Some might argue that a stomach is not a thought. Let me explain. Last night, I ate too much. This is not unusual for me, especially in times of transition or stress. But the amount I ate last night and the way my stomach felt during and afterward brought back painful memories of when I was single, lived alone, and counted dinner (eaten alone) as a primary pleasure.
Since meeting and marrying my husband 3 years ago, I’ve eaten dinner alone only a handful of times. In the beginning, I longed for a night alone to eat freely again—to not worry about bad breath, bloating, gassiness, etc.—even as I was grateful to be forced out of my bad eating habits. After a year, I grudgingly came to prefer my husband's company during dinner. Now, I almost always prefer his company. Do you understand how big a win this is, for me and for my marriage?
Lately, though, my husband has been traveling for work, leaving me with nights alone. I’ve found myself reverting to my old habits, spending all week planning what I’ll eat the nights he’s gone, which combination of tastes, flavors, and textures, combined with which television show or movie, will create the perfect alchemy for bliss.
Last night, after my husband left for Nashville, I took my tray to the couch, tuned in to Queer Eye, and started out slowly. Look how slowly and thoughtfully I'm eating, I congratulated myself. After slowly and thoughtfully eating almost an entire container of hummus with vegetables and pita chips, I slowly and thoughtfully ate an entire container of dates, filling each with almond butter (meaning I ate probably 1/3 of the jar of almond butter). And then I slowly and thoughtfully ate half of a container of "asian snacks," those hard, shiny shapes (twists, balls, flowers, half-moons) made primarily of rice, gluten, sugar, and salt.
I don't know enough about what other people eat to know if that amount of food seems excessive. My family always joked about how much we ate, especially after most of us became vegan. My father, especially, ate like me—like each meal was his last. When my husband eats just one serving of pork, potatoes, and salad, he declares himself stuffed. How ludicrous, I think. How can one serving ever be enough?
This is what I know: after the hummus, I wasn't hungry, but I wanted to watch at least one more episode of Queer Eye and hadn't had anything sweet yet. I know that about halfway through the dates, I felt the fullness heavy in my gut, but the show wasn't over, and dates and almond butter, after all, are healthy. I know that after the dates, my stomach hurt, and I knew it was foolish to even think of eating more food—but by then I'd already begun a third episode, and watching TV is a waste if you’re not doing something else, and wasn’t this binge a way to both celebrate my aloneness and comfort myself in it?
I finished the evening with a painful and swollen stomach, a feeling that, combined with my shame and regret, lasted well into the next day.
Still, I would argue that this is not a stomach problem or a food problem. It's a thought problem. It's been a thought problem for decades, since I was a teenager. The thoughts: memories, rationalizations, scoldings, obsessions. Thoughts create anxiety, an emotion that keeps me from feeling other emotions—loneliness, sadness—too deeply.
Attempts at Diagnosis
My thought pattern could be associated with 'orthorexia,' the eating disorder of being overly anxious about eating only healthy food. But the 'symptoms of orthorexia' list from the National Eating Disorders Association does not include overeating healthy food as a way to make up for not eating junk food. Orthorexia aligns more with anorexia in that you eat less and less as you cut out food groups you deem unhealthy. I’m the opposite, eating more and more of the few remaining food groups I haven’t cut out.
When I was in my 30s, I briefly considered attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings, but their mission of weight loss wasn’t what I needed, and a skinny person showing up to sit in a circle with fat people wouldn't go over so well. Overweight friends, coworkers, and even strangers have commented on my thinness so often, dealing snark under the guise of compliments, that I didn't want to invite more envy and hate.
And so for many years I felt stuck with my overeating, angry with myself for being so weak, for having no willpower. I’d rack myself with guilt but still overeat, always at night, always (and necessarily) accompanied by television, and then fast the next day until my stomach felt normal again, usually around lunchtime. I’d full-out binge on Friday and Saturday evenings, my reward for a week of work. The post-binge fasting didn't feel like punishment; it felt like healing.
Some readers might point out here that my eating pattern sounds bulimic, but if so, I’d argue it’s in such a mild form that it’s undiagnosable. I never make myself vomit (or desire to); I don’t go on fad diets; I don’t steal or hoard food; I don’t constantly check in the mirror for flaws; I’m not overly concerned about my body weight; I have regular and normal periods; I am, despite being chronically tired, mostly strong and healthy, with healthy nails and hair and skin. I rarely get sick.
So for a long time, I had what looked like a borderline eating disorder that didn't fit into any known category and wasn't serious enough to warrant medical or psychiatric attention. I'd lament to my parents--I ate too much again last night; have to fast today!—but my health-conscious parents believed that fasting could cure anything, and I remained at an enviously stable and thin 120 lbs. for years.
Overall, it's been hard to convince people I have a problem or that it might be worth taking seriously. And while my eating habits have certainly stabilized over the past few years, that desire to binge alone with TV lurks too close for comfort. My husband tries to be understanding, but he's a recovering alcoholic. From his point of view, I might eat too much food sometimes, but it's food—and mostly fairly healthy food at that. What's the problem? Get over yourself. (He doesn't say that to me. I say it to myself.)
A therapist once tried to convince me I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I read the book she gave me and returned with a long list of reasons why I didn’t fit the diagnosis, she laughed gently as if the list-making itself were proof. The book heavily emphasized the ritualized compulsions (checking, hoarding, cleaning, making everything symmetrical) people engage in to distract themselves from obsessions (repeated, unwelcome thoughts, often about sex and violence). The compulsions take up hours of time (washing hands, cleaning the same room for hours, for example) and cause great distress. This doesn’t describe me at all, I argued. I can be picky about cleanliness and order in my own home, but I don’t spend hours cleaning; I can get nervous about whether I’ve turned off the stove, but a quick double-check eases my fears. I don’t have a loop of sexual or murderous thoughts running through my brain.
I agreed to see a psychiatrist for further testing. The test didn’t yield significant results, but this doctor seemed determined to assure me that I suffered from OCD. She asked if I picked at my fingers because the jagged edges of skin bothered me, and when I said yes, she nodded sagely and prescribed medication. I took it for a couple of years, and it seemed to ease my food obsessions somewhat, but I quit after growing increasingly nervous about the chemicals and frustrated with how it deadened everything: my ability to cry, my ability to get excited, my libido.
When I told the psychiatrist I wanted to wean off the drug, she snapped at me, some sarcastic comment about foolish people who want to quit medication, and even though I could see that her anger was about something bigger than me, I took it as an excuse to never see her again.
It’s New, It’s Cool, It’s RAAD
As the years passed, I grew more convinced that I didn’t have OCD: anxiety, yes; eccentricities, yes; but not OCD. It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post about my seemingly unique style of eating/thought disorder that it hit me like an epiphany: maybe this is OCD. Holy crap. Do I have OCD? It’s not an OCD described on websites for treatment centers or on television shows, and it’s not a severe OCD. It’s subtle, so subtle that I’m still not sure I should call it OCD. Maybe it’s more like a fraternal twin of OCD.
In fact, if I had to make up a diagnosis for myself, I’d say I have Rules Activated Anxiety Disorder. This kind of OCD--RAAD!—manifests as an obsession with rules: rules I make for myself based on years of observation about how people and society work, and rules other people make for me. I take all rules seriously, even those I think are stupid (I think most of them are stupid), but the most important rules have to do with my quest for perfection. If I’m to be perfect and to make everyone happy, these are the rules I need to follow. If I don’t want my urges (food, sex, buying things) to spin out of control, I must follow these rules. If I don’t want to get too wound up about things, whether with excitement or anticipation or anxiety or anger or sadness, I must follow these rules. If I don’t want to get in trouble (with neighbors, cops, the township, authority figures), I must follow these rules.
Rules also help me avoid decisions (often, with the rules, only one path of action is possible) and avoid work (the rules are in service of efficiency; with ultimate efficiency, I’ll have more time to do what I want). Rules, ironically, create the very space I crave to “let loose,” to “rebel.” In this way, they let me stay a child, flaunting the parent-voice’s rules even as I rely on them to keep me safe. Rules make me feel safe in other ways, too. They keep me under control. They help me know how to get along in different environments. When I’m in a new place or situation, I can’t relax until I know what the rules are. (Although I can’t relax after knowing the rules, either, because I’m worried I won’t follow them just right. I’m one of those people who gets called aside for further examination at security checkpoints; I look nervous. I probably look guilty, too.)
Guilt lies just beneath the surface of everything I do; almost every moment, the questions, “Is this what I should be doing right now?” and “Am I doing this right?” persist in my consciousness, a constant distraction.
I don’t spend hours acting out compulsions, but I do spend a lot of time trying to keep myself from acting compulsively (after all, a perfect person doesn’t act on her compulsions—a perfect person doesn’t have OCD or any form of it). For example, dog hair on the furniture triggers profound anxiety, but I don’t want to be a person who has to vaccuum every day (who has time for that?)—so I cycle through the hair-triggered anxiety and anger repeatedly, trying to stay calm but dreading how hard and time-consuming it will be to vaccuum everything, and in the end probably cause myself more stress than if I just gave in and vaccuumed compulsively.
Also, I spend a lot of energy trying not to appear anxious to others, trying to pretend that the things that bother me don’t bother me so I won’t have to reveal how strangely demanding I am. Because if people saw my inner workings, what makes me spin and worry and rage, they would trip over themselves trying to get away from me. Rules help me avoid this danger.
My ideal self, as I’ve defined her for years, is in perfect health, is strong and flexible, is a perfect environmental steward, is much loved by everyone she meets, is a perfect wife, sister, daughter, stepmother, dogmother, friend, employee, neighbor, acquaintance. She is able, every single goddamned day, to achieve the perfect balance of mental/emotional/physical/spiritual, of work and play, of self and other. She is, every day, productive and happy and creative and energetic. She knows exactly what to do and say in every situation. She is never wasteful of time, money, or resources.
This is what I know: My rules are nothing more than figments of my imagination, illusions that perpetuate the illusion that I can be this ideal self instead of being who I am. Does it matter that I know this? Not so far.
My brain works hard to take these rules and manipulate them into a reason for indulgence. It’s okay to indulge sometimes, especially if you’ve worked hard. It’s okay to indulge in food if it’s healthy. It’s okay to watch TV if you’re eating at the same time—efficient multi-tasking!
If I could stay emotionally uninvolved, these rules—and my loopholes—might work for me. After all, I could simply turn off the TV when I start to feel full. But the rules feed my anger, rebellion, anxiety, and guilt even as I cling to them. Knowing I’ll likely break or misapply the rules sparks all of these emotional reactions even before I start eating, and once I sense myself starting to overeat, I give up. I break the rules, feeling the power of my rebellion, the pain and guilt of my disobedience, and the shame of my lack of willpower, all at once. In short, eating can be a fraught experience.
Some rules for eating:
Some rules for driving (aside from the actual rules of driving):
Some rules for interacting with people:
This is just the beginning. I have rules for clothes shopping, showering, cleaning, calling my mother, gift-giving, tipping, writing, meditating, and more. As stated earlier, I break my own rules often. They make me angry. (You could even argue that I use the rules as an excuse to be angry.) But when I break them, the guilt and anxiety that result can feel at times debilitating.
Rules wreak havoc with a daily schedule. I keep telling myself it’s okay to deviate from the ideal order of tasks, that it’s better to “go with the flow.” But what if the flow takes me to a place far, far away from my to-do list?
Conflict rises when following one rule means I have to break another. For example, when someone is talking my ear off, wasting my time, do I cut her off so I can get on with my day, even though it may hurt her feelings?
Anger rises when other people don’t follow my rules. When my stepkids don’t clean up their toothpaste spatters, when dog owners don’t pick up the poop, when people throw their empty beer cans into the stream or grass on the side of the road, it triggers depths of rage that would probably have given me multiple stomach ulcers by now if I didn’t eat as healthfully as I do. But I can’t confront my stepkids or anyone else without risking hurting their feelings.
Interestingly, as my belief systems and spirituality shift, new ideals replace the old, and I feel them with just as much pressure. For example, I’m starting to believe that my ideal self is not someone who never hurts anyone’s feelings but someone who isn’t afraid to hurt people’s feelings. So now, instead of feeling guilty when I might have hurt someone’s feelings, I’m starting to feel guilty when I’m too cowardly to risk hurting someone’s feelings. RAAD is all about guilt, and guilt will find a way.
Trying to follow these rules means that I need routine. When I do things basically the same way all the time, I know where the risks of breaking rules arise and how to avoid them. We all have routines, but a routine becomes a symptom of RAAD when the thought of changing your routine makes you nervous or defensive (but this is the BEST way to do it, why can’t everyone see that?? Etc.)
That said, RAAD is different from OCD in that the messes in other people’s houses don’t bother me. In fact, I feel a sense of relief and comfort in a mess that is not mine to clean up or live in. I feel like I can relax and not worry about making or being a mess myself when messes don’t bother the person whose house I’m in.
That said, some people live in such states of mess that it makes me suspect they’re depressed. A certain level of mess suggests a giving up on life, the messy mental state spilling out and perpetuating a cycle of stress and disorder. I suspect that people who live messy lives in messy houses would, in most cases, be happier and calmer if they lived more simply and cleanly.
A Quick Summary
How I feel about rules:
How I feel when I break the rules:
Who makes the rules**:
Consequences of breaking rules:
Consequences of RAAD:
What NOT not to do if someone you love has RAAD:
What TO do if someone you love has RAAD:
Note: your response might vary depending on location. If you’re at home when this happens, the above response will suffice. If you’re in a public place that has a posted or otherwise obvious set of rules, and you’re trying to break one of these rules (thus causing great stress to your loved one), it might be wise to set aside your rule-breaking desires temporarily and return alone at a later time to break the rules you want to break.
RAAD people have a tendency to try to make everyone around them follow their rules—even RAAD children can have this power. We don’t feel completely safe and in control unless everyone is on board with our plan. We’re sorry about this. As much as it pains us to say it, we want to remind you that you do not have to live under our thumbs. All you have to do is communicate clearly and kindly about what you are willing and not willing to do. If we react with great anger or despair at your obstinance, try not to take it personally. Remember that the emotional explosion you are witnessing is driven by tremendous fear—and that it will be followed by debilitating guilt and shame. Remember that the rules we want everyone to follow are not truly our own; they were created by critical voices in our head that tell us we need the rules in order to survive.
You can help alleviate our suffering by remaining calm, compassionate, and loving. You can be open to and encouraging of compromise. You can remind us that we don’t have to be perfect. We need to know that we can trust you with our worries and fears, that we will not be demeaned or mocked for them; we need to know that our attempts to explain our reasoning will be met with genuine interest and openness. We need to understand that even if you might not agree to follow all of our rules, you get how important they are to us and are willing to do what you can to help us without compromising your own sanity or comfort. We need to know that you are not going to compromise your own sanity or comfort because we are terrified that we are too much to handle and that you will stop loving us.
Important note: Just because your partner asks you repeatedly to pick up after yourself or help with cleaning does NOT mean she or he has RAAD. It might just mean that you’re a slob, in which case step it up! Be a true partner in your lives together.
Can RAAD be Cured?
Great question! My therapist would tell me to tell those rule-making voices in my head to fuck off. All of this anxiety and guilt are fake anxiety and fake guilt, covers for something deeper and more troubling. Rules fill my head so that I don’t have to face the emptiness the rules crowd out.
I know emptiness would be good for me. I know that if I let myself it experience even briefly, I would realize that it’s not something to dread but to bask in. Allowing my mind to be still, to turn my attention away from the rules and toward the vast empty space that lies behind them, would probably teach me a lot about myself and about life.
Thinking about how great this emptiness would be makes me want to create rules for pursuing it, rules that will surely help me get there more efficiently and safely. Meditate in this way, visualizing this image, for this long, at this time of day, etc.
And I wonder why I’m so tired all the time.
I don’t know if I can conclude anything here. In fact, now that I’ve defined myself so thoroughly, the definition/diagnosis feels inaccurate. It feels like it describes an old self, or at least a self that is passing away in its influence even as it still grips me from time to time. I suppose I should be happy or relieved to find that even after such an examination, I elude definition. But eluding definition is not very neat or clean now, is it?
Here’s what I know. I know that the key to life, for me, is to relax. I know that the key is NOT creating more rules to help combat the rules I already have. I know that, for me, the key is NOT medication. I know I’ll be essentially “cured” when I can confidently, consistently reject guilt and fear and move forward without worrying about the mistakes I’ll make or about what people will think. But I also know that creating that new version of my ideal, perfect self—the self who doesn’t struggle with RAAD—is not the answer, either. So maybe the answer, for now, is to be who I am and try my best to counter the rules with detachment and humor. In other words, be who I am, but lightly.