Healing This Way

I’ve heard from several people that healing and recovery have not looked or felt the way they had imagined.  I know this was true for me too. This is a poem I wrote about the dissonance:

dull dime smallerHEALING THIS WAY

seems so vague and transient and distracted,
as if you could catch it chewing its nails
or sitting exhausted on the winner’s podium,
weary legs dangling before the number one.
Where is the magical trip across a definitive line,
the diploma, signed and dated and official,
the raw victory cry from the top of a mountain?
I had always dreamed that rescue would be shiny,
but a dull dime is still worth ten cents.

 

For (lots!) more about OCD and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

 

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

OCD & Faith (or Lack Thereof): a Double Interview

faithI am so blessed to help lead OCD Twin Cities with Alison Dotson, a strong OCD awareness advocate and the author of Being Me with OCD, written for young people struggling with the disorder. Alison is brilliant, fun, a great friend, and a total sweetheart. She and I have been wanting to do something collaborative for a while now, and I’m so excited to be hosting her on my blog today.

Alison and I have both dealt with religious scrupulosity. While many of our struggles were the same (and in some places our stories quite similar), our roads eventually diverged. While Alison gave up her Christian faith and is now an agnostic, my faith has grown stronger.

Today, Alison and I will each answer several questions about OCD and faith– I hope that it will give readers a balanced view.

Did you grow up in a faith-based home and/or community?

Alison: Yes, I was raised Lutheran. We went to an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) church. “Evangelical” in the name throws me off a bit because we really weren’t about evangelizing. My pastors always stressed the idea of God’s grace, and I don’t remember even one sermon about sharing the “good news” with others; at least it wasn’t ever pushed in any organized way.

My family went to church every Sunday, without fail. I wasn’t allowed to stay overnight at friends’ houses on Saturday nights, or have friends stay at our house, because we had to get up for church in the morning. I went to Sunday School. I went to Wednesday School, which is a program we’d get out of school early for and meet at church. I went through First Communion, and as an eighth and ninth grader I went through Confirmation. I belonged to youth groups and sometimes attended a Bible study. One of my cousins was very devoted to her religion; as a Jehovah’s Witness she attended “meeting,” or church, three times a week. All of her friends were from her congregation, not her school. I thought that seemed really cool and I wanted to become more involved in my religious community, too.

At one point I decided I should read the Bible front to back, and I set a goal, something like 10 pages a night. One night I fell behind on my goal, which meant the next night I needed to do more than usual to catch up. I became overwhelmed, which in hindsight seems a little like an OCD symptom, and just stopped somewhere in Exodus.

I became very devoted to my faith and strived to be the best Christian I could be. I really wanted to be perfect and follow the Bible to a T, even though there are contradictions within the Bible that make that impossible! But I was very careful to follow the Ten Commandments. I think the hardest commandment for me to follow as a teenager was honoring my father and mother.

I didn’t just follow the Bible’s teachings; I subscribed to materials for young people, like weekly devotionals. My mom actually thought those reading materials were too conservative and expected too much of me. There was a lot of focus on remaining sexually pure, and the expectation that even my thoughts should be chaste was hard for me to deal with. I began to feel like I had to ask for forgiveness a lot, simply because of my normal teenage thoughts.

Jackie: Yes, I grew up in a Christian home, attended church each week. My parents were very clear that what they wanted most out of life was for their kids to love Jesus. All growing up, Christianity was a very strong theme throughout my life. I could clearly see how much God mattered to my parents, and I think the importance placed on faith is what triggered my OCD to react in themes regarding it (religious scrupulosity). Like Alison, I remember my upbringing advocating strongly for purity as well as good behavior (obedience to parents, not swearing, not lying, etc.), but also for really, truly loving God and knowing him personally. I’ll explain my obsessions in the next question, but I went through a lot of turmoil before my faith became my own at age 14.

Tell us about the onset of your OCD.

Alison: Gosh, when did it start? When I was diagnosed at age 26 I started to retrace my steps, if you will. I remember having what seemed to be OCD symptoms when I was as young as seven years old. As a child I mostly obsessed about my own health and safety. I feared I had cancer, or would be caught in a fire but survive with horrific burns. In middle school I had HOCD, which was particularly hard because I thought being gay was a sin. And I didn’t think I’d be redeemed by simply not acting on the obsessions; I thought God must be really upset with me for even doubting my sexuality. It was torture, complete torture. I figured no one else my age was going through something like that. It affected everything. I had to stop reading, which I loved, and watching TV was hard. I didn’t want to spend time with friends, because what if I had a “bad” thought about them?

This continued off and on in high school, along with other somewhat related obsessions. Many of my obsessions had to do with my body; I didn’t know how young women were “supposed” to look and I feared I might be distorted. I’d look at pictures of myself with my friends and pick them apart, thinking my friends looked so perfect and normal.

Jackie: My obsessions started when I was about seven years old– and they were centered around two of the big no-nos: lying and profanity. I would think of curse words in my head and feel so guilty that I’d have to go confess. I was also terrified of lying, so much so that I wouldn’t give answers to questions of preference, just in case my answer would later change. I thought that would have been the same as lying, and I knew that was bad and sinful. Everything centered around the idea of avoiding sin.

When I was a little older (5th grade), I wondered how I could love a God I couldn’t physically see. I figured this was sinful– to not love God– and I was very ashamed of these thoughts and so I needlessly suffered alone for three years. They were hard years, during a time of life that should not have been hard. I was so ashamed and tormented by this doubt that maybe I didn’t love God that I didn’t tell anyone about my doubts. I cried almost every single day for three years. Finally, when the shame and fear were too much for me to handle, I talked to my mom about it, and she was able to “reason things out” with me. I remember being so overjoyed and lighthearted after that conversation. I loved God. I became a Christian then at age 14 and was baptized at my church.

Soon after that, in 9th grade, I had the thought that maybe God wasn’t real, and again, this was accompanied by a lot of fear. Deep down, I really did believe God was real– and so if I was acting like I didn’t think he was, I was afraid I’d go to hell. It’s hard to explain the next 3-4 years of my life because I think most people entertain those thoughts. But for me, it was like a constant fear, a continual sadness, an obsessive dog-chasing-its-tail sort of rumination that was exhausting.

Later, in college, I worried about the unforgivable sin– worried that I had committed it and would be eternally locked out of heaven. By this point, I loved God and believed he was real, and so it was torture to feel so separated from him. This obsession was my OCD’s crowning glory and plagued me all the way up until I got effective treatment for my OCD.

How did your OCD interact or interfere with your faith?

Alison: Later in high school, probably in my senior year, I started to doubt my faith. I have a very distinct memory of standing in the shower and thinking about people in remote African villages who had never heard of Jesus. I wondered if they were destined for hell just because they weren’t born somewhere like America, and I started to cry. It seemed very unfair, and I really hated the idea. But it was the doubt that had entered my mind that took the biggest toll: I had been led to believe that the only way to heaven was through Jesus Christ, and if you didn’t believe in him and accept him, you would go to hell. Now, there are several things I could say about this (surely there’s an exception for someone in Africa who’s never even heard of Jesus), but at the time it hit me like a ton of bricks that I had just questioned God. I had just doubted my belief.

From there life became torture again, like it had been when I was really struggling with HOCD. This time, though, it was worse. This time the consequences could be far more dire: I could go to hell for my thoughts. I’d heard somewhere that the only unforgivable sin was rejecting the Holy Spirit. So of course that’s all I could think about, day and night. I tried to ward off any blasphemous thoughts, and anyone with OCD knows that’s the exact opposite of what we should do! Anytime a doubt crept in, I prayed for forgiveness. I didn’t want to go to hell. An eternity of torture because I couldn’t stop thoughts I didn’t want there in the first place.

I went to a private Lutheran college. We were required to take a class on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. One of my classmates was an atheist who openly questioned everything the professor talked about. She voiced my doubts, and I despised her. I attached my tiny baptism cross to a bracelet, and during class I’d rub my thumb over it, pinching it when this classmate spoke up. I felt that I needed it to get me through life; I wanted a constant reminder of Jesus.

Then one day the cross fell off. It could have happened anywhere on campus; I didn’t know where to begin looking. And this was tiny, made for an infant. It was lost, gone forever. What a sign.

I threw myself into my faith, deciding I would just believe everything the Bible said, even the contradictory stuff. I couldn’t cherry-pick what I wanted to believe just because it sounded nice. I read passages in which Jesus said he was the way, the truth, the light. The only way to God was through him. And I hated that because I had begun to have so many doubts about who Jesus really was, and one of my best friends was agnostic.

I wanted to die, but I was afraid of where I’d end up. I imagined leaving civilization, moving to an island or a mountain, where I could be alone with God. I know now that would have driven me mad. One day I went to the new version of Psycho with a friend, and all I could think about was how the man and woman at the beginning of the movie were going to hell because they’d had premarital sex and clearly didn’t think it was wrong.

There were moments of clarity, moments when I felt God’s grace and thought everything would be okay. I cried a lot, and prayed—a lot. I would go to church with friends only to have an unending stream of doubts and fears play through my head. I continued to go to church on Sundays and communion on campus on Wednesday nights, but I no longer believed what I was hearing there, as much as I wanted to, as much as I wanted to go back to a childlike faith. All through college I struggled, desperately grasping at threads of faith and denouncing every doubt. I wouldn’t let myself question God, even though it’s normal to do so!

After four years of religious obsessions, I was exhausted. I’d held on for so long, and tried so hard. In the end I had nothing left, no shred of faith. When I graduated and moved away I decided I was done with religion. I would never go to church again, and there were no Christian classmates around to question it. I didn’t tell friends or family members what was going on; I simply refused invitations to church. I felt a huge relief when I made that decision, like I could finally breathe again. At the time I didn’t realize I had OCD, and I didn’t know I wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding my fears. I may have sworn off church, but there would be more obsessions to come.

Jackie: All I wanted was Jesus– and I “knew” that I could not have him because of my sinful, obsessive thoughts. To be clear, the more I grew to love Jesus Christ, the more I feared hell just because it was a separation from him— not because, well, it was hell. Everything in my life had become centered around the person of Jesus Christ, and I was desperate to be accepted by him. So many of my friends and family members reassured me over and over again that I was saved, that God loved me, but I could not believe it. I became very, very depressed and at times even wanted to die– except that, of course, I was worried that that would mean hell for me.

How did you treat your OCD and did that have an impact on your faith?

Alison: I saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me. I take medication, and in the beginning I read everything I could get my hands on so I felt less alone in my journey. My treatment didn’t have an impact on my faith because by the time I was diagnosed I hadn’t been to church for five years or so, and I had grown comfortable in being agnostic, at least privately. I didn’t tell anyone, really, except people who’d never known me as a religious person.

Jackie: I finally was put on the proper medication but even more importantly I underwent exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. I was terrified of ERP and what it was asking me to do. I felt confident that if I wasn’t already hell-bound that ERP would seal the deal. I had great friends and family who helped me through those 12 weeks, and there was a part of me that sort of knew that ERP was my last hope, so I pushed through– and found freedom on the other side.

Walk us through changes in your spiritual journey, including where you’re at currently (in regard to faith).  Were these changes connected to your OCD?

Alison: I’m happily agnostic. I actually don’t know if I would have ended up here even if I didn’t have OCD, but OCD did speed up the process. If I didn’t have the type of brain that makes me overreact to doubt, I may still be Christian. But I simply could not handle my own questions, and every doubt spurred another and another. I think I had very common doubts about Christianity, but OCD magnified them. They’re pretty reasonable, and if I had had them in a different state of mind I might still have ended up agnostic eventually. But I also had obsessions I still can’t talk about, involving Jesus. I was so inundated with ungodly thoughts I didn’t think I could ever get back to where I had been. The possible repercussions of having such thoughts (i.e., hell) terrified me so much I couldn’t handle thinking about religion anymore. Even though I know OCD is to blame for what happened to me, I can’t help but feel resentful toward religious leaders as well. Being told that even thoughts are sinful was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, because I have OCD. I was a very obedient child, and I still do follow rules and strive to treat people as I’d like to be treated. None of that mattered, though, because my thoughts were so terrible. They made everything feel so pointless; I was doomed because of them, and I couldn’t stop them. Just a terrible cycle.

Jackie: I’m a Christian and I love Jesus Christ more and more every single day. I absolutely abhor OCD, but one thing it did was make my priorities painfully clear to me: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Now that the chains of OCD are broken, I can actually focus on Christ and on my faith, instead of on fear and anxiety connected to my faith. I have an incredible freedom in Christ and am so grateful for the way that he never gave up on me.

Anything else you’d like to add in regard to faith and OCD?

Alison: I couldn’t have overcome OCD if I hadn’t been able to embrace doubt. At the time, when I decided to simply stop thinking about religion and to stop attending church, I didn’t know I had OCD and wasn’t treating it properly. But now I know that OCD is a disorder of doubt and that I can’t get through my days without saying, “I can’t control what will happen, and worry changes nothing.” I had to embrace the idea that I can’t possibly know what God really wants. I will never know, in this lifetime, what happens after we die, if Jesus really rose from the dead, if there is any “right” religion. I’ve made peace with those doubts right along with all the others; I had to in order to live my life relatively obsession-free.

Jackie: I agree with what Alison said: I had to embrace doubt in order to defeat my OCD. I had to say to myself, “Maybe God isn’t real” or “Maybe you actually will go to hell,” and in those acknowledgements came freedom. I know it sounds backward. I would have never believed that it could work except that it does, and ERP has opened OCD prison doors for people left and right. Even today, I am comfortable with saying, “I don’t know everything regarding my faith, and that’s okay.” I don’t have to know everything with 100% certainty. That’s where faith comes in!

For more about OCD and religious scrupulosity, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD

Image credit: Joe Wolf

THINGS WILL NEVER BE OKAY AGAIN [& other lies I sometimes still believe]

It’s been about five years now since I underwent the Exposure and Response Prevention therapy that changed my whole life, and those five years have been amazing: I have so much freedom, so much joy.

But 20 years in slavery to OCD does leave behind some residue, and I’m only now beginning to recognize those areas of my life where that’s true.

One thing that I’m sure most OCD sufferers will understand is the obsessive thought that things will never be okay again, which sometimes has a tail of until I do X on it, so often resulting in a compulsion. It’s actually kind of hard to explain this feeling to someone who doesn’t have OCD because it’s difficult to express how in that moment, you can sometimes see no way out. The fear is crippling, the anxiety so intense that we shatter beneath it and either cave in to a compulsion to temporarily alleviate the ugliness of that moment or else fall into a stupor of depression.

Things will always be like this.
I will never feel comfortable again.
I’m going to always think of X now when Y happens.

It’s such a black and white way to look at things– and so terribly short-sighted! If we can learn to push through the discomfort without performing a compulsion, we are legitimately shocked on the other side when that “truth” we so adamantly believed 24 hours ago is no longer true.

Even though OCD is no longer my master, there is fallout from years stacked upon years of thinking this way. 

Just the other week when I was writing in Duluth, I saw myself play through this entire scenario. I got frustrated with a scene I was trying to re-write, and I decided, I absolutely cannot do this; I will never be able to do this right. Then I succumbed to compulsive behavior (all without realizing it!) by emailing my editor and asking for more details. The next morning, I had an email from her: “Let’s talk this morning. We can find a solution. You should be comfortable and happy with what you write.”

And so we sent back and forth a few emails, and things were better.  You know, those same things that would never be better. Yeah, those ones.

All this panic that I have been experiencing is because I feel like control is being taken away from me. What does a person with OCD hate the most? Uncertainty.

So, while in some ways this anxiety that I’ve been experiencing is quite different from my OCD (in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is not OCD; it does feel different), I guess I’d have to classify it as a repercussion or consequence of years of obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior.

Now that I have recognized that, I am hopeful that I will be more mindful of that thinking. I want to be able to say to myself that my reaction is programmed behavior from years of reacting thus, and that– just like so many things connected to OCD– it too is a lie.

For (lots!) more about OCD and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

not ok but it's ok

Image credit: unknown

A War in the Mind

war in my mindI remember the Sunday mornings in church when my mind was a war zone.

An intrusive thought would show itself, and with my Pure-O compulsions, I’d mentally bat it down (usually with repetitive prayer).  I was a ninja with my compulsion moves, but OCD was just as fast and furious.  Back and forth, back and forth, like a relentless game of Whac-a-Mole.

And no one knew.

All these happy people around me, worshiping God, taking in the sermon, happy and safe in their suburban church sanctuary– and, for me, it was a battle field.

Pure-O: so invisible, so dark, so exhausting.

I praise God that those days are a part of my past.  If you want to learn how I survived (and WON) this war, click here.  Your mind doesn’t have to be a scary place.

For (lots!) more about OCD and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Image credit: unknown.

A Big Ol’ HOCD Post

I’ve posted several times on this blog about HOCD (homosexual OCD– when OCD causes someone to question his or her sexual identity), and the statistics don’t lie: it is one of the biggest reasons that people end up on my blog.

HOCD stats

Anecdotally, most of the emails I receive from my fellow OCD sufferers are from those who are battling HOCD.  I had an inkling that HOCD was far more common than most people would imagine, but ever since I started talking openly about it on my blog, I’m more convinced than ever.

Many of the people I talk with have a very similar story: they have never questioned their sexual orientation before X happened, now it is all they can think about, they are constantly “testing” themselves to see if their sexual attraction has now changed.  Many already have a history of OCD, though perhaps it’s never broached their sexuality before now.  Some– though never having had this problem before– cannot seem to generate any attraction to the gender they have always been drawn to, while they are suddenly feeling attraction (and even bodily responses) to the gender they have never entertained liking before.  They are scared, confused, exhausted.  Their minds are going wild.  Some are single and feeling grief that their futures “must” now look different than they’d always dreamed.  Some are dating or married and terrified to tell their partner about the fears and obsessing they’ve been experiencing.  Some of them say they would rather die or be alone forever than to be gay (if they are really straight) or straight (if they are really gay).  That’s intense, folks.

(Please note that I am avoiding using specific terms because HOCD affects both straight and gay people.  I’m trying to keep my post very generic so that I don’t write just to the straight crowd.)

But I get it.  Our sexuality and sexual preferences are so core to our identities, and when OCD causes us to question them, it is an intense experience.  It’s torture.  Hellish.  Exhausting.

I’m sorry.

The good news is that you’re not alone.  Not even close.  There are so many others who are struggling with this– and there are sufferers who have come out on the other side.

Here’s the truth:

* You have an illness.  It’s OCD and it will attack whatever is most important to you.
* You need to treat your illness.  The best treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
* ERP therapy treats OCD, not just HOCD– this is important because, if you were to somehow get rid of your HOCD obsessions and compulsions, it is incredibly likely that OCD would just move on to a new theme– often a bigger, harder, scarier one.
* For some people with HOCD, the most intense anxiety is caused over not knowing their sexual orientation.  My friends who are gay tell me that their anxiety was not around not knowing, but more around logistics of coming out and how they’d be received. **I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this, gay, straight, bisexual, or HOCD sufferer.***
* Many do anything to avoid ERP because they are scared of what ERP will reveal about themselves.  Bad idea.  OCD is your cancer; don’t put off ERP, your chemo.  ERP is recognized worldwide as the best treatment for OCD.  In other words, I’m not just advocating some hokey, weird techniques.
* Are there other ways to treat HOCD? You can try medication (probably an SSRI) or hope for a miracle.  Your (much) better option is to proactively commit yourself to ERP therapy.
* I highly recommend finding an ERP specialist to guide you through your therapy.  If you meet with a therapist who does not mention “exposures” as a part of your therapy, find a new therapist.
* You can do ERP therapy on your own, if needed, but you should get a book to guide you through it, such as Stop Obsessing by Edna Foa or Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by Jonathan Grayson.
* I am not an ERP therapist.  I cannot be your therapist.  I can be your cheerleader.

I’m sure you’re so ready to have your life back– to be in control of your own thoughts again.  Your path is clear!  I’m so excited for you!

For more about HOCD, OCD, and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

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.

OCD in Remission: Eyes on OCD or Eyes on the Journey?

I recently received a fascinating email from a young woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who posed a question that made me stop and think.

I would love it if you could offer me your take on this: is it better to keep my eyes on my feet (IE journey), or is it a good idea to keep an eye on my OCD?

Essentially, she was asking if it was smarter to keep an eye on the illness (knowing that OCD is never cured, only managed) or if it was better to ignore OCD while she could and just enjoy the journey.

periphery2Here’s what I said:

Such a good, thought-provoking question.  I imagine that the answer might be different from person to person, but as for me, I think the answer is a little bit of both.
 
My OCD has been in remission since ERP five years ago.  These days, I don’t pay a terrible amount of attention to my OCD because it’s no longer intruding on my life on a regular basis.  That said, if I have an off day, OCD is the first thing I “check”– did I take my meds, am I having intrusive thoughts and need to practice some exposures again, etc.?
 
I think it’s BEST to keep your eyes on the journey.  But you still have peripheral vision. 🙂

For more about the ERP therapy that set me free, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Image credit: toxicbarbie13

Obsessing vs. Brainstorming

I’ve had a very, very active brain for pretty much my entire life.  I’m the girl people always described as “the one who thinks too much.”  I have thoughts and ideas rush me like little hurricanes, and this is just as true after ERP therapy as it was before.

But there’s a huge difference too: productivity.

Before ERP, my thoughts were often OCD-induced intrusive thoughts that led me down dark avenues over and over again.  My thinking was circular, and I could re-visit the same ideas an uncountable number of times each day.  I was a hamster on a treadmill or a dog chasing its tail– that is, expending a lot of energy but going nowhere.

After ERP, my thoughts are much more welcome to me.  I can choose to focus on the ones I want.  I may still be lying awake at night, but it’s productive, and I end up jotting tons of notes and ideas down in my phone.  I start in one place, but an hour later, I’ve traveled some distance and often have huge realizations about my fictional characters and storylines.

Believe me, the latter is much more fulfilling.

 

For more about the ERP therapy that set me free, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

I'm SO over this.

I’m SO over this.

Obsessive-Compulsives are Brave.

bebraveSometimes I think we OCs view ourselves as the antithesis of bravery because we experience so much anxiety, so much fear … and often over things that no one else seems to be struggling with.

But here’s the thing: we do it.  We battle this anxiety every. single. day.  

We get up.  We go to work and school.  We battle our way through days and nights like warriors.  People who don’t have OCD can rarely understand the terror that we stare in the eye every day.

And, most importantly, we seek out treatment– and that is the bravest thing of all.

 

For more about the ERP therapy that set me free, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Image credit: Kelli Murray