Week Fifty-Nine

My Favorite Bit of Information From The Week:

It is my pleasure to introduce a guest writer Ben Mattson for this week. Ben is an incredible human being that I met through Hope For The Day. His insights on mental health, and the world in general are a delight. I am honored to share his post with you this week. Ben has OCD, and he has been kind enough to share his perspective with you as the topic of his post. So, with out further delay, Ben.

Ben on OCD:

I’d like to extend my warmest thanks and appreciation to Kate for the chance to write this post, which I hope will offer some clarity, but more importantly, curiosity and empathy regarding what we can productively see as a truly human variety of experience. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD for short, is a form of mental illness involving severe and often chronic personal and relational pain. At its core, OCD can be regarded as being a distortion in the common, human experience of feeling like one needs to act because something’s wrong. For example, it’s pretty common to have the following pattern of experience: ‘Oh, I feel like I need to do X. If I don’t do X, I’ll continue to feel this way, and this feeling may even worsen. Therefore, I do X.’ 

To be clear, this frame doesn’t 100% capture every aspect of every experience of OCD. Rather, this is a useful and suggestive tool for understanding, and a bridge and invitation to curiosity and empathy. So, while I’ll outline it a bit more technically below, the fundamental structure of OCD is relatable if one uses empathetic imagination. Once something is more relatable, we begin to question received stereotypes, and can extend this curiosity to other kinds of experience. 

What many of us can do to help is engage in gentle curiosity, always asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why’ questions. In general, ‘what’ questions which gently request human connection come across nonjudgmentally, whereas ‘why’ questions, regardless of motivation, are often felt as judgmental and even triggering. My approach when talking with others is to be a bit general at first, and then become more nuanced if they’d like. On a personal note, this can be scary for me because part of the way my own OCD manifests is in the fear that others will take it on without meaning to. Anyway, the academically received way of understanding OCD is as follows: One has an anxious thought, feeling, or experience, and then acts in order to sooth this thought or feeling.

We can unpack this somewhat more in depth as follows: 

Obsession: Frequently, uncontrollably and intensely feeling and/or thinking that X is wrong (for example, the stove burner has been left on).
Compulsion: Frequently, uncontrollably and intensely feeling and/or thinking like one needs to do Y in order to stop X from feeling wrong, and then doing Y. 

I feel like something’s wrong, and I feel the need to fix it and not feel this way. As noted above, three differentiating factors are frequency, uncontrollability, and intensity. The experience manifests a lot, it doesn’t acquiesce to usual calming efforts (and one cannot ‘snap’ out of it), and it can be nearly overpowering in terms of its effect on daily functioning. For myself, I frequently have fears (of a certain idiosyncratic sort) when I’m with people. Often, especially a few years ago, this pattern of feeling like I needed to do something was constant (frequent), an autonomous process (uncontrollable), and torturous (intense). 

There are fantastic therapies out there, and here I’m speaking personally, anecdotally, and with a view based on qualitative and statistical contemporary research. For myself, therapy makes my symptoms eminently manageable, and those are only the ones that remain. Much of the time I feel like I did before, that is, without obsessive and compulsive experience at all.  

There are other aspects to what it’s like from the inside to have OCD. It can, for instance, feel like delusion – that is, it can feel so intense and be so disruptive that one can come to the conclusion that it’s a form of psychosis. For myself, I didn’t believe this was the case so much as question the boundaries between different OCD and psychosis – and by extension, neuropsychological disorders in general. I knew from the inside that I (frequently, uncontrollably, and intensely) felt things which were – and there’s no better term – alien and frightening. Like they truly didn’t belong. That’s honestly the best single-word characterization of my past experience. I don’t mean ‘alien’ as in extraterrestrial, but rather something more general. More like, ‘this isn’t me, it’s something that’s truly, radically different and doesn’t fit in at all.’ 

Often, OCD doesn’t manifest in terms of alien experience. But, because it can, and because the vast space of human experience is so uncharted, it helps to acknowledge and develop our abilities to be there for others. I’ve had friends with patterns of experience and behavior, and formal diagnoses, which I didn’t appreciate and relate to. I, personally, haven’t always been the kindest in this regard. Hopefully what I’ve said here paints a picture of what OCD can be like – and more generally nourishes our common impulse to curiosity, care, and empathy. 

For a general summary of OCD, see: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml

If you’re interested, research is ongoing on the biology of OCD, including its genetic and neurological causes and components. Here’s a relatively recent meta-analysis (an analysis which combines lots of studies and research into overarching conclusions): https://drive.google.com/file/d/18ir-M4HPTq_jkPDIAESHTtypbzRtKyEI/view?usp=sharing


Update On My Show:

A Sneak Peak At One Woman Hamlet and Death Meditation this Monday!
One of the most amazing humans I know is offering a free death meditation to the community and has generously asked me to come in and do a 15 minute excerpt from One Woman Hamlet. The evening is free, includes delicious hot chocolate, and will be a time to examine your thoughts on death. Lana is a death doula, and an artist that has helped to shape my life for the better. She has generously offered to share a bit about her mental health and journey for the E-mail this week. I hope to see you all there on Monday the 17th of February! Feel free to reach out if you have questions.

Details of Death Meditation:
Location: The Theatre School at DePaul University, Room 301
Date: Monday February 17th
Time: 8-10pm
NOTE: If you plan to come, please RSVP to reserve your seat/mat as space is limited: deathmedyingtree@gmail.com

A Bit More About The Project:death, me, dying tree (DMDT) aims to spread awareness about positive death practices, while at the same time providing a brave space to mourn & then celebrate as a collective. We work towards repairing our broken relationship to death by learning in community & replacing the notion of death as an “end” with the freeing concept of death as a part of the life cycle. We tailor make our live events to reflect the needs & strengths of each community we work in, and in Chicago, we will be offering an Interactive Meditation. This is a free, live, participatory event to help attendees release their fear of death and celebrate life. This two hour event includes live music, an excerpt from Kate Smith’s One-Woman-Hamlet: Shake(speare) the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health, a death meditation, breath and life invocation, interactive movement performance with Darling Squire, and information about supportive living and dying practices shared by certified death doula Lana Smithner. Additionally, we will be filming some parts of an upcoming documentary that chronicles the process of the national tour of DMDT.

DMDT is both a service project and a living, breathing experiment that explores how we as a society can grow and evolve into an emergent community that not only celebrates and respects life, but also celebrates and respects death, and by doing so is greener, healthier, and freer.


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