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Uploaded:2017-03-12
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John discusses his mental health, OCD, and relationship with meditation by introducing you to how his brain sometimes works.

Some resources:
8 Minute Meditation Expanded by Victor Davich:
https://www.amazon.com/Minute-Meditation-Expanded-Quiet-Change/dp/0399173420
https://www.adaa.org/
https://www.ocduk.org/
http://www.nami.org/
http://www.mind.org.uk/
https://www.intrusivethoughts.org/

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Okay, so, it's day 70, and I thought I would check in today to discuss my mental health, exercise, and meditation, but I think it might be helpful to introduce you to the way my brain sometimes works.

So, okay. Every day you have a lot of thoughts, or I assume you do, at least. You think about whether you want coffee, and whether you turned the stove off after you made pancakes this morning, and you think that it's cold enough outside that you'll want to wear gloves, and you think about whether you love Person X. And then you think about, what really is love, anyway, and how can you know whether you love Person X when love is this endlessly broad and amorphous concept. And you think about how you love your shoes, for instance, like, genuinely love them, and you're so happy that you found these perfect shoes. But how you feel about your shoes is not really the way you feel about Person X, and then, you think, like, maybe we need more than one word for love, that we need to get better at defining our terms. But if Person X says I love you tonight while you're out at the sushi restaurant, you definitely cannot reply by saying, "I think we need to define our terms better", because then they'll think you're weird.

Point being, you think and you think and you think. We are called Homo sapiens, the wise humans, but I would submit that we are actually defined not by our wisdom but by our thinking. The perpetual thought machine within us grinds along even when we're sleeping. And regardless of whether you follow Descartes all the way down his "I think, therefore I am" rabbit hole, we are, to some extent at least, defined by our thoughts. Like when I think of myself, the parts of me that are unique to me and core to me, I'm thinking, at least partly, about my thinking. And yet, many of my thoughts are not really mine. Like, when you're falling in or out of love, you can't always choose whether to think about Person X or what to think about them.

Now, for most of us, most of the time, this lack of sovereignty over our thoughts isn't a big deal. Like, you'll be standing atop a cliff, and you'll look down, and suddenly think, I could jump to my death right now, and then you'll let the thought go, because you don't actually want to jump to your death, and you'll continue along with your life. That thought about jumping to your death is an example of something called an intrusive thought. Almost everybody has them, and the ability to move on from them is considered good and healthy.

Right, so, okay, I want you to imagine that you're having one of those weird passing thoughts. But instead of being atop a cliff, you're eating dinner, like, you're at Chipotle, which is your favorite. And one of these weird intrusive thoughts passes across your consciousness. What if this food is poisoned? Now, that's not totally irrational. Years ago, you worked at a restaurant, and you once saw an angry employee spit in the food of a customer who complained about their salad not having enough dressing. I mean, this stuff does happen. Or, actually, maybe they didn't spit in it at all. Maybe they cut their fingers and bled into it, in which case, you'll very possibly get Hep C or God knows what else, and what are you gonna do? You can't complain to the manager. That only increases the chances of spit or blood in your burrito. And you can't tell for sure, because you got the red salsa, which you never should've ordered. And then, you hit the pause button, because this is not your first rodeo, and you say, "I am having an intrusive thought spiral. There is almost certainly neither spit nor blood in my burrito, which was prepared for me by hard-working, kind people". Which gives you a very brief break, until you circle back to the words "almost certainly". I mean, you can't be sure, it remains a real and undeniable possibility that within this burrito is the drop of human blood that will cause you to get a chronic disease, or the drop of spit that will kill you. And then, you're trying to calm yourself down by remembering what is happening, that this is not reasonable, but then, you're saying, "well, but...", because, really, it isn't totally unreasonable. And you try to comfort yourself, and then, you say, "well, but", and you try to comfort yourself, and then, you say, "well, but", and the spiral tightens and tightens for literal hours, until you're a sweating, shaking mess, completely out of control of the thoughts that are said to be yours, and also, you never got to eat the burrito.

The famous mathematician Kurt Gödel was deeply afraid of being poisoned by the food he ate. To cope with his obsessive fear, he developed a strategy. He only ate food prepared by his wife, whom he knew he could trust. And then, when his wife was hospitalized for six months and couldn't cook for him, he died of starvation.

OCD is rendered in the popular imagination as being particular, or neat, or liking to see things arranged in a certain way, and there is some truth to that. People's compulsions can focus on certain orders, or repeated washing, or whatever, but it's important to understand that those compulsions, the outward signs of the disease, are being used to deal with these intense, overwhelming, debilitating, obsessive thought spirals, the kind that will take you over and the kind that will, if unchecked, kill you. I find it really difficult to explain the terror of these thought spirals, but imagine having your mind infiltrated by an actual demon, which forces you to think the same awful or disgusting thought over and over and over and over again, and, in the process, makes it impossible for you to think about Person X, or your family, or the needs of others, or the needs of yourself, or literally anything that is not that awful/disgusting thought dictated by the demon.

For most of my adult life, I have lost hours every day to these obsessive thought spirals and the weird, compulsive behaviors that I use to cope with them. Honestly, even talking about this stuff scares me, because I worry it will happen while I'm talking about it, and then I'll be stuck with the gnawing terror of it for hours or days or whatever. But I also wanna be as straightforward about it as I can, because I feel like when I say, my mental health has improved during 100 Days, it sounds vague and insubstantial, so to put it another way, in the past several weeks, the number of hours I am forced to think thoughts I don't want to think has declined dramatically. It's not like a miracle cure or anything. I'm still taking my medication, and still using cognitive behavioral therapy, but exercise has improved my life significantly.

So there's been a lot of talk, both in the videos and in the comments, about meditation, and I wanna be clear that meditation works. It has been proven to work, and also, it helps many people with OCD, but it does not work for everyone. The idea is that, over time, you learn that thoughts are just thoughts, that they don't have to flood your consciousness and drown everything else, and a lot of times, when I meditate, I feel like I'm making progress on that front. But, occasionally, like, maybe one out of five times, a thought will pop into my head while I'm meditating, and rather than being able to accept it as just a thought, it will become the thought that drowns out all the others, this screaming, horrifying thought that I can't shake loose from, and it will pull me all the way down with it, and I will lose several hours of my life to this crushing, self-destroying thought spiral. And that's when I'll be like, "(Sighs) Kind of wish I hadn't meditated today". Now, it's possible, with time, that I would find this happening less, but I also think it's possible that the safer way for me to achieve mindfulness is through exercise. Also, a lot of people have asked me what app I'm using for meditating. I've gone through several, but my favorite by far is called Headspace, and there's a book that some people in this office love for meditation. I'm gonna put a link to it in the doobly-doo.

So I hope that's at least some introduction to both the problem that I have and the progress that I have experienced. And for me, it really has been a profound change. Now, it doesn't mean that I'm cured. I still have OCD, in fact, I had a panic attack last week. But just knowing that progress is possible, in my experience, makes it much easier to live with mental illness. On that front, I wanna add that the vast majority of mental illness is treatable. People do get better. Now, exercise won't work for everyone, nor will this or that drug, nor will meditation, nor this or that therapy technique, but there is hope. I've put some resources in the video info below to check out if you're concerned about your own mental health, and if you're joining Chris and me on this journey, I would be really interested to hear what's working for you and what isn't, both physically and mentally. Thanks for watching. I'll see you on Day 71.