OCD and Music – Chat with Mental Health Advocate and Counsellor Chrissie Hodges

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Today I (YC) spoke to mental health advocate and OCD counsellor Chrissie Hodges, who runs a consulting and peer support website and is generally a pretty cool gal.

Now, rather than talk about straight up OCD with Chrissie and its effects as we have before, I wanted to ask her about OCD as it relates to music, because both Chrissie and I suffer from OCD, but also we love music. So, I figured there was a conversation to be had there. 

One thing I really like about Chrissie is that she has things to say, as do I, so we had lots to talk about on this topic.  In other words, we both feel pretty strongly about it.  ***Disclaimer: our conversation was totally casual, and reflects our opinions only, so please bare that in mind if you are reading this and you have OCD and you are looking for a scientific explanation of things.  We are not really scientists.  That said, if you have something to add to our chat in the form of a comment, please leave one below.  Thanks, and enjoy our conversation!

YC: Hi Chrissie, how are you today?

CH: I’m good!! Thank you for asking, how are you?

YC: Today is ok. Pretty busy, slightly frustrated with work stuff… the usual. Otherwise, just dandy!

CH: haahah!  That’s good to hear!

YC: Yeah you know how it is.

CH: Yes…unfortunately, yes I do!

YC: I know you’re an advocate for a lot of matters related to OCD, and I wanted to ask you some questions on a topic that maybe you don’t get a lot.  That being music as it relates to OCD.

CH: Yes, I am–and that will be a relief to get to talk about other things than OCD haha! Well at least talk about things other than how horrible OCD is!

YC: Yeah, it sucks.  But music can be helpful in some ways, do you find this to be true? Or what’s your take on it?  Does AC/DC help OCD?

CH: Hmm….yes and no—well in relation to OCD that is. haha! It sure doesn’t help MY OCD!  For me, I listen to techno music—trance techno mostly. One of the things it HAS helped with in regards to my brain function is that my brain grabs onto the constant beat. Once it find that, I can hear all of the other instrumental/vocal things going on in the song.

YC: Ah, interesting!  I didn’t know you were a techno fan!

CH: I find this to be VERY comforting. It is like my brain which is normally overactive can just focus on one thing and attach and then I am able to let go and just enjoy the rest.

YC: Like old or new stuff?

CH: YES! In fact I am listening to Air for Life by Above & Beyond right now as we speak!

YC: Oh cool!  I don’t know that one.

CH: I like anything Trance old and new.

YC: Yeah, I guess it works to the advantage of an OCD’er cause you can really lock into it and then let go a bit.

CH: Exactly.

YC: I find music with me really helps with my hyperactive mind.  Gives it something to contend with and think about.

CH: I agree with that…….unless it becomes a compulsion!

YC: I’m also into electronic-y stuff, but it’s not always upbeat.. I just have to like it, and that should be ok for me. I do find that if music is predictable, my brain kind of rejects it. I think Sting said something about this.  Yes, Sting.  And I tend to agree with him. Predictable music just bothers me, and I have OCD, so maybe that correlates.

CH: What kind of music/genre do you think is the most predictable?

YC: Uh, pop and rock.  but it can be any genre really.  Just cookie cutter stuff.

CH: Oh….AND country…..now that is really predictable!

YC: But back to Sting. I find that the Police write music that I don’t find overly predictable musically, so I think his point is well taken with me.  All the guys in that band kinda throw a lot of musical curveballs, so I appreciate that.  And Sting’s into that whole tantric thing which I think is pretty cool and it comes through in his music.

CH: I liked Sting’s later stuff actually, but unfortunately a lot of his music came out when I was very ill with OCD, so it has a lot of bad ties in my mind to it.  I do like how he takes chances with music and doesn’t follow the norm. I really do appreciate that.

YC: Yeah I mean for sure.. he’s a pretty smart dude, but i didn’t mean to focus this interview around him…but yeah, associations can have an effect on things quite strongly.

CH: hahah! Well, he’s also hot, so I don’t mind.

YC: Oh man!  wow, he’s getting major kudos from both of us here eh? That’s funny…

CH: Well…he might be a little too old now to be calling ‘hot’…but he was back in the day!! haha

YC:  I don’t know, give him a chance.  But anyway, sometimes all a song needs is a decent bassline to save it from being some crappy predictable thing that triggers my OCD, or just my general impatience because I find a lot of my OCD stems from impatience or anger or just frustration.

CH:  What does it feel like in regards to OCD when you find a song is predictable—and I’m assuming that you thought it wouldnt’ be?

YC: Hm well on one hand, I think that any thought that takes me away from whatever bad OCD obsessing my mind is doing isn’t that bad so even if a song sucks, that’s better than whatever crazy stuff I was probably thinking about.  However, at the same time, it’s a bit cyclical because if I get pissed off then that means I get closer to having those kinds of thoughts certain songs that i hear a lot do kind of grind my gears…and that would be fine, if it didn’t lead me down the OCD road eventually which is just like having panic attacks and being all out of sorts, disassociating, stuff like that.

CH: Well….you know—people HAVE described OCD often like it feels like a broken record….so you seem to really be honing in on that one!  Sorry—that was my attempt at a terrible joke…..

YC:  lol well maybe people will laugh.  I kinda half smiled for a second …Yeah, that’s the thing with OCD, it’s kinda like a bad joke anyway.

CH: I think you are actually above describing where music can become part of OCD.

YC: You get caught up in these thoughts you know are there just to mess with you, but you entertain them anyway.

CH: And that is where OCD sucks because it always gets involved in the things that we love—all it wants to do is ruin happiness.  It’s hard NOT to entertain them. I think that is where people misunderstand OCD. Unless someone experiences how REAL the cycle feels, it’s easy to say—well just don’t think about it or worry about it.  Duh!

YC: Right, exactly.  It’s just you dealing with your own problems that no one can relate to because they’re kinda crazy to them, and the sucky thing is you don’t even really want to spend time on that stuff but you can’t help it.

CH: Exactly. This is where music has worked against me. I actually used to use how music would make me ‘feel’ when I was stuck in a cycle. So if I felt great while listening to specific music, I would revisit it, hoping to feel that way again to get some relief from OCD. It became a compulsion. And then there is music that I would hear while VERY triggered that I’d avoid (and still do!) because it brings back up the anxiety.

YC: Yeah it’s all like past experiences and getting over those too most of my OCD is tied to one thing or another that i didn’t like at some point.  Just like.. nope, can’t deal with that.. can’t deal with that either.

CH: Do you remember the song ‘My Girl wants to party all the time’? By Eddie Murphy??

YC: Yeah of course lol..I like that song.

CH: I listened to that song over and over one evening when my sister was sick in the bathroom (my OCD fear of vomiting) trying to distract myself from hearing her.  To THIS DAY, I can’t listen to that song without feeling nauseous and scared hahahahahahahaha OMG—Rick James in that video hahaha! Hilarious though.

YC: Wow, that’s quite a story!  I’d say it’s a good one if it wasn’t so tied in with vomiting…yeah I love Rick James…all my memories of Rick James are good!

CH: haha! Yes…the vomiting ruins it.

YC: So no problems there.. I actually bought a Rick James album recently and it did make my day a lot better.

CH: I didn’t really like Rick James until Dave Chappelle did a true hollywood story about him!

I’ve seen him LIVE!!!

YC: Yeah I just always liked him.. I used to work at a jail for kids and I listened to him a lot when I was there…also, that’s amazing.

CH: I can’t think about him now without hearing Dave Chappelle saying ‘I’m rick james, b*tch!’  hahaha

YC: haha so that doesn’t trigger you at all?

CH: Noooooo! It makes me laugh. I’m only triggered when I hear Eddie Murphy’s song haha!

YC: I definitely can listen to Rick and not think about the Chappelle skit. I listened to him a long time before that skit came out. Thank god, or I wouldn’t be able to listen to Street Songs and not think about Eddie Murphy. Hmm I’m trying to think of some music that puts me in the OCD mood.

CH: I would say anything in the genre of punk or heavy metal can set me off in a cycle.

Mainly because it hurts my already struggling brain. Our OCD brains are always looking for control and so any music that just sounds like chaos really makes me frustrated.

YC: hmm.. it’s not like that for me..I get what you’re saying though…I think because I play music, I can visualize how those guys play and it’s sort of cathartic for me to hear it.

CH: Well, punk and heavy metal may not be chaotic for you! But I HATE it!!

YC: That said, it depends on what it is specifically.  Some punk / metal stuff I can’t stand to listen to.

CH: I can see that. My partner Sean listens to Punk and it makes me angry when I hear it.

YC: haha. Well I can see why but at the same time, you can’t just sit around listening to meditation music all day.

CH: I know! That’s why I listen to trance!!! I like ambient techno as well though when I need something more soothing.

YC: But on one hand that music can be just super repetitive, no?

CH: Yes…but I think circling back to your original point about predictability. I think there are certain techno groups/genres that I stay away from because of that. Dubstep is one that is waaaay too predictable and annoying to me. Unless it’s combined with trance, then it’s interesting. Seven Lions is a group that I like that uses Dub Step but it is creative and interesting.

YC: Apparently dub step wasn’t always as annoying.  My friend made me a mix and it didn’t sound like Skrillex and I was like thank god.  Yeah, I can’t handle that genre.  I love electronic music, but not dubstep, or the kind of EDM music that is so huge now.  I think that has a lot to do with the live concerts and how gigantic they are and how it’s just one guy jumping up and down.  And the music is just kinda meh.

CH: Haha! I can tolerate Skrillex to a point, but only if I’m forced to.  Dub step just sounds SOOOO not creative.  Artistically that is. I agree. I think it has just become what anyone can put together with simple equipment. But the geniuses of techno really have musical talent.

YC: Yeah for sure. We’ll have to trade some links sometime.  I had no idea you were into that stuff.  To change topic slightly, do you ever talk to people that have that OCD music in their head type of deal?

CH: YES! Isn’t it called having an ‘earworm’? Where a song gets stuck in their head and they can’t get it out? I use that example to people when trying to explain what OCD is. The harder you try to get a bad song out of your head, the louder it gets.

YC: I don’t know.. I thought it was some other thing, like some kind of auditory hallucination?

Where you literally hear some weird music that’s not actually playing.

CH: I think that may be more long the lines of delusions? But maybe? I mean…there are NO limits to what OCD can and can’t make you feel crazy over…..

YC:  Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re delusions of a sort.  The thing about that is I already kind of can hear music in my head .. that’s how i write music sometimes, just by listening to that playlist and kind of channel it.  But it’s not like some irritating thing that i’m conjuring up to drive myself insane. 

CH:  So then DEFINITELY not OCD! hahah. But, I still think that because we live with OCD, our behaviors can transfer over to other things…it just isn’t that torture, but more habit or learned behaviors.

YC: Well OCD develops right?  It changes over time and customizes itself to your fears.

CH: Yes. It is often described as egosyntonic and egodystonic: The egosyntonic part is where it latches on to the things that are the most important to us…that is why we get so stuck. The egodystonic part is that we have insight that the fears/obsessions aren’t real or aligned with who we are, but we can’t stop doing them. it is a vicious cycle.

YC: So weird.  I guess we do live in these crazy modern times, so it’s not really surprising that we’ve developed these sort of odd mental glitches.  I mean, if we were farmers, we’d have no time to get freaked out by Eddie Murphy.

CH: hahaha! True. But, I cannot imagine how many people had OCD for centuries and had zero access to knowledge and treatment. How torturing that must be!

YC: I just feel like it wasn’t quite the same.

CH: Well we will never know!

YC: At least in those times someone could say get back out there and bail that hay!  I’m sure back then people had those issues, but if it was mainly mental you’d just be in the asylum looking out the window, and that’s why you gotta be careful who you tell you might be crazy to.

CH: Exactly. And that is the sad part.  I am sure people back in the days who suffered either became shut-ins or lived in institutions.

YC: Although with you, you are doing cool stuff cause you’re just unabashedly putting your OCD out there. Because it’s a condition, and people have it, and many people don’t understand it.

CH: ha! YES. Unabashedly is correct!

YC: Heck, I didn’t understand it til last winter when I thought i was going nuts.

CH: Well, it’s hard to understand or even know something is ‘wrong’ because it FEELS so real.

I mean, it is how we have survived. It’s hard to believe that it is something ‘wrong’ with us.

YC: I think traditionally if you have crazy thoughts, or just confusing thoughts, for 99.9% of history we just allocate meaning to those thoughts. We don’t assume they have no meaning as we should.

CH: I know!! And try to validate them with logic and reason, which as we both know doesn’t work with ocd.  It actually backfires!

YC: Yeah so what do we do?  i guess we just have to ignore certain thoughts.

CH: Learn to let the thoughts be there.

YC: So when that voice pops up and it’s like KILL!  KILL!  KILL! you just say ahh that’s funny.

CH: And not react to the anxiety.  Yes!  Maybe I will, maybe I won’t! The premise of exposure response prevention!

YC: Oh yeah?  So you say KILL? KILL? hmm.. well, I guess I could.. I’ll just have some soup and think about it.

CH: Usually what I’d do is say, ‘Wow, okay that is an interesting suggestion….maybe it’s real or maybe it’s not. But I’m going to continue with what I’m doing and let it be there and feel the anxiety surrounding it’.  If I try to avoid the thought, it gets louder.

YC:  Right, you have to embrace it even though it’s very uncomfortable.

CH: If I just let it be and invite the anxiety around it, it doesn’t control me. Yes. Our brains are wired to tell us that intrusive thoughts could possibly be real….and so we spin our wheels trying to prove or disprove if they are or not.  Which is ridiculous because there is never any proof either way….

YC: Yeah it’s weird how that works. Proving what’s real.

CH: It sucks!

YC: Especially when you do already know what’s real.

CH: Exactly. OCD isn’t called ‘the doubting disease’ for nothing!

YC: But to bring it back around to music.. I think music generally does help me with it.  When music I like is playing, I’m generally fine. Or if I’m playing music especially.  Even though OCD can make me not want to hear it or do anything sometimes.

CH: I definitely think it can be a healthy coping mechanism for sure.

YC: Because it basically wants me to not do anything fun or enjoy life at all.

CH: Right. But, when all else fails, sometimes distraction can turn a bad day into a tolerable one.

YC: But I’ve heard it said that coping is kind of a misnomer, because if your goal is to cope, then you might just cope, but if your goal is to win, you’ve gotta strive for that.

CH: Right…but that is WAAAAY too optimistic for me. ahahahaha

YC: Maybe so but it’s kinda true. Like I know that OCD does give me a reason to make all sorts of excuses not to do certain things.

CH: I agree, especially with OCD as coping mechanisms can EASILY turn into compulsions. So, finding that balance is key.

YC: At the same time, a lot of the things i don’t like to do have some valid reasons behind them while they might also be related to OCD.

CH: I guess turning ‘coping mechanisms’ into self care strategies is a good way of looking at it.

YC: I just don’t like the idea that life is just this impossible struggle, because OCD can convince you that it is.

CH: Well I think it can be that way for many people—OCD or not. We just have an added layer of shit to deal with.

YC: That’s true, but here we go with the perception paradox.

CH: This could turn obsessive hahaha

YC: Before it comes to that, let’s just adjourn our talk until another time.  We’ve covered a lot.  Thanks for the chat Chrissie, it was definitely interesting and I think it explored some of the details around music and OCD, although I’m sure there’s much more we could cover.  Until next time!

CH: Thank you!  Bye!

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