A Sideways Approach to ERP

I promise I have not forgotten how terrifying it is to be in the crosshairs of OCD.

sidewaysEven though I’ve had a decade of freedom, I can remember the sheer terror, ugly discomfort, the feeling that relief would never come. It felt like hanging over the edge of a cliff by only my fingertips and knowing that hell was below. It was painful and exhausting to hold on, but I figured letting go would be even worse.

In fact, letting go was my salvation.

Hear me out. That one sentence does little to describe the immensely hard work of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. It doesn’t show the years of not knowing what was wrong and why my brain didn’t work like most others’ did. It doesn’t show the hard road just to get to a diagnosis; it doesn’t show all the attempts to fix things with prayer, medication, talk therapy, hard conversations with people who loved me but could never understand what was going on in my head. It doesn’t show the desperation that grew large enough to finally force me to call an ERP therapist, and it certainly doesn’t show the actual process of ERP therapy, the brain/head/heart/body work of actually “letting go.”

And that is something that I want to honor, in myself and in you.

When I say “letting go was my salvation,” I am not talking about a reckless choice to fall over the cliff. I’m talking about a thoughtful decision backed up by evidence and supported by tremendous bravery.

I stole power back from OCD by facing the thoughts that I’d spent twenty years fearing with my entire being. I was not able to turn around and face them head-on.

But I did face them sideways.

This is how.

Let’s say the thought I was running from was something like “I want to hurt people.” If I were to let myself say or even think “I want to hurt people,” then I’d be acknowledging I was a monster and (this is how people with OCD think) would have to either turn myself into the cops and either be locked up or they would send me home and I would have to lock myself up or else live with a constant, unbearable anxiety that I would lash out and hurt someone at any time.

But what if I hear someone else say it? And I told my friends, “Today I heard someone say, ‘I want to hurt people'”? I would still be saying the words (stealing back power from OCD over that phrase) but I would not be taking ownership of it the same way. I would be coming at it from the side.

And that’s exactly what I had to do. I let myself think, “My OCD is making me think X.”

This was the only way I was able to even approach the intrusive thought that was destroying my life. It wasn’t running at it full-steam-ahead and tackling it. It was sneaking up from the side and tapping it on the shoulder.

But it was enough.

Thank you, Dr. Christopher Donahue, for helping me sneak up on OCD, for helping me be just brave enough to steal back the power I needed to prompt my mind to fix its faulty wiring.

When I finally let go, it wasn’t hell beneath me. It was God’s hand.

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