Its been some time since I first posted about having OCD. It was a very hard post to write and after I was done, I was content just to let it go for awhile. I had cracked the lid off a part of myself that I usually keep under tight lock and key in the hopes that I could find advice, support, and perhaps help someone else who might have been silently suffering as well...I found all of those things and more.
Since that first post, life has marched on...and it didn't give a dam about OCD. I finished one session of my OCD support group and elected to return for another session that has only recently begun. My summer...while insanely fun...was also insanely busy. My kids activities kept me busy as well as hosting several YouTube friends during our "Big Gay Vacation" and more. This was not a summer of rest and that means I did not take a lot of time to face down my OCD and do the hard work it requires. Oftentimes I let my anxious thoughts and compulsions have their way rather than continue my exposure work or practicing my mindfulness meditations. The end result is a further boatload of guilt, but also a resolve to work harder when the next OCD group began....I was really gonna kick OCD's ass this time...I meant it. But then, another major realization happened that reminded me that this is always going to be hard work.
What happened? Read on to find out...
I try not to hide my behaviors from my husband anymore. On the one hand, this is a good thing because he can ground me when I am going to a really anxious mental place. On the other hand, it makes him think that my symptoms are getting worse when they are not. The reality is that I am just not hiding it anymore and now he more clearly sees what I have been doing silently in my head all along. He watches me wrestle with my anxiety and the intrusive thoughts and to him, it looks like a struggle...which I guess it is really. He constantly reminds me to "stop beating myself up." or, "Stop resisting the anxious thoughts.". To which my response is, "Dude! If you only knew how this feels you would fight too!" I always assumed that his comments...even though they were motivated by love and concern...were driven by a complete lack of understanding and a helplessness. He wants to fix it..and can't.
And so... I have continued to fight. I pray away my anxious thoughts only to have them immediately return and demand that I pray again because...this time is different(yeah...right). I resist for a while until the anxiety gets to be too much to handle and I give in again....and again...and again...until I can't stand the thought of saying the words anymore and feel more ashamed of myself than ever because I fell for it all. I try pushing thoughts out of my mind only to fail, time and time again. It feels like trying to hold back a tidal wave with only your bare hands....and I am exhausted from trying.
So...yes...I fight my thoughts. I do anything I can to deny them. Because I truly feel I can not accept them without owning them. I felt I was justified in my struggle because that's what it takes to be a good person when objectionable thoughts would pop in unbidden. However, my failure to find relief from the anxiety they produce...or make any change in my circumstance by struggling with them, has caused me to doubt if what I am doing is really the right way to deal with this. Same actions...same results.
And so I began to consider the possibility that maybe I do need to find a way to accept these thoughts as "just thoughts"....something that up till now I have found impossible to do. "thoughts are things" has been an idea repeated by so many traditional religions and new age spiritual practices that considering that my OCD thoughts could really be "just thoughts" seems impossible.
And I've come to discover it's all about the fear...
Traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) that uses an Exposure and Response Prevention(ERP) component...like we use in my OCD group...uses a technique of gradually exposing yourself to something that you fear with the aim of desensitizing you to it. This is the part of the program that I am procrastinating on because...well it can be dam scary. I spend most of my day trying to keep my mental bogeymen OUT and now your telling me I have to let them in?!...Oh hells no...
On the recommendation of my husband I began to look around for inspiration on how to accept my fears and intrusive thoughts it spawns. This led me to a therapy practice known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy(ACT). One of the tenets of this type of therapy has it's roots in Buddhism and states that struggling against our thoughts is futile and the cause of most of our pain...anxiety is a part of the human condition and we will NEVER rid ourselves of it. Instead, The more we attempt to avoid it...the worse it gets. And I could see that taking place in my life. An uncertain dread began to settle over me as I began to grapple with the notion that perhaps resistance really is futile.
This also put me in mind of a lucid dreaming blog post written by Erin Pavlina appropriately titled... "Embracing Your Fear". According to her own account, Erin has been lucid dreaming for years and it has been mind expanding and great fun. That is, until she watched "Nightmare On Elm Street". That movie scared her bad enough that Freddie Kruger began to appear in her dreams and kill her on a nightly basis. For someone who is consciously aware in their dreams, this is the emotional equivalent of this event happening in real life....every day. She details her attempts to escape Freddie, from trying to fly away from him, dream up an angel to fight him, and even imagining a "Freddie proof house" that she locked herself inside. And yet...no matter what she did or how far she flew, whenever she turned around, Freddie was already there. Finally, one day she was more mad than frightened and turned to face him. She wrote of their conversation together...
Me: This is ridiculous! Why won’t you leave me alone?
Freddy: I can’t.
Freddie: Because you keep bringing me here.
Me: Me? I don’t even want you here. How could I be the one bringing you here?
Freddie: Because what you’ve failed to understand this entire time is that I am not a dream
manifestation of Freddie Krueger. I am, to put it simply, your fear.
Oh. Hmm… Er. Not what I expected.
Me: So, then, you’re not trying to kill me?
Freddie: No, not at all.
Me: Then why do you keep slicing me up with your claws?
Freddie: Because you keep letting fear win. It’s your dream. I only respond to how you treat me. If you run, I have to chase you.
Oh. Hmm. Interesting. Now we were getting somewhere.
Me: Well you don’t seem so scary now.
Freddie: Thanks. I appreciate that.
Me: So all this time I just had to stop running from you and you would stop chasing me?
Me: Wow, I feel so relieved, and also kind of stupid.
Freddie: (laughing) Yeah.
Erin goes on to describe how this confrontation affected her night time experiences...
I know it sounds kind of crazy but I stopped feeling afraid of him entirely as I realized he was just a manifestation of my fear. He was a part of me. And being afraid of a part of myself seemed kind of dumb. I laughed too.
And then … we embraced. I hugged my fear, I embraced it, I welcomed it. I acknowledged it with love, and it stopped being so scary.
We had a nice chat with tea and cookies after that. He took off his clawed glove and his burns started fading away. He seemed like just a regular guy doing a job.
But it doesn’t end there. Every time I was having a scary dream, Freddie would appear behind me and protect me! He started doing battle in my place. If I was about to be attacked by a vampire or a demon, Freddie would kick its butt!
So a pattern had become crystal clear to me. My "Bad thoughts" are my Freddie Kruger, the more I try to push away, pray away, or deny them...the more I will turn around to find them still there. This is an "Oh shit" moment because I am having to come to terms with the fact that the only way to "out" is "through". The real struggle has never really been with OCD...or brain chemicals...it's with fear.
To use one of my obsessions as an example, OCD logic goes like this....If I allow one of these intrusive, and unasked for thoughts of blasphemy to enter my mind and be recognized...if I allow myself to really think it...then I am guilty of it. Even though I did not ask for it....AND....if I am not appropriately horrified by the thought....(OCD says) perhaps I wanted it...perhaps it was me that initiated the thought after all...and if so, it is proof that I really am a despicable person.
For me, the next instantaneous response is fear, then questioning and rumination about having the thought.... whether it was a sin or not. The inability to answer that question 100%(there is always a "what if") would prompt a response for me to atone for the thought anyway, even though I did not want or initiate it. There is a few seconds of relief and then the cycle repeats. I run...it chases.
To allow that thought to "just be a thought"...for me to allow it to enter and really look it in the eyes as a manifestation of my fear and not a thing to be judged runs counter to the judgement thoughts that OCD is already running, saying that Just HAVING the thought is sin enough....and so, I have hit a wall again. Can I do this and live with the uncertainty that maybe the thought IS wrong? Is it OK to think bad thoughts deliberately if the aim is to make them go away? And..... I know that the core message behind this scenario is that maybe I am bad and unworthy. There are any number of ways a person can come to this, from family members to church's who don't understand what their shaming messages can do to people. And parents....please don't let your children read Revelations unattended....the thought of the world ending IS the same to a child as contemplating their own death and that can be very terrifying. Tack on being gay and/or having normal human sexual feelings and it's a ready made Molotov cocktail of shame just waiting to explode.
So.... my work continues. Maybe this time around I can read a little less and do a little more actual work. I want to challenge myself more...and maybe learn to see behind the terrifying appearance of this fear, to the human need it masks. Perhaps I can find relief by running toward fear instead of away from it. OCD may always be with me...but fear does not need to be my enemy.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. You must truly be strong of heart...and I appreciate that. All of us have our challenges in life but hopefully we can learn that we do not walk alone.
Until next time dear readers....