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On Wednesday, I kicked off a series on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I have struggled with OCD symptoms for most of my life. Each day, I am focusing on another symptom of OCD.

Yesterday, I talked about repetitive thoughts. Today, I will focus upon repetitive actions, which are also known as rituals.

Repetitive actions are anything you feel a compulsion to do repeatedly to avoid feeling anxious. They can be simple or complex. The level to which repetitive actions interfere with your day-to-day living is what determines how severe your OCD symptoms are.

For example, I must check my alarm clock exactly three times before I go to bed. If I only check it once or twice, then I cannot fall asleep. I will obsess about whether the time is correct, even though I rarely change the time on my alarm clock. So, to get it over with, I check it exactly three times in quick succession and then go to bed without any concerns about the setting on the alarm.

Because this process only takes a couple of seconds, my symptom serves more as a quirk than a serious OCD issue. However, other people are not so lucky. There are people who must check the locks on the door exactly 17 times. If anything interferes with the process, they must start all over again. They wind up being late frequently because they must complete the ritual of checking the locks in a particular way. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

I know a woman who must clean her bathroom every day in a particular order and a particular way. If anything gets out of order or she gets interrupted, she experiences an enormous amount of anxiety and must start over. While some people might find it admirable that she keeps such a clean bathroom, the ritual is taxing on her emotionally and physically.

Unlike my alarm clock checks, which I do every day that I need to use the alarm clock, I have other rituals that come and go. One is blowing on my hands. I used to do this a lot as a child (I have no idea why), and it used to drive my parents crazy (that part amuses me!). If I am feeling triggered, I will sometimes catch myself blowing on my hands. I have no idea why I do it, only that it relieves some of the anxiety.

Even though I know that checking the alarm clock three times is unnecessary, doing it meets a need inside of myself. This is true for anyone with OCD. The ritual serves some purpose – it serves as a valve that releases some of the anxiety for a little while.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Yesterday, I kicked off a series on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I have struggled with OCD symptoms for most of my life. Each day, I am focusing on another symptom of OCD.

The OCD symptom that I found most troubling was repetitive thoughts. I am happy to report that I was able to (eventually) end the need to engage in repetitive thoughts. Repetitive thoughts are exhausting, and they interfere with your ability to stay focused on what is going on around you.

I started experiencing repetitive thoughts after my father died suddenly while I was a senior in high school. My mother started sexually abusing me again, so I (obviously) was experiencing an enormous amount of anxiety.

One day, it hit me that I could drop dead just like my father did, and I would burn in h@#$ if I had committed a sin that I had not yet asked for forgiveness for. (See my posts on spiritual abuse to understand my warped thinking about religion at the time.) So, I came up with a “mantra” (for lack of a better word) that I would repeat in my head throughout the day: “Please forgive me for all of my sins. In J****’s name I pray. Amen.”

I would say this phrase hundreds of times a day. If I was not engaging my brain in something else (like a conversation), I was reciting this phrase in my head. I would sometimes even interject it during a conversation!

I found a cadence in the phrase that had eight beats to it. I needed to “feel” those eight beats repeatedly throughout the day. The cadence would relieve my anxiety but not for long, so I would do it again … and again … and again.

When I started this, I had never heard of OCD. I knew that I had quirks, some of which were amusing, but this form of OCD was exhausting. I even wound up adding a finger gesture that matched the cadence. I will still sometimes catch myself doing the finger gesture when I am feeling anxious.

For me, the best way to stop this symptom was to engage in meditation. My mind was always racing, thanks to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Meditation taught me how to allow my mind to be still. Once I learned how to silence my mind, I no longer had a reason to “fill” it with the cadence.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I just realized that I have not written very much about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) on this blog. That surprises me because I have struggled with OCD throughout my life. As I have healed a lot of the anxiety, my symptoms have decreased. However, when I get triggered, some of them return with a vengeance. Fortunately, I have been successful in ending some of the more troubling OCD symptoms.

My OCD symptoms have run the gamut. The most amusing symptom to my friends is my compulsion to hoard pens. I used to have to have five pens in my purse plus a spare at all times. No, I do not mean that I needed six pens. I needed at least five pens plus a spare to be okay. The spare was to fill in if one of the five pens got lost or broke. The spare would ensure that I never dropped below five pens in my purse.

Of course, insurance pens were very comforting to me, so I would add additional pens to my purse, just to be on the safe side. I believe my record was carrying around over 30 pens at one time. Typical was more in the 20-pen range.

After adopting a baby and having to switch over to carrying around a diaper bag, I got to where I was okay with two or three pens. I typically carry more on me (around 10), but I am okay as long as I have a couple of pens on me.

One of my friends recently asked if she could take all of my pens (I think I had four on me) and return them in one hour, just to see what my reaction would be. I became very anxious. My heart rate increased, and my breathing got shallow. If she had taken them, I would have driven straight to Target to buy more pens because I could not handle not having any pens in my purse. I only got myself to calm down by reminding myself that I had spare pens in the car. My friend gave me my pens back and was shocked at the severity of my reaction to the thought of being without my pens.

My sister has the same reaction, only in her case, she hoards pencils. We talked about why we thought we both had the same compulsion to hoard writing instruments. She thinks it has to do with having a voice. We had no voices as children, but, as long as we had a writing utensil, we still had a way to communicate, even when we were silenced. If we lose our writing utensils, then we no longer have a way to be “heard.”

I honestly don’t know why I am this freaky about needing to have so many pens around. The pens in the picture are just a few that I keep in my office. I chose those for the picture because they are my favorite brand. (In case you have a pen fetish, the best brand is the one in the picture, which is the SRX Stix Grip 1.0 mm ball point pen. Rose Art used to make them, but they sold them to SRX. You can find them at Target.) I have many more in my office, my purse, in the kitchen, by the phone downstairs, and in the car. I also have three unopened packs of the SRX pens in my office. Yes, I clearly have an issue with hoarding pens.

This is only one of my OCD symptoms. I will discuss more tomorrow.

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Photo credit: Faith Allen

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