Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

I refer the reader to an article in the May-June 2009 Utne Reader written by Andrew Westoll entitled “The Mountain that Eats Men. Drinking with the Devil in a Bolivian Mine.”

The article is about Bolivian miners who descend thousands of feet below the earth to work in the silver, gold, zinc and copper mines, the work of which eventually sucks the life out of them through lung disease and nameless exhaustion. The miners work from dawn to dusk with welcome breaks of alcohol drink especially concocted for their macho appetites.

I compare the crushing weight of their tasks, the endlessness of their dark work lives, and the devilish totem they call Tio (uncle) who lives in the mine as a symbol of the Hell-like lives they lead to my mental illness called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The parallels?

OCD is one of the most afflicting anxiety diseases one could have. It afflicts millions of Americans each year.

Once the disease takes control of one, it is a spiral down into the pits of any ones darkest parts. It seems like the disease never lets go. Even with treatment, it constantly needs tending to and doctoring…and even then it still grabs hold of one with its ceaseless lashes and insidious moments.

I can remember in the not so distant past, when my sister and I were compelled to obey the crazy-kid superstition of “Don’t step on the cracks (of the sidewalk) as it will break your mother’s back”. Looking back at the time, this little ritual seemed so innocuous but the juice behind it was intense and grew to be lethal. It grew to be a way to hide feelings and focus on distraction.

Soon afterwards came the ritual checking of cabinet doors, the compulsion to knock on the car door hand 6 times before entering, the rosary prayer rituals every Friday night before confession, the Spanish translations, the checking all the garbage can lids on our block to make sure they were secure and on and on.

The belief behind these useless habits were as various and nefarious as one can think: mom would die if we weren’t sidewalk -crack -careful or people would reject or abandon me if I didn’t translate words or keep a tight lid over everything, or bad things would happen to my family if I didn’t imagine a tragedy before it might happen.

One of the most eroding aspects of this disease is secrecy, shame, and embarrassment. Unlike depression or visible panic and anxiety, this anxiety disease manifests itself in rituals and superstitions that are so exotic and bizarre, one dares not to mention them out loud to anyone, sometimes including to oneself.

Who wouldn’t think anyone who goes around checking garbage can lids int he middle of the night, wasn’t out of his/her mind? Or someone who is a germ phobic washing his/her hands 50 or more times a day wasn’t a little odd? Or in the case of Howard Hughes, not allowing any human to touch or approach him for fear of becoming contaminated:

Secrecy. Nobody must know. This adds to the isolation and social retreat.

The claws that reach behind this chaotic disease is fear. Fear that bad things will happen if you aren’t driven to do the acts. Fear of being out of control. The ritual becomes a distraction so one doesn’t have to face the helplessness and vulnerability of the fear. It’s a good defense if only it didn’t control us.

Really nothing can compare to the hard-core life of the Bolivian miner. In many ways the COD survivor has to take responsibility for one’s illness and seek treatment. The miners don’t have that luxury.