Sunday, 10 November 2013

Reading OCD: A Confession of Why I'm Not Reading

Yesterday evening I was planning to wind down with my Kindle and a cup of my 'buenas noches' tea. I've been looking forward to reading Brené Brown's Daring Greatly for a long time now, ever since I first watched her TED talks, and I think it's the perfect time for me to learn from her lessons on vulnerability. I've also been wanting to get on with other books that are in varying states of progress. 

There's just one problem: my mind is doing everything it can to stop me from reading.

Last night, I settled down with the Brené Brown book readily downloaded on my Kindle and I read the first sentence. I wasn't sure I had read it properly, so I read it again. I moved on to the next sentence, but then I couldn't remember what happened in the sentence before, so I went back to the beginning. I moved on to the next sentence, then the whole process repeated again. 

With each sentence the tightness in my chest grew stronger, alongside the growing panic that I hadn't understood it properly or read it correctly. This isn't the first time it's happened by any means: the last few months I've experienced it almost every moment I've spent reading. I know it doesn't make sense at all and it sounds really pathetic, but I'm struggling to work out how to control it. And it's intensely painful. 

Perhaps now it makes sense to you why I've only read five books since the start of August. I've been reluctant to admit that I've been facing this problem, and I haven't really let myself think about it, let alone tell anyone else. I can tell that it's bad because I've only just Googled it: normally I'm the first person to type my symptoms into a search engine and become paranoid about all the possible problems.

Google provides the following answer by Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D., as outlined on a a blog by someone who seems to be experiencing exactly the same thing as me:

“The core of the problem is having the feeling that you don’t understand what you read. As a result, you reread a sentence or a word over and over before going on to the next sentence. Unfortunately, this contributes to destroying the flow of what you are reading, so the feeling of understanding becomes even more unattainable. Generally, the more important the material, the greater the anxiety. Schoolwork becomes torture.”

Now that sounds familiar.

I've never really gone into my OCD that much on the blog, and I've never pursued any help for it (apart from being diagnosed a few years ago). I felt that there were more pressing issues to deal with, and that my compulsions would be something I could deal with singlehandedly with time. However, now I'll listen to Brené Brown and give in to my vulnerability. Or at least try to.

In my early teenage years, it was a need for neatness and order that affected me. I'd spend hours arranging drawers and smoothing the creases from my bed. I'd be on the verge of tears if someone moved my pencil case from how I'd put it on my desk. Yes, it was by all means the stereotypical 'OCD' behaviour that's dismissively described by everyone these days. But things were out of control, and I was desperate to control what I could. I really needed to read Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations back then.

At university, I became terrified that I'd sleepwalk and end up outside my halls of residence. I'd spend a good hour before bed putting my desk chair in front of my door and something in front of the window to stop me going near it. I would check the doors and windows again and again. It was almost laughably bad luck that I dropped the window key out the window and into a drain underneath.

These habits persisted throughout both my first and second years of university, and my nighttime anxiety developed into fears that people I loved were in danger. If I didn't count in a certain way (usally groups of four), a family member would fall sick. And I couldn't just do it once and everything would be ok: I'd have to repeat the counting until it felt right. That could take a while.

To make matters worse, about a year ago the counting became more physical, and I'd have to tap my head in groups of four a certain amount of times whenever bad thoughts came to me. If you ever met me and saw me tapping my forehead and trying my hardest to make it look like I was scratching an itch or moving my hair, that's that was going on. I'm embarrassed to say it still happens several times a day and without fail every night.

It's fairly easy to understand why I keep all of this quiet from people. The tidiness and the furniture rearranging and the bad thoughts and the head tapping have all been - and often still are - very hard to deal with, but not being able to read is by far the worst-case scenario for me.

Unlike my other compulsions, I don't get any sense of order or relief from giving in and reading sentences over and over again. The stress just gets higher the longer I spend with the book, and I'm so angry with myself that I've let this develop into a ritual. But the thing is, by the time I realise that something has become a ritual, it's already a full-blown problem.

I'm looking into solutions, and particularly into whether this is something I can deal with on my own. I know that I'm going to have push myself and go ahead with what scares me even when it's pulling me apart. I'm aware that it's going to be really challenging, and probably exhausting too. Even writing this post has made me feel incredibly vulnerable, and it's going to take a lot of courage to press 'publish'.

I know I'm going to have to dare greatly, and so I might as well start by reading the Brené Brown and kill two birds with one stone.

Can I possibly find a way to use bibliotherapy to treat the panic and fear I'm experiencing in the face of books, the literature that has always meant so much to me? It's going to be a challenge, I'll give you that.

N.B. In the time between writing this and publishing it, I've decided to give an audiobook a go. At least for the time being, it looks like something that could work for me. Do any of you listen to audiobooks? What do you think of them?

Marcus Aurelius on 'The quality of your thoughts'
Marcus Aurelius: the eternal provider of wisdom! Image source.


Lee-Anne Penny said...

I'm so sorry that you are struggling with this, Lucy. I am afraid that I have no experience or helpful advice other than just to keep open to all possibilities for healing. You have shown great courage in hitting "Publish". I wish you the best. Audiobooks can be physically quite relaxing if you can just lie quietly and listen.

ruby said...

I cannot believe my eyes. I had no idea that reading troubles are actually an issue. An issue. I have been struggling with this for the past year and it is still going on, but less - depending on what I read, but mostly depressing thoughts and echoes of events at which I cringe dominate when I sit down to read. Things that have happened in the past and I cannot let go of. I don't understand what I'm reading and can't concentrate and it's terrible, overall, really. If, by writing your blog, you've helped one person (of course, other than yourself), then it's me and I'm so enormously grateful. I wish you so well and follow everything you write. -ruby (from old House of Bronze)

Fionaing said...

I have experienced book block, this year I'm fighting to finish 15 books (I'm a slow reader by many blogger's standards but my norm is 50). It has caused me some anxiety but it is down to several reasons: bookish blues and reading a dud which has caused me to feel anxious about starting any new book in case it is another dud. Being somewhat happier this year although still with some same anxieties and worries - and also somewhat busier, my routine has changed. And third - for some reason thinking that if I keep refreshing BBC news for X amount of time that something dramatically newsworthy will suddenly appear and all the time I waste staring at the screen and not reading my book will be vindicated. I do find myself actively avoiding reading, or going to bed (it is half two in the morning) being on the internet and checking my spam box. (Pretty much all I get at this time in the morning being spam or useless job alerts telling me the nearest opening suiting my criteria is 200 miles away.)

So in a very small way, I kind of understand because I frequently do sit down to read and I think worries and anxieties just come forefront to my mind, whereas staring at BBC News somehow they do not. Maybe it is because reading relaxes you more and lets those thoughts float forewards? It should be the other way around of course. News is nothing but depression and worries!

I hope audiobooks will help - maybe the change in platform will help trick your brain at least. Harder to re-wind and audio than it is to flick your eyes back to the next sentence. I find reading something in stark contrast helps. Non-fiction to counter the fiction, classic to counter the contemporary or too many lighter-reads. A short, light and easy read to counteract heavy books.

Thanks for sharing your own experiences - if more people like you were open about the things that troubled them - then many others would not have to suffer in silence.

Brian Joseph said...

I am so sorry that you have to deal with this Lucy. As I really have little professional or practical knowledge concerning this issue I will not try to give advise other then to no matter what else you do, consult an expert and stay strong. Hopefully the issues will alleviate.

I tend to like audiobooks. I do think that they are a niche however and only apply to a certain percentage of folks. I assume that you would read it?

Julie said...

Hi Lucy.
I'm Korean having the exact same issue as you. I've been doing some research on google about my reading OCD and today I found your post. I wondered why I didn't see your post before but I just realized you posted this yesterday :)
After reading your post, I felt like I wrote this. I've had many forms of OCD in my life, but like you said, not being able to read is by far the worst. Our personal experiences are so similar it's almost uncanny! oh, except for one thing. My OCD has also affected my ability to write so I cannot write as well as what you posted. I'm glad your writing ability is intact unlike mine. You write so well I'm jealous :)
Also, I admire your courage because you talk about your reading OCD openly. I'm so happy that you posted this because after I came across your post, I feel like I have a friend along this battle. Feels good knowing I'm not alone in this.
I'm currently on Zoloft(SSRI) and Risperdal for treatment. I haven't seen any improvement yet though(it's Soooo frustrating!) But then it's only been 3 months so I will try to be more patient. I'll let you know (if you want) how it goes. And I would really appreciate it if you'd let me know of any bibliotherapy that might be of help. Here's my email adress( I check it almost everyday so if you are fine with it, email me :) lets keep in touch. I will come by your blog often to see how you are doing too!
Hopefully, some day we can enjoy again reading books that have meant so much for both of us.

p.s. Audiobooks sound like a good idea. My favorite is The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

Thank you for writing this post. I have struggled (and sometimes still do) with similar problems. A good chunk of my 20ties I didn't read anything but uni books because I just couldn't focus; of course, life in general was pretty much a mess back then.

I have general anxiety disorder and when it gets worse, I can read less, and when it's under control, I feel my mind is organised well enough to read a book. I try to read in any case and sometimes it makes me think if I am even reading "properly" - noticing all the details, drawing all the right conclusions... but I've decided it doesn't matter, reading as activity itself is something that helps to battle the demons in the head.

Definitely try an audiobook, I would like to hear how that goes for you. For me personally, they don't work so well because I have only tried to listen them while outside and I am so aware of my surroundings all the time that half the text goes missing. I'm thinking it would be better to practice listening audiobook peacefully at home, like in comfy bed under the warm blanky :)

There is not much help I can offer, I feel, so I'm just sending you lots of virtual hugs from this side of the world!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Ruby,

It's so good to hear from you.

I'm sorry to hear that you're experiencing the same issues as I am, but hopefully you've gained some reassurance knowing you're not alone. If you ever need to talk about things, particularly involving the past, I'd always try my best to help you out.

Reading has helped me get to terms with my past more than anything, so it's really difficult facing these issues at the moment. It sounds like you know exactly what it's like too! Perhaps you could try audiobooks too, or maybe poetry, since it usually requires less focus? If you do find anything that works, I'd love to hear about it.

I hope life is treating you well. It's great to hear you still read the blog - I must say I miss keeping tabs on House of Bronze!

Lucy xx

Lee-Anne Penny said...

Good to hear from you, Lucy! Have you found LibriVox? The quality can be a bit dodgy because the narrators are volunteers but it is free, and you can't beat that price! My daughter is currently listening to "Anne of the Island" and the voice is very professional and the accent appropriate. It might be an option if you find the audiobooks help. I've enjoyed a few books on their website in the past. Feel free to email any time if you want to chat. I'd like that! Take care, L-A

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Brian, thanks for your kind words. I think just by writing about the problem here on the blog it's been alleviated slightly! I'm also spending a few days back at home with my family, so that should help my stress levels too. I'll be sure to post an update on the blog with any improvements. I think audiobooks are definitely a good choice for me at the moment too, so I'll probably end up blogging about that! Lucy.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Riv, thanks for your lovely comment (as always!) Everything you've said makes so much sense, and I'm also starting to realise how much stress affects my reading. I'm back home for a few days currently, and as I've been feeling calmer, I've been able to read without unbearable levels of stress. I think it's a good opportunity to challenge myself to keep reading when something starts bothering me too, but perhaps I'll just enjoy being relaxed for now.

I am enjoying the audiobook, but I know what you mean about missing details. It's tempting to listen to it twice! I need to get new headphones for my iPod so I can listen to it before bed more easily.

I think simply by writing about the issue has helped me a lot. Also, hearing others say that they've experienced the same is a lot of comfort, even though I wouldn't wish it on anyone. So thanks so much for your comment, it means so much. I'll reciprocate the virtual hugs!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks so much for getting in touch. It's great to hear that my blog post got indexed that quickly by Google!

I'm glad that you've found reassurance in my words - I'm also feeling a lot better after hearing that you have experienced something similar. I'm really sorry to hear that your OCD has affected your writing too though... that must be so difficult. However, your comment seems impeccable, I must say!

It's taken a lot of courage to write about my mental health here on the blog, but I'm glad I'm pushing myself to do so. I'm thinking about how I can best use the website to reduce mental health stigma, and I think one of the most important steps is talking about my own experiences.

I'm currently not on any medication, but in the past I've been on Citalopram, Propranolol, Diazepam and other nasties (they didn't do much to help me, unfortunately!). For me therapy was of most help, as well as lots and lots of reading, but you should definitely hang on for a bit longer and see if the meds start working. My mum's been on an SSRI for a few months and it's only just starting to work for her.

I'm definitely going to start thinking about books I'd recommend for OCD... I should really write a post about this too! Work's super busy for me lately, but know that I'm thinking about it :) I'll try and send an email as soon as I can!

And it's quite a coincidence that you mentioned The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. I heard it mentioned, alongside Pausch's story itself, in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a book that I reviewed in the post before this one, and I thought I must give it a read. I've also noticed that the lecture is available on TED, so I'll check out both when I can :)

Thank you so much for getting in touch again, Julie. I'm looking forward to chatting about books and getting through OCD with you!

Best wishes,

bellezza said...

It is so easy to be 'consumed' by fear. I see the enemy as a prowling lion, ready to destroy our peace as he knows our weakest areas, and fear can certainly be a big one! I find myself falling into fear when I think of all the unknowns of the future, especially as my son is a Marine and my parents are aging. It's not for myself that I'm afraid, necessarily, but for those I love.
I think your red poster at the conclusion of the post is necessary to remember, and for me, it's also knowing that my peace does not come from myself, or my surroundings, or even my circumstances. It can only come from faith and trusting in the Lord.
Of course, good friends and good books help quite a bit, too. xo

tolstoytherapy said...

Fiona, I hope you're gradually getting over your bad experience with 'When God Was a Rabbit'! I think starting a translation of War & Peace I didn't like marked the start of my own reading troubles - it's funny how the odd book can really affect our wider reading habit. My own routine has changed lately too... maybe it's just a matter of settling into life and fitting reading around it. It's good to hear you're feeling happier lately - hopefully your worrying will dissipate a bit more soon.

I think what I'm reading affects how much I worry when I settle down with the book. I think a combination of something lighthearted, relatable and not too long works best for me.

Like my Mum, I try to avoid the news where possible! I tend to be excessively conscious of others and their problems, so listening to difficult news stories really gets me worrying.

I think audiobooks are helping me so far, as is choosing paperbacks over reading on my Kindle. You're completely right about keeping reading varied too - I must pay attention to this! I'm reading some of Alice Munro's short stories at the moment, which is a welcome change from the big books I've been battling through most of the years.

I'm glad I posted about the issues I'm having with my reading, no matter how challenging it was! It's always difficult to make my problems public, but if it's helping others it's definitely worth it. It seems that my book blog is becoming much more of a mental health blog, however!

Hope you're well,

tolstoytherapy said...

You've put it so well! Anxiety is so often about the "what if" questions, and I've thankfully become much better at staying in the present rather than worrying about what's to come. Reading the quote in the image and others by Marcus Aurelius has really helped me get to this stage.

I too worry mostly about others though, and it's not easy to quieten my mind during these moments. However, you're right about faith and trust being important.

Hope you're well and reading lots of great books,

tolstoytherapy said...

Great comparison, thanks so much Taryn! This is something I've been struggling with again recently, so The Bell Jar really does sound like something to read, relate to and learn from. Hope you're well!

Dennis said...

I never google for OCD information. I wasn't even diagnosed until an ex girlfriend insisted I go talk to someone about all of the annoying things I do. I didn't realize until she printed out an article for me that all of the illogical compulsions I have and act on are shared by so many people. I thought it was only me. Anyway, my reading comprehension is fine, but I go through exactly what you described and it's horrible. I end up backtracking sentence after sentence. I've spent an entire hour trying to get through one paragraph. It's so frustrating because I've always loved books and reading. As soon as I'm absolutely confident I read a sentence or paragraph correctly I draw a mental line of my progress and have to convince myself no matter how much I think I need to, never go back past this point because it's complete and I did it right. Also, one thing that makes reading difficult is the fact that when my eyes jump somewhere quick or catch the glimpse of another letter above or below what I'm reading I feel like I read out of order and need to start over. A week ago, I tried the Spritz method of reading (google it!). It's meant for speed reading, but so far it's unintentionally eliminated my OCD reading issues. It essentially shows you one word at a time centered so your eyes don't have to move back and forth. It forces me to read everything in the correct order, and the words flash so fast in succession that my brain doesn't have time decide I missed an idea or didn't read a sentence right. Plus, I comprehend it! I didn't even know other people with OCD experience the same reading issues as me until I just found your article. After reading with Spritz, it made me wonder if my OCD issues were shared by anyone else and if they were I wanted to tell someone about Spritz. The only thing that would make me happier is if this spritz technology was integrated with Kindle. Hopefully someday!

tolstoytherapy said...

Dennis, thank you so much for your comment: there's so much I can relate to in it! It's interesting that you say you're a computer programmer - I'm been teaching myself to code for a while and I love the sense of order behind it.

Like you, reading can get me so stressed (far more frequently than I'd like, in fact)...I want to understand it, but I just keep going backwards (it's worse after turning the page, I find). I love what you've said about drawing a mental line of progress - that really is such a great tip to share.

I'm so glad that you use Spritz too! I've also been using a Chrome extension called Spreed for a while now, and it works so well with pdfs (check out the Adelaide ebook collection online!) It really is such a great feeling getting through a book at a decent speed, and not having to go back because my head it telling me too. I agree that Kindle integration would be so great.

I've just posted an article about tips for when you're having trouble reading, and included Spritz/Spreed in it... hopefully this will help a few others facing the same issues! Once again, I'm so glad you've got in touch through my blog and shared your experience. Thanks, Dennis!

Bee said...

I go through the same thing when I have to read, and yes, I said HAVE to. It's not even enjoyable anymore. It's a chore that I dread doing. Unfortunately, I'm in highschool so there's definitely books that I have to read and it's so frustrating reading them.

I don't know if this is just me or if anyone else has this with reading as well, but my biggest hassle when reading is turning the page and reading the last sentence or word on a page. When I get to the last word, I have to keep reading it to make sure there are no more words after it (it's so dumb because I see that it's just blank page with no words) After I finally see that there are no words, I have to turn the page and that's the worst part. I have to "squeeze" the page so hard to make sure I'm not skipping a page and then I have to look at the page number and read the next page number to make sure it's the right order.

When I finally turn the page I feel like I need to turn the page back and make sure that there are no more words and that I'm at the right page number. It takes me so long to read a book and it's just so stressful. I hate reading books because of this and it really sucks because there are so many books I want to enjoy reading.

Thanks for your blog! It's good to know that other people suffer from "Reading OCD" too.