Spring has come again to the southern half of the planet Earth, and with it the season for beach walks and swimming (my favourite forms of exercise), and for barbeques, a fun if not always healthy way of sharing a meal.
But my worst area of obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”) has also responded to the rise in temperatures!
Wikipedia tells us that with an anxiety disorder, persistent, intrusive thoughts produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear or worry (or obsessions). Repetitive behaviour develops, aimed at reducing the associated anxiety (compulsions). The disorder may show as excessive washing or cleaning, repeated checking, extreme hoarding, preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts, relationship-related obsessions, aversion to particular words, places or numbers, and nervous rituals such as opening and closing a door a certain number of times before entering or leaving a room. How many of us don’t struggle with some odd habit or even a full-blown obsession? It is believed that a third to half of adults with OCD report a childhood onset of the disorder, suggesting that such anxiety disorders can continue across our lifespan.
In my case, yesterday was the 69th anniversary of my first surgery, a very early operation in very different time which I had to remedy pyloric stenosis, a fairly common stomach blockage. This surgery certainly saved my life but it also left me with a relatively mild but nevertheless vexing and indelible form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and also with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
This post is devoted to this aspect of my inner life, but not because I revel in it (“pity me”) – in fact, only my most immediate family and those who read my posts here know about it.
The reason for this post is that so many PS survivors I have “met” online share my pain in a variety of ways, and until the web enabled us to share this trauma, many of us struggled with yet another obsessive fear : that we were “different” and “strange” because of our PTSD and OCD. The web has made possible all kinds of community, and countless infant PSers have found information, reassurance and help thanks to blogs like this one and to networks like those I have mentioned in my most recent posts here.
This scene I captured of some of my family at Sydney’s harbour heads is typical of early summer. But notice the sunlovers on either side of our group… Since I can remember, one weird reason I really like a beach or coast walk is so that I can scan lots of bare midriffs for anything like the 10 cm scar on my belly. And believe me, I am not alone in this.
In my younger years this was a blind obsession; I have slowly realized why I learnt to do this from such an early age and why it has seemed to me impossible to shake off.
One of the first things human babies start doing after their birth is to scan their admirers’ faces (especially the eyes and mouth), first to learn to recognise those nearest and dearest, then to “read” those faces for approval (or otherwise), and then to learn how to mimic sounds and speech. In other words, babies are programmed to seek and belong to a community.
At a different level, it seems that I and many like me were and remain hungry for a sense of community based on our deep and uncomfortable awareness that in certain everyday summer situations our body looks different. Other people must have thought so too by their looking, pointing, asking questions and making comments we could not handle when young. It needs to be added that my parents could have helped me but (notably in those long-ago days) probably did not know how to.
The combination of deep seated feelings, traumatic experiences, and repeated damaging ways we responded to these can give rise to OCD, and often even the best available counsel will not bring much change, the more so after many years when the brain’s pathways (learned behaviour) have become established.
So at the beach or pool, or sometimes when reading a magazine, my eyes are in scanning mode. Hardly immoral or threatening – but a major nuisance I’d love to be without. And on the positive side, when I do find a person with a body scar, I feel a sense of identity that over the years has yielded some good friendships, occasionally some very helpful mutual discoveries, and always a reminder that I am after all not unique in my being “marked, different and “damaged”.
OCD affects people in other ways too. Recently my fellow PSer and blogging partner Wendy Williams wrote about this subject, and I identified strongly with what she mentioned about triggers, another way in which OCD shows itself. We survivors can develop very deep feelings about a scar that we have always had, which for whatever reason we did not learn to embrace from the dawn of our awareness, and of which we are daily reminded, sometimes in ways that upset us. I “see” images of my scar in many places, ranging from patterns on clothes and buildings to occasionally the contrails of jet aircraft.
During our recent family visit to the Netherlands, we were walking around a lake which included an adventure playground: I looked inside the entrance and instantly my attention was locked onto a small tent – for no other reason than that the markings around its “door” represented to me … what? I saw what my little baby-belly must have looked like 69 years ago to this day. Click on the photo if you cannot see what I saw.
Now, is that a pleasant, useful or interesting discovery? It’s not something I wish on anybody – and that is the nature of OCD – uninvited, unhelpful, unpleasant, useless but inescapable.
Back in Australia I was given the tools for a barbeque last week when we had lunch in a national park with our family. The thick sausages were still frozen, so after some initial sizzling to firm up the outer meat we decided to slice them open to ensure they were well cooked right through.
Immediately the realization: this is almost exactly what the surgeon did to open up my stomach’s pyloric muscle all those years ago: cut through the outer layer (but not too deeply, keep the gastric passage intact), spread the slit to open up the inside (to allow the gastric canal to reopen), and extend the cut towards both ends to be effective (but again not too far: don’t damage the stomach and duodenum ends).
Again: is this photo and what it represents helpful? pleasant? useful? Yet the link was inescapable to me. And no, I didn’t tell my wife exactly why I wanted her to take that photo! Of course, if another aspect of my obsession had not prompted me to find images of the Ramstedt pyloromyotomy operation and watch online videos, I would be unaware of the connection between my barbeque and my first surgery.
My OCD makes its continuing presence felt in other ways also, as I have mentioned in other posts and on the “My Story” page of this blogsite: with certain words, images, places and people. However, I am grateful that these various triggers now trouble me a lot less than they once did. I have come to understand and embrace my story and what came with it.
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OCD is a pain! But my friend and colleague Wendy summed up the positives very beautifully:
Though triggers are frightening, they are teachers. Through them, we understand ourselves. We discover where we still need to heal. And we go where we are led to find more freedom from trauma – to become more of who we are, and have always been, at our core.