The “What if” Light Bulb

This weekend, a friend and I took our daughters to White Lake. I grew up going there for a week every summer — it’s a place full of so much nostalgia. Extra so, since absolutely nothing has changed in the last 30 years. Well ok, fewer people chain smoking on the beach. Also, there are now mini fridges in the motel rooms.

On the two-hour drive home, after 12 hours of swimming and arcade games (including the ever-painful ticket-spending-for-tiny-prizes headache), the girls had passed out, heads at weird angles and snoring.

Since there were no giggles, made-up songs, or requests to know “how much more tiiiiiiiime?” coming from the back seats we were able to both talk and listen to music. It’s such a rare blessing to make new friends who share your taste in music. When Shawn Colvin’s Round of Blues came on my iPod, we turned it up.

It’s a new breakthrough
It’s an old breakdown

Listening to that song just the other day, that line hit me as a pretty good description of what therapy can be like. As we listened to it that night, my friend said she had sent that line to her therapist before. Cue lots of laughter at how eerily similar our brains are in terms of fuckeduppedness.

It’s true, though

light bulb

I would maybe not go with “breakthrough” since “breakthrough” has a feeling of finality that isn’t quite right. Light bulb moment, perhaps? The flash of comprehension that illuminates something that is not new but is now understood in a new way. Usually, it comes with a side of no shit that makes me feel a little daft for having just now put enough pieces together to at least see what the puzzle might look like.

Last week, my therapist compared my need for reassurance to “checking” OCD. I knew the reassurance thing fit into the OCD puzzle because it’s listed prominently in every article about OCD and I have, of course, read approximately 2930859304589085237590 articles about OCD. My brain works in analogies – that is how it comprehends and processes – so the light bulb turned on when she said this.

Speaking of light bulbs

Let’s say you are terrified of leaving a certain light bulb on when you leave the room. It’s the same as every other light bulb in the house but this specific bulb will burn the place to the ground if you leave it unattended. Why? No reason, that’s just the nature of OCD.

It’s time to go grocery shopping, so you switch off the light and leave the house.

lights off

Did you switch off the light?

Yes, you always do.

Are you really sure?

Pretty sure.

Do you specifically remember flipping the switch this time?

imagining light on

You should probably go check, to be safe.

light is off

Are you sure you didn’t turn that light back on accidentally when you were leaving the room?

Of course, that would be stupid.

You’ve done stupid things before. 

It won’t burn down the house.

What if it does?

imagining light on again

Just check once more.

light is off

And so on. Everyone occasionally checks something more than is really necessary. Someone with OCD does it until it interferes with their life. Constantly seeking reassurance, either through physically checking or asking others for confirmation.

I don’t check light switches. I don’t check the oven twenty times. I only occasionally get out of bed to triple check that the front door is locked. That’s not to say those things don’t concern me sometimes, it’s just that my lazy outperforms my anxiety.

My therapist’s point was that my seeking reassurance about myself is comparable in many ways to the person who cannot be convinced the light is actually turned off.

Let’s say I am hanging out with a friend and she says, “You’re really awesome, I love hanging out with you!” At first, internally, I’m like, Whoa! That’s great! She likes hanging out with me! 

she likes me!


But as time passes I get less and less sure that I remember what she said correctly. Then I start to wonder if I just completely made it up. I decide the person doesn’t really like hanging out with me at all. So I look for new evidence. Around and around, reinforcing my what if that I’m in some way not good enough.

I hate feeling needy so that in turn becomes a self-loathing cycle of mental torture. I don’t want to need reassurance. I am constantly looking at my thoughts from a million angles, looking for faults — suspicious of each one, wondering if it is actually manipulation. It’s exhausting.

how i see it later

Yesterday, it dawned on me that this is part of why I prefer to communicate in writing. I can be sure of what was said, both by the other person and myself. I can prove to myself that I didn’t say something weird and idiotic. I can obsessively reread someone’s nice words. I do not trust my brain to accurately remember anything. Emails are the equivalent to someone having a photo of themselves turning off the light.

lights off photo


OCD brain is as fantastically adept at creating problems as it is at solving them.

What if you turned the light back on after you took that photo.

What if she was being sarcastic? Was I fishing for that compliment? She had to say I’m awesome. What if I have done something since then to change her mind?

The more I try to go back over what someone said, the less I trust my memory of it. The more I go back over what someone wrote, the more I question the authenticity of it. The power of the reassurance slowly erodes, until I am sure I am the worst.

around and around

This is all just one small example. Picking apart hints of confidence for all the possible what ifs is just what my brain does. Am I good writer? A good parent? Am I smart enough? Am I funny? Does my therapist find me annoying? Do my friends care? Am I ruining my kids? Is any positive evidence coming from a place of pity?

Check. Check. Reassure. Check. Reasure. What if?

I don’t know why having it compared to something more concrete helped so much. It’s sort of like just being able to name other things as OCD helped alleviate them somewhat — being able to more clearly picture this feels important. Not that it will stop my brain – but maybe it will turn down the noise from 11 to 10. Maybe it will let me stop fighting myself for just a fraction of a second.

Or maybe I’ll pick this apart until it’s meaningless.

Is there grace in understanding?

I guess we’ll find out.

light bulb question



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