An –ahem– Short Introduction
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
June 27, 2015
“I thought short articles would suit our needs,” Dr. Sony Khemlani wrote to me.
“Short? Me? Um… You do realize I have OCD…” I thought
I am sure she does. Dr. Khemlani is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialization in OCD. Besides, when I asked her if I could volunteer for the International OCD Society, I was open about my OCD. I also spoke about having volunteered with OCD folks since 2004.
But if all that did not tip her off… Maybe the million photocopies I gave her of everything from articles I had written, lesson plans for teaching English as a Second Language, evaluations of me as a teacher, and other assorted materials did.
In fact, I gave her multiple copies of everything.
Then again, maybe she just knows OCD people really well and wisely set a limit on just how many words I could put in a post. (Kudos to her!)
Put it this way: When I was a child my parents nicknamed me Chief Running Mouth. And once I learned to turn my love for talking nonstop into love for writing nonstop, I became a force for bleary eyes. That lead to love for teaching and learning; I first began teaching when I was in elementary school. My sister Lisa and her stuffed ducks and dogs were my first students. By the time Lisa entered kindergarten, I had already taught her how to read.
Jump ahead a dozen years and I was eagerly studying history in graduate school. I thought I would be a history professor, but then Mr. Gorbachev opened up the former Soviet Union and thousands of Russians flocked to my hometown, Brooklyn. A few years later, Brooklyn College hired me to help them learn English. I stayed there for eleven years then moved on to NYU, where I have taught since 2005.
Teaching gives me greater joy than almost anything else, and much of what I have learned as a teacher helps me in controlling my OCD. This in turn inspires me to help others control theirs. Similarly, much of what I have learned in controlling my OCD and helping others has made me a better teacher. (That will be the topic of many future posts.) Within my department, I have become a strong advocate for students with all types of mental health issues, physical disabilities and learning disabilities. I assume, for example, that there is at least one student with undiagnosed ADHD in every class, and over the years I have modified the way I teach to accommodate them. (Again, that will be the subject of future posts.)
My own OCD focuses primarily on scrupulosity (religious OCD), natural disasters, harming others, my health, and false fears of people conspiring against me. Like so many others with bad OCD, I thought I would never have a good career, never do anything with my life, and, of course, never again be happy. That was OCD lying to me as usual. I am 49 years old, and I have yet to see even one OCD pronouncement come true.
For a variety of reasons that will also be the subject of future posts, much of the time I spend with OCD folks focuses on what is known in Internet lingo as HOCD (homosexual OCD) or SO-OCD (sexual orientation OCD). I cannot diagnose or treat this form of OCD or any other, and I cannot divine sexual orientation from the lengthy descriptions—I am not the only OCD person who loves to gab!—and occasional photos people send. As I see it, my job is to start a dialogue and let them know that they are not alone in their scary thoughts. I also talk about treatment options and quell fears about behavior therapy and, if necessary, medication.
I never imagined that I would be doing this for more than a decade, let alone writing an OCD blog. Then again, I never imagined I would be teaching English as a Second Language either, yet now I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.
I am only just beginning to plan this blog, and I hope it will help many people with OCD realize “Hey, I’m not crazy. Other people with OCD think that too.”
As Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz wrote in Brain Lock: “It isn’t me. It’s my OCD.”
Cognitive Behavior Therapy works!
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
June 27, 2015
I am often contacted by folks experiencing false fears about sexual orientation. After I answer the personal questions I am asked—“personal” being an understatement—I cut and paste the message you see under the dotted line.
If you, a loved one or a friend is suffering from other forms of OCD, you can still use the information in this message. My words on false sexual orientation fears can serve as an example of a type of OCD alongside my elevator example.
I personally know many people who have had this type of OCD and have learned to control it. Life can be good–wonderful, in fact–for people with OCD when they are no longer a slave to this illness.
For OCD, the best kind of therapy is behavior therapy (specifically cognitive behavior therapy or CBT). Freudian psychoanalysis and its offshoots are very good for other types of problems–but OCD is biological (or both biological and environmental–meaning that you have a biological predisposition to it and things in the real world like stress can cause it to become difficult to handle). It does not come from childhood trauma or negative adaptation to life, two of the many things psychoanalysis deals with. You do not need analysis. Instead, you need strategies to overcome or improve or decrease ocd symptoms
Basically, CBT will introduce ways for you to stop being so upset by these thoughts. As you learn how not to react to them (no getting upset, no arguing with them, no running to the Internet to “check” if you are gay, etc.), they become less and less powerful and come less and less often. OCD never goes away 100%, but it can be controlled so well that it no longer bothers you. You can live your life like someone who has no OCD–and not suffer because of OCD.
There is homework involved in CBT, although not the kind of homework you get in school. In CBT, a therapist leads you through exposures gradually, beginning with things that would cause the least stress. If, for example, you were afraid of elevators, perhaps you would start by simply talking about elevators. The next week you might look at pictures of elevators and visualize going in one. Then, the next week, you might walk into one with your therapist but then walk out immediately without pushing any buttons or going anywhere; then you would talk about the experience. The next week you might go up or down only one floor with the therapist… This would continue until you were riding an elevator all the way up and down on your own.
My explanation is very simple; the actual process would be more detailed.
Exposures for HOCD (false fears about sexual orientation) could include looking at pictures of a good-looking actor on the Internet and choosing the five best, walking around your house for a few hours in a t-shirt that had something gay on it, watching a movie or TV show with a gay character, etc. You and your therapist would put together a long list, and you would determine the order together. The thing that is the scariest would be much easier to do after all the other exposures. In addition, your therapist would be involved in talk therapy to help you control your anxiety.
It is not always easy to engage in this sort of therapy, but it is sooooo worth it. You will be building new pathways in your brain (quite literally!) and learning ways not to get upset or react at all by carrying out these exposures. In other words, you will be defeating your OCD.
Here is an article on finding the right kind of therapist for OCD. It comes from the OC Foundation here in the United States:
If you are not in the United States, see if you can find a national OCD organization or a national behavior therapy organization in your country. Either one can tell you how to get OCD help in your language and region. They might also make recommendations. The mental health center in a hospital might also be able to refer you.
If you would like to read some articles about false gay fears and OCD by American behavior therapists… Note that they don’t use the term “HOCD” since that is really an Internet acronym.
I hope that helps. Let me know if you would like to discuss any of this further. I would be happy to respond. If you write again, please understand that sometimes I take a long time to respond–but I do get back to everyone eventually.
Always remember: “It isn’t me. It’s my OCD.”
If you would like to read my (longer) articles on OCD and false sexual orientation fears, go here:
My 2005 article: http://www.brainphysics.com/yourenotgay.php
Think for Yourself
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
August 21, 2015
OCD is the king, queen and royal jester of illogical thinking. Sometimes it draws on mass media sensationalism and societal willingness to believe nonsense. As Pamela Meyer says in her wonderful TED Talk “How to Spot a Liar”: “Lying is a cooperative act.Think about it. A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance.Its power emergeswhen someone else agrees to believe the lie.”
There are complex reasons we may believe a white lie or even a very dangerous lie. But throw OCD and anxiety into the mix and you get people believing the craziest things. I should know. My OCD made me believe the craziest things too. It started when I was a boy praying ritualistically every night for God to prevent the photos of mummies in my junior high text from coming to life and attacking me…
Logic didn’t banish my fears. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is the way to get OCD under control when someone is stuck in a mental loop. After, engaging in logic and critical thinking helps keep it at bay. And perhaps, if OCD is both biological and environmental (with environment playing a role in the severity of symptoms), critical thinking beginning at an early age may decrease severity.
That is one of the reasons I lie to my university students. I tell them our Constitution includes ideas the Founding Fathers borrowed from the lost continent of Atlantis. Then I give them an example of written Atlantean: Karooka kawakka karinga karoopagoo. (Actually, that is the name of a character in one of my science fiction stories.) When I tell them to copy down the words, they scribble dutifully.
Sometimes students object, saying my claims cannot possibly be true. Such students will go far. But more often I have the class going for ten minutes.
Then I stop and say I am lying—and they are stunned. We talk about why they believed me: I am the authority figure; I speak well; I am American and they, as foreign nationals in my advanced ESL class, are not; I drew a chart illustrating an Atlantis – Plato – Freemasonry – Founding Fathers connection; teachers are supposed to tell the truth… Yet I lied.
Next, we talk about things we read in textbooks and newspapers, things we see on TV… The word propaganda usually comes up. It is almost possible to see light bulbs flashing over inclined heads as I put them in small groups and ask them to discuss ways people lie, exaggerate, and quote biased references to get others to vote their way, join religious (or non-religious) institutions, buy products they do not need, become part of the cool crowd… They also talk about why the victims are so willing to accept lies, exaggerations, and biased quotes.
Finally, I tell them not to believe something simply because somebody else says it. Not to believe something simply because it is in a textbook or the New York Times. Not to believe something simply because they have always believed it.
I tell my students I will be lying more often. They have to be critical thinkers and take their best guesses about when to believe me. I also tell them to trust themselves. There are of course many correct things said by people and found in print, but they have to find their own beliefs themselves–and they can change their views as often as they wish. “Life,” I tell them, “is about living with uncertainty.”
Elephants Falling from the Sky
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
October 1, 2015
Someone once told me he liked to imagine his obsessions were about elephants falling from the sky instead of all the scary things OCD cooked up.
I scratched my head. “OCD gives us enough obsessions. Why would you want to invent a new one?”
He explained that he used ridiculous thoughts about elephants to temper his OCD. It is unlikely that elephants will ever fall from the sky. But is it possible?
There are stories of single elephants being transported in planes. I suppose many elephants could be herded into super-airplanes of sorts if the planes were technologically equipped to handle them. But what if it is so hard to equip the planes that there are design flaws and, after an explosion, a rain of dead elephant parts falls on a populated area? We had better elephant-proof our homes right away!
Can you hear how ridiculous this is getting? And why would anyone want to fly an airplane packed with elephants?
News flash: All OCD fears are just as ridiculous and just as convoluted.
Ah, but I used to worry about other ridiculous things from the sky. For three years in the mid-90s I suffered terribly from obsessions about natural disasters; I did not know about CBT and was in the wrong type of therapy. I also did far too much checking—I called it “research”—on all types of disasters. I still know more about disaster potential than any human being should.
Thanks to CBT, I also know that worst case scenarios are the least likely to happen, and I no longer live in What-If-Land. If I listened to my OCD today, I would be worrying about a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, a meteor shower, a mudslide, a lightning storm, and perhaps even elephants falling from the sky—and all at the same time, probably in about five minutes.
In the twenty-first century I lived through a tornado in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I was shaken by a minor earthquake and, of course, Hurricane Sandy arrived. (No, not all at the same time!) Despite my three years of terror waiting to be killed by a disaster, nothing horrible happened to me, my family, or our property. In fact, I now spend a lot of time quelling others’ fears, and I was a contact person for my students before and after Sandy. If back in the 90s someone had told me what lay ahead for me this century, I would have had a major OCD spike. And for what? Nothing bad happened.
In addition to being helped by CBT, I live ongoing CBT. One of the Manhattan buildings I teach in is a block from Ground Zero; in the other, I teach on a high floor overlooking Midtown. Of course, both locations would have spiked me to no end in the 90s. But now I do not listen when, every workday, my OCD still screams “Disaster!” “Terrorists!” “Heights!” There are more important things to think about: My students, the subjects I love teaching, my family and cat after work, science fiction…
What changed? I realized that we OCD folks obsess because of OCD, not because of real danger. Remember that the “O” in “OCD” stands for “obsessive.” When you obsess about something, it dominates your thoughts even if you do not want to think about it. But having an obsession does not mean the thing you fear is true.
I also realized how much I was making my OCD worse by “checking” and seeking reassurance. That is the “C” in “OCD”: “compulsive.” It is futile to bang on a wall exactly seven times or meticulously avoid cracks in a sidewalk to prevent something horrible from happening. Similarly, checking and reassurance are futile ways of trying to use logic to banish OCD thoughts. Logic, which is so important in so many other aspects of life, does not work against OCD’s lack of logic, obsessive thinking and anxiety.
Don’t engage or fight or try to use logic against your OCD. You will only feed it if you do. Instead, use what you learn in CBT and remember the OCD mantra: “It isn’t me. It’s my OCD.”
If an elephant does ever fall from the sky and land here in Brooklyn, I know it will miss my house. –Yawn–
Diarrhea Barbie: A Study in Imperfect Perfection
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
December 3, 2015
Even at fifty years old, when I have a nightmare about hell and eternal damnation I am transported back to 1977. The setting is my sixth grade classroom in Brooklyn’s P.S. 104. Guess who my sixth grade teacher is, pitchfork in hand…
Ah yes, 1977… One Friday my sixth grade teacher told us each to come up with a toy that had never been made but would take the market by storm. We then had to market it to the class the following Monday. Taking the assignment far too seriously and literally as we OCD folks usually do, that Monday I introduced the biologically correct doll Diarrhea Barbie to my classmates.
I never made it to the sales pitch, though, as I was sent to the principal’s office less than a minute into my presentation. I was accursed of mocking the teacher, the assignment and America. (America?!!)
Ironically, I had envisioned Diarrhea Barbie as something American needed. By 1977 we had suffered Watergate, the Vietnam War, the bankruptcy of New York City, the erosion of old values… My doll was about love and responsibility. No matter how busy children were or what else they had to do, they would make time to care for and clean their sick dolls. The toy taught traditional values to future parents, and I imagined it would be a big seller around Christmas.
Although Ballerina Barbie (who inspired my Diarrhea Barbie) was one of the most popular Barbie dolls at the time, what did she do besides stand on her toes and wear a tiara? What did most toys do? No one had ever made a toy as useful as my doll, and I thought I had followed the assignment to the letter.
As an adult, I can see how I managed to offend so many so quickly, something we OCD folks do all the time. The doll was inappropriate despite my good intentions, despite my inability as a child to understand why I was in trouble. I share part of the blame this mishap—but only part. Remember that I was eleven.
So what made a little boy change Ballerina Barbie into Diarrhea Barbie? Creativity and the ability to think outside the box are two of the wonderful gifts OCD gives us. But we need to temper these gifts with awareness of OCD’s driving perfectionism and tunnel vision. My sixth grade sales scheme may have seemed sound in my mind, but it was not based in reality. I never bothered to consider whether parents would put drippy diarrhea in their children’s Christmas stockings.
This is how we OCD folks see the world: We master the details better than others but fail to see the big picture. Then we are shocked when others do not understand us.
When I ask my NYU students to read “Cupid and Psyche” or a similarly sweet story, they discuss love in ideal terms. Even the more cynical married ones can get swept away in the story’s emotion (as can I). When they ask me what I think real love is, I tell them I am sure it is not rainbows and unicorns. Rather, real love is knowing a person’s worst faults and still thinking you are lucky to be with that person. It is everyday reality, not dreamy perfection. It is sharing a bathroom, the essence of, well, Diarrhea Barbie.
That is the big picture.
So where does that leave us, the OCD perfectionists? We create our perfect OCD worlds where only 100% or 0, all or nothing, black or white satisfies us. Yet our perfectionism is imperfect because it does not reflect the real world of perfect gray. Even Harry Potter sees more gray and less certainty as he matures through each progressive book, facing increasingly complex situations. And who is the intolerant perfectionist looking for a black and white world whose every detail he can control? That would be Voldemort.
Or my sixth grade teacher.
I would not want to live in a world that matched their vision of perfection—or my OCD’s, for that matter. Besides, perfection can never be achieved. How imperfect! And how delightful!
And when the whole person I am involved with does something that angers me, part of me is relieved. I am not a perfect person and will always fall short of what perfection demands. If I had a perfect relationship with a perfect person, I would feel very bad about myself and my imperfections.
Happily, we get to be imperfect together.
Are Men Allowed to Cry?
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
January 10, 2016
I often ask my upper-level ESL students to listen to and discuss Emma Watson’s 2014 speech on gender equality at the United Nations. Next, I select Google Images and search for “I need feminism because.” There are pages upon pages of people–mostly women but, happily, also men–at universities or in various movements who hold signs that finish the sentence in their own words. These images make for good discussion.
Unfortunately, some people mock the issue by posting anti-feminist slogans to finish the sentence. But those images also make for good discussion.
When I first saw the online pictures of some of my fellow men mocking gender equality, it disturbed me so greatly that I decided to stand up and be counted. I have always been in-your-face about important issues, but now my sign and picture, taken a couple of blocks from the NYU Midtown Center (where I teach) and the United Nations (where Watson spoke), is online. People who know me can see it. I am sure the mockers have choice words to say about me, which is fine. Even as s a teen I was mocked relentlessly for my beliefs, which prompted me to stand up for several groups to which I did not belong. It used to reduce me to private tears then, something I will talk about later in this post. But eventually I learned I was stronger and more stubborn than their mockery. They could make me cry, but they could not stop me.
Anyway, my sign: “I need feminism because my mother and sister deserve fair wages and because men do not need to live under an emotionless, macho facade. In other words, feminism is for everyone.” It seems like common sense to me. To others, them’s fightin’ words.
Seeing my chubby, smiling face with that sign and knowing that I practice what I preach has had an impact on my students. Here are four quotes from papers written by university-age men from macho cultures. None of them are native speakers of English, and although I corrected grammar and usage in their papers, I have not corrected them in these quotes.
- Finally, the male can well understand his social responsibility because of feminism. The most essential and fundamental social responsibility for men, who should accept the feminism, is that power is not equal to rights, but we always hold the opinion that these two conceptions have the same meaning.
- The male can care more about his family and show his love and kindness because of feminism.
- In this day and age, gender equality is a hot topic in our society. We all know that the degree of attention between men and women is unfair in the ancient world whether in Asia or other countries. But nowadays, this cognition of the public has been challenged, and many people want to change this outdated ideas
- Personally, I think the gender equality is the sign of the improvement of our society, and there is still a plenty of room for progress in gender equality. So, let’s try our best to realize it.
In class we had a deep discussion on many similar issues, and there was one thing Watson said in her speech that really resonated with a number of students: “I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice. But also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.”
How sad that many men actually need permission from Emma Watson, from me, from their peers, from their therapists (from John Wayne?) to express their true emotions. No wonder OCD makes such a mess of us. I cannot tell you how many men who have contacted me about OCD have been so deeply ashamed, as if being a man should automatically negate OCD, as if having OCD and being afraid makes them less manly, as if being a man means never crying no matter how much you hurt. “OCD actually made me cry,” someone once wrote to me. (I could hear the rest of his thought: …and guys don’t do that.) If they never would have cried without OCD… Forgive me for saying this, but could their having OCD be a good thing?
I was no better. Despite my young tears, which I never let anyone see, I also wanted to be macho. That meant putting up a wall so that nothing hurtful could penetrate. What macho guys do not realize is that their need to have a wall means they are already vulnerable. The wall merely blocks healing.
Confucius said: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
March 10, 2016
The OCD event this blog focuses on had an impact on my life only three days ago. In other words, I am not writing from safe academic distance. I share what is very personal to me so that others can gain insight—and, I am sure, so that I can gain insight as well.
When I arrived home from work Tuesday, I discovered email asking me to call my boss’ boss right away, no matter the hour. The issue she wanted to discuss was very important and could not wait, she wrote.
I immediately had my worst OCD spike in years and assumed I was about to be fired. This irrational fear with no evidence was nothing new, either. I can usually ignore it, but at that moment the surprise and abruptness of the message threw my coping techniques out of whack.
Rationally, I knew I had done nothing that would get me fired. In fact, the boss’ boss had praised me during our last conversation, and we had always had a good working relationship. Maybe the boss’ boss wanted to share some good news and could not wait. I know I cannot wait when I want to share good news…
Yes, all this was my mental OCD checking. As anyone with OCD knows, these pointless mental musings make OCD fears worse, not better.
Calming myself down and taking deep breaths, I dialed. The boss’ boss answered and said she would call me back in five minutes.
Twenty minutes later, we spoke. They were twenty of the longest minutes of my life, and I have my cat to thank for keeping my OCD in check. She snuggled against me, and by concentrating on her I kept the worst of it at bay. Of course, my OCD brought her into it… How could I feed her and pay for her medicine with no job? And what would become of her when we were kicked out of our apartment…? But I used the thought stopping techniques I had learned in therapy many years ago, and my cat kept purring.
It turns out that the boss’ boss had a minor criticism of something I had done; the word “minor” was, in fact, hers. She was right to criticize me, and I was glad to have the feedback. Without it, I would have repeated my error in something else I was working on. The conversation was friendly and upbeat, and when I hung up I was calm.
Then OCD chimed in: But she really does want to fire you, Mark. She simply does not want to do it by phone since she needs to assemble a legal team to break your contract… Happily, I knocked out that thought and am typing it now without so much as a spike.
Is this any different from my false OCD fears of natural disasters, extremist religion, people hating me and health problems? Not in the least. Those are all catastrophe-oriented too.
Is this any different from the false OCD fears people who write to me express about what they think they are about to do, what they think is about to happen, or how their whole lives have supposedly been a lie? Again, not in the least. Those are also catastrophe-oriented.
Some of the email I answered last week included a phrase I have heard over and over for more than a decade: “I am an exception.” In other words, everyone else has OCD, but the person stuck in a catastrophe spike is the only one whose fears are about to be realized. I believe every OCD person feels this way, doubting it is OCD at work.
How can everyone be an exception?
Mark, Mark, Mark… You are being too logical. This is OCD, after all.
My own thoughts had centered on how this time I would be fired even though all the other times it was only an OCD fear. This was an exception.
Not. Look at what happened: I’ll be reporting to work as usual, and I am glad that the boss’ boss gave me valuable information.
The next time you catastrophize, the next time you think you are an exception, remember: “It isn’t me. It’s my OCD.”
Oompa Loompa and Bossy: Don’t Fear the Working World!
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
June 3, 2016
Today’s topic comes from someone who has been writing to me for years. She is about to leave graduate school and is afraid she will have terrible bosses and co-workers who make her miserable. I wonder how many OCD people have the same fear. I know when I was a student envisioning my future, I catastrophized about everything related to work. Even today I use coping techniques to deal with recurring false fears that my boss is about to fire me for minor infractions (regardless of whether I have actually committed any infractions–which was the topic of my previous blog).
We OCD folks are masters of catastrophic thinking, and if what OCD claimed were true work would be little more than slavery at the mercy of sadistic overlords. Contrary to what OCD tells us, many OCD folks get jobs they want, like and deserve. If we refuse to allow OCD’s over-organization to make others—or us—crazy, our attention to fine detail coupled with our work ethic usually impresses bosses and helps us advance.
Some of us have indeed experienced bad working situations, nasty bosses and less than stellar colleagues, but they do not reflect all of working humanity. If the job is great but one or two people are often on your back, accept that life cannot be all roses and have only minimal contact with the weeds; enjoy all the blooms in the work garden instead. Mind you, I practice what I preach. I get along well with most of my co-workers and enjoy being part of a team. Oompa Loompa (my private nickname for a difficult co-worker since she resembles that creature in Willy Wonka movies) has no power to change my enthusiasm unless I give it to her. The nickname reduces her sting in my mind and makes her comical—a technique I borrowed from Winston Churchill, who used to call the Nazis his country was fighting “Narzees.”
But what if your overall job situation or atmosphere is not what you want? It’s simple: Stay only until you find a better job. Yes, you can leave! It’s amazing how many people are shocked by that. Here in the U.S., Baby Boomers (people born roughly between the mid-40s and mid-60s) believed all they had to do was go to college to be the best in their fields. In many respects they were correct, and they often stayed at one job for life. Baby Boomers told their Generation X children (people like me, born roughly between the mid-60s and early 80s) that the world was theirs, but the world changed without warning. Many of us in Generation X have been unable to be the best even with multiple degrees. Too many of us have been treated poorly at work and even let go after 25 years or so of service. We have thus taught our Millennial children (people reaching adulthood around the year 2000) to think about themselves and not their companies. If they want to advance, they need to get a new job instead of trying hard in their current company. Lifelong loyalty to a company is no longer the American norm, and Millennials do not have to suffer the way Generation X has.
Yes, you can leave!
With no loyalty to a place that mistreated me in the mid-90s, I stayed only five months, then found a better job and Elaine (a truly wonderful boss I still consider a friend). I remained in that new position for eleven years until I transferred again to my current job in 2005. If the situation in my current job had been poor, I would not have stayed long. Since my current bosses are supportive and I continue to gain new skills, I remain.
Ah, but I am being logical, and we OCD folks know that logic does not silence OCD fears. I will now initiate some ERP by telling you about the boss from hell for whom I worked those five months. Although she died a couple of years ago, I won’t say where she worked or what her position was. I won’t use her real name either; let’s call her Bossy.
Where to begin? She was like a character out of Dostoyevsky.
Let’s start with the beginning of the workday. We always studied Bossy’s make-up when she came in. If it was applied incorrectly (and in particular, if her eyeliner was crooked) we knew she would be screaming at one of us before lunch. Also, if she was in too good a mood at the beginning of the day—such as the time she skipped into the office singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”—she would soon be hurling mental yellow bricks at us. Normal make-up and mood meant a normal day, unless, of course, something unexpected set her off.
One thing guaranteed to set her off was an unsharpened pencil. We all knew the drill: Come in before her and make sure every pencil in the office was sharpened every day if we did not want to be assembled for a lecture: “What would happen if there were an emergency and I picked up an unsharpened pencil…?”
Then there was the water cooler, which had not worked in years and had repulsive little dot things swimming in it. One day, Bossy claimed, someone who could fix it would happen to stop by. Why waste money on getting a new cooler when this one would be fixed one day? I wondered about wasting money the day I phoned in an order for 150,000 paper clips. “How many?” said the shocked supplier on the other end. We stocked up on everything in case of an “emergency.” Bossy’s rubber band collection was legendary.
So was her list of “friends of the office” and “enemies of the office,” which she meticulously updated. Most people did not fall into the friend category, but those who were wise enough to play Bossy’s games were treated to exquisite service even if what they needed had nothing to do with our office. Our “enemies” became more and more furious when they were ignored… And guess who had to field their venomous calls and visits. Not Bossy…
So, yes, people like Bossy and Oompa Loompa exist and have the potential to make working life miserable. It is likely that you will encounter one or more at some point. If OCD has its way, your work accomplishments, satisfaction and relationships will depend on such a person. But—and here is the but—that person, like OCD, is no more than a schoolyard bully. Again, you have the power to get yourself out of a bad situation (as I did with Bossy) or minimize your contacts with the rotten apple (as I have done with Oompa Loompa since 2005). Life is never all or nothing despite what OCD says, and neither is work. Many aspects of the working world, including the good people you meet in it and the way you build your self-respect and self-reliance, more than make up for any difficulties.
There is no need to fear work. Embrace it! I always tell my students that a life of play without work is just as bad as a life of work without play. You need both to feel complete.
“Don’t Believe Everything You Read about Changing Sexual Orientations”
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
September 28, 2016
Lately I have been receiving a lot of panicky email from OCD folks who falsely fear their sexual orientation is about to change. About half the messages referred to the same series of posts on a lesbian and gay message board, something the heterosexual writers encountered while doing a Google search as part of OCD checking. As a gay man, I am grateful that the LGBTQ community can express its voice freely—but I do not want that voice to cause unnecessary pain for OCD folks.
That is why, more than 25 twenty times in the past few months, I have answered email by cutting and pasting the following section from a much longer article I wrote in 2013. Per the suggestion of one of my readers, I thought I would also include it in my blog.
The Internet term HOCD can mean either Homosexual OCD or Harm OCD. In my writing I use it for false fears about sexual orientation.
The HOCD form of OCD is also a pathological liar and schoolyard bully. It looks for any excuse to confuse and torment you. One of its favorite tricks is getting you to believe stories about people who “suddenly” change from happily heterosexual to gay against their wills—even though that is physiologically impossible. (If you are a LGBTQ-identified person, for you the trickery involves stories about people who supposedly turn straight.) As soon as you are aware of even a single story, OCD will make it “feel” as if that is your destiny. But sometimes a clown is just a clown. Or a cigar.
Do not assume you are getting all the facts about a “transformed” person. A person of any sexual orientation can have an axe to grind (something to complain about), and the details may not be wholly truthful. Or perhaps the person is telling the truth as he or she sees it; that does not mean it is Truth with a capital T.
Let me illustrate this with my own coming-out story. I am sure people who knew me then thought I had changed from happily heterosexual to gay.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, I knew I was attracted to other guys. I did not understand what being gay meant since there was no public Internet at the time, little positive material in libraries, and many negative stories about gays in the media. Further, my church claimed that homosexuality did not exist. (“Oy vey!” he says today in his best New York Yiddish.) If homosexuality did not exist, I reasoned, I could not be a homosexual. I was therefore… heterosexual. (“Oy vey iz mir!”)
The church is only part of the reason I once identified as heterosexual; my ethnic background is equally important. Like my father, I was born and raised in New York City; however, my mother is an Arab born and raised in the Middle East; my father’s mother came from Sicily (Southern Italy). Most of my Arabic and Sicilian relatives speak in accented English and are culturally more Mediterranean than American. In both of these cultures, heterosexual men can be surprisingly touchy-feely. Putting an arm around a male acquaintance or leaning against him for a long time means nothing. If the affectionate way these men behave was ever seen as gay in these somewhat homophobic cultures, their behavior would change overnight.
And so… Seeing so much male-male touching and high emotion, I told myself that Mediterranean guys had an intense need to bond with each other. I know today that is true, although it is not even remotely sexual for most of them. But back then I was desperate to prove I was not gay, and I reasoned that I merely wanted to bond with other men like a Mediterranean. Therefore, I was not a homosexual. (And besides, you will recall, homosexuality did not exist.)
As a young man I sought women (since it was the thing to do), fantasized about men in private, and never used the word gay. When I came out to myself and then, two years later, to another person for the first time, I did not suddenly “become” gay. Instead, I finally had the facts about homosexuality. I wonder if my coming out after leading a heterosexual life (on the surface) ever spiked anyone with HOCD before I even knew what it was.
Many LGBTQ folks lived the way I did before coming out—and many still do. They may be the ones whose words make you spike. Anansi the Spider carried all the wisdom of the world in a clay pot on his back, but true wisdom is never found in only one place. It takes time for a person to learn what coming out means to him or her since it is different for each person; it takes even longer to become wise. Some may claim to have “become” gay (and instantly wise) by coming out, but that does not make it so. Instead of feeding OCD by thinking in extremes and buying into everything we read or hear, we need to step back and say “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The next time you come across a claim that someone has “turned gay” (or, if you are a LGBTQ-identified person with false heterosexual fears, “turned straight”), you should consider the following questions:
- Do you know enough about this person to believe him or her?
- Is the person misinformed because he or she does not have all the facts?
- Does the person perceive reality the way you do?
- Does the person have an ideological axe to grind? Axe grinding can be part of the political right, center, or left; it can be found in the very religious, the moderately religious, or the non-religious; it can be a tactic employed by gays, bisexuals, or heterosexuals.
- Is the person posting to feel better about himself or herself?
- Is the person in the middle of a life journey?
- Have you misunderstood what the person wrote?
- Does the person wish to rebel against convention, religion, or parental values?
- Could the person be mentally ill?
- Could the person be a troll looking to cause trouble and have a good laugh at your expense?
If you consider the different ways of looking at a claim that has spike potential, it won’t scare you at all. (And besides, it will be great behavior therapy.)
Ride ‘em, Roscoe!
My Cat Taught Me Everything I Know about OCD
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
December 10, 2016
As I write this blog, Roscoe and I are sharing our favorite chair, and I am, as usual, trying to balance cat and laptop. When Roscoe feels the laptop is getting too much attention, she tells it off in cat language or simply sits on top of the keyboard so I cannot use it. She has even sent nonsense email on occasion.
I should have known there was something unusual about Roscoe back when she was a stray trying to make an impression by riding a terrified raccoon cowboy-style. As they raced down the block, I could almost hear Roscoe singing “Yippee ki–yay!” That was early 2011, a few months before I adopted her.
I suppose if I wanted to ride something, I would be tied down by OCD What Ifs, germ fears, disaster concerns… but Roscoe, being Roscoe, had decided she wanted a ride and just hopped on. More power to her.
We have just looked at each other, and her expression says volumes: “Mark, when you want something, just go for it. After all, I went for you and look what happened.”
Ah, the owner never chooses the cat. Like wands in the Harry Potter world, the cat chooses the owner. Roscoe used to run half a block to meet me as I was walking home from the bus stop after work. She would proudly deposit me at my door. In another case of just-go-for-it, Roscoe once wrapped her paws around my mother’s ankle and sat on her foot so she would be ‘walked’ intro my ground floor apartment. It took great effort to pry her loose. Another time she sneaked in as I was carrying bundles. No OCD What Ifs have ever stopped her from seizing the day.
Then there were the air conditioner games in the middle of the night. She would jump on top of the unit and bellow until I came out, half awake, to pet and talk to her.
Despite all this plus my growing attachment to her, I resisted adopting Roscoe for a number of silly OCD reasons… But then came the storm, although it was hardly the storm of love we would soon share. My worst OCD issue is natural disasters, and the year before Hurricane Sandy caused destruction here in New York City and on much of the East Coast, we had the storm that wasn’t: Hurricane Irene. Predications were dire, and my OCD went into overdrive as I thought about what might happen to Roscoe during a hurricane. I resolved to save her no matter what OCD said and took her to a vet my sister recommended. That was when I learned that Roscoe was a she. (Having seen her on top of a female cat, I had assumed she was a male having sex. Shame on me for binary thinking! I should have remembered the raccoon ride…)
The vet agreed to keep her safe during the storm, as a cat not used to being indoors, an inexperienced care provider and a hurricane do not make for a pleasant first stay. He also gave her a needed bath and conduct tests.
When the storm that wasn’t ended, I went back to pick up Roscoe. The vet told me she was FIV+ (Feline AIDS). Local shelters might euthanize her so she would not infect other cats, he said. He then listed other medical issues and added she would have a short life outdoors but could live a normal life indoors if she had medication. I immediately knew I had a permanent roommate. OCD shrieked over health and germ issues, but I ignored it.
Oh, it does not end there. Not this OCD story. Like many OCD folks, I am a neat freak—but I now put up with Roscoe’s never-ending supply of hair on everything, intermittent gifts of vomit in bed and the occasional overturned litter box with cat feces on my rug. Behavior therapy gone wild…
“And you do it all on purpose, don’t you, Dr. Roscoe?” In response, she has looked up and cocked her head in what I swear is a withering look.
I used to make fun of people who live for their cats and never stop talking about them, but now I am one of them. If I could post pictures on this blog, you would see a dozen of Roscoe.
And let me tell you… The senior citizens with multiple cats who have given me advice on taking care of Roscoe are some of the smartest, most wonderful people I have ever met. Another victory against OCD, which loves to make snap judgements based on faulty information. Real people are too multi-faceted to be wedged into neat OCD categories.
Just like cats.
TED Talks on Choosing Empathy over Prejudice
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
March 11, 2017
When obsessions and compulsions dominate our thoughts, we OCD sufferers get dragged down in the muck. For this reason, I find it helpful to think critically and reflect on life without the influence of OCD’s illogical nonsense. A discovery I made years ago has had a positive effect not only on me but also on my university students. It may also have a positive effect on you, my readers.
I am talking about the wonderful TED Talks I use in my classroom. TED is an ongoing series of conferences for layman in which people with “ideas worth spreading” give mini-lectures that last from five to twenty plus minutes.
I encourage my students to think critically about everything they hear on TED. Much of the content is excellent, but not all of it is. The more we discuss, dissect and disagree, the richer our classroom experience is.
The second most watched TED Talk of all time is from 2012, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” by social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy. While an intellectually gifted undergraduate, Cuddy suffered a bad head injury that lowered her IQ by two standard deviations (rough 30 points on an IQ test). Told she might have to give up academic work, she struggled on, dealing with oppressive anxiety and feeling that she was simply not good enough. For anxious OCD folks like me, her presentation on how body language can positively change others’ perception of us while also changing our own body chemistry, giving us the confidence we need to overcome anxiety, is a welcome gush of fresh air. It comes from the heart, based on her life experience in addition to her research. My students love this talk, and a few have told me it has had an impact on their lives.
You can also read more about Dr. Cuddy and her work in this wonderful 2014 New York Times article:
Self-perception and anxiety is also a theme in Reshma Saujani’s 2016 TED Talk “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection.” I start my lesson on Saujani by asking my students to discuss the following questions in groups.
- Why do you think there are more men than women in fields like engineering and computer programming?
- Do you know any women in these fields or related ones? If so, what do they say about this imbalance?
I then show a French news video dubbed in English in which French high school students are asked to solve complicated math problems while hooked up to an MRI scanner. The students in this control group calculate the problems with almost the same skill, young men performing only slightly better than young women. However, the women not in the control group are told there is a difference in men and women’s ability to do these problems. That simple statement reinforces internalized stereotypes and creates math anxiety. The women’s MRI scans then reveal yellow splotches in images of their brains, representing negative emotions; the men’s scans do not include them. When my students see graphs about how these women perform significantly worse than men instead of just slightly worse, they gasp.
At that point, Reshma Saujani’s talk on how women and men are equally capable in math and why she founded Girls Who Code–run with partners like IBM, Microsoft and Twitter—makes sense. The program currently serves 40,000 young women in their mid-teens in all 50 states.
For all OCD sufferers regardless of gender, this is another example of overcoming anxiety and “I can’t.” How many times does OCD tell us we will never be happy again, never get the things we want in life, never overcome our fears, never…
VETERANS RETURNING HOME AND THE SOCIETY THEY RETURN TO
I am now making the leap to veterans and a society that does not always welcome them back. Yet, as you read, you will see that it is not really too great a leap.
Over the years I have been contacted for OCD help by American veterans or Americans serving in the military, some of them in active combat. Although I have never been in the military, I feel deep empathy for people who face OCD’s fangs while risking their lives so far from loved ones. The first time I saw journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger’s 2015 TED Talk “Our Lonely Society Makes It Hard to Come Home from War,” I heard in his words what many have told me. Granted, Junger addresses PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and suicide, but OCD sufferers’ experiences often parallel the issues he explains: “Maybe it’s this: Maybe they had an experience of sort of tribal closeness in their unit when they were overseas. They were eating together, sleeping together, doing tasks and missions together. They were trusting each other with their lives. And then they come home and they have to give all that up and they’re coming back to a society, a modern society, which is hard on people who weren’t even in the military. It’s just hard on everybody.”
I have no idea if Sebastian Junger knows Dan Pallotta, whose 2016 TED Talk “The Dream We Haven’t Dared to Dream” urges us to change the way we see ourselves and our relationships as we fight for a better world. I do find, however, that combining these videos in one lesson really gets the creative juices flowing as my students think outside the box and come up with ways to make veterans and others feel more welcome.
Pallotta begins his talk by discussing the 1969 moon landing and his own experience coming out of the closet in order to introduce his main idea: People who deeply believe in fighting for social justice may forget that “too often our dreams become these compartmentalized fixations on some future that destroy our ability to be present for our lives right now…We don’t set the bar much higher than stability when it comes to our emotional life.”
He also quotes Catholic writer, interfaith proponent, social activist and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose philosophy many veterans and non-veterans searching for a higher purpose in life follow.
- “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?”
- (Merton was writing about war among saints…) “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.”
CHOOSING EMPATHY OVER PREJUDICE:
So much to think about! We can choose to empower ourselves and we can choose to empower and welcome others. We are not the sum of our OCD thoughts and fears. Neither are we the product of our environment or upbringing if we choose not to be. As an illustration of this, the 2014 TED Talk “I am the Son of a Terrorist. Here’s How I Chose Peace” by Zak Ebrahim also deeply moves my students.
Let me explain. The 2001 terrorist attack that downed the World Trade Center was actually the second such attack. Eight years earlier, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing did not destroy buildings but did kill six and injure more than a thousand. Zak Ebrahim, the son of the terrorist who masterminded the 1993 attack, was raised to follow in his father’s footsteps. He has instead chosen to oppose terrorism, speaking and writing about how even people like him, raised on hate, do not have to embrace it. I have shown this TED Talk many times and, as an Arab American who treasures diversity and understanding, I want to stand up and applaud every time I listen to Ebrahim. I also enthusiastically applaud his talking about Jews and gays—people he was taught to hate but has no reason to hate—in the video.
Another powerful TED Talk is Dalia Mogahed’s 2016 presentation “What Do You Think When You Look at Me?” Mogahed shows her faith by wearing a headscarf and a loose-fitting dress during her talk. I could not possibly say it any better than the blurb on TED’s main site: “When you look at Muslim scholar Dalia Mogahed, what do you see: a woman of faith? a scholar, a mom, a sister? or an oppressed, brainwashed, potential terrorist? In this personal, powerful talk, Mogahed asks us, in this polarizing time, to fight negative perceptions of her faith in the media — and to choose empathy over prejudice.”
Maybe empathy—whether empathy for yourself, for a veteran, or for a stranger who belongs to a different cultural group—is the opposite of OCD. Our obsessions and compulsions keep us locked in our heads, merciless to ourselves and others, unaware of the rich world around us. Empathy connects us to others and takes us out of our heads. And in a world that is “just hard on everybody,” as Sebastian Junger said, it makes all the difference.
Quacks and Brides, Big Smiles and Cuba
by Mark-Ameen Johnson
August 24, 2017
We OCD folk like everything to be all or nothing, black or white, right or wrong… Or, as my 82-year-old father jokes, “my way or the wrong way.”
Still, that is not reality. Life is more about middle of the road, grays, situational ethics…
Or is it?
“Yes, it is,” says Mark, ignoring his OCD voice.
Well, most of the time.
I thought I would share one of the rare cases where life really did present me with extremes, then tell you what I learned. Specifically, I want to write about four teachers, the two worst and two best in my life.
Let’s start with Freshman English 1 in Brooklyn College, 1983. I just had a mental sniff of mothballs, the smell on every paper returned by Prof. Quack (not his real name, obviously, although there was a Professor Kwak in a different department).
One day Prof. Quack started lecturing us in German. (He was a native English speaker.) After a few minutes, someone finally said, “Excuse me, Professor, but this is an English class.” “Ah, yes,” he responded, continuing mid-thought in English without translating the prior German. He went on and on, explaining his sixth point even though we had no idea what his first five were. And it was not much better when the whole class was in English. I still remember writing a letter to a friend during one of his lectures: “Now he’s talking about naked farmers, although I don’t know what that has to do with writing an essay.”
Yes, that’s a letter with pen and paper since 1983 was pre-Internet…
Prof. Quack’s zipper was often open. His hair was unkempt and he occasionally walked into walls while lecturing. At times, with the door closed, we heard him in his office having loud arguments with his wife by phone.
Yes, that’s a rotary office phone. Pre-cell phone era.
Mind you, Quackie was brilliant and knew his material well. He also published widely. The problem was he had no idea how to present material in a way 18-year-old freshmen understood. He assumed we knew many things we did not and never explained who all the people, places and events in his lectures were. (I could have used a Smartphone then, as I would have looked up a few things on the spot.) As it was, I jotted down what I could, usually misspelled his references, and often could not find them in the school library.
And the best part… Since I went to the same university as my father… My father had had him too! Old Quackers was just a younger version of his strange self then.
But at least he was better than my English-2 professor, whom I’ll call Bride of Frankenstein. It was 1984, and she was still wearing an enormous 1960s bouffant—two tone!–that did nothing for her. On day one she told us how stupid we were. She had wanted to use books X and Y, she said, but there wasn’t “a snowball’s chance in hell” that we would understand them. Instead, we had to use book Z since we had wasted taxpayer dollars doing nothing in high school blah blah blah…
As the semester progressed, we learned about Franky’s negative view of the world, her bizarre politics, and why she was so superior to us. Sometimes we even learned a little about writing—imagine that! She gave us all bad grades composition after composition. It was never clear why we received these grades, as she was too busy to meet with us after class or during her office hours. The highest final grade anyone received was a C.
She told me I was a terrible writer and should drop out of school. How ironic that I am a published writer and teach writing these days. I understand that Amy Tan, arguably the most famous Asian-American writer alive today, was told something similar by her English professor—with the addition of a racist comment that she should study math or science since that is what Chinese are good in. How very, very sad.
Now the best teachers.
In Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School (1979 to 1983) I had an older social studies (history) teacher named James Garofola. Say his name and the first thing I think about is his big smile. He was no pushover, mind you, and you could not take advantage of him. But he was warmhearted, sincere and passionate about students. I had hated history before I met him but enjoyed his class and the way he made history come alive and relate to the present so much that I took him again—and in university I had two majors: history and English.
He also took the time to give us life lessons on how to manage ourselves as adults and urge us to get the most out of everything we pursued. I goofed off or failed to do work in other classes in my last two years of high school but always came prepared to Mr. Garofola’s class because I knew I would learn something useful.
And finally, Prof. Teofilo Ruiz, formerly of Brooklyn College (when I had him three times in the 80s) and now of UCLA in California. We called him “Teo,” which means God. Born and raised in Cuba, he helped bring about the Cuban Revolution, then fled for his life when his one-time ally Fidel Castro turned against him. He made it to New York by way of Miami and drove a taxi for ten years to put himself through school. If you Google his name plus “Obama,” you can see him accepting a National Humanities Medal from the President in 2011. Teo’s students—yes, students!—nominated him for this teaching award. That’s how much so many of us love him.
I am known for some of my crazy theatrical antics while teaching, and I know I get it from him. He would also take the time to get to know each student personally and reach out to isolated students. One of the reasons I do so much volunteer work with fellow OCD folk is my memory of how Teo treated me, a misfit, back then. He even invited me to a meal at his home in Princeton and took me around the campus, making me feel special and cared for.
I love to tell my international university students about him since many worry that their English is not perfect. I explain that Teo had a Spanish accent and sometimes made small mistakes in English… Then I show them the picture of Teo, Barack Obama and the award. “So what does that say?” I ask. “Are pronunciation and grammar more important than what is in your heart?” (And you know what? That is precisely what Teo would have said.)
And now, in the spirit of Mr. Garofola, some life lessons based on these four people…
- Life is not fair, and people like Prof. Quack and Bride of Frankenstein are part of the tapestry. That does not mean you want or deserve such people in your life; they simple… are. You can get past them and fulfill your dreams all the same. And best of all, you can look at the situation with humor instead of anger.
- Just because someone says something, it does not mean it is true. Can you imagine if I had listened to the Bride and dropped out of school? If Amy Tan had listened to her English professors? People can be wrong—and that includes experts. Follow your passion regardless of naysayers. You will find people who support you.
- People are not objects. They are multi-level, filled with needs and feelings. The way to bond is to respect and show interest in them.
- When you meet someone like Mr. Garofola or Teo–or a really good behavior therapist–embrace, embrace, embrace. Internalize what is good and forgive when, because they are human, they cannot be perfect. Remember why the person did you so much good and replicate it for others dealing with Quacks and Brides. You can make life better for them as others have made it better for you.