For most of my adult life thus far, each day begins something like this: I get out of bed, brush my teeth, take my antidepressant, and make coffee. I leave my bed unmade until I am somewhat caffeinated, at which point I return to my room to tidy it. Most notably, I always make my bed, and double check that my books are stacked and flush on the upper right corner of my nightstand by pressing my index finger against their spines. I’ve always thought of this last step of my morning routine (the entirety of my idiosyncratic cleaning ritual) as the most important, even as I recognize it to be an irrational source of comfort and control.
Don’t be charmed by what sounds like an apparent hyperbole. I am not just “a neat freak.” Despite the quirky and endearing examples of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) pop culture provides (Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets comes most readily to my mind), having OCD involves much more than being neurotically organized. Sure, I probably spent hours of my childhood repeatedly making sure that the McCormick Cinnamon Sugar bottle was in alignment with the other spices in my parents’ kitchen cabinet after making myself toast. My weekend-morning routine in third grade centered on Windexing our glass coffee table and rearranging magazines. Even as a young kid, I knew that my seemingly uncontrollable desire to clean was bizarre, and that my parents always seemed to think it was a little funny, but I also had to act on it. I felt embarrassed, but not enough that I wanted to stop. It was as if not indulging my ticks would result in danger, and surely embarrassment was better than danger. OCD is much more than just being obsessive and/or compulsive in one’s thoughts and actions. It is an anxiety disorder, the cause of which is not entirely certain. Recent research suggests that OCD may be caused by faulty communication between two regions of the brain, the frontal lobe and the basal ganglia. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain associated with organizing and planning, and the basal ganglia is associated with routine behaviors like grooming and cleaning. The other likely cause of OCD is an abnormality with the neurotransmission of serotonin, the same root cause of most cases of depression and anxiety. This possible reason may explain why 40-60% of OCD patients experience reduced symptoms with antidepressants (and particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, also known as SSRIs). As much as I shy away from prescription medication when I can, I’ve been taking SSRIs since age 16, and am grateful for them.
I never talked openly about my OCD until about two years ago, when I graduated from college and began my meditation practice. College was a very fraught time for me, as I found academic pressure to be an insidious complement to my OCD. Since most of my obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors have to do with seeking order, symmetry, and some mythical notion of perfection, I lapped up any opportunity to indulge my desire for control. While stress does not cause OCD, it can certainly trigger or exacerbate obsessions and/or compulsive behavior. At a certain point, I became so fixated on securing order in my life, and validation for that order, that I found myself getting a prescription to Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For me, Adderall was like a steroid for my OCD. It made me become so focused on doing, that I actually forgot what being felt like. In an effort to gain control, the opposite occurred, and I was almost entirely undone.
One night, I stayed up until sunrise doing nothing but Swiffering my room (four times—I have an irrational penchant for the number four) and painting my nails (four times) until I felt that they were done “perfectly.” When the sun came up, the disorder in my room was illuminated, and I panicked: after noticing dust in the corner, I felt inadequate and out of control, and started crying hysterically. When I wiped my tears away with the back of my hand, I noticed that I had nicked one of my freshly painted nails. I felt progressively more panicked by the “chaos” I was encountering, so I went outside to get some fresh air. Things got worse: I saw litter on the street, and felt an even stronger sense of panic. Everything in the world was so messy—the dust in my room, my nicked nail polish, the littered sidewalk. I began running along the sidewalk to pick up the trash so that I could regain some sense of control, until I saw more across the street. I felt defeated and in danger. I wanted to flee from the disorder, but anytime I tried to create order, my panic heightened. Disorder was everywhere.
For most people, saying “I’m so OCD” is synonymous with feeling a little crazy about using their label-maker or color-coding folders. Throughout my life, my OCD rituals have been my way of fending off acute bodily anxiety. When I am unable to follow through with an obsessive tick, I feel somewhat unable to function in my body, at least temporarily. My anxiety levels become so acute that I begin to feel physical symptoms: my chest tightens and my jaw becomes clenched. My racing thoughts become the object of my focus, but move too quickly for me to keep track of them. As I try to grip tighter to them, they slip away and aggravate my deep fear that I’m losing some fundamental element of control in my life. Though I was still years away from finding a meditative seat, this mind-body connection was in some perverse way, laying the foundation for the practice that would eventually subdue my crippling anxiety.
I finally got off Adderall at the end of my junior year of college after realizing that it caused me to feel broken and empty. I was ashamed by my willingness to engage in such dramatic self-abuse, particularly given that I had cloaked this prolonged self-destruction as a virtuous march toward order, control, success. I knew I felt entrapped by my mental clutter, but was also in disbelief that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies could cause me to feel “cluttered” at all, precisely because I had been on a prolonged mission to clear all manifestations of disorder from my life. But I was, quite literally, sick and tired. I was ready to find emotional spaciousness. I dreamt of being able to feel self-worth that was unattached to productivity. So in the summer of 2012, I found myself in Barnes and Noble, buying stacks of books about meditation.
Related: A Meditation to Quiet Anxiety
I’ve spent the last two years developing my practice. I began by reading and watching videos, and slowly began a mindfulness (vipassana) meditation practice. I was then fortunate enough to meet and study loving-kindness (metta) meditation with noted Insight Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who helped me open to the notion that control was a myth, that peace of mind was multiform, and started with loving the self unerringly.
Now, my morning routine is not dramatically different than it has been throughout my adult life, except it involves a 10- to 15-minute window during which I practice loving-kindness meditation. My practice involves silently repeating phrases of loving-kindness to myself (May I be happy, May I be peaceful, May I be strong, May I be safe, May I live with ease), and then usually to a friend or family member. Traditionally, the practice begins with sending loving-kindness to oneself, and next moves onto a close friend, family member, or other loved one. From there, send love to a neutral person (such as the person who rings you up at the coffee place); then, a difficult person, someone who you don’t readily wish to send phrases of loving-kindness. And finally, kindness to all beings. If I feel inclined, I’ll do the traditional method. But often sending loving-kindness to myself, the very first step, feels like the most rigorous part of the practice.
It’s challenging. On many days, I wake up feeling completely undeserving of my loving-kindness phrases. I will sit down filled with self-loathing thoughts about all of the work I didn’t do the day before, or the two martinis I drank at dinner, or the amount of money I’ve been spending. But I practice anyway. More often than not, my practice is interrupted by nagging obsessions about what I need to do that day, what I didn’t do the day before, or just how much I want to press my index finger into the spines of my books cluttered on the nightstand. But I know that my anchor of loving-kindness is there, and that allows me to realize, experientially, that the panic I feel about letting go is not lethal or even remotely dangerous. It often still feels that way, but I’ve learned to accept that the mind likes its habits, even if they are rooted in self-cruelty.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin and founder of the university Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) is known for his research on the “emotional brain”—much of his work focuses on exploring the relationship between neuroplasticity and emotional well-being. Unsurprisingly, Richardson is interested in the therapeutic benefits of meditation, and often refers to the power of meditation to “rewire the brain.”
“I believe that exercising our minds should be approached much in the same way we exercise our bodies,” Richardson has written, likening meditation to physical exercise. This, in essence, is the concept of neuroplasticity—the idea that our brain can change in response to experience.
Brain scans taken of individuals before and after they meditate have proven that the brain is capable of building new cells and pathways into adulthood; in particular, studies have shown that meditation strengthens the part of our brain that allows us to feel compassion—a crucial emotion for cultivating resilience and practicing self-forgiveness. A recent study out of UCLA confirmed that meditators had more gray matter in parts of their brain responsible for emotional regulation and mental flexibility. And these findings certainly confirm my experience: Meditating doesn’t make me feel automatically “Zen” or even calm. But it allows me to recognize my obsessions and bounce back. I sometimes even notice myself beginning to feel badly or guilty for fixating on something—but rather than suddenly finding myself deep in a pit of self-hatred, I’ve trained my mind toward new habits: “Ah, there’s the obsession again,” I’ll think to myself. I don’t always feel great, but meditation has made me more resilient and forgiving in the face of debilitating anxiety.
When I sit to meditate each day, I provide myself with a manageable window of time during which I don’t fixate on my obsessions, and simply don’t act on my compulsions. For me, this is a powerful first step toward healing. What meditation has afforded me, most of all, is to cultivate patience and compassion in those moments of crippling anxiety. I know now that clinging to ritualistic thoughts and behaviors is, quite simply, unproductive. Sometimes I still cling—to the number four, to fixating on disarray–but rather than berate myself for feeling stunted or mindless or crazy, I notice. I observe my self-flagellating thoughts come into focus. I investigate how they make me feel in my body. I recognize when I start to internalize them as truth, and I invite myself to loosen my grip.
Related: A Yoga Sequence to Balance the Heart
When I began meditating, I hated it. I still hate it on some days. Meditation challenges my brain chemistry. It makes me practice patience, when all I want to do is be compulsive. This patience has given me the time and space to realize that there really is no such thing as control. On a good day, self-acceptance feels like a revelation, and on a bad day, it feels like a well-intentioned parent telling me to do something in my best interest that feels like a chore. Chemically, I’m wired to rebel against the wisdom meditation has given me. Spiritually, I feel called to make this my life’s practice.