By: Kerrie Mondy
Growing up, I experienced the autumns of the nerdy kid – that weird blend of nervousness and excitement about starting a new school year that was half wide-eyed optimism and half knowing dread. About the end of July, I would start visualizing it – there I was, strolling into class, buck teeth straightened, round belly and pimpled chipmunk cheeks replaced by graceful leanness, bookbag full of no-nonsense study supplies and a pouch full of pencils that absolutely had not had the ends chewed off. Maybe this is it! This is the year! It’s all going to come together, maybe! But probably not!
I’ve sort of never lost that impulse. And as luck would have it, fall has typically been a time of transition and change for me. New jobs, new schools, new places to live, new relationships – when the leaves start to fall and the grass starts to fade, I start to feel anticipation kicking in, and I become a ball of expectations and hopes and fears. This fall is holding to that tradition in a big way. The Bistro is reopening, this time sporting some adult-sized audio features and GIANT-sized expectations. And at the same time, I am walking out onto a new stage in my professional life – freelance audio. I did my first genuine freelance gig in August and have others coming up. And I’m visualizing – the woman who knows the answers, who’s not sweating the timeline, who’s got everything under control. And meanwhile, the fat little kid with the buck teeth and zits is sitting in the corner, fingers crossed, waiting for the shoes to drop.
I imagine that most people have a little voice inside that tells them stuff about who they are, what they’re capable of, and what they’re supposed to do. What it tells you, and how you respond to it, can change the direction of your life entirely. Mine is very loud.
I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid 20s, and by that time, OCD had been wreaking havoc on my personal and professional life for a long time, but I didn’t know that. I just thought I was destined to fail. Why else would my inner voice be telling me to give up? Lay low? Anything I did well was an accident, anything I messed up was an inevitable consequence of trying. For most of my adult life, I’ve had this feeling that everyone was in on some secret that I wasn’t – that I was a phony, getting by on luck, and if I did anything long enough, I’d be discovered.
OCD is sometimes referred to as “the doubting disease”, and that’s a very good description. At work, some of the consequences of this are that I have a hard time trusting that I can do a new job correctly without a “lifeline”, and that I have a very long memory for mistakes or problems, real or imagined. Someone can give me ten compliments and one criticism, and I’ll forget or discount the compliments almost immediately. The criticism I’ll obsess over for weeks. And god forbid I get yelled at or dressed down for a mistake. On the outside, I remain patient and positive but inside, I am dismantling myself piece by piece. Just because you have thick skin doesn’t mean you don’t have mushy insides. 🙂
According to the International OCD Foundation, OCD affects about 1 in every 100 people. Which means it’s very likely that at least a handful of people reading this right now are dealing with OCD on the job. And on THIS job, in environments where hyper-criticism, flaring tempers, and jaw-dropping rudeness are “just a part of the gig”, it can be a destroyer, leaving you constantly doubting your abilities, unable to realistically critique your work, and too fearful to get outside your comfort zone and into the jobs that will take you to the next level. And then, of course, you bring all of that home with you. It’s no way to work, but more importantly, it’s no way to live. And while I can’t say if one can ever really beat anxiety, I can say that it doesn’t have to beat you, either. And as the old saying goes, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
**I suppose this is a good time to throw in the obligatory cautionary statements – There are many treatment options out there for people with anxiety disorders and OCD, and different people have success with different things. I am (obviously) not a therapist, or probably even the wisest person at the bar. 🙂 I personally haven’t had much luck with traditional approaches to OCD treatment, nor have I had the resources to pursue them for a particularly meaningful length of time. What I am is someone who’s had OCD and anxiety most of her life, and who is now healthy, happy and achieving goals despite her brain’s dysfunctional peanut gallery. Take my advice for whatever it’s worth to you.**
I spent a long time fighting against my anxiety and obsessions and losing, and it probably would have been longer had I not had a fortuitous changing moment in the form of a business trip I didn’t want to take. I was working nights as a radio host on a Hot AC station (which, to those unfamiliar with radio shifts and formats, means “toiling in obscurity”) and my boss called me into his office to tell me that our afternoon drive host was not going to be able to go to L.A. to cover the Grammy awards that year. Did I want to go? I’d spend 2-3 days at the Staples Center interviewing artists and TV stars, and then come home to do an interview of my own on our local CBS station about the trip. I practically jumped out of my seat and hugged him. An opportunity like that rarely came around to the small fries, and it was an amazing chance for me to further my career. And then he told me when I’d find out about my flight arrangements. Flight arrangements. I did not fly. Anywhere. If I couldn’t drive somewhere, I didn’t go. He may as well have said, “we’re going to send you to LA by loading you into a box of spiders and fire ants and then shooting you out of a cannon.” I seriously thought about telling him I couldn’t go. But I knew if I did that, I was making a choice that would shape how I lived forever. I wasn’t just going to miss this opportunity, I was going to miss all of them. My life would be one big, long fear response. I thought I was going to die on that plane. I really did. But I decided I’d rather die being brave and courageous for myself than live a long life as a coward, never doing, only wishing.
I didn’t die. I did cry and hyperventilate for 3-1/2 hours into the shoulder of a very nice stranger who read his book and occasionally gave me tissues. I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and rollerbladed along Venice Beach. I rented a car and drove without directions. I sat under palm trees. I did rapid-fire interviews with 10-15 celebrities each day and nailed them. I flew home again (again crying and paper-bagging it the entire flight) and got up at 4am to go on the morning news and talk about my trip. Sometimes, you have experiences in life that only later can you see were really changing experiences. This wasn’t one of them. I knew just as much then as I do now that getting on that plane took me off of one path and put me on another. The breakthrough, really, was that I realized that I had to change the way I dealt with my OCD and anxiety. Fighting it wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t something that was going to go away. I had to learn how to live with it.
Remember what you’re working with.
There’s a song by Jason Mraz that I have always taken to be about anxiety called “Details In The Fabric”. There’s a line in it that says, “if you’re shocked it’s just the fault of faulty manufacturing”. I love that because it is very much how I have come to view my OCD, and that view is the springboard for how I deal with it – that is, as I would with any piece of gear that has a quirk in its parts. Take into account the issues it gives you when you plan your work. For example, I recently worked with a piece of outboard gear that will scream a big error message in the screen every time you turn it on: “WARNING – BATTERY LOW!!” The battery is not low, however, and everyone knows that it’s just something the unit does. They can’t make it stop doing it, so people just clear the error and don’t worry about it anymore. When you have OCD, your brain is going to scream error messages all the time. “THINGS ARE WRONG! STUFF IS BAD! DANGER ABOUNDS!” Acknowledge these messages, and understand that they’re going to be bothersome…but it’s just something your unit does.
Put mistakes in perspective.
Recently, I filled in for the engineer at a larger theatre company for 2 shows. I was already nervous, as it was a good-sized show with a lot to remember, run with someone else’s notes on a board I don’t like, and I’d only seen it once. Audio actually went fine, but my other job, to bring up the house lights in a particular fashion at intermission, I messed up on both shows. On the second show, the Executive Producer stormed into the booth and read me the riot act in front of several other crew members. I wanted to sink through the floor as my brain immediately broke into songs about why I’m such an idiot that I can’t work a houselight fader correctly and such. This is typically the start of a really awful obsessive feedback loop that includes sleepless nights, a complete breakdown of confidence, and the desire to withdraw from people and situations that would otherwise be enjoyable. In this type of situation, the first thing I try to remind myself is that worrying about this problem is in reality a luxury that most people would love to have. There are people out there in this world who are dying of cancer, who are starving, whose neighborhoods are being blown up by warring factions. People struggling with addictions, violence, poverty, and the consequences of mistakes much more dire than mine. If the worst thing that happens to me on a given day is that I get yelled at by a guy in a suit for something the worst consequence of which was “a moment of slight awkwardness for people at an entertainment function”, then I am doing better than 90% of planet Earth, and I’d better not forget it.
Be direct with others when things don’t go well.
Mistakes haunt the obsessive, and the mind will create scenarios around them that rely on doubt and unknowns. Give it as little fuel as possible to start those fires. My first instinct when faced with an issue like the one described above is to avoid it at all costs. This is often the worst thing to do. So after the show, I went to the Producer and apologized for the mishap. I explained that I was a little confused by what my actual cue was supposed to be, and I was sorry for the mistake. He immediately apologized for getting angry in the moment and said he was overall very happy with my performance and always enjoys working with me. Now, did that stop me from obsessing over the mistake? No. I was in a full funk for about a day. But having the conversation with him allowed for some transparency and closure. My brain wasn’t just free to fantasize about unknown, terrible outcomes. I know that the situation, in every place other than my mind, is more than likely over.
Find someone you trust, and let them help evaluate you in ways you can not.
I am very lucky in that I have a significant other that not only tolerates my “idiosyncrasies”, he understands them (it also helps that we do the same kind of work). I know I can talk to him not only about my anxieties and worries, but also about how I’m really doing. OCD makes self-evaluation really tough because for a myriad of reasons, your thoughts are hard to trust. Even when things go well for me, I tend to pick myself apart over what could have gone better. Sometimes, it’s just hyper-criticism. Sometimes, things actually could have gone better. He offers an honest perspective on my work. He points out my strengths without buttering me up and addresses my flaws without breaking me down. He encourages growth and applauds efforts and he makes me want to fight even harder to overcome adversity. Having a support system, even if it’s a system of one, is tremendously important. If you have a friend or family member you’re close to and you can trust to be honest and caring, maybe it’s time they know you need help dealing with OCD. Maybe they need help with something, too.
Use important tasks as an opportunity to experience a clear head and focus. Be thorough.
Years ago, I discovered that going to the batting cages and hitting balls was a relaxing thing for me, even if I didn’t hit well. This struck me as odd, what with my tendency to harass myself over things I wasn’t good at. What I realized was that it was really the only time I was ever focused on just one thing at a time. I read one person’s account of having OCD as “never having a quiet moment”, and that is so true. When I’m hitting softballs, I’m only thinking about hitting softballs. Where the ball is, where my bat is, how I’m following through. That kind of focus relieves stress for me. And if/when I can manage to apply that focus to other things, they generally go well and are more enjoyable. I try really hard to put on the blinders, so to speak, when I need to concentrate. I try to tap into that feeling of ease that comes from being immersed in what I’m doing. And when I know I’ve been attentive to my task , I worry less later that I overlooked something or did it incorrectly. Stress relief on multiple levels for the win!
Give yourself the upper hand – knowing you have it is just as important as having it.
The first part of accomplishing the above is to be prepared. You can’t stop worry, but you can give yourself less to worry about. Study, practice, show up early, stay late, do whatever you need to do to get better at what you do and own it.
Control yourself physically under pressure.
This is the second part of accomplishing the “focus” goal. Your body has a physical response to stress, and not surprisingly, it’s not one that encourages finesse. Allow me to recommend some reading. Jason Selk is a sports psychologist who has expanded his work to include people in other professions. He has a book out entitled “Ten Minute Toughness – The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins.” A great deal of the book is about how to control your body’s stress response so your brain can think, and then how to make those thoughts more productive. I got a copy sent to me back in my radio days and still use some of the techniques on a regular basis to recognize when my body is sabotaging me and to regain control and think “process”! Some of the things in the book are geared for athletes specifically, but I promise you will get a ton of good, useable information to put to work on show day.
Remember that your anxiety is not YOU.
Maybe you have obsessions. Maybe you have compulsions. Maybe they are embarrassing and disruptive and make your life difficult. That doesn’t make you bad, and it doesn’t make you stupid or weird. You had as much choice in your OCD as what kind of nose you have or where you were born. It may be in your description, but it’s not your title. Don’t be defined by your anxiety. Define it instead. I will be courageous and determined to succeed despite my fears. I will take the jobs I’m nervous about and prepare myself as best I can. I will treat others with dignity always because I know how much angry words can hurt, even in passing. I will make my OCD something that enriches my life, gives me perspectives and insight I wouldn’t have otherwise. I will find its purpose.
Maybe that’s why I like fall so much, after all. I find comfort in the thought of decay as part of growth and renewal. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the lush greenness of June if the leaves didn’t fall in October makes the rain and the cold a little easier to take. If you’re struggling with OCD and anxiety, don’t give up. There will be some dark days, but I promise you, spring will come. The future where you have all of your dreams is out there, and guess what – your anxiety will be there, too. But by then, it will be one thing you don’t have to fear anymore!