Is drinking a trigger or reward for obsessive rituals?
I wasn’t always a daily drinker. From college to my late twenties, alcohol was something that I enjoyed with friends, never on a schedule, never a part of the habits I’d created to soften the blow of anxiety attacks. For a long time, I didn’t use alcohol to make me feel safe in a world filled with uncertainty and danger.
That all changed in my thirties. Trapped in a marriage that was a sham, married to my business partner, we worked together in the horse industry where danger was a given, and the minute rituals of my OCD were rewarded. Carefulness kept a horse from escaping a stall or dying from ingesting a toxic substance. Attention to detail kept these massive, but fragile, creatures alive.
Always the last one to leave the horse stable at night, I compiled an intricate checklist of things to examine, monitor, triple-check. Were all the light switches off and power extinguished by flipping the breaker box? The barn was old, wooden, filled with dust. Barn fires are an industry nightmare and a legitimate fear, dust and hay igniting around huge creatures who are biologically driven to panic at the first sign of smoke. It’s difficult to remove the horse from danger or, worse yet, if they are trapped in their stalls with no way to escape, they’re doomed.
Were their stall latches shut? That was another big item on the pre-close check list. Horses have prehensile lips. They use them like fingers. A clever horse easily learns how to open a latch with its mouth, and some can even maneuver a snap added to the bolt as double security.
I’d walk through the hallways and study each latch. Was the door really closed? I’d walk back and check again. And again. An again. A routine that should have taken ten minutes began to stretch into an hour, sometimes more. I’d drive away from the farm with an all-encompassing sense of wrongness. Maybe I’d forgotten something. I’d turn my truck around and return to the barn to check again, the sleepy horses eyeing me suspiciously from their stall windows.
But they knew what was up. Horses, like humans, develop ritualized behavoir to counteract stress. Their fight/flight response is what keeps them alive in the wild, but also like us, that system isn’t adapted to life in a relatively safe, modern world where our days don’t involve searching for food and water, always ready to flee from predators on the horizon.
When I finally arrived home for the evening, the lingering doubt, uncertainty and sense of danger remained. The feelings kept me attached to the barn like an invisible thread that wouldn’t relent. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I had the medical tools I needed to soften panic attacks, but my nightly rituals were a new thing. They slowly extended to the house as I prepared for bed. Were the lights off? The front door closed? The stove off?
I knew these rituals were a problem because I was ashamed to tell anyone about them. In the midst of worry, as I checked a light switch for the twentieth time, my heart raced, my skin felt hot, I couldn’t breathe.
I searched my mind for what had changed in my life to bring about these behaviors. My job was stressful. My marriage wasn’t secure. I was isolated and didn’t have a life outside of work. And, I had started drinking every night.
The drinking started with a glass-corked pinot, a gift from a client. I didn’t offer anyone else a taste. That bottle became a nightly habit where I used the wine to cut the invisible thread that tied me to the anxiety of my life. I told myself, for a long time, that I wasn’t an alcoholic because I only drank wine and steered clear of liquor.
There’s an ongoing debate that people can probably trace to the time our ancient ancestors slipped a leg over a horse for the first time: does a spooked horse fart, or does the horse fart because it is spooked? This analogy is better than the old chicken and egg thing because the modus operandi is fear.
“OCD can be understood as an extreme on a continuum of evolved harm-avoidance strategies,” according to a 2006 study. “A pathological exaggeration of our evolved capacity to cognitively represent future scenarios, including imagined consequences of our own thoughts and actions. . .”
It’s our gorgeous capacity for imagination that gets us. If we can think about something, that thing is possible. But where does the thinking end?
We ache for something to offer relief from the vicious cycle of imagination and uncertainty. Desperate, we grab the closest, legal substance that we can procure without a prescription.
Or, at least, I did.
A 2016 study of male alcoholics admitted to a university-based rehab program discovered the subjects displayed, “. . .3 times the lifetime prevalence for OCD found in the general population.” Suggesting that tendencies toward OCD should be considered when evaluating treatment options for dependency.
But, it was at the point that I began using alcohol as a way to relax imagined fearful outcomes that my OCD rituals, a predilection toward securing certainty and order that had been with me throughout my life, became extreme and debilitating. I started adding an hour or more to my routines, coming and going, to make time for the steps my brain needed in order to feel secure leaving the house or departing from the riding stable.
For me, the act of nightly binge drinking itself became a form of ritual. Drinking began at 6 pm or later. I used a certain glass. I drank red wine. The first glass calmed my anxiety. When the glass was empty, I kept going and repeated the behavior until I went to sleep.
Without the sharpness of a sober mind, I began to double-doubt the evidence I saw with my own eyes. In the fog of a hangover, I couldn’t really see, and trust, that the gates were shut. I couldn’t really be certain the stove was off. In a cognitive stupor, I couldn’t swear that the front door was closed and locked. My reactions became stronger to counteract the confusion of alcohol.
I wasn’t aware of how deeply that uncertainty was entrenched until I decided to get sober. With all my attention focused on stopping drinking for good, it took a while before I realized that I was checking the stove once, securing the door and going to bed.
Sobriety had many gifts, but the peace of mind I discovered in new-found self assurance was astonishing, once I realized how many rituals I had quietly, and unconsciously, discarded. The added bonus was time regained to read a book before I fell asleep — and being able to remember what I read the next morning.
When I started putting the pieces together, I realized that the tools I used to stop drinking were the same that I used to battle OCD:
For OCD: I can’t dispute the validity of a belief without some proof to back it up. If I choose to walk away from the barn right now without obsessively checking the outlets and lights, and the barn is okay tomorrow, then my belief that the barn will erupt in sudden flames, and my beloved creatures and livelihood will be destroyed if I don’t complete the ritualistic behaviors, is invalid.
For Quitting Alcohol: If I choose to not drink this glass of wine, will I still be the same person in an hour? Will I find something to do with my time? Will I be better or worse for not drinking? The only way to find the answers is to try. Turning the act around into a question also gives me distance from the emotionally charged compulsion, I become the neutral observer, if only for a second.
2.Mindfulness: Yeah, I’m sick of hearing about it too — but it’s never a bad idea to experiment with being in the present moment. It’s cheap, easy, and we have a chance to try it every second on the clock.
For OCD: I often work to break the loop of catastrophizing in my thoughts by getting back into my physical presence. Something as basic as connecting with my five senses (what are five things I can see, four I can touch, three I can hear, two I can smell, one I can taste?) brings me into the present moment, allowing me to view outcomes from a different perspective.
For Drinking: The urge to drink is often preceded by emotional expectation, thoughts spinning out of control. But, we’re a lot more than our emotions. If I focus on my breath and use it to ground me into the present moment, the cravings and urges pass along into the next thought, and lead to feelings of relief and resolve that inspire me to not pick up the drink.
3.Goal Setting: The way my mind works, goals are more successful after I have some tiny achievements under my belt and a sense of how I want to shape the future. And when it comes to setting goals, I like to keep them small and basic with easy action steps that can be implemented at specific times.
For OCD: Today, I will leave the house and only check the important things once. I will not turn around and check things twice, or three times. Using Response Prevention and mindfulness, I will breathe through the feelings of distress this plan inevitably causes, and do it anyway. I will take time to congratulate myself when I succeed.
For Drinking: Tonight, I will not drink. I will pay bills, watch a show, and read a book. Using Response Prevention and mindfulness, I will breathe through the feelings of distress this plan inevitably causes, and do it anyway. I will take time to congratulate myself when I succeed.
There hasn’t been much research into the connection between OCD and alcoholism, but as our treatment methods develop, and knowledge of how the disorders intertwine become clearer, science may catch up to the parallels we intuitively deduce, and offer better methods for treatment.
In the meantime, if you’re struggling with addiction and/or your life is limited because of compulsive behaviors, realize that there are tools that can lead you to wellness. Find a trusted practitioner, explore multiple methods of therapy, become your own researcher and advocate. Don’t give up. You do not have to forever remain in the prison of your own mind. The strength to find a better way waits within you.
Kimberly Carter is a writer and equine-assisted life coach who works virtually and in-person from her farm, Bramblewood Stables. You can read more of her work here.