OCD and Technology: Disconnection, Impossible

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True relaxation is hard to come by for someone with OCD. Looking back at my life, I’d almost say that—at least for myself—it has been impossible to come by. I define “true” relaxation as a state of mind that is disconnected completely, albeit temporarily, from the anxieties of real life—a state of completely not feeling them, ignoring them, having no sense of them. I cannot do that. My brain cannot do that, I should say.

I can go anywhere (and trust me I’ve tried—I’ve been in the deepest “nowheres” in the United States) and at best the remnants of the tentacles of thinking of every eventuality of decisions linger. I am lucky in that sometimes I can turn off the worry about surface level stuff—is the stove off, was the door really locked1, and so on. Even that is not a given: I once called my sister from Las Vegas to make sure the sump pump was not flooding the house2 because I saw rain was occurring around my home, and if I were there I would be checking the sump pump every few hours, as I always did when it rained.

No better place can all of the above be observed with me than the universe of technology. Not helping matters is the fact that my career is high tech—I program computers, manage servers, you name it. And as a small-business tech entrepreneur, I am often solely responsible for such.

On of the cliché methods of finding relaxation you’ll read on clickbait sites or in cheesy magazines is to “disconnect yourself from technology, turn off your phone and internet-enabled devices!” Indeed I should. Indeed I can’t.

First, I’ll step back from my somewhat offensive words about said advice and the media that conveys said advice. It is true, if one disconnects from text messages, instant messages, emails, and other things that ping them constantly from their stress-filled real life—relaxation can be found. For some. But I am different, I am obsessive in my thinking and compulsive in my actions based on that thinking. If my phone is off, I can only think of what I am missing, who I am bothering by being away, and I spiral down into worst cases of computers going down, clients now in the process of firing me, and worse.

Disconnecting from technology—for me—literally amplifies the same neural connections as being hyper-connected does. My brain is in the same place—it is still connected even if the cord is cut off. I am not saying my brain can connect to the Internet3! It cannot, but it is as if it tries. Think about this somewhat humorous concept seriously: by brain is wired to know it can rest assured things are OK by checking all of the various things it checks on my phone or tablet. That reflex will never go away, thus taking away the technology only makes it worse. I will obsess, I will think of the worst case scenario if I cannot confirm the worst case scenario is not happening. Every few minutes.

I have a system you see, that I have built from hand. It is my OCD dashboard, so to speak. Because I am in technology, and thus any major work problems will come from technology, I have set up a system of numbers I can check and alerts that are sent to me if things even seem slightly wrong. At its height, I had over two-hundred points of checking and alerting. How fast is a computer server responding? That’s one. How many emails are queued in our system? That’s another. Multiply by one-hundred or so (no hyperbole with the count here, for your information.) Each of these numbers has a threshold, that if exceeded or under, alerts me to a problem.

Is this necessary? Well, it certain is rational on some level—I run a business and I am not making up the problems that would be indicated by these numbers being in the wrong area, up or down. But my obsession—that my brain controls without me—is by far not rational. I know I do not need to check these numbers every few minutes. But I do. If I see no red, I can not worry. For a moment.

Another off-shoot of these obsessions is that I need to know exactly how much money I have at any point in the day, and have set up an elaborate system of text messages and custom programming to have those numbers available to me. No, not to gloat! The numbers are not gloat-worthy. But I actually have it calculated and displayed how long I could live on said money if everything went to hell. Because of course I think it will, all day long.

Oh, and I’ve made it even worse. Of these two-hundred or so numbers, a good portion of them will push notifications to my phone if there is a problem. Note—this does not stop me from checking on them anyway, as the alerts come in minutes after the fact. My lack of relaxation at this point can be pinpointed by my constant anticipation that my phone will rattle with one of the ten or so unique tones that I have set up to indicate a problem. Yeah, some sort of future-Pavlovian world I seem to have set up for myself!

I say “seem to have set up” because it truly is the work of my brain against my better judgment. My disorder causes my brain to think the more alerts and numbers I can look at through technology, the more calm I will be. It is much like a drug. It does work, if the numbers are right and the alerts are silent—I am akin to “high” for a short while. Oh, but the withdrawals happen quickly! I need another fix to tell me all is OK. It is close to literally “a fix” in the narcotics parlance. If I go too long without checking numbers, literally visualize the high I will receive when I do check them and they are OK. I can foresee a sea of green numbers and very temporary calm (green means OK, red means bad—yeah, it’s not exactly creative here.) Oh who am I kidding, when I visualize checking my numbers, I am seeing all red and we all know it.

So there I am, you see me in the middle of nowhere. In the desert, in the bayou. I must be relaxing, no? Correct—no! I am playing the “ding-ling-ling-ling-ling” alert in my head that tells me a computer is malfunctioning. I am, of course, going through every eventuality landing on the worst case scenarios of clients firing me, people coming after me, losing money, and more4.

Looking at all of this, I cannot blame the technology. No, my OCD brain is merely channeling—uncontrolled—the worst the technology can bring me. If the technology did not exist in the state I built it, or at all, I would be thinking the same things.

“Ding-ling-ling-ling-ling…” life just got worse. In reality or in my imagination—all the same. Seriously, all the same.


1 I only checked three times, I remember that. But I’m not positive I remember the conclusion—locked?  [BACK]

2 Oh, and to further help my OCD along—it turns out the sump pump was broken when I called. So, yeah, it’s not like the world is helping me reach a state of rational thinking here.  [BACK]

3 Of course you know that is my dream.  [BACK]

4 Just typing these eventualities took me five minutes of deleting worse ones than I ended up with. Why? Omens. Explained here.  [BACK]