Question & Dancer: OCD & Family, Romanticizing Mental Illness, and What to Expect in OCD Remission

question-and-dancerI’m an artist not an expert, one who is learning to embrace questions more than answers.

These are some questions I got last month. Ask yours here.

How do you explain OCD to your family? Especially when you’re not sure whether or not your family has mental illness?

First I’ll say that I think that it’s up to each individual to determine whether or not they’d like to share– and how much. With OCD, many of our obsessions are taboo, which– quite honestly– makes the idea of sharing seem terrifying. I hear from a lot of younger sufferers too, who are under their parents’ roof and parents’ health insurance, which complicates treatment.

I heard from so many teens with HOCD that I wrote this post in 2015 so that they could share it with their parents and not have to say a word themselves. I’d be happy to write a general OCD one, if you guys think that would help.

As for me? I gave my mother a copy of Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser– a copy in which I had underlined all the quotes that resonated with me. At that time, it was the best I could do to explain what I was experiencing. These days, I’m more articulate– but I have lived for longer with my diagnosis, been through treatment, and come out shame-free. I know many aren’t there yet.

Is HOCD a physical illness as well as mental?

Briefly, yes.

Hi, does OCD make you want to confess something even when it’s not true?

I have Pure-O, and confession was one of my biggest compulsions. I would confess to bad thoughts, things I thought might be sinful, anything that my OCD took and throttled me with. And yes, sometimes those were things that I didn’t even need to apologize for. But the anxiety would grow so intense that the only “release” was to confess. I got a lot of weird looks in those days.

Here is the thing: if you (like most people with OCD) can understand when you’re thinking or doing something off (you know it is not quite logical, even if you have created a weird sort of logic for it; or if you know it is something that the general public would not care about or confess), then don’t. This is fighting back against your OCD with the tools of exposure therapy. It will, for a time, feel like the anxiety will go so high that things will never be okay again, but that is the lie of OCD. The anxiety will diminish, and you will be okay. Stay in the cold pool long enough to adjust, and eventually the water will not feel cold anymore. But this can only happen by staying in the pool.

I read your post about OCD and creativity. Could those two ideas be linked to intelligence?

Great question. You’re likely referring either to this post or to this one.

Research has shown that high IQ is correlated with anxiety. Anecdotally, many people with OCD are also very creative (did you know popular YA authors John Green and Maggie Stiefvater both have OCD, along with unpopular YA author Jackie Lea Sommers? ;-))

HOWEVER, OCD is not something to be embraced. I know that in the past, I thought if I didn’t have OCD, I wouldn’t be as funny or quirky or creative. John Green, in a talk I once heard, shared that he also had that false understanding for a time– that his OCD was what fueled his creativity. He’s written about that here. Please read it; it’s very good.

The point is that– whether or not there is a link between OCD (bad, awful thing) and creativity and/or intelligence (good, excellent things)– we need to be careful not to romanticize mental illness or to give props to it. If you are smart or intelligent, kudos go to you, not to the disorder.

I treated my OCD in 2008, and now I am more creative, more me, more productive, more intelligent. So it wasn’t OCD that made me what I am at all. In fact, OCD was holding me back. Don’t romanticize mental illness. Treat it.

Hi…this is a weird question, but I’m worried ERP won’t work on one of my particular obsessions. I made some account on a website and now feel the compulsive urge to delete it because maybe I don’t like the username and it’s “contaminated.” But at the same time, I don’t want to delete it because I’ve invested some time into building it up (it’s a writing website, more articles you write higher rating you get)…but I’m worried if I don’t delete it, this anxious feeling will never go away!

That is a lie: the anxious feeling will go away … and possibly sooner than you’d think. ERP works great for situations such as these. You can do this.

With OCD, can it be possible that you don’t know the difference between what thoughts are even yours anymore or the OCD’s?

That is possible– and sometimes happens to me when I’m in sort of a manic state.

Most often, I can tell the difference. I know that one thing feels a bit ridiculous. And this is a hallmark of OCD (except in very young children): that people with OCD usually have some understanding that what they are obsessing about is not something that most people would worry over.

My ERP therapist taught me to look at these things through the lens of the “community standard.” That is, how would most people react in this situation? Because if my reaction is way off from that, then for ERP, I need to go with the community standard instead, even if it’s scary or hard.

When I am in the throes of an obsession, I sometimes can’t tell what the community standard is. I have literally sat down my friends or coworkers, explained the situation, asked for the standard response, and then BELIEVED IT and DONE IT, no matter how difficult. Because this too is part of exposure therapy, the very best treatment for OCD. (If you’re not familiar, you can read up on ERP at http://www.jackieleasommers.com/OCD.)

I have thoughts about death and how we will all disappear after this…and if life is meaningless or not I’m diagnosed with OCD and i had HOCD , harm ocd , etc… Is that a new theme or is that something new ?

This sounds like an existential theme of your diagnosed OCD. This was a huge part of my own experience, and what my first novel is about! See http://www.jackieleasommers.com/truest.

With your OCD, do you ever feel that you’re wearing a mask everyday?

Not anymore– but before, YES YES YES.

I used to talk about this with high school students in the midwest, and I would read this poem aloud.

I’ve been struggling with ‘Pure-O OCD’ for a while and because my compulsions are almost exclusively mental, I’m afraid I’ve been automatically engaging the negative sensations associated with the thoughts I get. Although I know the thoughts are very irrational, I can’t seem to be mindful enough to sit with the negative emotions and not have them affect my mood. Little by little, over the years the thoughts are triggered by almost any activity I’m involved in and I feel like I’m running around in a circle and not making much progress. Activities and events that are supposed to be enjoyable are viewed by my brain as hurdles and obstacles to overcome. As far as CBT goes, I tried following the 4-step method by Dr. Schwarz which help a little to put me in the right mind set but I haven’t had much sustainable success. Being a Christian, I feel like I’m wasting time giving in to the negative pull the thoughts I get have on my behavior, which in turn, rob me of valuable time spent acting as a true follower of Christ. Based on your experience with Pure O, what would you say is the best CBT method to effectively manage it? Is it ERP or mindfulness, or a combination of both? Thank you

While I know a lot of OCD sufferers who practice mindfulness, the #1 treatment recommended by all OCD experts is ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy. Your story sounds so, so, so, so similar to my own. I went around in circles for 20 years before doing ERP. After just 12 weeks of ERP, I have had tremendous freedom, peace, joy, and spiritual growth for the last 9 years. You can do this!

I hope you’ll take the time to read my post about Post-ERP Spiritual Growth. It really summarizes all the healthy changes that came about in my life and faith after treatment. Blessings!

I feel like I might have OCD..maybe ROCD for a while, but that cleared up so I’m unsure about that. I’m 13 years old (a girl) and I think I have been dealing with hocd since the end of 6th grade (11 years old). I have been with my boyfriend for 7, almost 8 months. This hocd is getting better…I think. I always feel like there is another person in my mind telling me that I’m gay. I sometimes don’t feel as disgusted as I usually do when that happens, and that scares me even more. I wish I could tell my boyfriend, but I feel like he would think I actually am gay. Also, Recently i have the tendency to look at girls’ butts and boobs! Is this normal? Is it not hocd? It bugs me so much, and I feel so disgusted and guilty. I’ve never wanted to kiss, date, or do anything sexual with a girl. Whenever I see a girl, I think “she’s pretty.” And then I start questioning myself. And I think “is she attractive? Do u want to do stuff with her?” And soon it calms down. But it comes back as quickly as it goes. It’s so scary. I want it to go away for good. I told my dad two years ago when it wasn’t as bad. So he doesn’t know the full story. My mom knows and I told her recently. She doesn’t understand how horrible it is. I don’t want to tel her everything I question and feel because I don’t want her thinking that I am gay. Even though she would be fine with it. But I’m not. I want that therapy. I’m on medication for anxiety, but it’s not helping too much. This hocd causes me anxiety and depression. I went through a really bad period of this about a month ago, for two weeks. I wanted to die, and I’d use my nails to scratch myself. I don’t know what to do. I wish I could tell my parents, friends and boyfriend, but I don’t know what they would think. Please help me. I want an OCD free life.

Oh sweetheart, please read my answer to the first question above. I think it will help you. Consider sharing this post with your parents. ERP works; it truly does. You are thirteen and have so many exciting things ahead of you– your whole life! The earlier you treat OCD, the sooner you can get to enjoying things again. If you really feel like you can’t tell your parents about your OCD, and if you’re driven, you can treat it yourself at home, using one of the books listed in this post. Don’t give up, honey. Gosh, I can remember being in the same hell that you’ve been living in when I was your age. It feels so horrible and hopeless and exhausting. But you won’t be there forever. ERP will help. Hang in there.

Want to know more about consequences of years of compulsive behavior and thinking haunting life…even after ocd is gone

This is a really good question, one I’ve not been asked much before.

First things first, OCD is very rarely ever gone. Except in the case of a miracle, OCD is a chronic disorder that a sufferer has until death. That said, ERP therapy can subdue it to the point where it feels gone, which is just about as good as the real thing, right?

I’ve written a pretty detailed post about remission and relapses here. While I think it will answer an aspect of your question, the spirit of your question seems to be: what lingers?

For me, not much. (Thank God!) OCD has little to do with my daily life anymore. That said, there are seasons (and in fact, I’m in one right now) when it is like opening a rarely used door in my life only to find that OCD has actually been chilling out there for years, just waiting for you to reenter that old room. (For me, it’s dating. I haven’t dated in a while, and so I haven’t had to deal with the whole ROCD thing. It’s okay. I’m battling it, and I have all the confidence in the world that I can subdue it because I’ve done it successfully now for nine years.) For me, the 12 weeks of ERP therapy I underwent had a far longer-lasting influence on my thought patterns than the 20 years of obsessions and compulsions that came before. It is that powerful. Learn more about ERP at http://www.jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Thanks for all the questions, folks! If you have questions for me about anything (but especially faith, creativity, and mental illness), add yours here.

As I said, I’m an artist not an expert. I will leave you with these, some of my favorite questions in one of my favorite poems, “Questions about Angels.” Click here to hear Billy Collins himself read it. (P.S. It starts with questions, ends with a dancer.)

 

Question & Dancer: Compulsions, Doubt, & HOCD

question-and-dancerI’m an artist not an expert, one who is learning to embrace questions more than answers.

These are some questions I got last month. Ask yours here.

Donnann asked: How do i deal with intrusive thoughts in the form of questions which sometimes i feel like i need to answer? They give me anxiety not finding an answer either by googling or asking reassurance.

Hi friend, asking reassurance (of friends, strangers, Google, the internet, etc.) is, in this case, a compulsion. Compulsions will never be the solution for an OCD sufferer. In the moment, it might feel good, but it is not a lasting solution. I’ve shared a metaphor before about OCD as an arsonist, setting fires in various corners of our brains. Compulsions are short-sighted in that they try to put out individual fires. It is impossible to keep up this way because while you are putting out one fire, OCD the Arsonist is setting another three. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, on the other hand, goes after the arsonist itself. Compulsions are band-aids; ERP is surgery.

Aurora asked: Is it common for HOCD sufferers to begin questioning whether they really have OCD?

Incredibly common, and not just with HOCD. I think that just about every person who has OCD of any stripe has, at one point or another (or a thousand points), wondered if he or she really does have OCD. Remember, OCD is called the “doubting disease.” It lives up to its name in the fullest sense, even down to a diagnosis. I know that, even when I was diagnosed with OCD and then read a book about it in which I saw myself over and over in the examples, I still faced that question. Everyone I know who has OCD has had this same concern. You are not alone!

Susan asked: What do you do when in church and the bad thoughts come?Also how do you stop ruminating?

This is not going to be a popular answer, but here it is: you let the bad thoughts come. You let them just be thoughts and don’t assign any special value to them. You let them exist and you do not fight them. OCD feeds off resistance. When we quit resisting, it gets bored with us. You learn how to do this in a healthy way via Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Just twelve weeks of ERP set me free after 20 years in bondage to OCD. After I learned to stop resisting and to not give bad thoughts too much value, they quit coming as often. In the first 18 months after doing ERP, I had no obsessions or compulsions. In the years since, I do very little ruminating (maybe one or two obsessive relapses each year, no more than a couple hours each). Compared to my nearly constant ruminating for two decades, this is peace and freedom.

Briana asked: Am I ever going to find someone?

Briana, you and me both, girl. I’m window shopping on eHarmony. How about you?

Halima asked: What have I done to deserve this?

Nothing, dear one. Illness sometimes just is what it is. That said, as one of deep Christian faith, I do have lots of thoughts on this. But I don’t believe it is a punishment at all.

Halima asked: How do you manage your OCD in different times of the day when the feelings of doubt and uncertainty are the most crippling?

It has been nearly nine years since I underwent the ERP therapy that changed my life. I very rarely experience that high-intensity, crippling doubt anymore, even though I was well acquainted with it for two decades. When I do have these attacks, I go back to my ERP toolbox: I accept the thoughts, I do not assign special value to them, I refuse to succumb to compulsions, I assess what the community standard is (or ask friends if I cannot tell this myself), and then I go forward with that standard. I make this sound so easy, and I know (believe me, I know!) that this is not easy, not at the beginning. In exposure therapy, you are trained how to do this, and your brain is actually re-wired so that you are able to do this. The brain actually physically changes. That might sound scary, but for me, it has allowed me to be the very best version of myself in all ways: I am more curious, more thoughtful, more productive, more creative. ERP did not erase my questions. It gave me the tools and strength to approach them in a productive way. Before I would just chase questions around and around and around, like a dog chasing its tail.

I also think naps are awesome. 🙂

Anonymous asked: What if you do see a major loss of attraction to the gender you’ve always been attracted to but don’t see a spike in false attractions to the same sex?

This sounds like so many HOCD stories I have heard over the years. The answer is still the same: exposure therapy. I invite you to read more about this from Hannah and Mae, a couple of former HOCD sufferers who each went through ERP:

Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
Another Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
A Third Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
A Fourth Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
Q&A with Former HOCD Sufferer

HOCD Story: Meet Mae, Part One

HOCD Story: Meet Mae, Part Two

Anonymous asked: Hocd or never was? – I was diagnosed OCD about 7 years ago. Had many OCD behaviours, fear of aids, terrified I’d commit a crime and would be arrested, checking I haven’t hit someone with my car, checking food, washing my hands and lips because I felt dirty or was too close to something I deemed dirty. My biggest one is hocd. I was treated for it and had good success, thoughts were still there but I coped. But since starting uni and wanting a career as a beauty therapist it’s come back big time. I have a recurring obsession about a past friend who I still sometimes see that I’m attracted to her. It will kind of rotate friends and aquaintanxes until they’re spent and then come back to her as a ‘failsafe’ as my mum calls it. But recently, I foolishly looked for reassurance on a message board, and found a post that said after therapy for hocd you might find out your gay and apparently that’s ok. Now I’m terrified to do my ERP/CBT homework. I’m also thinking it keeps resurfacing because I’m actually attracted to women and must accept it. I sometimes don’t feel disgusted anymore and not anxious and that makes me even worse. I’m just so scared that I will turn out gay, have to leave my boyfriend give up on my future family with him. I’m so scared sometimes I feel not scared anymore. I’m so lacking sleep right now. I’ve referred myself to a therapist again, but I’m terrified he or she will reveal I’m gay. I’m so afraid, please help? I read your interview with a former hocd sufferer and pray that can be me soon.

This is a very common fear for people going through ERP/CBT– that it will actually “reveal” something about them, whether that is related to their sexual identity, their “life of crime,” their “evil nature,” etc. It’s important to remember that OCD goes after the things that are most important to us, the things we deeply value. That is what makes it so hard to do ERP. If OCD went after things we didn’t care about, it wouldn’t cause that anxiety and all the questions. Stop assigning special value to these thoughts (“it must keep resurfacing because it’s actually true”); it keeps resurfacing because you have OCD and your sexual orientation is of utmost importance to you, that’s all. I’ve talked to MANY HOCD sufferers, and I’ve never heard one of them say they wish they hadn’t done exposure therapy. I am doing my best not to offer reassurances in this response (I don’t cater to compulsions!), but it’s hard! I will just say that I don’t think you can go wrong with ERP.

Thanks for all the questions, folks! If you have questions for me about anything (but especially faith, creativity, and mental illness), add yours here.

As I said, I’m an artist not an expert. I will leave you with these, some of my favorite questions in one of my favorite poems, “Questions about Angels.” Click here to hear Billy Collins himself read it. (P.S. It starts with questions, ends with a dancer.)