Clenching and counting: how I get through the holidays with OCD

It is a few weeks until Christmas. I’m sitting at a table with my hands clasped at my chin. I probably look like I’m meditating, praying, or just deep in thought. But I’m gripping and releasing, gripping and releasing my hands in rhythm with clenching my jaw as I think about the lists I need to make and the events I must control to get through holidays.

I remind myself to try to enjoy the season, let happier thoughts diffuse the seriousness and the desperate gripping. But this is life with obsessive compulsive disorder. Every person with OCD has a unique experience, but for me it boils down to obsession with order and correctness, intrusive thoughts about catastrophe, and rituals to maintain an illusion of control.

The holidays are a soup of stress that stirs up and intensifies the components of my OCD because of travel anxiety, being away from home, more socializing, pressure to make holidays special and obsession with holiday catastrophes. Holiday catastrophes make for headlines that become legendarily tragic because of their proximity to the “most wonderful time of the year”.

These are actual headlines from last Christmas:

Plane makes emergency landing on Alabama highway.

Fire kills woman and three holiday houseguests.

Community mourns loss of family members in tragic Christmas Day crash.

While I was thinking about tragic holiday headlines to include in this piece, a friend I was texting back and forth with suddenly wrote that there was an emergency and he had to run. So now my OCD will make me think I have created whatever emergency he suddenly had to go handle by just thinking about those headlines.

To spend Christmas with extended family, my husband, two kids and I will drive about 1,500 miles round-trip. During those trips, I won’t be able to escape hours and hours of intrusive thoughts that we will be the next headline: “Family of four killed in fiery interstate crash on Christmas Eve.” (I just knocked three times on the floor to un-jinx writing that. Then I deleted it and restarted my computer to really clean it out. And I rewrote the sentence. Because I can’t tell this story without stirring up the fear. Now I’m gripping my hands again, hoping we will be safe this year.)

Intrusive thoughts are a bully determined to ruin our fun. I call my bully Zephyrus, Greek god of the west wind. He blows chaos and stirs up fear. He smirks over a festive family scene of torn wrapping paper and scattered boxes. He whispers in my ear so I can only see the disorder, not the joy. I fight Zephyrus, fight being childish, irritable and difficult like he is.

Planning, counting, listing and reassurance seeking are the tools (compulsions) I use to create the illusion of control. To prepare for our trip, I will make packing lists and task lists to complete before packing can even start. First all of the laundry has to be washed, folded and put away. Only when everything is in its place and in order can I start to pack our bags with the “correct” items. Packing prep drags on for days. The lists give birth to sublists that are never really completed because time comes to hit the road.

I’ll try to impose order inside the car to counteract malicious fates that could be traveling with us. I’ll keep a strict schedule of stopping every two hours to stretch and refuel while pretending it’s all spontaneous and I haven’t been counting the minutes. My husband knows I have a secret schedule and that I will get more anxious if we veer from it. The kids just look forward to each stop as a new adventure and a chance to get a treat. For me, it is a chance to unclench my teeth. Focusing on “the plan” helps to blur the near constant violent images of our mangled car flying off a bridge.

I won’t mention the imagined car crashes out loud because naming them could tempt the fates too far (and infect my family with the same disturbing images). Instead, I’ll seek reassurance in smaller ways, asking the kids: “Do you feel OK? How are you? Do you need something? Are you having fun? Are you warm enough?”

I’ll ask my husband: “How are you doing? Do you need to stop? Do you think we remembered everything? Are you sure you saw both of our cats before we left? And there’s plenty of water for them? Did you hold the mail? Do you think there will be a hailstorm that causes enough roof damage to flood the house while we are gone?”

“Anna, we have insurance,” he says, sounding a little exhausted. He is used to this routine.

I was a preteen when compulsions snuck into my life. I liked to play solitaire, but first I had to be sure the cards were perfectly random so I would shuffle seven times for a perfectly mixed deck. A magic number, a concrete ritual. (I do love cards and how they contain both order and chaos.)

I probably just looked like a kid who liked fidgeting with cards. But this was a compulsion. I had to check the cards by flipping each one and counting “ace, two, three, four …”, looking for cards to match my counting. The longer I had to search for the card as I counted, the more bad luck accumulated.

Counting rituals carried over into adulthood. I count while I wash dishes, I count while I fold laundry. Load 10 dishes on the bottom rack, load 10 dishes in the top rack, repeat. Fold 10 pieces of laundry, put the stack away, repeat. Doing things the “right” number of times – usually 10 – is a balm on my constant fear that things are disintegrating around me.

I was 30 before I learned these things fell under the clinical umbrella of OCD. At the end of a session, my therapist Ellen said, casually: “I’m concerned about your obsessions and compulsions. Let’s talk more about it next time.” Obsessions? Compulsions? No, I thought, these are just the things I have to do to keep everything fair and safe and right. Oh.

I have practiced exposure and response prevention, lying on my “dirty” kitchen floor, forcing myself to stare into the grimiest corners and measuring my anxiety until it peaked and then subsided. I have used meditation for travel anxiety to counteract the car crash images in my head. Cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants help too. With all of these tools and treatments, my OCD is now merely annoying and not debilitating.

The illusion of control is an attractive deception, a slick conman. No amount of organization, planning or counting will prevent my house from burning down, or the cats dying, or a burglary while we are away. No ritual (except maybe extra handwashing) will prevent a family member from being seriously ill during the holidays. That magical time of fun, family, peace and joy is the worst magical time to be injured or ill. The worst-case scenario intrudes again.

The worst-case scenario already kind of happened anyway, when my husband was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia right after Christmas three years ago. I watched my invincible bear of a husband collapse in a parking lot, coughing up blood. Our return home was delayed by a week while he recovered, and it was all totally out of my control. With nothing to control, I just sat with him in the hospital and actually relaxed. It was a case of unintended exposure therapy, and it actually worked. I’ll try to remember that going into this year’s trip. But right now, I have to go. There’s laundry to do and traveling routes to go over. There are lists to be made. There are lists to re-check, as I try to remember not to grip my hands too tightly.