A Return to Social Anxiety and OCPD

This should not be an easy piece to write, and it’s possible that as I get further into composing it I will feel my usual sense of conflict. One of my biggest worries in life is that I’m not a “good person” and being a “good person” is my principal focus. After all, it forms the core of my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). That’s right – I focus on it so much that it’s a mental disorder.

One of my biggest struggles is the worry that I’m not a “good person” because I will catch myself entertaining a thought and stop, “That’s not something a good person would think.” I catch it and override it, but the fact that I had it in the first place makes me think that my nature is one of irreconcilable flaws. No one is perfect and I tend to satisfy myself with the idea that so long as one is making the effort it counts. If I am having these thoughts, am I making the effort?

We’ll get more into that.

Perhaps my proudest and most difficult public piece so far is the Because (An Open Letter to the Daughter I May Never Meet). The purpose of the piece was to communicate to readers some of the worries that I felt within a specific framework – that of speaking to my imaginary daughter. There is a lot of truth in that though. I have written in other pieces about a recurring dream/daydream that I have, and a component of that dream is my daughter running around outside as I watch. Alice, as I came to call her (yes, based on the Lewis Carroll character), is real to me.

When I wrote that piece is was with an eye to the future though. I imagined her attempting to exist in some future state based on the concerns I had in the present. I saw things in my personal situation that felt like they would make life difficult for her, and a general trend among people in the world that would make life impossible. The letter was to a daughter I might never meet because my longstanding feeling towards the situation was that the best thing I could do for her was keep her in my heart and mind, away from this place.

Today, within the context of my social anxiety and OCPD, I return to those concerns with a focus on myself. The situation has not improved from that writing; it has worsened. I feel more affirmed than ever that Alice best exists in my heart as I grow more disenchanted with getting through things as an individual.

Do not fret while reading this. No trigger warning is necessary (I believe) because my philosophy is such that no one, including myself, is in any danger. I do not believe in an afterlife. I am not religious or spiritual. I know these things provide comfort to many, but I simply cannot bring myself to believe them.

What I believe is in a dispassionate universe in which one can create meaning. We come from nothing and return to nothing. That scares some people – often to the point that I cannot discuss it at any length. I find solace in the idea. I remember nothing from the eternity before my birth and I do not expect to be cognisant of anything after I leave. Just nothingness. And there is peace in that.

It also makes me rebellious in a sense. However difficult or painful life might get (and it undoubtedly gets fathoms worse than my current experience – I’ve been far lower than my current state before) I choose to live. Life has little pleasures and victories, and so long as I can draw a breath there is a chance that things will improve just as there is a chance they will worsen.

In other words, do not read this fearing, “I hope he’s not planning anything drastic!” Not at all. As pleasant and amenable as I am with people, my attitude towards life is something more akin to, “I’m not going anywhere yet, motherf***er. You got a problem with that, make another move.”


Quick Global Overview

I’m never concise. You should know that by now. Seven hundred words to get through an introduction – let’s get to the point.

I suppose I should begin larger scale and then I can explain the more localised impact of things.

We have climate change, an economy that has felt on the verge of a massive correction (possibly depression) for over a decade, the threat of virus (specifically the coronavirus right now), the threat of conflict (be it war or terrorism or general crime), and technological innovation that has already surpassed what we’ve seen in Black Mirror episodes.

Oh, and the current administration in the United States are a bunch of ******s. I try to hedge myself in the name of civility, but I cannot stand this group and that anger has indeed metastasised to the entire Republic party. Just tonight as I sat down to write this I read about how Trump described the coronavirus as a Democratic hoax to supporters. I do not particularly care about the Democratic party either, but such a claim is so dangerously stupid and self-serving that I cannot help but feel anger.

I know, I know. “Triggered.” At least according to people who use that word in a non-psychiatric sense to mean, “Angry for reasons that are valid to the individual.” It’s a potentially lethal disease with poor treatment options spreading around the world. I feel my sense of anger at elected officials dismissing it as a hoax rather than taking steps to contain and eradicate it is valid.

And it isn’t just here in the States. Far right governments started winning all over the world, and while leaders in countries I am supposed to respect began attacking immigrants and minority populations they also began posing for photo-ops with the tyrannical leaders of other countries. I get that some people don’t feel their dear leaders are dictators, but I tend to side with historical perspectives on the matter. Yes, that perspective is generally the one of the “liberal, academic elite” but, honestly, I’m starting to feel like the reason for the political divisiveness in many places is because a portion of the population feels the need to be contrarian about every ****ing thing.

“The Earth is round? Why? Just because some snooty Ivy League professor said it is?”

No, ****. Because the reliable, reproducible, verifiable practices of science and mathematics proved that it was. We don’t have to entertain every moron who ignores the evidence and wants to believe something different. I don’t know where this idea that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” became so conflated with democracy. The opinions are not equal simply because someone had them. The people are equal. The ideas are not.

Of course, I rarely have the answer. I’m not an expert on anything and I am not what I would consider knowledgeable about most things. Dunning-Kruger, Impostor syndrome and all that. But as I have said to people in the past, “I don’t need to know the capital of Canada is Ottawa to know that it’s not Beijing.”


Education and Economics

I wanted to cover those generalities so one would have a better sense of things as I discuss the steady worsening of my social anxiety and OCPD after a period of recovery.

First, I am currently unemployed – beginning my fourth month of unemployment as the global stock market collapses. Not only do I not currently have a job, the prospects are bad and look as though they will worsen.

Unemployment is bad enough. It scares me. Always has. I took a full-time position when I was fourteen years old and worked full-time up to this past November. At age 34, I have already worked 20 full years of my life. That does not come from my work ethic (which is substantial), but from an intense fear of the “rainy day”.

What do I mean by the “rainy day”? I mean that I am an American. I worry about the day I get sick or injure myself to the point that it requires medical assistance or, God forbid, ongoing treatment. I might survive the ordeal but come out so much debt that I may as well have died. Or, assuming that it does kill me, doing so much financial damage to my survivors that I prefer it kill me before US healthcare can get involved.

I mean the student loan debt that I accrued. Why? Because most jobs require a college degree now. The ones that don’t either do not pay enough to satisfy a decent quality of living in the US or have limited availability (I have considered trade jobs several times though).

So I went to college. For what – accounting. Why? Because accounting still requires human involvement, applies to nearly every industry, and therefore has opportunity in most any geographic area. Not history or English or philosophy, which are my actual passions, because the only real option I saw with those was teaching and most people I knew who pursued those degrees did so to teach. It was too big a risk to earn a degree and then not be able to find a job. Funny how that worked out, eh?

I earned a degree in accounting while working. That was a problem. When I graduated with my degree and tried to pursue internships, multiple employers informed me that I was over-qualified because of my work experience. Because I had no real work experience in accounting and no certification I was under-qualified for a full position. Qualifying for a full position meant I needed either an internship or some other position experience that they repeatedly said I did not qualify for because I fell into that perfect crack of both over- and under-qualified.

And why did I have a degree in the first place? Not to learn the material. Sure, that is the stated idea behind earning the degree. Those who know me (or especially worked alongside me) know that my aptitude for learning has little parallel. If being an accountant required knowing certain things, I could acquire that knowledge without the help of a degree program – especially in the digital age. No, the degree was to prove to someone else that I knew the information.

So I took a job that was accounting-adjacent. Teaching the accounting module of computer software where I excelled at learning software and bridging the communication gap between technical and non-technical business users. Over the course of a few jobs I transitioned away from accounting and towards software.

I am unemployed today because I travelled so far down the information technology path that when I apply for positions I run into a common issue: no education, certification, or experience at the required level.

The solution, at least according to the ears of most who hear this story, is that I get the required education or certification.

The first problem with that is that I genuinely do not care about IT. I do not have a passion for learning new computer languages or how the technology works. Part of it is that my nature is just not all that STEM-oriented. I like science and maths from a lay perspective. The other part is that the nature of the world jaded me with respect to technology. People do terrible things with technology and some of the people most responsible (Zuckerberg) just help to make it worse.

The second problem is what I already discussed about the education. I have to spend more money to prove to someone else that I know the thing. It’s not enough that I learn how to do the thing. Something has to verify that I know the thing, and that something has to cost money.

I am all for investing in my future, but I’ve already been down this road with the accounting. It’s not an investment. It’s a chance for someone else to profit without necessarily setting me up for anything. While companies inform me that I don’t know enough about SQL to take an entry-level analyst position, Rudy Giuliani is the President’s tech czar.

We don’t have to prove anything to anyone, right? Wrong. For the vast majority of us, the majority of our time is spent proving ourselves to other people.

And I’m 34, folks. This unemployment streak will end (provided prospective employers don’t read this honesty and decide to use it as an excuse to hire others) but the cycle will repeat. Eventually I will need to find another job and I will be older. I watched the US economy **** over my parents and their peers. I know that is coming for me in the future. With stagnating wages, the student loan debt (which apparently I need to increase), and general beating my generation already took with respect to earning potential, how am I supposed to live when I’m older?

Seriously. Imagine retiring at 85 in the brave new world of tomorrow where the not-at-all cheaper medical care means anyone who isn’t officially poor lives to 120 or 130? That thought hits me at least once a week. I could work until 85 and then still have to live another 40-50 years if I’m “lucky” enough to stay healthy. I may not, the stress might kill me at 42, but my OCPD mind cannot plan for that scenario. It has to plan for “live for 50 years with no savings and a fixed income.”

This is where that piece lamenting for-profit capitalism originated. I am so sick of seeing a handful of people profit off everything while things get mathematically harder for everyone else. It’s not about people being lazy or stupid or foolish. People earn $x per year. It costs $x + $y per year to live in most places. That’s the maths many face.


Sociability

Which brings me to the most difficult point. People. I take great care when describing certain phrases. Introverted, socially anxious, and anti-social are three separate items. I reiterate that constantly. One can be any one of them without the other two. One can be all three. One can be none of them. Any combination. They are not synonyms.

For my part, I am definitely introverted and socially anxious. Yes, I crank out these 4,000-word pieces that only two people bother to read and have the Twitter account, but that is nothing compared with the dialogue within my mind. It’s not even an iceberg analogy. Nearly all of it remains buried under the surface. I introspect constantly and need plenty of solitary time to get my mind in order.

Anti-social though…that’s the tricky one. It feels inaccurate to say that I do not like people and many find me charming. That’s the OCPD, not the social anxiety. I hate when people are upset or dislike me and I have tremendous empathy. The charm comes from that. I developed the skills I needed from a young age to charm others and get on the same side.

I used to worry that this was sociopathy or psychopathy, but there’s nothing fake about it. It’s a genuine soft skill developed with sincere intent. The idea is not for people to get along with me so that I can avoid their nonsense, it’s for the pure sake of getting along. I do not want anything from people.

In fact, one of the things I hate most in this world is needing something from someone because then I feel conflicted about being charming – I feel as though I’m trying to coerce what I want out of them. To that end I rarely ask people for help or inform them that I want something. It’s this feeling right here. I have begrudgingly accepted unsolicited help with the employment situation from friends (and then work feverishly to repay them by excelling in whatever opportunity I might receive).

The flip side to this is that many people tire or frustrate me. I hate saying it because to even admit that means I’m not a good person. I feel people bristle at the suggestion that I don’t like people because then I might not like them. Being the guy who seems to like everyone is often part of what makes it easy for people to like me.

“Is he pretending to like me?”

“Nah. James likes people. That’s what he does.”

The truth is that many people tire or frustrate me though. Why? Because of the OCPD. Because of that idea of being a “good person”. I get so frustrated watching people not only do things that seem awful to me, but also watching people be so unrepentant about it.

I’m not perfect, but it tears me apart inside when I do something that another person even seems to perceive as unkind, selfish, mean, or otherwise “not good”. Sometimes I see other people do something “not good” and their immediate shame or penitence assures me of their character. People make mistakes. It’s not about people being perfect.

So many people seem to bask in the imperfection though. Someone, however politely, confronts them about something they’ve done and the response is not apologetic or even moderating – it’s indignant. People are so proudly d-bags, especially when they feel a sense of personal accomplishment as a result, that it sickens me.

I almost wish I could say that it enrages me, that the fires of a righteous anger fuel me with a need to hold them accountable. It doesn’t. It just makes me sad, which incidentally is seen as pathetic in the eyes of the very sort of person I mean here. It’s the toxic masculinity, the dude-bro mentality, the Pirates of the Caribbean “take what you can; give nothing back” attitude manifest.

And it’s way too many people.

Comedians sometimes get on stage and joke about it. They usually follow up with a line like, “Not you people of course. You paid to see me.” That’s how I feel any piece like this goes. I write something like this and every single reader thinks, “That’s true, people do suck” and we’re commiserating together. In some cases I am sure that’s true, but the truth with which I struggle is that in some cases the reader is guilty, too. The idea that it’s always “them” who are guilty is part of what bothers me so much.

I have scarcely any close people in my life. Even people who might consider themselves close to me (and with whom I have no particular problem) are at an arm’s length. That is why we have no issue and get along so well. I learned to manage myself. How close can I let someone get so they feel close without letting them in until I can vet them properly?

In fact, some of the most important people in my heart are fictional or near-mythical. Fictional characters exist in a specific context and in the absence of greater detail about the minutia of their lives we are free to imagine a sort of perfection about them. They can never disappoint.

By near-mythical I mean the sort of people we feel we know when we don’t. I joke about being friends with celebrities like Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan, but being people known to me in a narrow context does actually fill much of my limited social need. This also includes some of my Twitter community; people I know as a thumbnail picture and a username on my feed. I know them through what they choose to share.

It saddens me to admit that in a social sense much of what I do often feels like an effort to be a person that would fall into their circles. In this skewed perspective, they represent the hope of a world in which I would want Alice to live and I seize onto the idea that if I can somehow impress them with my achievements I will become something of a lightning rod for good character and self-actualise the world in my mind.

It’s all the product of OCPD thinking. I can feel readers withdraw at the admission. “That’s probably not healthy, James.”

Yes, I get it. But with every step I try to take away from it I feel pushed back two or three steps by the reality of the world around me.

I like Alice’s world. When I talk with people, many of us seem to be on a similar page. I can even tolerate a large degree of disagreement about how we might achieve such a thing. A little partisanship in that sense never hurt. When I see people act though, there’s zero commitment to achieving it. If anything the world seems to be setting fire to that vision so that it can develop the newly-cleared space.

This world…I don’t understand this world. I’m not going anywhere because it’s the only one I have, but I really do not understand it. I feel more and more like I do not know what to do with it or in it, except to withdraw at every opportunity and find peace in the fantasy of Alice’s world.

Those opportunities are fewer and further between, especially at present. Obviously we need money to survive, and while I have a support structure and a spouse who works the goal is to return to work soon.

The more I explore my options, the more disenchanted I feel. My disenchantment is not contained to my options alone; it extends to the overall state of things. Who earns the most in our society? The idea, at least when I was a child, was those who work the hardest and/or those who are the most valuable to society.

I see a different, troubling trend. The people who earn the most are those who can generate the most profit for others. On the surface that makes some sense because if a position does not relate to revenue then where does the money for a salary originate? Nurses and teachers – invaluable work done with inadequate salary. Executives – shapeless work done with substantial salary.

My worth in society feels determined by how much money I can earn for someone else. I don’t care about money beyond wanting to live comfortably. I honestly do not even mind making money for someone else provided that is just the outcome of the process. Feeling treated like a depreciable asset rather than a human being kills that enthusiasm. Knowing an organisation would drop me tomorrow if it meant increasing their 3Q profits does not compel me to work harder for them.

Helping others compels me to work hard. The work never even mattered to me. I worked in a restaurant, in retail, in casino gaming, in non-profit, and in pharmaceuticals doing customer service, retail, IT, accounting, and project management work. The “what” never mattered to me. I went to work for a manager and as part of a team, my focus became, “What can I do to help this group?”

Then we would have an annual review and questions would arise about, “What do you enjoy about this company?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years with us?” I honestly never cared about those things. I do not like to lie so I always found a silver lining, but the truth was generally, “I’m indifferent about the company, and in five years I would like to be doing whatever naturally makes sense to help whoever is around me at that point.”

Think about your job. Think about most people you know and their work. How much of it really matters? Most of it is nice. They produce things that we are happy to have and it provides work to people – that part is great. But we don’t need it.

With most of my jobs they could walk in and say, “We are going out of business tomorrow, but another company in a different industry has agreed to take you all in as employees there,” and I would be fine. I get to keep working. The people I help get to keep working. It matters little to me that one specific organisation is no longer producing some unnecessary thing. Other organisations will. If the demand is there (along with a chance for profit), someone will take care of the supply.

I’m left scrounging around, approaching organisations who want to know, “Why do you want to work at The Company? Tell us how great we are and why we should not view you as just some guy who wants a job.” I do just want a job. They would unceremoniously kick me to the curb, so what is this need to grovel before their greatness for the chance to take the job? What does it have to do with my ability to perform the job?

In a world where “I don’t owe anybody anything; I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” why do I spend so much of my time explaining to others what I can give them and then attempting to prove it? Why do they seem to seize upon anything (over-qualified, under-qualified, seeking too high a salary, seeking too low a salary) as a reason to deny it?

I see a job application requesting that I have five years experience in the position and expert knowledge of a list of applications for consideration for their entry-level position. I’ve worked some of those positions. I’ve seen my executive leadership change while in those positions – a new director coming from a different industry.

“Odd,” I think, “They wanted five years of casino experience for my position. Why did this director not need any?”

This is what eats away at me the most. There are no rules for any of it. I swear I got one of my own positions on the grounds of geography. I lived in one place and wanted to move to another. They were based in the place where I lived and count not find candidates in the other – when they saw a chance to just send someone they took it. Everything else about my application felt secondary.

Rudy Giuliani is in charge of cyber security.

Little about this (human) world makes sense to me. What I see are stupid, selfish, greedy decisions. And I mean selfish in a pejorative sense. Having a self-focus with things is not inherently bad, but the decisions are so selfish in nature that it actually precludes the best possible outcome.

I think of this line from The Big Short often:

We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught; things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.

Maybe we aren’t better than this. Maybe this is it. “There’s a lot of good in the world” sustained me for awhile, but I’m not seeing it do much in the face of all the terrible right now. The coronavirus outbreak will get worse than it needs to and people will die who didn’t have to. Yes, people are working to stop it, but the damage is done by those who deny it. Climate change will worsen and we will deal with the effects of that. Yes, people are working to stop it, but the damage is done by those who deny it. More dictators will rise to power. Yes, people are working to stop it, but the damage is done by those who deny it.

And all of this (well, except perhaps the climate change thing) will pass. The dictators in power will fall or die eventually. It will happen again though because humans collectively never learn.

The difference between 2020 and 1220 is that the stakes are higher. We’re more connected. It’s a nuclear world on the verge of artificial intelligence. Humans travel globally on a regular basis, and that increases the stakes for disease transmission. Everything digital is connected, increasing the likelihood that someone can breach the systems and cause chaos.

What kills me is that all I want is to help others and receive enough compensation to live comfortably and to spend my extra time writing. Maybe meet Alice if things improved enough. That seems impossible though. Oh, I could strive towards it but that would mean spending most of my waking hours grinding towards that reality. By the time I got there I would have no time left to experience it and the moment I stop the grind it all falls apart.

And I know 90% of this is me – it’s not other people. It’s my OCPD: my obsession with rules, order, and morality to a problematic degree. Most people who engage with me in specific situations would say, “James, you’re expecting too much of people.” That’s basically the definition of the disorder.

But am I? Because my expectation is generally, “Don’t be a jackass.” I get that another person did something you did not 100% like, but maybe who cares? This is often the sticking point. What bothers me is not the precipitating event but another person’s reaction to it. People are just cruel with their unsolicited opinions and for no reason other than they had the opinion and felt entitled to it. At least if one is going to share an opinion or disagree, do it respectfully. There’s little empathy, little consideration for the other person’s perspective. It has everything to do with what the one person thinks and feels about the situation. Then it escalates to a situation that never should have been.

This is where my social anxiety originates – a constant feeling of being on edge because I never know when other people are going to escalate into some ridiculous situation. And in today’s world the possibility for intervention feels narrower and narrower. Attempting to deescalate a situation causes those involved, and sometimes bystanders, to become annoyed at the passiveness, the timidity, the fence-sitting of the mediator position. Siding with anyone in the slightest brings the full wrath of the opposition.

I get that conflict is inevitable and disagreement is even healthy, but seriously. The conflicts and disagreements are often ridiculous. They arise from a lack of empathy, often in situations where both sides are some degree of right and some degree of wrong (even though neither will give an inch).

In trying to lead a quiet, “good” life, I am increasingly at a loss in this world of rage and apathy.

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