Loosen the Barbed Wire, Please

Carrying obsessions is one of the most painful things I endure.  I do not speak of a penchant for designer shoes and purses, but rather a demon so powerful, so insidious, one that wraps barbed wire around my soul and refuses to let go.  My focuses of attention shift with time.  The patterns of the responses surrounding my obsessions may likened unto an EKG monitor recording a heart rhythm.  There exists the baseline, and then there are spikes and plummets that dance around the baseline, neither staying for very long.  There are times when the obsessions/compulsions flare up severely, like a firecracker shooting into the sky, and I burn and burn until all that is left are ashes indicative of a fight I have lost.  The performance of each compulsion is never enough, never satisfactory, and never will be.  The demon demands more and more, with each request tightening the hold on the ever-constricting barbed wire.  I ask my mother repeatedly, please look and see if I have degenerative gum disease, please look, and with each answer of “no” I receive, there grows a greater impetus to ask again, because no matter how many times I receive the answer I am seeking, my brain refuses to believe it as truth and deems it to be a lie.  There is but a fraction of a second where my mind considers the validity of the answer before the impulse to ask again ensues.

During the summer a little over a year ago, I lived in a special place of hell.  I was in the throes of two obsessions that worked to destroy what little existed of the life I was attempting to live.  I had just moved back to Portland to return to school after living at home for a few months following one of many psychiatric hospitalizations.  The building was old – historic, they call it – and it terrified the living daylights out of me from the get-go.  I was dipping into psychosis as well, and from the minute I began to move into the building I became thoroughly convinced that it and my apartment were infested with bedbugs.

The unpacking process never really happened, as I became obsessed with the infestation and spreading of bedbugs in the apartment.  I had places designated in the apartment for contaminated and uncontaminated items in order to slow the infestation.  Upon arriving in the apartment, my shoes were placed in a specific spot that prevented bedbugs living in the hallways from entering my apartment any further than the door.  I then had to place a special pair of socks on my feet that allowed me to walk through the apartment.  As clothes became contaminated, I collected them in a plastic bin, and when it came time to wash the clothing, I could not allow the bin nor the clothes to come into contact with the building in any way between my apartment and the laundry room, and then between the laundry room and my apartment in order to prevent contamination.

My cat was living with my at the time, and I became very afraid of her.  I began to see her as another vessel in the apartment that was capable spreading bedbugs.  I attempted to eschew all contact with her, because she was “contaminated” as well.  Then I started seeing the bedbugs everywhere (which is probably where some psychosis comes in).  My special socks started to be covered in them.  I could find them all over the floor, my bed.  I would tear my bed apart repeatedly looking for evidence of bedbugs.  I forbid my cat from coming into contact with my bed, and each time she did, it initiated a storm.  It came to the point where no place remained uncontaminated.

It was also during this time that I became obsessed with having a degenerative gum disease.  I spent literally hours in front of the bathroom mirror, with a second hand-held mirror to maximize the angles, studying and dissecting what I saw before me.  I thought the periodontal tissue was deteriorating and with such rapidity that I would soon lose all of my teeth.  Even after seeing doctors and being told otherwise, my fears could not be assuaged.

The barbed wire gripped my soul so tightly and strengthened its grip with each attempt I made to break free through performing a compulsion.  I bled and bled and bled that summer.  I came home one weekend during this time and had an especially distressing flareup with my degenerative gum disease obsession and ended up cutting my arm very badly in attempts to escape the hellish world in which I was trapped.  What I call “the nightmare” ended with a hospitalization and a strong dose of lithium.

In Brain Lock, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz discusses the neuroscience behind obsessive-compulsive disorder.  The parts of the brain in the orbital cortex fail in their ability to initiate change from one thought or behavior to the next with fluidity.  Thus thoughts and behaviors get “caught in gear.”  Hence why compulsions are performed repeatedly to no avail, and thoughts perseverate uncontrollably.  I have found that, personally, the most successful way for me to detach from the obsessions and compulsions and free myself from the tightening grip is to defuse.  I recognize the thoughts for what they are – information coming from my brain that cannot be held as undeniable truth – and let them go.  One by one, over and over again.  Only when I can recognize the thoughts as pathological and not veritable can I detach from the vicious cycle.

I am still struggling with obsessions daily, but I have made some strides in being able to defuse and let go of troubling obsessions that may arise.  I strongly recommend the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, and specifically his book Brain Lockin better understanding obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors.  Perhaps the most painful aspect is that a compulsion is never enough.  What little fleeting relief one may feel is immediately replaced with the flood of fear, anxiety, foreboding, and it truly will never, ever be enough.


  1. This, and the others things you write on this blog, make my own daily tests and struggles seem so completely trivial and petty. And I feel ridiculous for dwelling on them and complaining to God about them, after I read this today.

    I have become convinced over time that all of this suffering has its purpose and meaning. I have seen how the most terrible losses in a life can be redeemed, and become the genesis of something more beautiful and wonderful than would have existed without the loss.

    I have no doubt that the trials which you are going through are producing a soul of inestimable beauty which will only be fully revealed after this temporary sojourn in the valley of shadows has ended.

    But the shining and sparkling of that soul are even now most visible in your writings. Thank you for sharing yourself here, Alex! And inspiring those of us not so blessed with trials and suffering to rise to the challenge of our lives and serve God to the limits of our capacity.

    1. Thank you, Matthew. Your words warm my soul. We all have our tests and trials, and yes, they truly polish the soul. I am ever grateful for the comments you are so kind enough to leave.

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