorder and play the game only when it suited recovery.
Another example would be my calorie counting and checking OCD. I checked everything. I knew the caloric value of everything. I calculated calories automatically. I checked the back of packets habitually. I thought about calories none stop, and my calorie calculations controlled the decisions I made over what to eat. In recovery, I was able to use my OCD to counter this. I was OCD about NOT allowing myself to check the back of packets. I would go to lengths to avoid looking at calorie information. I created a rule that said that if I did know the caloric value of two food options I had to choose and eat the higher one. I created a rule that said if I counted calories in my head I had to eat something extra in that very moment just to prove to my brain that calories didn’t matter. In doing all these things meticulously, I successfully rewired my brain out of the calorie focus. I became obsessed with not allowing myself to obsess about calories. It sounds backwards, but it worked.
My OCD is nonexistent when I don’t have an eating disorder, but when I did, I was able to turn it around on my eating disorder.
Like I said at the start, some of you won’t get this post at all. Some of you will totally get it. Neither is better or worse, recovery is all about using what you have got to your advantage in every sense — even if what you have got is fucking weird.