The Defective Domino

The knots which had been steadily looping and tightening within me suddenly pulled mercilessly.  The knives stabbed my chest, my heart, I knew.  My innards wished to be decorative feathered boas draped across my clammy torso.  The bugs crawled across my skin, but I could not catch them.  I could not squash them.  I looked across the room.  The windows of the fifteenth floor apartment were open.  Jump, I heard whispered.  In fear, I sought refuge on the street.  The train was approaching.  Jump, I heard whispered.  The scissors snipped, and I floated away.

My mind and mood cycle rapidly.  Up to down, down to up, up and down together, defying the laws of gravity and any semblance of common sense.  I was slowly stacking dominoes.  A bachelors degree from college.  Enrollment in a certificate program for paralegal studies.  A wonderful, fulfilling, healthy relationship.  Then, the first domino tipped.  I am unsure what force with requisite pressure caused the first fall in a chain reaction.  Paranoia, depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, and anxiety began to take nest.  As the dominoes fell harder and faster, I feared this was the end, that I would finally come to know intimately the last domino in my chain.  Interventions were utilized.  The Klonopin we abruptly stopped, we started again.  We added Cymbalta, and added some more.  Medications were failing to drain the tub in which I was slowly drowning.

This morning, I awoke.  To awaken was not inherently unusual, but rather the circumstances under which I awoke were of peculiarity.  There was a strange dissipation anxiety and depression.  The air in the room hung uneasily, as if a being of large mass had just exited and there existed a void where he had stood.  I recognized with certainty the miracle of the defective domino.  Something in my life, in my mind, triggered a domino to default, to miss.  The train of dominoes ceased to fall, stopped in their tracks as if frozen.

I have never reached the last domino.  Perhaps there is a protective device operating within me, or externally of me, that renders a domino defective.  God, the love of my partner and my family, the wonders of therapy and pharmaceutical intervention.  I continue to fight because I know, without a doubt, that there is always a faulty domino in the pack.


A flaky, sticky sweet desert with delicate layers of filo dough that threaten to exfoliate, interspersed nuts, and the honey and syrup that hold it all together with the strength of spackling paste to drywall.  My mind flakes and crumbles.  Follow me on a city street, and filo crumbs fall behind my stride in the fashion of Hansel and Gretel.  My mind betrays me.  Obsessions and anxieties ensue.  The person across the room is spying on me to make reports to his authority.  Another wishes to commit slander and libel to destroy my name.  Paranoia, yes, I know.  The world decides to cut the connection between us.  I float, detached and without ground on which to plant my feet.  Betrayed, I am, by the very entity that is supposed to maintain bodily and emotional homeostasis.

Anxiety upon anxiety, obsession upon obsession, stack in layers of filo dough in a baklava.  I am accosted, I am overwhelmed. My teetering tower threatens to topple and crumble.  But for honey and syrup, I would disintegrate with the evening wind blowing through the evergreens.  Honey is temperamental.  An obstinate and unforgiving harvest is grainy, gritty and unpleasant to the tongue.  A pure harvest is smooth and thick, reminiscent of pouring caramel to cool.  The honey binding my filo, completing my self as a whole, flows from my partner.  Entangled arms in embrace, a brush of the lips, the honey flows freely.  It is with this honey that I build my fortress and my abode.  I stack weaknesses and bind them with strength, for I can create a perfect structure built upon imperfection.  For in this way, I am able to enjoy the product of the marriage of my mind with the love of others.

Can I Cast Away the Bad Parts?

Living with obsessive-compulsive personality traits creates a certain stagnancy, an inability to let go of the perseverations and to untether one’s mind.  My obsessions manifest in many forms – numbers, words, checking items – but of the most prevalent and highly distressing are my obsessive thoughts.  An incident may occur, and the gluey tendrils of my brain grasp upon it and hold the thoughts in a chokehold where their sole mobility potential is to run in circles at ever-increasing rates.  In essence I cannot let go; the tendrils are too sticky.  An incident may be as simple as, I should not have said that word or phrase to another person, initiating a thought spiral of incomparable capacity, my brain beating black and blue as I perseverate on the perceived idiocy and inappropriateness of the comment.  Another manifestation is a preoccupation with health issues.  I imagine (unbeknownst) that I have different health ailments and conditions causing impending death.  My compulsions?  I seek constant validation in the form of question and response; however, no matter what answer I get – whether it is the “right” one or the “wrong” one – is never enough, is never sufficient.  I can phone individuals forty times and never abate the feelings of the lack of control of my mind.  The obsessions create within me an inherent feeling of badness.  I am composed degenerately, housed with evil parts I wish to cast away as resultant of the guilt derived from the objects of my obsessions.

There are days where I wish I could cast all of the bad parts away – open my flesh, tease apart my organs, and grasp with surgical tongs the black tumors and cysts turning my body and mind sour.  I know this is unrealistic, impossible.  So what do I do with what I perceive to be my inherent badness?  I realize I must recognize the source of these thoughts and perseverations.  Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. claimed the phrase, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD.”  I find great comfort in the short verse, or mantra. It takes the focus away from the belief of inherent bodily and mental malfunction, but suggests that it is a biochemical brain function independent of one’s faculties as a person and composition of character.  With this in mind, I find the empowerment to cast away the bad parts – rather, the thoughts and perseverations, as those lie within my locus of control.  Similarly I relinquish control and conscious efforts to eradicate all thoughts, as they fight back with claws and teeth.  Ignore them, and the teeth with rot and gums will recede, disarming and conquering through passivity.  Some bad parts will stick; not all can be cast away.  So what is the remedy for a sticky, gluey brain and psyche?  Prayer, mindfulness, and meditation.  Acceptance.  Acceptance holds far greater power than is given credit.  With mindfulness and acceptance, you are loosening hold on the rope, yet not letting it drop completely to the ground.  The mind is calm, but there still lies a connection between the entities, for how can we persist in a state of defeat and still battle the unwanted residents?

Hanging in Limbo

What is wellness?  Stability?  These are questions that I have oft asked myself over the last month or so. How will I know when I have achieved the coveted status, the pinnacle place of mental health wellness? I ponder the importance of this contemplation.  Does it matter or hold significance in whether I perseverate over whether I am “well” and “fit,” or rather is it more important to just “be,” to live in the moment with mindfulness and awareness?

Since the beginning, I have been highly treatment-resistent.  I have had twelve hospitalizations, been on over twenty different drugs, and have endured thirty-eight electroconvulsive therapy treatments. In the last few months, I have explored alternative routes of treatment as a supplement to my psychiatric care.  A naturopath has honed and fine-tuned a special concoction of supplements and extracts that have positively affected my mental wellness, resulting in some symptom reduction.  In fact, a significant reduction.  Natural approaches coupled with the psychiatric approach have proven highly effective.  I am still weighed down with depression, anxiety, obsessions, and agitation, but utilizing my arsenal of coping skills and treatments has created a life and existence for me that has been elusive for many years.  So am I well?

My psychiatrist recently placed me in partial remission, which was the impetus for my perseveration surrounding what it means to be well.  Initially, this instilled in me a belief that I am now healed and should act and conduct myself as such.  Symptoms I may feel should be diminished, and I should embrace a life in which I no longer have sickness.  This led solely to frustration, as I knew that my true predicament was incongruent with these notions.  Then I started to think.  Is this black and white, or is there a spectrum? Room for the vague and the unsure?  For relativity? I see this as a complex phenomenon. In a linear direction, there is the spectrum of mental instability to mental wellness.  A person may land anywhere on that spectrum at any given time, but this categorization is superficial and not the only factor in involved.  In comes the concept of relativity.  Someone may fall closer on the spectrum to the societal understanding of instability, but yet have exceptional coping skills and support, thus creating a situation in which they could cope and exist more adeptly than someone in the same position – thus possibly more well than first perceived.  Contrarily, a person may fall closer to mental wellness on the spectrum, yet be unable to effectively cope.

I feel as though I am slowly navigating my way from the instability end of the spectrum to the place of mental wellness. I am beginning to understand the ambiguities and relativity in the process, and labels such as partial remission are not all-indicative of a certain state or place in someone’s existence.  In fact, it is just a label used solely for documentation in medical records.  When considering the spectrum and the concept of relativity, I can see that while I may not be entirely well, I am walking in the right direction, and my obsessions over the worth of words and labels are insignificant. What truly matters is to live mindfully and unconstrained by one’s own psyche.  To be controlled by the spectrum is to hang in limbo, not knowing where one truly falls and whether that knowledge is important at all.

I am sitting in my new apartment writing this piece.  I am scared.  I am afraid.  Obsessions and anxiety are creeping from the darkness and grasping their sticky tendrils around the threads of my mind, attempting to draw me from my place of progress.  While I could succumb to their power and view my place on the spectrum as the be-all and end-all, I can instead draw to mind the concept of relativity and recognize that while I may have some setbacks, I am fighting with well-honed coping skills and implementing my naturopathic and psychiatric interventions, compounding the linear nature of the spectrum and allowing a more dimensional look at my wellness and stability.

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.