Rarer, but still significant, are obsessions with the body and physical symptoms, religious and blasphemous thoughts, unwanted sexual thoughts and thoughts of carrying out acts of violence. It's because obsessive thoughts are so often within these taboo and embarrassing subjects that so many people with OCD choose to hide them.
It felt good to say those things out loud. Was there, say, a risk when I played football and scraped my knee along the abrasive AstroTurf? Someone else could have done the same after all, and left a smear of infected blood at that exact spot. No, they would respond, no need to worry. The risk was very low. But, wait, very low? The risk was very low, so there was a risk?
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I would dial the number dozens of times a day. I couldn't understand why my mind would circle round, why the sense that everything would be all right was so fleeting. I learned their voices, and was encouraged when someone new picked up the phone — surely they would be the one to convince me. After a while, they started to recognise my voice, too. So I invented new scenarios, and even put on different regional accents.
Not that it did any good. Reassurance, like offence, is taken, not given.
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And my mind would not take it. Someone who is HIV- positive cannot. And it was the first thing I thought of every morning. And it was pretty much all I thought of in between.
I lost interest in the stuff that had seemed important just a few months previously; music, books and films no longer held my attention. I wasn't bothered by crumbs in the bed; I was scared that I would catch a terrible disease, which was very different. I eventually went to see a psychiatrist. He gave me a red rubber band and told me to wear it on my wrist and snap it against my skin whenever I had an intrusive thought about HIV or Aids.
That was treatment for OCD in the mids. It was called thought-stopping. My band lasted a few hours. The next one survived a day. I went to a budget stationery shop and asked for the biggest bag of rubber bands they had.
Thought-stopping, scientists now accept, does not help people with OCD. The psychiatrist had asked if I wanted to join one of his group sessions for OCD. He explained the vicious circle I was trapped inside. The way to stop the ride and get off, he said, was to resist the compulsions. I never smoked, but I imagine that to resist the compulsions of OCD must be like to trying to quit cigarettes. It ultimately comes down to willpower.
But what must be resisted in OCD is not a physical craving, but the pull of your own consciousness. Some days I had more willpower than others. If I was unsure whether someone else had drunk from my glass, I didn't finish it. In that way, I muddled through. I had lots more bad days.
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It's just that I was thinking about something else at the time. I was thinking about HIV and Aids in the days before I got married — I had met a climate scientist with a sore on his lip at a conference the previous week, and I couldn't be sure that we hadn't mixed up our drinks. OCD stole something from me at that stage of my life: it took away my attention.
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It was summer and she wore a pair of shorts and there, above the knee, was a dull smear of red. Strange, there was no obvious cut or graze, and she wasn't in a position to damage herself anyway — crawling was months away, let alone walking. I was the obvious source of the blood, and sure enough, when I looked carefully, I saw a scratch on the back of one of my fingers. There was a similar smudge on my finger. My mind delivered another scenario.
It could be someone else's blood. And it could be HIV positive. She could have rubbed it into her eyes. My baby daughter complained about me lifting her in and out of the swing only on about the 11th time. Yes, the stained part of her leg did seem to touch part of the metal guard as I pulled her out, well, more or less. I couldn't see any blood on the swing, and I couldn't see any blood on the grass underneath, any of the times I looked. I was Before that day with my daughter, I had settled for a life with OCD.
A little withdrawn, distracted or quiet in some situations, perhaps, but happy. I reversed that decision the day I made my baby daughter an accomplice. It stopped here.
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It was the same hospital where my daughter was born. This time, there would be no elastic bands. And I was determined to make it work. By the time my case worked its way through the health service to reach the specialist OCD unit, my obsessions about HIV had spread to the many different ways I thought I could pass the virus to my daughter, who by now was about eight months old.
If I cut myself shaving, or in clumsy attempts at home improvement, I was compelled to wash my hands repeatedly before I touched her. I was distraught. I had become a hand-washer. It wasn't only HIV by then. More blood tests — this time my wife and I for lead both normal. My wife drew the line at tests on the baby. I even found a national lead paint hotline to call. On that score, I was right to worry: studies since the s have shown that OCD seems to run in families. Relatives of those with OCD are themselves more likely to show symptoms than the general population.