Programming with OCD

Like over 3 million Americans, I struggle with OCD. OCD has impacted, and probably always will in some capacity impact, my life a lot. Unfortunately, software engineering, both my career and one of my favorite hobbies, is no exception.

What is OCD?

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Everyone who suffers from OCD has a different experience. For me, OCD manifests as certain distorted thoughts sticking in my brain. These sticky thoughts are typically catastrophic events touching on some of my deepest fears and most cherished values. Intellectually I know these events have little chance of happening, but OCD doesn’t care.

What’s an example??

Suppose I just finished baking a loaf of bread, and am about to head out of my apartment for work. As I lock the door, an OCD thought arises: did I turn off the oven? Someone who didn’t suffer from OCD would have this thought pop up and think of course I turned off the oven - I always turn off the oven. Then they’d walk out the door and continue their day as normal. However, when someone with OCD has this thought, OCD might respond with but what if you didn’t? You’ll burn your apartment down, and you’ll be homeless, and your neighbors will lose everything, etc. Before I began treatment for OCD, I coped with these obsessive thoughts in what seemed like the best way: I performed compulsions. I would go back and check that the oven was off. I’d hit the off button several times just to be extra sure. I’d take a picture of the oven dial in the off position so that if obsessive thoughts rose throughout the day, I could ward them off with photo evidence.

More generally…

In the immediate moment, these compulsions provide relief. However, with OCD they also accomplish a more nefarious end, as they reinforce that the original catastrophic event was likely to occur and that performing the compulsive action was the only hope for stopping it. In our specific example, my brain learns that there was a significant threat of the house burning down. If there wasn’t, why would I have spent so much time checking the stove was turned off? Moreover, the house didn’t burn down after I checked the stove was off in a myriad of creative ways. My brain learns I can keep my house from burning down in the future, and prevent all of these terrible consequences if I always perform these rituals whenever I use the oven. It’s a dangerous cycle which increases both the power of these obsessive thoughts to stick in the brain, and the need to perform these compulsions when confronted with one of these thoughts.

For people with OCD, the obsessive thoughts typically fall into recognizable categories. Most of my obsessive thoughts can be described as catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, and hyperresponsibility, and there are many other categories impacting OCD sufferers. Similarly, compulsions fall into definable categories. Checking is my most prominent compulsion related to programming, although again there are many options.

How can OCD impact a programmer?

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More examples!

Let’s imagine that I work at Twitter (I don’t). I’m working on changing the color of the login button. I submit my diff with some CSS changes, it’s approved in code review and everything is working fine. But suddenly, a thought pops up in my head. What if by changing the login button, I somehow made it so that anyone could login to any account they wanted? Here comes the catastrophization. Think of all the damage that could cause. A huge violation of privacy. Twitter might go out of business. A ton of people could lose their jobs, and it would all be my fault. Now its time for some hypersponsibility. I need to ensure that this didn’t happen. So it’s time for the compulsive checking. I try logging in with the wrong password and I can’t. Thank god. I feel some temporary relief.

But then, maybe an hour later, another thought pops in my head. What if it is only for certain passwords that my change broke logging in? Again, the same catastrophizing, the same hypperesponsibility, and the same checking. And then in another hour, another thought with a slight variation of the problem. And another. Each time one of these thoughts comes, it is accompanied by anxiety, which the compulsion only partially relieves. Eventually, the left behind anxiety builds up, and keeps my body in a somewhat anxious state even when not directly having the obsessive thoughts. This buildup is particularly dangerous because it leads to emotional reasoning. My body feels bad… that means something must be wrong. I just haven’t found it yet. Before pursuing treatment, I would continue this cycle unchecked, increasing my stress and anxiety with each performance of a compulsion.

Particular difficulties of OCD and programming

This cycle is difficult enough regardless of the content matter. Yet, there are some aspects of my OCD that I find particularly difficult as they relate to programming. First, there’s the difficulty in determining what is an “appropriate” amount of checking. In either parts of my life, working with counselors, friends, and family to establish “normal” levels of behavior has been really helpful. As I mentioned before, pretty much everyone agrees on how much it is appropriate to check the stove is off. Unfortunately, with programming, it’s a lot more difficult. The problem space is complex, and often knowing if a certain precaution is healthy or compulsive requires deep knowledge of the system. Unfortunately, this complexity means that a typical mental health professional or family member may not be much assistance in providing behavioral guide posts.

Additionally, compulsive checking during the software engineering process can be extra tricky to stop because it feels so much like the right thing to do. While in the contrived example from before, its pretty obvious that a CSS change will not impact password security, few aspects of programming are that simple or harmless. In those situations, much of software engineering is about being careful and meticulous, and it can be difficult to draw the line between responsible and obsessive.

How Treatment Helped

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Thankfully, I write this post feeling like I’ve made considerable progress in decreasing the impact of OCD on my life. In the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to find a therapist with whom I have a great working relationship. Together, we’ve found a medication plan which works for me, and undertaken a course of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is pretty simple: sit with the obsessive thoughts without performing compulsions. Leave the house without checking the oven. Change the CSS without logging in multiple times. And so on. Do this enough, and you can unwind the previously existing cycles of obsession and compulsion.

In Summary…

I write this post, and provide these examples, in the hopes that it will be helpful to other programmers who have struggled, or are still struggling, with OCD. You are not alone. I also write this post, because I know that at least for me, I lived with OCD symptoms for a long time before I realized that there was a name and treatment for what I was feeling. Finding a name and treatment path for what I was struggling with was a great source of hope, even when there was still a lot of difficult work on the horizon.

OCD is a tricky beast. I won’t pretend it no longer has any impact on my life or my programming, but thanks to treatment and medication, that impact is significantly less than it was a couple of years ago, and it continues to diminish everyday. When obsessive thoughts do arise - and I think they will continue to arise for the rest of my life - I have tools I’ve learned to deal with them. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve worked to be comfortable talking about this part of my life with family and friends.

I am always eager to talk with anyone who is feeling a similar way - whether I can offer any guidance or help, or just someone to listen. Please email me at mattjmcnaughton @ gmail.com :)

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