Wednesday, August 10, 2011

OCD Diaries: "Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself"

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) 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 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.
Me: Why?
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?
Freddie: Exactly.
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'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 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....


  1. Wow Brian! Thanks for such a brilliant post, and to have the courage to talk about your OCD with the world. I follow your bog all the way from down here in Australia and always look forward to your posts. The work you and Jay do has truly helped me through many tough situations Ive encountered in my final year of school. Keep up the good work!!!


  2. Great post Bryan!
    Awesome to hear you're making some progress regarding your OCD and it can only get better now ;)

  3. Not to be simplistic, but per Erin's post it sounds like you should give your fear a manifestation, buy it a beer and put a couple of dollars in the jukebox. Then start talking and see where it goes from there. :)

    As always you have my support and prayers.


  4. About 20 years ago I was in a so called relationship, and began getting scared. Didn't know why or what was causing it and though i was losing my mind. Well to be brief I had a complete anxiety crisis. I was so bad. would not sleep for days went to work half dead. Scared all the time. Scared of losing my mind. Well jump ahead to today and yes I have anxiety disorder. But I am much much better. I know all about those thoughts. They still plague me but I find that although group might help, sometimes I succumb to other peoples symptoms that i stay away from group. I travel and try to go about life as best as I can. I am in therapy and that saved my life except for one thing. No love. I am scared to get back into a relationship. One because i am scared of all the feelings and two I don't want to be the weak one in the relationship. The one with the problem. I know it sounds bad but I am scared and very lonely

  5. the anonymous post is from me Gary, email

  6. First up, thank you for having the courage of writing such a great piece on something that is clearly one of your best-kept secrets.

    Though I can't possibly know a) what your feelings are during an episode (or permanently, whichever the case may be) and b) the best way to deal with it, I think I might toss something that might, with any luck, help you.

    Personally, I've discovered that the best way to deal with problems/fears is head-on. The only ones I haven't done that with (a.k.a. my homophobic parents) have caused me enough grief for several lifetimes, which I must cope with each passing day.

    On the other hand, the fears I have faced don't cause me nearly as much trouble. Those I can even laugh at, most of the times.

    So probably the best idea would be to either give your fear a manifestation, like Robert said, or search for the root/cause of your fear, which will probably then manifest itself. Of course, you'll need your husband by your side, but I'm sure he'll be glad to help you out, right?

    Also, for short-lived episodes, you might want to try something else. This one I picked up while learning how to meditate. One of the objectives of meditation is clearing your mind of any thoughts, right? However, and especially for untrained (or restless, in your case) minds, it's virtually impossible to get to that point easily.

    But here's the catch: one of the techniques used actually involves acknowledging the thoughts that come to the mind, contemplating them, and letting them go without judging them (or acting on them). I know, easier said than done. But as you put it, one of the causes of your stress is the fact you not only judge but act on a thought. The mere fact of judging it serves as a catalyst to the action, so instead of focusing on preventing the action (after the judgment) might be not only easier but also more effective. At least from where I'm standing...

    Now, an example: say I was trying to meditate. I am in the process of clearing my mind, and the thought of a flying pink elephant (Simpsons reference :P) crawls into my mind. Instead of thinking "hey, a flying pink elephant!" and laughing to myself (or digressing to the Simpsons or trying to wonder why that pink elephant appeared, or whatever), I'd think "ok, a flying pink elephant. I am thinking about a flying pink elephant", and let it sit there.

    Then, and thanks to the limits of human attention span, the flying pink elephant would just go away. If you let your mind unfocus, most thoughts move on by themselves.

    OK, I'm writing WAAAAY too much already.

    I hope what I wrote is not completely useless.

    Best wishes for you, your husband and the kids, all the way from Portugal.


  7. Dear Bryan,
    you hit the nail on the head. It IS about fear and accepting it/yourself/your thoughts by facing them as they are. Without judging, as Miguel writes. Let them be. Step by step, and allow yourself to fail. 'Cause you're still great.

    Best wishes,

  8. Bryan, I grew up in a very religious family, too. The brand of christianity that I grew up with had a whole category of sin that was 'bad thoughts'. Now I realize how tantamount to torture that is. You're guilty not for something that you actually do that harms someone, but you're guilty just for any random thought or emotion. Truly believing that can cause so many psychological problems. With me, it gradually desensitized me into apathy and depression because there is no way to control your thoughts. I tried to control my thoughts and not be gay for my entire adolescence, and it did extreme harm. I can't help but think that you might have OCD-like symptoms for similar reasons (of how you grew up). It took me a long time to realize that whatever you think, it is not WRONG. Only things you do, to another person/being can be wrong. From experience, I know that the more you try not to think along a certain line, the more you end up doing so. A thought is just that, a thought, and you CAN let it go as soon as you acknowledge it and realize it is a neutral harmless thing. I wish that I lived closer to you guys just so that I can be an ear that you can talk to. Feeling like your own mind is your enemy is a horrible place to be in, and makes you very anxious. Anyway, I hope that the therapy you try will help you to overcome the guilt, anxiety, and the fear. You area unique wonderful person, and just because you have OCD-like symptoms doesn't make you sick. You are on a unique path that is yours alone, and your journey is your own, and if you believe that you can win this battle and overcome your past, then you can. I wish you the best. :)

  9. Good luck! I really think you can do this thing!

  10. Thank you for your bravely honest post, Bryan. I worked with an ACT therapist during a rough time when anxiety was keeping me from living much of a life, and I found it very helpful. I also had absurdly high standards for spiritual purity that I was constantly failing to live up to. They weren't imposed from the outside in terms of religious training, I had just set a bunch of standards that didn't really take into account my humanity! I've since made my peace and found a way of integrating/understanding God, religion, and "things spiritual" that works for me in a way that is lovingly supportive rather than punitive and harsh. My hope is that you find a way of relating with your spiritual life that brings you peace and honors the truly remarkable person that you are.

  11. Good luck!
    This is just my uninformed opinion, but from where I am siting, the fact that you are self aware and strong enough to write a post like this, shows that you can beet this thing, no matter how long it takes or how many things you have to try before you do.