You know I’m always looking for good books about OCD, psychology, and mental illness. I wrote about having finished Turtles All the Way Down and while I enjoyed it, it left me wanting more representation for the mentally ill in literature. That encouraged me to search around through all the self-help books out there for an actual narrative, fiction or non-fiction. And I’m pleased to say I’ve found a good one.
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I found Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by Fletcher Wortmann. I bought it because, no real shock, I also suffer from OCD and wanted to hear a narrative from someone who had been through it as well. There are plenty of “how to overcome OCD” type books out there, but where are the books about the experience of OCD?
First things first, this book is not an easy, comforting read. It’s not supposed to be. When I was deciding whether or not to buy it, I checked out the reviews and the first one I came across said he curses way too much. I hit Buy Now immediately.
OCD is not comfortable. Whether you have it yourself or not, you should know that a memoir of the subject is going to be a memoir of mental torture. But nowhere else can you find this experience written so plainly.
The author suffers from what is referred to as “pure-O” OCD, which are obsessions or intrusive thoughts and internal, compulsive thinking rather than external compulsive actions. He makes mention that this form of OCD gets little coverage in the media and popular thought because most people see OCD represented as excessive cleaning and tidying. I personally have contamination OCD, the more well-known variety, but all the same I saw a lot of myself in this book.
“Pure-O” comes in the form of obsessions with accompanying mental compulsions such as quarantining or countering thoughts, mental or external reassurance, ritualistic chants or phrases, etc. Regardless of which form of OCD one might struggle with, intrusive thoughts are very common. What hooks sufferers into the cycle is the responsibility they take for their perverse minds when they have these thoughts. Everyone has disturbing thoughts now and then, but OCD sufferers get lodged into the idea that they might, on some level, actually do these things. Or could do them.
One of my reoccurring intrusive thoughts is about accidents or harm coming to my body. A few months ago I had ridden a bike after almost ten years and as I was going down the hill I started to lose control, fishtailing in the road with asphalt and an angry curb on either side of me. For a real panicked moment, I thought I was going to lose complete control and spend the rest of my vacation in the hospital. But, mercifully, I applied just enough brake pressure to get the bike under control and stayed upright. That night I churned in bed with horrible thoughts of what might have happened if I had lost control and biffed it. My mind was tortured with images of variants of the potential accident. The obsession wasn’t a moral one; there were no moral implications for my getting into an accident. But my mind obsesses about terrible things happening to my body because it’s something I’m afraid of.
Of course, I also have the variety of what if you did this horrible depraved thing to someone you know thought. That’s the kind of obsession Triggered is about.
I want to talk a little bit about contamination OCD. Though not the focus of this book, it does have some similar roots. People who obsess about contamination obsess about the idea of contamination. This can come in the form of germs, filth, dirt, bodily fluids, sin, “bad thoughts,” and so on. Sanitizing oneself may not be in the form of washing. It can occur by sanitizing and segregating one’s thoughts or actions. Wearing a certain shirt only during “bad” events and not during positive ones is a form of sanitizing. For example, one thing I do when I go to the dentist is request bad music or a reality show I hate on the TV while they are doing my dental work. I absolutely won’t allow them to play or show something I enjoy because that would mentally contaminate the thing I enjoy and associate it with something negative. That is a form of sanitizing.
People think of OCD sufferers as germophobes. Though this is true for many people, it goes much deeper than that. What do germs represent? For some, illness and suffering. For others, it’s a loss of control. Consider what we had to obsess about before germ theory. Did people just not have contamination OCD before we discovered germs? Of course they did! Their contamination obsessions just focused on different elements such as sin or perhaps more visible forms of filth. Contamination is the fear of losing control, of causing harm, of getting injured or sick. There are a lot of layers to it. These layers are present even in people who have other forms of OCD. At the end of the day, it isn’t about the object of fear. We all have to deal with bacteria (or uncertainty, or the potential for disaster) because that is a reality of life. It’s only when the fear of these things gets so bad it becomes disabling that we recognize it as OCD.
I remember an awkward conversation I had with a coworker about my OCD once. She asked me how many times I washed my hands in a day and in what contexts, and then laughed as she told me she’d even change her baby’s diaper without washing because fuck it. But in the end she asked me to consider all the points of contact between everything that touches and how can I possibly live by trying to neutralize or minimize contamination between items? It’s not that she was wrong. It was just how absurd she thought the whole thing was. And, I mean, yeah. In fact, a key criterion for diagnosis of OCD is that you are aware your obsessions and compulsions are absurd. But that doesn’t stop their power on its own. Most people respond to my OCD with their attempts to wash away my obsessions with obvious logic. Well, OCD isn’t logical, is it? And that never works, guys.
(Maybe in the context of a licensed therapist through CBT, but you’re not a licensed therapist, are you?)
Anyway, it’s important to consider the stories of those who have gone through this kind of thing. And honestly, there’s so much I could say (and probably will say at some point) about my own experiences of OCD. Fletcher Wortmann certainly doesn’t hold back in his disdain for those who trivialize OCD and he’s right. The experience can be debilitating. It can also be incredibly diverse and uniquely expressed among sufferers, so if you think you know what OCD is, check out this book first.
Triggered was funny, touching, and a harsh reminder of the reality of OCD all at once. I’d recommend this book to anyone who suffers with OCD but especially to those who don’t. If your only exposure to this particular type of mental illness is the show Monk, you need to read this book. If you believe that OCD is a funny, quirky maid who wants to come over and tidy your messy house, you need to read this book. If you want to understand what someone you love is undergoing when they seem helplessly chained to obsessions and compulsions that seem silly to you, then you need to read this book. I can’t recommend it enough.