Being Me with OCD by Alison Dotson

BeingMeWithOCDI first connected with Alison Dotson through the International OCD Foundation blog, where we realized that we were both from Minneapolis and made plans to get coffee.  I can still remember that first in-person meeting at Dunn Bros, one of those lovely times between two obsessive-compulsives finding joy and relief in saying, “Me too, me too!”

Alison’s book– Being Me with OCD— is aimed toward teenagers and young adults, but I think its audience is much wider than that.  It’s incredibly well-written, chock full of helpful information, and– most importantly, I think– it’s like sitting down with a friend.  While reading it, I kept thinking of my first meeting with Alison.  Her comforting, empathetic voice comes through so strongly in the book that you feel like you have a friend, a cheerleader, right beside you.

The book is part-memoir, part self-help, and is sprinkled throughout with personal essays from teens and young adults who offer wonderful insight into a variety of areas.  OCD is a strange beast in that, while it works the same way for most people, it manifests itself differently for each person, and the personal essays help the book touch on areas that haven’t been a part of Alison’s own personal journey with OCD.

I deeply appreciated her approach to medication.  I also loved that she dedicated considerable time discussing exposure and response prevention, even though she never underwent ERP herself.  Alison also spends time talking about overcoming stigma.

All in all, a great book for teens, young adults, or any age!  The best part is finding someone who gets it,
someone brave enough to share, someone on your team.

Read an excerpt. Buy the book on Amazon. Follow Alison’s blog.

Resisting Treatment for a Mental Illness

Consistently, I …
* talk to people with mental illness who resist beginning treatment.
* hear from those who’ve gone through treatment who wish they’d sought help sooner.

I get frustrated with the first group, but then I remind myself that I used to be a long-time, card-carrying member.  My college mentor encouraged me time and time again to just meet with a therapist at my school’s free counseling services center, and I balked and balked and balked.

I wish I hadn’t.

Today, I want to address four of the excuses I hear most often for avoiding treatment along with my best argument against them.

Too much money.
First of all, if you had a life-threatening disease, I can almost guarantee you that you’d find the means to get treatment.  Mental illness are often life-threatening– not always in the sense of imminent death, but they reduce the quality of your life and deserve your reaction to their severity.  There are prescription assistance programs, such as Partnership for Prescription Assistance or Walmart’s $4 prescriptions.  More and more, I am seeing churches starting free or pay-what-you-can counseling sessions with highly-trained lay therapists.  Obsessive-compulsives are able to do self-guided exposure and response prevention therapy from their own homes with helpful and inexpensive books like Stop Obsessing! or Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Too much fear.
I can absolutely relate to this.  Some fear vocalizing their anxieties; some fear they will do so and be told there is no hope (in which case, it feels less scary to stay silent and hold onto the tiny thread that there may be a rescue coming).  Some fear the treatment itself (I can very much understand this, as ERP, the preferred treatment for OCD, is a particularly challenging therapy that exposes obsessive-compulsives to their greatest fears).

Therapy for OCD was one of the scariest things I have ever had to do in my life.  It was awful– but not as awful as daily life with OCD with no end in sight.  Short of a miracle, your mental illness will probably not just go away on its own.  Now is the time to declare war.

Too much pride.
A blog reader told me the other day that he was disconnected from reality, could hardly talk to his wife, and felt like the loneliest person on the planet– though too proud to see a therapist and admit there is something wrong.

This is so hard for me to understand– even though this used to be me!  To me, it’s the equivalent of breaking your arm and then being too proud to get it set in a cast.  What are you too proud of?  That you are invincible?  No one is, and you are fooling yourself if you think you are.  Ignoring a real problem is nothing to be proud of.  It’s like when you realize you took a wrong turn and are headed the wrong way.  It makes far more sense to turn around than to continue on in the same wrong direction.

Too much doubt.
I have a friend whose life is crumbling right now, yet he refuses to get help because he doesn’t think therapy works.  I want to shake him a little and say, “Look around you– what you are doing right now doesn’t work!”  I know how easy it is to get trapped by indecision and by the feeling that no direction is a good one (that’s why I took one year off from my medication search), but in the end, you’re probably going to have to take some sort of step toward healing.  Even if you take teensy-tiny baby-steps, that’s okay.  Find a trusted friend and work out the best baby-step possible.

I know it is an expensive, scary, humbling, and doubtful enterprise– but please, please keep reaching out for help.

choice

Will Treatment Change Me?

I recently had coffee with a lovely young college graduate, a writer who has been dealing with intense anxiety, anxiety that has latched onto her faith and forced her into a position of crisis.  We talked about medication and therapy, about how there is nothing to be ashamed of, about how even scripture can be twisted and used against us.

Then she said, “The way my mind goes so quickly?  That’s why I think I can write.  I’m scared that if I start taking medication, I’ll lose that.”

That’s a fear I could definitely relate to!

I told her, “I think just as quickly now as I did before treatment– only now, it’s productive.  Before, my brain was spinning its wheels.  I was thinking in circles, thinking all the time but never really getting anywhere.  Now I can think productively.  I can focus on things that are important.

“I still think deeply– in fact, more deeply in some areas, since I’m no longer terrified of thoughts.”

So, did treatment change me?

Yes, but for the better.

arms

Christian Culture’s (Sad) Response to Mental Illness

It’s in the Title: Mental Illness is an Illness

Salads and sandwiches and a shared mental illness, all of it on the tiny table between us.

“There is help for OCD,” I told her.  “The most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Between that and my medication, I got my life back.  I know you can too.”  (The evangelical zeal I have for this particular therapy reminds me of the way I love Jesus: both took me from darkness into light, both make me want to throw parades in their honor.)

“Oh, I don’t know,” said my friend, poking at her salad with a fork, sounding hesitant.  “I think before I take any extreme methods, I want to just pray about it more.  I know that God can bring me through this.”

I wanted to say, But you have been praying about this for years!  I also believe God can bring you through this—and I am telling you how.

There is a pervasive and unhealthy attitude in the Christian culture toward mental illness.  Many believe that one should be able to “pray away” a disorder.  Some think that mental illness is, quite simply, spiritual warfare; some think it’s the result of unresolved sin issues.  One of my friends has said before that a real Christian can’t be clinically depressed.  I saw a Facebook status once that read, “Depression is a choice.”

These sentiments light a fire in me, especially for the way that they marginalize a group of people that are often already more susceptible to guilt.  I know that in my OCD hey-day, I felt continual guilt and severe shame; for someone to intimate to me that these feelings were the appropriate ones would only mean that my Christian brothers and sisters were siding with my disorder—and against me.

Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. 

friendsGod and Satan can work through them just the same way as they could through, say, cancer or diabetes.  All issues are spiritual issues, simply because we are spiritual beings, but it is not helpful to label a chemical issue with a giant term like spiritual warfare.  To say that a Christian cannot be depressed is like saying a real Christian can’t get the flu.  To say that depression is a choice is like saying strep throat is a choice.

If you break a bone, do you get it set in a cast?  If you learn you’re diabetic, do you take insulin?  If cancer steps into your body, do you pursue chemotherapy?

The answer is usually yes.  Yes—and pray.  (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for prayer!  And for medical innovation!)

That is why I am unashamed of my OCD, my depression.  Instead, I am proud of my God for seeing me through a therapy as difficult as CBT and for being my strength through five years of side effects in the search for the right medication.

Unfortunately, my friend left the sandwich shop that evening feeling obligated to “pray away” a spiritual flaw instead of feeling empowered to fight illness, in spite of my best efforts.  My voice is being drowned out by the multitude of louder voices of the Christian culture, a culture that should be supporting this demographic, not alienating it.

Do I have OCD?

Before my diagnosis and, hence, before I’d done a lot of personal research on obsessive compulsive disorder, I thought of OCD as “that disorder where you wash your hands a lot” or “the one where people tap the doorknobs” or “when you’re a really big neat freak.”  In some ways, my diagnosis was a surprise to me because I didn’t do any of those things.  But on the other hand, just the term obsessive sounded so much like my situation that I was willing to listen.

Maybe a year or so into my original search for medication (I ended up taking a year-long hiatus from the search after Luvox stole all my energy), I suddenly started worrying (or maybe even obsessing) that what I had wasn’t really OCD.  I seem to talk to a fair amount of obsessive-compulsives who also reach this point, worrying that maybe someone has plastered a name on them that is incorrect.  The interesting thing about this is that the OC usually feels guilty about it– as if they are receiving compassion and medical advice and help from friends and family for nothing, or what they are worried is nothing.

Interestingly, such a huge worry and incredible guilt only point to OCD all the more.

The more I have learned about OCD, the easier it is for me to see it in others.  Though I am by no means a doctor, I now believe that OCD is pretty easy to diagnose.

birdcage2

 

It’s all in the name.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

 

1) Do you have obsessions?  Basically, do you have intrusive thoughts that you find ugly or disturbing but that you can’t seem to stop thinking about?  Common themes center around questioning your sexual orientation or if you really love your significant other, thoughts about harming yourself or others (even children), blasphemous or sinful thoughts, worries that you or people you love are going to die, sexual obsessions, intense fears about contracting a disease.  Ask yourself, do I have intrusive thoughts that cause me serious anxiety?

2) Do you have compulsions? The answer to this question might not come as easily, but what it is really asking is this: when I have those intrusive, anxiety-causing thoughts, what do I do to attempt to relieve that anxiety?  Maybe your fears about germs cause you to wash your hands, making you temporarily feel a bit of relief about that possibility.  Maybe your fear about harming a child means that you won’t allow yourself to hold your baby girl.  Maybe it even means that you avoid driving down the street where a lot of children play.  If you have blasphemous thoughts, perhaps you repeatedly ask God for forgiveness or you’ll ask other people if you think that means you are now going to hell.  Sometimes compulsions seem a little “magical” too– for example, you relieve the anxiety caused by your intrusive thought by tapping your foot a certain number of times or by avoiding stepping on cracks.  Even if it doesn’t logically make sense, it’s still something providing you some temporary relief.  Seeking reassurance is a huge compulsion for a lot of different kinds of obsessions: we glimpse relief when friends reassure us, No, you’re not gay.  No, you’re not going to get sick.  No, you would never hurt a child.  No, you’re not going to hell for that.

There is a third question to ask too, although this one may or may not be reached immediately, which is
3) Have your compulsions gotten out of control?
Most obsessive-compulsives reach a stage where the compulsions (that began as an anxiety-reliever) become too much and begin to add to the anxiety: you can’t stop washing your hands, you ask for reassurance so constantly that your friends are annoyed, you are driving a long way out of your way to avoid the street with children, you are tapping doorknobs and counting and repeating phrases in your head to the point that you’re starting to look a little silly.

Like I said, I’m no doctor, but when I talk to someone who wonders if they have OCD, these are the three simple questions I ask.  If you can answer yes to the first two, then you have OCD.  

So, what next?
1. Get an official diagnosis from someone who went to school for it. 🙂
2. Skip the talk therapy and go right for cognitive-behavioral therapy.  This is treatable.

 

 

obsessive-compulsive since age seven

My OCD struck at age seven.  Strep-throat-gone-to-hell and all of the sudden curse words were running through my head as if I were some foul-mouthed sailor, when the truth of the matter was that I was a shy (Yes, really!  Hard to believe now!) girl from a conservative home, who would have never DARED to utter those phrases outloud.

I began to worry that I would lie if I gave my opinion, so for a while, my answer to everything was “I don’t know.”  Favorite color?

I don’t know.

Did I like my teacher?

I don’t know.

Should we do this or that?

I don’t know.

Ridiculous.

I have this image in my head of running to find my mom under the clothesline, smacking my fist against my forehead, and confessing.  My poor mom.

I wish we’d known then.  It would be another fifteen years before my OCD would even be named, but I’ve wondered what life would have been like had we caught it back in the summer of 1989.  Drat you, internet, for coming along too late!

Every once in a while I google things like “my daughter is attacked by bad thoughts” or “my daughter has bad thoughts” or “my daughter keeps confessing” to see how quickly the trail leads to OCD.

My heart breaks for the obsessive-compulsive children out there, wild minds racing, hearts terrified, robbed of childhood.

Parents can look for the following possible signs of OCD:

  • repetitive confession
  • constantly seeking reassurance
  • raw, chapped hands from constant washing
  • unusually high rate of soap or paper towel usage
  • high, unexplained utility bills
  • a sudden drop in test grades
  • unproductive hours spent doing homework
  • holes erased through test papers and homework
  • requests for family members to repeat strange phrases or keep answering the same question
  • a persistent fear of illness
  • a dramatic increase in laundry
  • an exceptionally long amount of time spent getting ready for bed
  • a continual fear that something terrible will happen to someone
  • constant checks of the health of family members
  • reluctance to leave the house at the same time as other family members

I waited fifteen years to be diagnosed.  Just take your kiddo to the psychiatrist.*

*I’m not mad at you, Momma. 🙂  How could we have known?  You’re my favorite.

same secrets

“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell.  They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.” Frederick Buechner

While I think this quote is universally true, right now I’m thinking specifically in the context of obsessive-compulsives.

Alone, we imagine that no one else could think the horrible things we do.

But when we are in community, we realize that our secrets are pretty much all the same.  I know that’s it’s not necessarily an abracadabra moment, but when you start realizing that other people share your secrets, you feel less like a monster and more like the victim of an ugly disorder.  In other words, you start seeing the TRUTH.

The TRUTH is…

You are not the only one who imagines harming a child.

You are not the only one with excessive concerns about contamination.

You are not the only one who fears you’ve done or thought something blasphemous.

You are not the only one who fears you might be homosexual.

You are not the only one who needs symmetry.

You are not the only one with counting compulsions, who makes lists excessively, who feels a NEED to confess, who is driven to accumulate useless things, who counts, who has unwanted sexual thoughts, who needs to check “one last time” a hundred times.

You’re not a freak– you’re just a textbook case of OCD.  One amongst an entire community of people whose lives have been affected by this thief.  I love the online OCD blogging community– I love that people are sharing their secrets and learning that all our secrets are pretty much the same.

 

diagnosis

Eve Ensler writes, “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things. Language has the capacity to transform our cells, rearrange our learned patterns of behavior and redirect our thinking. I believe in naming what’s right in front of us because that is often what is most invisible. I believe freedom begins with naming things. Humanity is preserved by it.”

And I agree.

To me, naming an enemy steals away some of that enemy’s power, and that is why I believe diagnosis is so important.

For years, I didn’t know what was wrong with me– only that I thought and worried more than anyone I knew– enough to think myself into panicked circles from which escape was nearly impossible. I couldn’t see this behavior in any of my friends, this dizzying chasing-of-my-own-tail beginning the moment I woke up. I was the odd man out, always stressed to the max, always teetering on the edge of something HUGE– heresy, atheism, a change in direction or pursuit, a redefining of my entire worldview.

But how can you fight against an invisible enemy? Since you can’t see the enemy standing between you and the mirror, instead you see yourself and the fight becomes personal. All the while, the real culprit is standing right there … only it is unnamed.

And then, the diagnosis arrives. OCD is named. There is a transfer of power, even if only minute. And the real war begins.

Anonymous, you feasted on me like a silent maggot,
until I was weary of the ugly business of waking up.
You fed on my tears, licking the salt off of
your fingertips in a greedy appetite for sorrow that
backed me into a boxy corner of paranoia
where I first learned your name.
My move.