Monday, November 30, 2020

My OCD as a Superpower

Just like my morning cup of coffee, I need to have every single step of my day organized in my head.  It allows me to go through everything smoothly, like a choreographed dance, calming and clearing my mind so I have the energy and focus to pursue my dreams.  It’s as satisfying as setting up a domino show, then watching it tumble:

Isn't that soothing to watch?  The order, the organization, the choreography....

Life, however, almost never operates that easily.  As things start falling off the rails, my head starts filling with anxious noise.  I’m thrown into a tizzy of multiple thought streams speeding across my neural net, rendering me unable to focus on any one item for more than a few seconds.  The noise will escalate until I can barely see or hear or feel the real world, my brain completely disconnected by the overloaded circuits.  I can even be so stressed that I struggle to breathe.

I need to take some time, calm my head, clear my brain, and reset the dominoes.  Sometimes, it’s just a few breaths or a walk around the block or completing an online survey or playing a video game or taking care of something that is hanging over me.  Other times, I escape to dreamland, wishing for a life without worry.  Occasionally, I can get so agitated that I have to lie down and take a nap just to avoid a major panic attack. 

While I’m doing all these things to soothe my overwhelmed, overloaded brain back to coherent thought, time continues to march forward, as do the schedules and deadlines and time limits that trigger my anxiety in the first place.  No wonder I’m always pressed—or stressed—for time.  I never have enough time to finish a project or respond to someone or get somewhere because it just takes more time than I have.

Time becomes my enemy, and as the clock ticks, so does my anxiety, and as everything churns inside me, I start having the urge to act impulsively.

Sigh.  The only thing worse than my relationship with time….is my relationship with impulsivity.

The beauty about having my head organized is feeling clear and calm and able to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions.  I love being thoughtful, being able to think things through, being able to plan my decisions and their ramifications. 

As I start stressing over how little time I have to get things done, my mind fills with panicked responses, ways to get the anxiety to clear as quickly as possible.  I no longer care about being thoughtful or kind or considerate.  I no longer care if I’m doing the job okay.  I no longer care about anyone else’s feelings.  I just want the chaotic mess out of my brain and back to calm and organized.

If I react to these impulsive feelings, it never ends well.  I’ve lied and cheated.  I’ve done work that was so careless and awful that it had to be redone.  I’ve said horrible, hurtful things to people.  I’ve made terrible mistakes.  I’ve destroyed things that I had so carefully built.  In the attempt to alleviate the chaos, I end up creating a bigger mess and losing even more time to the anger and panic.

I cannot give into this insanity, and yet, life often forces me to do so.  I’m filled with regret over the impulsive decisions I’ve made over the years, many of which haunt me decades later.   

Which brings me to my garage.  It’s filled with an eclectic collection of stuff my ex-boyfriend acquired in an attempt to start a reseller business, but never could get it off the ground.  What do you do when a global pandemic hits after you’ve drained your emergency savings?  You start selling things. 

Any day when I’m not working my other three (!) jobs, I’m in the garage, listing his random stuff online.  It’s actually been cathartic to go through this process of selling each item, feeling like I’m stepping closer to financial freedom.  However, I tend to be a little impulsive about pricing…..

I priced these cards from the 1970s for $5.  Whoops.

What do you expect happens when I am selling things like electronics and tools and collectables at bottom-barrel prices in a county with a population of 700,000?  Yup, my phone blows up like Jennifer Aniston’s did when she joined Instagram.  (Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve gotten some serious empathy for those IG folks with millions of followers.)  it’s absolutely insane how crazed people get about a computer monitor I can’t guarantee works or a power drill without a battery, just because it’s only $5.

Most of the responses are male, and clearly impulsive.  They are willing to run out the door and fly straight to my house to pick up the item, lest I sell to someone else.  They offer more money than I’m listing in hopes that they can jump ahead in line.  Their overly forward, determined behavior to mow down every obstacle in their way is unsettling, to say the least, especially for someone is often already stressed and overwhelmed by time and impulsive behavior.

In this chaos, my OCD becomes my superpower, treating the madness with rigid rules to implement calm and organization.  My response to the impulsive insanity is on my timeline, a timeline that allows me to feel calm and organized.  If I feel the need to impulsively respond, I set the phone down and wait until I’ve thought through my response.  What’s amazing is by controlling the timeline and refusing to be impulsive, these guys calm down as well, becoming much easier to work with as they realize I’m going to be fair and considerate and thoughtful.  Probably why I’m a highly rated seller.

Now to harness this superpower and apply it to other aspects of my life.  And yes, to double my prices on Marketplace…..

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Tornado Warning Syndrome

When you grow up in the Midwest, tornado warnings are a part of life.  The hot, humid, sticky day, the darkening skies, the alerts to a tornado watch, and then the sirens, blaring the news that a tornado might be in the area.

My hometown of Crystal Lake, IL, has not seen a significant tornado go through there since 1965.  That tornado was deadly and scary and at a time when the only way meteorologists knew there was a tornado on the ground—was when someone called them and told them a tornado was on the ground.

By the time I was in high school, the idea of a tornado hitting our town, while very possible, seemed very unlikely.  Tornado warnings were still issued primarily by observation and covered a wide area.  Even the worst storms produced funnel clouds, brief touchdowns, or what were ruled later as microbursts, straight line winds.

What we usually get from a tornado you see any rotation?

Perhaps that’s why, when eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant one summer evening a few years ago, I raced to the window when the tornado warning alerts came over the phone….instead of taking cover.  Peeking through the blinds, I thought, “oh, that’s just a microburst,” rolling my eyes that once again, the National Weather Service got it wrong.

Haha, trust the meteorologists. I can now say I’ve been through a tornado.  Thank goodness it was very, very weak, but as I run around town near the tornado’s path, I can still see the swath of branches that were ripped down by nature’s fury.

I’m in one or two tornado warnings every summer, and yet have only been in one tornado.  Over the course of my lifetime, that means I’m probably 1 for 50—2% chance—of being hit by a tornado when a warning is issued.  With those odds, it’s not a surprise that, when severe weather alerts are issued, people don’t even understand what they mean.  You have no idea now many times I’ve heard, “There’s a tornado watch, which means there’s on the ground.  Well, it’s sunny here, so I’m not taking cover.”  Of course it’s sunny—a tornado watch means conditions are favorable for a tornado to form, so you should be on alert.  The storms are on their way.

I call it the Tornado Warning Syndrome.  You’ve been through so many tornado warnings without actually seeing any significant tornado damage that the warnings are no longer taken seriously, even though tornadoes continue to be a threat.

I’ve been thinking about this mentality as our covid case numbers have been rising exponentially.  When the pandemic began, our governor put the entire state under a stay at home order for two weeks, essentially, a “pandemic” warning.  While we were in a place where only those who needed tests were taking them, the positivity rate was far below 100%.  People were getting sick, but not nearly in the numbers we expected.  Even so, our governor continued to extend the stay at home order for a total of two months, then rolled out a slow reopening plan, based on whether or not spikes would occur.  You could call it a “pandemic watch.”

The problem was that in Chicago, cases were growing exponentially, but even in my little community in the north suburbs, they were trickling.  By the end of the lockdown, early June, less than 200 people had tested positive.  In the rural western and southern parts of the state, the rates were even lower, with many counties having less than a dozen cases.

For the hundreds of thousands of people who not only didn’t know someone who had gotten severely ill, but didn’t know a single person who tested positive, it was just like those tornado warnings of my childhood.  Lots of anxiety and thunder, not a single home destroyed.

The summer continued, positivity rates declined, and people stopped taking the pandemic seriously.  Gatherings that had been postponed started to happen again.  Businesses reopened so they could continue to pay their employees.  People formed “pods” of friends, people who they trusted to stay safe, and continued socializing. 

Like a tornado that can rip a whole house down to the foundation while leaving the next door neighbor intact, outbreaks of covid were occurring, and people were still dying.  However, unless you were connected to an outbreak, the alerts and warnings felt like the tornado warnings with no tornado.  People became increasingly complacent, and businesses tired of struggling for no obvious reason.

As the chilly fall weather approached, people turned inside to gather, and cases started jumping up again.  The pleas to stay at home were falling on deaf ears, as families wanted to see each other, friends wanted to celebrate, and people craved social contact.  As the governor tried to stop the spread by restricting indoor dining, restaurant owners fought back, citing that not a single one of their employees had tested positive for Covid, so they were being unfairly punished when the actual outbreaks were tied to private gatherings where protocols were not being followed. 

When a storm system produces a large number of tornadoes, ironically, it is called an outbreak.  Well, we have an outbreak of Covid—a SuperOutbreak, even—but will people heed the warnings as hospitals and ICU beds fill?  Or will they feel like they’ve been told the sky is falling for so long that they’ll just ignore the warnings?

Don’t be fooled.  I’ll never forget my senior year first semester final exams.  It was January, and of course, a snowstorm was headed to Chicago.  The forecasters, based in Chicago, didn’t think it would be a significant snowfall, and so my district didn’t plan to cancel school (because, first day of finals).  Being so far from the city changed the forecast drastically.  While Chicago proper had a typical snowy January day, we ended up having to traverse heavy snow—the final storm total was over a foot—to get to school in time to take our finals.  The buses were having so much trouble that the school had to adjust the entire day by 20 minutes so everyone had the full time for their exam.

Just because you don’t see the havoc that these skyrocketing numbers are making doesn’t mean you’re not in danger.  Just like our school, watching the Chicago media, was caught unaware of a narrow, heavy snow band, don’t think that just because you don’t know someone with Covid means you have no risk.

Stay home.  Wear your mask.  Wash your hands.  Be safe.  Be well.  And don’t fall for Tornado Warning Syndrome.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Finding My Way out of Dreamland

I have a coffee cup that says, “Stop Dreaming and Start Doing.”  It’s one of those mantras we see everywhere, from wall hangings to planners to….well, coffee cups.

Are you dreaming, or are you doing?

One day last week, I intentionally chose that cup because lately, it’s felt like I’ve spent more time dreaming and less time doing. 

Then my toilet clogged, triggering my contamination OCD and just making me too anxious to do anything beyond the bare minimum.  I went to bed, frustrated at what little “doing” I was able to accomplish.  However, I did a great job dreaming my day away, fantasizing about a life where everything was just…easier.

Dreaming has been my coping mechanism ever since I learned to read.  Falling into books, creating characters, being the person I wish I was instead of the person I saw in the mirror.  As a child, I would hide in my room, acting out the scenes I created to alleviate the stresses from school and home and a Mensa-level IQ and an undiagnosed mental illness.  (OCD is something you’re born with, and I knew it was the right diagnosis when my childhood memories and motivations suddenly made sense.)  No wonder at times of stress, I would lose myself in a fantasy of my own creation.

This time, however, the message on the mug stayed with me.  I’d fallen into my fantasy so deep that it was running as a continual stream in the back of my head, impeding my ability to function on a daily basis.  My escape from stress and anxiety was now creating so much noise that I couldn’t focus on anything.  I would read emails and not remember a word of content.  I would complete a task and then redo it, having completely forgotten that I had just done it.  I would ignore the people in my real world, preferring the interactions of the scenes in my head.

Looking backwards, it makes sense.  Before there was a global pandemic, I had run out of savings.  Before I ran out of savings, I had a horrible ending of a four-year relationship.  Before my ex and I broke up, I had a complete mental breakdown.  Before the breakdown, I quit my job to save my mental health.  The need for escapism was real, but it had gone too far and too deep.  I was now lost in my dreamworld, avoiding reality at all costs.

I looked back even further and saw the hours I spent over the years dreaming about what could be, rather than doing the hard work to make these dreams happen.  Pursuing your dreams… hard.  It’s the grind of plinking forward, failing, picking yourself up, and plinking forward again.  It’s fighting the boredom and the burnout and the monotony of spending so much time on something with so little progress.  It’s dealing with challenges and roadblocks and people who think you aren’t worthy. 

Just like….running a marathon.  Or nine.  Why was I able to do that and not this?

In my real life, I’ve always felt powerless and silent, not worthy of attention.  As a child, my mom would tell me that it was best if I didn’t speak my mind because she feared me being rejected by society.  I bit my tongue, became invisible, and created an alternate world in my mind where my ideas were valued and appreciated.

Fast forward to January 1, 2020.  I decided it was time to start writing down my ideas, my scripts, my scenes, my stories.  Then the world turned upside down with the coronavirus, and I lost my way, reality being so grim that my dreamworld was my only safe place.  We all have been finding some form of escapism this year, whether it is getting lost in video games, social media, Netflix binges, or scenes being played out in my own house.  We all need an escape right now. 

But for there to be any possibility for my dreams to come true, I need to leave my dreamland behind and re-engage with reality.

Instead of dreaming, I need to be writing down my dreams.  Instead of watching YouTube videos, I need to be watching Khan Academy videos.  Instead of disconnecting into fantasies, I need to be connecting with people. 

Just like the mug said, instead of dreaming, I need to be doing.