Starving the Uncertainty Monster (an OCD story)
Uncertainty is a beast.
I think the concept is difficult for anybody, but it is especially hard for people who have anxiety disorders. My father used to say ‘there are only two certainties in life; death and taxes.’ He said it jokingly of course, but I think the saying is true. Even the rising of the sun (a fixed part of our existence) is not guaranteed tomorrow.
My struggle with uncertainty is no doubt rooted in two things: OCD, and a general lack of confidence in my own decision-making ability. In years past, there were days I was so indecisive, I would waste an hour trying to decide if I preferred a blue shirt or a green one. When I was in my mid-twenties, I went through a phase where I could never decide what to eat. Some days I would struggle to decide between eggs and cereal for breakfast to the point where I convinced myself if I made the wrong decision, the course of my entire life could be thrown off. Some days I’d end up preparing both meals but being too anxious and agitated to eat either one.
I wish I were exaggerating.
Luckily, neither choosing one top over the other or eating eggs for breakfast on June 12, 2013 had a dramatic effect on the course of my life. These types of decisions are so inconsequential that they hardly seem worth mentioning, except to emphasize what even the tiniest decision can feel like to people with anxiety disorders. Furthermore, if we can’t decide what to eat for breakfast, how the hell are we to decide where to live, what to be, and *gasp* who (or if) we should marry?
In 2015, about a year before I was diagnosed with OCD, my then-boyfriend proposed to me on the summit of a mountain in the Adirondacks. It couldn’t have been more perfect; my favorite person in my favorite place. He had been my best friend for years and our relationship was by far the healthiest, happiest, most loving relationship I had ever been in. I loved his family like my own, and he fit perfectly into my life. If this were all true, why then, six months into our engagement, was there a little voice in my head whispering “what if?”
This little voice began to plague me with near constant intrusive thoughts. What if you’re too young? What if he’s not ‘the one?’ What if this is supposed to feel different? What if you’re actually gay and shouldn’t be with a man at all? What if..? What if..? What if… I know these questions probably seem ridiculous, but with OCD they are completely commonplace. I couldn’t get away from the thoughts anywhere, and no matter how I tried I couldn’t “prove” that getting married was the “right” thing to do. Worst of all, the thoughts had absolutely no basis in reality, but the waters of knowing what is real inside your head get awfully muddy when you have anxiety.
I could write a hundred pages explaining intrusive thoughts, how OCD works, and how anxiety disorders affect people (and yes, I know OCD isn’t technically considered an anxiety disorder anymore according to DSM-V, but it is the root of most of the anxiety I have dealt with throughout my life so I’m sticking with the DSM-IV on this one) but that isn’t the point of this essay. If you want to know more, I’ve done two podcast interviews on the topic which I will link below along with some credible sources.
Anyhow, I think we can all agree that deciding what to eat for breakfast is a relatively low-stakes decision. Whatever I eat for breakfast, it will work its way out of me within a day or so. Even if I regret my decision, the consequences are short-lived. Even decisions like where to live don’t necessarily have long-term consequences. At most, signing a lease entails a year-long commitment. But marriage? Marriage is for life. How does anyone find certainty in a decision that is going to influence their life five, ten, even fifty years in the future? Worse yet, was the very existence of these what ifs a sign that I was indeed making the wrong decision in getting married?
Luckily at that point in my life, my OCD was starting to show everywhere. It was like I had been concealing it under neatly-pressed outfits for twenty-six years, but it was beginning to poke out like an untucked shirt or a cowlick that couldn't be smoothed down. It was uncontainable, and I finally conceded to getting help after having a major mental breakdown, which is undeniably the only reason things got better.
Since then, I have been through extensive therapy which helped me deal with OCD and be more at-ease with the uncertainties in life. I learned my biggest problem was that I always sought certainty that my decisions were the right ones, which is almost never possible. I also thought the best way to combat indecisiveness was finding this tangible proof, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. When we spend too much time mulling over a decision, we are not subduing the uncertainty but rather feeding it, and the more we feed it, the bigger and more formidable it grows.
The true way to combat uncertainty is to treat it like a hungry monster and starve it until it is too weak to fight back. The only way to starve the monster is to accept that it exists and acknowledge that no matter what decision you make, the monster might not completely go away. This isn’t to say we should throw caution to the wind and dive into big decisions recklessly, but it is to say that we are not always going to a receive a certificate that says “Congratulations! You made the right choice!” and that’s okay.
Thankfully, I found therapy and a way to combat the Uncertainty Monster before it ruined me, and much of my decision-making anxiety has gone away. I have stopped constantly seeking validation for my choices and second-guessing everything I do. This isn’t to say I never struggle with the concept of certainty, but uncertainty is definitely more manageable than it used to be. I can decide what to wear and what to eat without letting the anxiety of making the wrong choice ruin my day, and I can make more serious life decisions using logic rather than fear.
Best of all, starving the Uncertainty Monster allowed me to enjoy my life. I am thankful to be very happily married to my favorite person in the world, and though I never know what tomorrow may bring, I know that I will be spending it with someone I love fiercely who loves me right back.
The OCD Stories Podcast: https://theocdstories.com/podcast/emily-byrnes-a-strangely-wrapped-gift/
Taylor Nolan's Let's Talk About It Podcast: http://letstalkaboutitwithtaylornolan.libsyn.com/ep20-ocd-bad-science
The International OCD Foundation website: https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/