By Daniel Tarade
I have written before about my struggles with panic disorder. Caught up in the fear fostered and perpetuated by frightening physical symptoms was also a slew of obsessive thoughts and actions. In fact, my struggles with anxiety and depression were in many ways foreshadowed by my obsessive tendencies, which emerged when I was a child of around ten years of age. Growing up a firm believer in a wrathful, vengeance-seeking god, I often found myself suffering under the weight of blasphemous thoughts, a tide I could hardly stem. It eventually boiled over when every night for nearly a month, I found myself repeatedly thinking “Fuck Mary.” I so wanted to stop but I couldn’t. Instead, I became incredibly fearful for my eternal soul, one that would be surely damned to hell for such insubordinate thinking. After some time, it appeared my only path towards relief was to open up to my parents. After a brief conference between the two, they turned to me and asked, “are you saying that because Mary is a virgin?” I instead explained that I felt I was repeating such forbidden utterances over and over again because I knew that I shouldn’t. My parents assured me that I wasn’t going to go to hell. If anything, my genuine guilt surrounding my sins meant that I was a good Christian. After that conversation, I quickly got over that particular obsessive thought. But I wasn’t in the clear just yet. Throughout the years, I would have other spells of obsessiveness. The time I received a new knife set and became immediately convinced that I would stab my girlfriend. Or the time I spent three consecutive weeks manually breathing. Or the time furiously scrubbed my face and washed out my eyes because a raccoon walked by open window and I became concerned about the possibility of aerosolized rabies virus. Or the time I asked for a second ultrasound because even after one negative result, I was still convinced I had testicular cancer. All those stories highlight the obsessive compulsive tendencies that permeate my life. That said, I do not have an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Rather, I have obsessive compulsive tendencies.
One of the most recognizable obsessive tendencies a person can suffer from is checking the stove to see if you forgot to turn off a burner. Jump-cut to 2016. I am wallowing in anxiety and despair. Not coincidentally, I also began suffering a greater and greater number of obsessive tendencies including the obsessive-compulsive checking of the stove before retiring to my room for the night. At first, I would just observe the stove to ensure that all the burners were turned off. However, I began to find myself returning to the stove several times during the night just to make sure that it was indeed off. Resultantly, my routine became more complicated. I began placing my hands and forearms on the elements. While doing so, I would count to ten while looking at each dial. Look at the top left dial (which clearly indicates that the burner is off) - “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10” - look at the bottom left dial (also off) - “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10” … I would repeat the entire process about three or four times until I felt comfortable enough to go to bed. My thought process was that when I began wondering if I turned off the stove while nodding off to sleep, I could check my hands and my forearms to confirm that I was not burnt and, therefore, the stove was off.
My strategy was not dissimilar to what was recommended for a woman suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder who would always fear that she left her hair dryer on. During her ride to work, she would inevitably turn around and have to confirm that the hair dryer was indeed off. The suggestion was that she simply bring the hair dryer with her in the car, allowing her to immediately assess the status of the hair dryer as off and cool. As the story goes, this strategy works greatly and her morning commute becomes less cumbersome and distressing. Importantly, the suggestion was not given by a psychiatrist but by a co-worker and the story, as related by a psychiatrist who worked in a hospital, was apparently quite controversial among their co-workers. The controversy hinged on whether the act of bringing the hair dryer impeded the woman from truly battling her obsessive compulsive tendencies. However, others argued that the relief enabled by bringing her hair dryer along for the ride was the true benchmark of a successful intervention.
When I began attending cognitive behaviour therapy, my obsessive-compulsive tendencies were placed on the backburner while we focused on the more pressing issue of the debilitating panic disorder with which I was struggling to live. Further, when the psychologist asked if my obsessive-compulsive behaviours were distressing, I answered no. They were somewhat annoying, I conceded, but I could live with them - much like the story of the hair dryer. However, as I began to reign in my anxiety and panic, we started a side project of working on my nightly routine of obsessively checking the stove. The experiment was simple. Don’t check the oven, go to bed, and see how you feel. Just assume that the stove is off because, well, why wouldn’t it be? Every single time I checked the stove before bed, it was invariably turned off. With the encouragement of my psychologist, I went to bed that night without placing my palms on the familiar cool of the radial elements, their blackness contrasting the stained white of the stove top. Somewhat surprisingly, I slept fine. And with that, I was now attempting to guide the boat back to shore. I would fight my obsessive behaviours.
One of the other areas of my life often marked by obsessive thoughts and behaviours is my science. I repeatedly review raw data to make sure data inputs were unmarred, I conduct additional experiments to rule out artefactual interpretations of my observations, and I remake buffers and reagents if there is any indication of debris, contamination, precipitation, etc. Some of these behaviours I believe make me a better scientist, albeit slower and more cautious. However, much like at home, I would obsessively check to make sure that Bunsen burners were turned off and that the freezers, home to many important samples, were closed properly. In some instances, I would take photos at the end of the work day that I could refer to later for reassurance that everything back in lab was prim and proper. Occasionally, the minus 20 freezers will stop closing properly owing to a build-up of frost. Those weeks, the freezer door would need to be closed deliberately as a door left to its own devices would invariably come to a stop a few inches from the freezer, leaving a gap from which all the cold could escape. A late Sunday evening and I just arrived home from lab. My obsessive brain kicks in - “Fuck, did I close the freezer?” Having not taken a photo (a habit I was trying to break in my continued attempt to overcome my obsessive-compulsive tendencies), I was left with a choice; do I go back to lab, a round-trip that will take nearly an hour, or do I go to bed, as it was already 10:30 pm. I was pulling on my shoes when I realized that I was being silly. I most likely closed the freezer. Some quick and dirty applications of probability theory lead me to believe that I would be better off going to bed. And, after all, this will be a great opportunity to further reclaim my life from obsessiveness. Monday morning, a mere eight hours after my dilemma, I am approaching the freezer when I catch sight of large puddle of water and a freezer door that is slightly ajar. I was wrong. I did leave the door open. Before anyone else shows up for work, I clean up the mess and compose an email to our lab manager. “I messed up” reads the subject line. When my manager arrived at work, we evaluated the damage and were somewhat relieved. The frost did not completely thaw and we estimated that the temperature did not get much higher than four degrees. Not ideal but our plasmids should be unaffected and the more sensitive enzymes stored in the freezer might be alright as well, although I would test a few to make sure. As I took a break later in the morning, I reflected on all that transpired. I had been faced with a dilemma, a battle between my obsessive need to eliminate risk and my desire to live life free of such time-consuming and stressful habits. I had choosen to sleep. Some might see this whole scenario as validation of my rituals – of course most of the time the freezer door will be closed and the stove burners will be off but if you keep true to your rituals, you will never be caught in such a predicament as I found myself that morning. However, I choose to view my experience as a victory. I fought my obsessive thoughts and slept comfortably. Sure, I had to deal with an unexpectedly thawed freezer but I did so with good humour. Why? Because I finally learned that life is not about eliminating risk but growing comfortable with the risk that is inherent in life. Some level of caution and reservation eliminates the majority of preventable risk. Beyond that point, diminishing returns abound, as more and more invasive rituals are required to eliminate smaller and smaller amounts of risk. It is up to each person to determine what that point is but I came to appreciate that my rituals prevented little and occupied much – my time and my mind.