Why do I have a dog toy with a tissue taped to it sitting on my desk? And how does it relate to the Target OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder sweater currently being sold in stores?

As usual, it’s sort of a long story.

When I wrote my Aha! Moments from the 2015 IOCDF Conference, Part 1, I described my OCD as the equivalent of a sobbing Chicken Little, always crying, “The sky is falling!” In fact, in that blog post, I handed my OCD a tissue for the very first time.Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.17.59 AM

The more that I thought of my OCD bawling, the more I envisioned it as a little orange ball. My dog Lily loved her JW Pet Good Cuz orange “football” toy (it was a ball with feet, so it became “the football”), and as I thought more about my OCD as a sad little creature waddling along behind me, whining about all the things that could kill us, the more I decided that it looked like Lily’s football.

So I went to PetSmart a month or so ago to find one (as Lily’s has sadly disappeared), and found this one…a little orange ball with feet and sunglasses. It seemed to perfectly represent the little creature that constantly tags along with me. And since I gave it a tissue in that blog post, I taped a tissue to its side.

More tissues

Mostly my little orange ball is quiet, but sometimes it just can’t help but share with me that the sky is once again falling:

“Shala?” my OCD asks in its whiny little voice, as I open my iPad to watch some TV.

“Yes, OCD?” Most of the time I don’t answer it, but it had called my name a bunch of times over the past hour, and clearly it wasn’t going to stop.

My OCD takes a deep breath and says in a rush, “Do you remember when you were driving on I-75 yesterday, and you didn’t move over when other cars were merging, and that car went onto the shoulder for a few seconds? That was probably your fault. And I think you might have caused an accident!”

“Uh huh….” My OCD won’t let this one go. It was really upset about the whole merging incident yesterday, so I did a bunch of exposure and response prevention (ERP) scripts on it (“I may or may not have caused an accident. I may or may not have caused an accident. I will never know”), but I’m tired tonight so it thought it would try dangling this one in front of me again to see if it could get me to pay attention.

“No, Shala, listencanstockphoto0261067!” My OCD started tugging repeatedly on my shirttail, one of its favorite tactics, trying to get me to understand the danger I was in.

“I’m listening,” I say, scrolling through HBO Now, trying to remember which episode of The Newsroom I am on. It is my new favorite show.

“This could ruin everything, Shala!” OCD sobs. “You could have hurt people. The police may be coming for you now. They may come at any point for the rest of your life because you made this mistake and you might have killed people and it’s over now and we’re going to jail and why couldn’t you just be perfect and keep us safe? I just want to be safe!” Big, fat crocodile tears are leaking out from under the sunglasses, running down my OCD’s round, orange body, plopping like a mini rainstorm on the coffee table where it stands.

Turning to look at the blubbering orange ball, I stop scrolling and hand it a few tissues. It blows its nose and bawls even louder. My OCD unfortunately controls my anxiety level, and now I’m at a 4/10 on the anxiety scale, because dammit, OCD can be so insistent. And convincing. And scary.

But looking at my OCD as a weeping orange ball, I am reminded that these are just thoughts. They are my OCD’s interpretations of the world, which it likes to see as incredibly dangerous.  Seeing it as an orange ball with feet reminds me that it’s harmless.

So I pat it on its soft, bald head, hold the tissue for it while it blows its nose again, and say, “OCD, all that may or may not happen.”

Then I say it fifteen times out loud again for good measure as a quick ERP practice. As my OCD listens to my script and comes to grips with its anxiety, it stops whimpering and just sniffles a little into what remains of its tissue.

Finally, OCD sits down on the coffee table and pouts. My anxiety goes back to a normal level. As I resume scrolling through HBO and realize I’m on episode 2 of Season 3 of The Newsroom, I feel a little bit sorry for my OCD. It really does think it’s trying to help me.

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.31.40 AMWhich is why I have this dog toy, with a tissue taped to it, sitting on my desk. Because it is cute, and it reminds me that my OCD is really not scary, which is nice since my OCD is always with me. It’s mostly quiet, but it will share its doom and gloom view of the world at times, and when it does, I just pat it on its head, hand it a tissue, and go on with my day.

At times like these, I don’t think about the “OCD Ugly Christmas Sweater Red – Awake” (yes, that’s how it’s actually listed) that Target has decided to sell this season. When OCD isn’t bothering me, the sweater doesn’t bother me: it’s as harmless as my little orange ball. It’s as harmless as the chocolate bar that someone gave me once that says “Obsessive Chocolate Disorder.” I actually kept the wrapper because I do love chocolate and I do have OCD, so I thought it was irreverently appropriate.

The problem is, OCD is a shape shifter. It is NOT always a cute orange ball.

And that’s where the problem with the Target OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder sweater begins.

Shape Shifting

As I described at the talk I co-presented in July 2015 at the International OCD Foundation conference about relapse prevention and OCD, sometimes my OCD morphs into a combination of:

  • Gollum from Lord of the Rings: constantly and annoyingly obsessed, in the book with his precious ring, and in my life with anything that could bring harm,Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 11.07.40 PM
  • The Tasmanian Devil from Bugs Bunny: frantically hypervigilant and always whirling around scanning my environment for the next thing that’s going to kill me, and
  • A dementor from Harry Potter: completely preoccupied with unlikely but utterly terrifying scenes of death and destruction.

I have done a whole lot of exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) over the last five years, so my OCD doesn’t shift into this lovely Gollum/Tasmanian Devil/dementor shape too often, but when it does, it is terrifying to behold.

How terrifying?

If you don’t have OCD, here’s how to put yourself in our shoes. Close your eyes. Imagine the person you love the most. Do you see him/her clearly? Ok, good. Now imagine a big, terrifying thug holding a shiny, deadly gun to your loved one’s temple. Imagine the thug saying that if you cannot divide 356,192,304 by 376 in your head and give him the right answer immediately, and oh, by the way, the answer must be an even number, he is going to kill your loved one, right there in front of you.Hand holding a gun

While you would do anything to save your loved one, what he’s asking is something you don’t know if you can do. You can’t divide like that in your head. And you have no idea if the answer’s an even number or not.

You start trying to divide frantically in your mind, while the thug yells at you to figure it out, quickly now, come on, what’s wrong with you, can’t you do it, I’m going to kill him/her now, now, now, don’t you understand, what are you an idiot or something, can’t you get this right your wife’s/son’s/mother’s/friend’s life is at stake and are you a complete loser who can’t even do this right?!?!?!?!?

Do you see the look of fear in your loved one’s eyes as you try to divide this gargantuan number in your mind while hearing the taunting of the thug who is holding your loved one’s life in his hands? Do you feel your loved one’s terror? And your terror? And the knowledge that you are completely, utterly helpless and he or she might die at any moment?

Have you got all that?

Good. Because that’s what it feels like to be in the middle of an active OCD episode.

And if you have OCD and haven’t gotten treatment (which is the case for MANY people, as it takes 14-17 years on average to get the right treatment), this is what the majority of your day might feel like, every single day.

Here’s how OCD works: it threatens you with some grievous harm (you killed someone, you molested someone, you might be attracted to children, you lied, you started an epidemic that will kill thousands, you stole, you are going to die of a deadly disease….you get the point), and then it says you have to do compulsions, either mental or physical, over and over again, until the OCD is 100% certain that this horrible thing isn’t going to happen. Which is, of course, impossible to prove. And in your rational mind, you know this, but to your great shame, you just cannot stop doing all these irrational things it’s asking.

Getting 100% certainty is impossible, just like it’s not possible to divide 356,192,304 by 376 in your head and give the thug the right answer and have that answer be an even number. It’s impossible because the answer is 947,319.9574, an odd number.

So you’re stuck in hell.

It’s a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Because OCD is one of the most debilitating, disabling mental disorders on the planet.

Which is why, when I’m in one of those hellish, Dante’s inferno, soul-destroying OCD episodes, which happen to all of us with OCD every now and then, things like the Target sweater, and even the chocolate bar wrapper, are not in the least bit cute.

So what’s OK?

So if the Target sweater isn’t OK, why again do I have an orange ball with a tissue taped to it on my desk?

Because it remincanstockphoto9413559ds me to do my ERP. It reminds me that if I do, it’s the little harmless orange ball following me around, and not the Gollum/Tasmanian Devil/dementor horror. And if I picture my OCD as cute, it helps me to remember that obsessions are just thoughts.

But let me be super clear here: it’s ok for me to do this because I have OCD. Because personifying my OCD as “cute” is a technique I’ve developed that helps me take my OCD thoughts less seriously. It helps me manage what is a chronic, lifelong disorder. That ironically is anything but cute. And is deadly serious.

Never in a million years would a store sell merchandise parodying HIV, cancer, or ALS. So why is it ok to parody a mental illness that can make people’s lives a living hell, and in some cases, cause them to accidentally or purposely take their own lives?

I don’t think that is OK. I wish we were at a point where most people with OCD could see it like I do most of the time…as a harmless orange ball, sniffling as it waddles behind me.  If that were the case, it would probably be OK to make fun of it on a sweater. But so many people only see their OCD as a Gollum/Tasmanian Devil/dementor because they have not yet gotten the right treatment. So they are living isolated, hellish lives that are only made worse when they are confronted, in this season of giving, by a sweater that strips away the serious nature of their disorder and adds to their tremendous pain and shame.