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.)

 

 

 

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.

OCD resurgence

Happy Independence Day, everyone!  Interestingly, in the past week or two I have actually been experiencinglessfreedom from my OCD than I have in the last two years.

The curse words, the blasphemy are coming back … jumping to the front of my mind, just as they used to.  Not sure quite what set me off again.

No worries, I am not freaking out.  Much.  I am employing the lessons I learned from cognitive-behavioral therapy, using my self-learned narrative therapy, praying about it, and managing.  I have just felt so utterly free from it for so long that it is strange to have it all rushing back.  I hate it, but this time I know how to handle it.

An excerpt that is very similar to what life has been like:

I was distracted from thoughts of Matt by the responsibility of “managing” my OCD for two weeks on my own.  It felt as if Dr. Foster had noticed I had a garden hoe and then asked me to plow a ten-acre field with it.

I grabbed my iPod, threw on a sweatshirt, and walked around the neighborhood, treading the sidewalk with purpose as I re-exposed myself to the audio track and whatever muddy thought was slopping at the corners of my mind.  I felt like a new teenaged driver borrowing the keys for the evening, entrusted with my own mind and eager to show myself competent.  “Fuck,” I muttered under my breath when there were no other pedestrians near me.  “It’s just a word.” 

“My OCD wants me to think that thought,” I’d spell out in my head as I continued through the neighborhood, realizing that autumn’s chill had definitely hit Minnesota at full force.  “It’s not actually my thought.  I’m just the messenger.”

It was an awkward dance, one where I sidled up to the thought and tried to hold its hand.  One foot in front of the other, a stealthy warrior on a tiptoed journey toward freedom.

“Oh, you’re along?” I said to the black dot that was jogging to keep up with my longer strides.  “Well, keep up, won’t ya?”  I “dressed” it in a child’s train conductor costume and laughed under my breath as it seethed in humiliation.  “Chugga-chugga-choo-chooooo!” I said, pulling a fake train whistle above my head.  “Aren’t you a cute little conductor?”  It glared at me.

Another day, another walk, this time my little black dot in a Scottish kilt and a tiny tam beret.  The day after, a doll-sized sailor suit and white sailor hat.  It had toddled behind me, trying to keep a low profile, which was just fine by me.  By the end of the week I’d landed on an outfit for keeps—a pink tutu with tights and ballet slippers, which my OCD hated worse than all the rest.  I was bullying my bully, and it felt powerful.  Whenever my mind started to race, I said to my OCD in its ballerina getup, “You there!  Start twirling!”  And so it would, even as it boiled with rage.  “Keep on twirling!” I said with a smile.  “I’ll tell you when you can stop … little one.”

I felt an odd sense of control that I’d never had before, not completely free of OCD, but like someone separate from it.  I didn’t need to get my toes wet; I could stand on the dry bank, command my orders, and get back to work.