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Reading Horror Novels Helped Me Deal with OCD

28 February 2018

From Electric Lit:

When I was growing up, my mother’s worrying was a bit of a shared joke between the rest of the family. If, in the car on the way to the store, my mother turned and asked my father if he had turned the stove off, he would sigh and say, “Of course, dear,” before turning and smiling conspiratorially at me in the backseat. If my brother used a chair as a stepstool, I would joke that I was going to tell mom.

As I got older, her worrying got worse, and it stopped being funny. If she thought the stove was left on, we might turn around; if she caught us using a chair as a stepstool, she would shriek as though she had found us juggling knives. Her worrying was turning into fear, and her fear into panic. It made dealing with her more and more difficult. Still, she remained undiagnosed until I was nearly 18.

My own anxiety didn’t take form until my mid-twenties. As I got older, I started to see more and more of my mom in my thoughts and behavior. It became normal to triple-check the stove, stave off panic attacks at hibachi restaurants, and avoid crowds. I clung to established routines and rituals out of fear that to do otherwise was to invite terrible consequences.

. . . .

In January 2015, I fought past my fear of change and started my first semester in graduate school as an MLS candidate. It was a big step. It up-ended my life in many ways, and — as happened throughout my four years of undergrad almost a decade earlier — I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by both the upheaval of my routine, and the pressure to succeed.

By May 2015, my anxiety had spiraled out of control, manifesting as an uncontrollable fixation on bugs. Bed bugs, carpet beetles, termites, lice — in my mind, I was surrounded by insects. I spent my nights crawling on all fours with a lighted magnifying glass, examining carpet fibers and every nook and cranny of my bedroom. I poured over Internet forums and websites for information about the identification and eradication of my imagined enemies. I couldn’t sleep because I imagined my skin crawling with bugs. During the day, I was a zombie — exhausted, consumed with my fears, and sure that everybody who looked at me could sense that I was contaminated, and that I was a failure.

. . . .

In the interminable weeks between my initial spiral and the medications kicking in, reading saved me. Though I’ve always used books to help me deal with negative emotions, I had used them to escape into worlds that felt better and brighter than my own. They were fantasies of a life full of agency and joy, both of which seemed to elude me.

But at the peak of my anxiety and obsession, I didn’t reach for those fantasies. They would only make my life seem worse by comparison. I needed a different escape. And I found it in a genre I’d had little interest in through most of my life — horror.

As someone who was terrified of the dark till my mid-twenties, and who still sleeps with the TV on most nights, horror was something I’d avoided. But as my anxiety grew, it became a safe haven. It gave me something else — something besides my own obsessions — to channel my fear into. The generalized fear of an anxiety disorder creates a fight-or-flight response to an intangible threat, a threat that can’t be fought nor fled from. Reading horror allowed me to take all that adrenaline and pour it into something outside of myself, something that I could see resolved at the end of the story. It gave me the gift of catharsis.

It also gave me the gift of perspective. The characters in horror stories suffered from circumstances far worse than my own. I could tell myself that no matter how anxious I felt — or even if my anxieties proved to be true — it still wasn’t as bad as contracting a deadly virus, getting lost in a hostile wilderness, or having to choose between my own life and that of someone I love.

. . . .

With medication and therapy, my obsessive-compulsive behavior faded, and my anxiety became more controllable. But I still turn to horror. As I approached graduation, the stress once again triggered my anxiety. In addition to the pressure of completing large final projects in each of my classes, I felt unable to rise to the challenge of taking my next steps into adulthood, of beginning a career and all the new responsibilities that entailed — especially since I hoped to relocate, adding an extra layer of uncertainty to a future I was already apprehensive about. I combated these fears with book after book.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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