One of the post popular topics on my blog is reading OCD. I’ve written about it several times (For the Love of Books; Progress is Possible: An Update On Reading), and though I rarely see this subtype talked about in the OCD community, that’s where my blog always gets the most hits. Others must be struggling with this as well are Googling their symptoms in the same way I did years ago.
Summed up for me, the anxiety within reading OCD stemmed from not trusting that I understood the material. I needed to comprehend, and practically memorize, every sentence of the text to be satisfied. The compulsion was thus to reread and reread and reread. Ten pages or so would take me over an hour. And the anxiety itself was a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it harder for me to understand what I was reading. It got to a point where I was basically unable to read because it took so long, and reading was such an anxiety-inducing process that I would then avoid reading when I had the time. This was all especially true for schoolwork, but it transferred to reading for enjoyment as well.
We treated this obsession with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, in the same way any type of OCD is treated. This was with a licensed professional who specialized in OCD and ERP. But just because I am in recovery doesn’t mean I don’t still have intrusive thoughts and I don’t still have residual effects of such intense anxiety and OCD.
The way this occasionally affects me now is I will get the urge to avoid beginning to read. My brain was so well trained that reading was scary and awful and stressful and full of compulsions, that I still catch myself shying away from it, especially when beginning a new book or after a break from reading. The thing is though, I love reading. Anyone who knows me knows that I adore books and libraries and everything literature. Also, I’m beginning my MFA program in writing this fall, so there will be lots of reading. And that’s a good thing. I love reading.
Despite all of that love though, avoidance can still try to creep in. I found myself stuck these past few days trying to begin my first book for the MFA program. This book, The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, had been on my radar for years. I was excited to read these creative nonfiction essays. But I could not get myself to just start reading.
I would sit at my desk with the book in front of me feeling anxious. I would get up and go for a walk feeling anxious. I would come back and sit at my desk feeling anxious. I would take a nap to avoid feeling anxious. Even though I don’t do the rereading compulsions anymore, except for the occasional slip-up, my brain was used to being afraid.
I knew once I started reading, I would be fine. Not that I would be fine in that I wouldn’t be anxious, but that I would be able to tolerate the temporary spike in anxiety. The anticipatory anxiety far outweighed the anxiety I would feel while reading. I just had to get myself to open the book and start. Just read one page. Then another. Then another.
I started again by sitting at my desk and letting the anxiety rush over me like a wave. I rode the wave. I touched the book and opened the cover. I felt the spike of fear beginning. And I began to read. I read a few pages. Then, I read a few more. And before I knew it I had read the entire first essay without stopping. And by the end of it, I barely felt anxious. I had actually quite enjoyed the essay and was excited to read more.
That was yesterday. Now, I’ve read almost one hundred pages and am halfway through the book. And I’m loving it. I can’t wait to see how much I read over the next two years of this program. Now of course, I don’t think this is the last time I will face urges to avoid reading or writing or other tasks for graduate school. After all, being afraid of school is how my brain lived for years. We can build new pathways, figuratively and literally in our brain, but sometimes it’s easy to slip back into the old pathways that remain.
The important thing though is to keep building the new pathways. Each fresh loop around the new course does make the new pathways stronger.