Thoughts on ERP, Writing, & Uncertainty


For so many years, it was my enemy– or so I perceived it, especially because full-blown clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder made me fear and reject uncertainty even more than the average bear. Everything in my life was about pursuing certainty, answers, black & white.

And, of course, I was miserable.

In 2008, I went through the harrowing but ultimately beautiful process of exposure therapy, which took my OCD out at the knees, giving me the bandwidth to live with uncertainty, questions, and all the shades of gray.

It’s only recently that I’ve recognized exposure therapy as the training ground (or maybe even battle ground) that would let me later pursue my dreams of being an author.

A hard truth: writing is full of uncertainty. 


Not just writing– but publishing itself too. There is this crazy-making stretch of life in the middle of writing a book that feels both unclear and perpetual. What is this book really about? Who are these characters? Can I do this? Can I finish this? Is this story going to matter to anyone but me? Is this going to even matter to me? Will my writing group like it? Will my agent? My editor? Readers? Will I find success? Will I get another contract?

The writing life is, for many of us (and especially for younger writers), a world in grayscale: a constant state of uncertainty that we have to persist in in order to find any relief or success.

For as many days as I think I’m totally failing at life and writing, I have to remember what it would have been like to be writing and publishing before exposure therapy, back when uncertainty was unbearable. I’m not even sure how it would have been possible to be doing what I’m doing now without exposure therapy laying the groundwork for me to bear the not-knowing, let alone to thrive in it.

“The world doesn’t work that way.” I hear myself and other OCD awareness advocates saying this to sufferers all the time. In context, we mean, “Life inherently is full of uncertainty. You cannot eliminate it.”

The truth of that hits me over and over again in the field of writing.

Exposure therapy was the terrible, grueling practice for the writing life. Uncertainty is rampant; I try to keep my arms open.


More Thoughts on Profanity [& how ERP therapy changed my writing]

profanityAs you may have read before, I have a strange and evolving relationship with profanity.  Having grown up in a home that outlawed even pseudo-swearing (we couldn’t say gosh or shut up, among other things) paired with growing up with a mental illness elicited in me a dreadful fear of curse words– more than was ever healthy, even for a child.  For many years, my intrusive thoughts centered around illicit words, which developed in me a deep sense of guilt.

In my ERP therapy, I had to learn to think those words, even say them.  In doing so, I was stealing back power from my OCD, putting it more and more under my heel.  It was during ERP and in the year that followed that I realized a couple things:

1) Words are just words.  That said, “just words” still pack as much power as a nuke.

2) You can harm with words that are not profanity– worse than with profanity, in some cases.  A hard-hitting insult or an insincere comment can sting far worse than the word shit.

3) Shit does not equal poop.  Ass does not equal butt.  Damn does not equal darn.  They just really, really don’t.  They are completely different words.  As a writer, it’s my job to choose the best word in every line I write.  Just the same way that valor and courage both mean bravery, but those two words are not the same word.  I have to select each word with extreme care.

4) The fearsome qualities one assigns to the dreaded f-bomb are terribly reduced when you’re forced to listen to it for 80 minutes a day (again, ERP).

5) In ERP, I learned to separate myself from my OCD.  I learned to assign my intrusive thoughts to my disorder, instead of to myself.  To say, “OCD wants me to think X.”  This view, I see, has carried over into my view of my characters.  Even though I am the author, if my character John or Paul or Suzie wants to say a curse word, I don’t feel guilty.  Characters have their own histories, their own choice of words.  (Maybe you think this is strange … passing off my responsibility to characters that I’ve created.  If you do, then you’re probably not a writer.  As a writer, I have far less control over my characters than you might ever imagine.)

6) I write realistic contemporaries.  A teenager who has grown up lawlessly is going to swear.  You know that’s true.

7) In my personal life, I refuse to let OCD enslave me again.  One way it did so was by a huge and unwarranted fear of profanity.  I damn well won’t let it take control of me in that way again.

8) Personally– again, this is just for me– profanity is a small way for me to ward off the legalism that used to bind me.

9) “Let nothing unwholesome come out your mouth”: I guess I have to admit that I don’t really find curse words terribly unwholesome anymore.  I’m finding a lot of it to be based on social constructs that I don’t value enough to hold to.  I find it far more unwholesome for me to open my mouth and speak lies or to tear my fellows down.

10) This quote from Maggie Stiefvater:

Occasionally a reader will tell me that I don’t need to use swearing. They will follow this up with this well-worn phrase “you have a good enough vocabulary that you don’t need to use THOSE words.” Yes, I do. I do indeed. Since I don’t need to use them, that means I’m choosing to use them. If you trust me to be using non-swear words in a skillful way, please assume that I’m wielding my fucks and damns with the same contemplation.

As should all of you other writers out there. They’re just words. Handle them with care.

So, those are my thoughts.  I’m not terribly interested in getting into a debate, but do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

See more of my thoughts on profanity here:
Profanity in Literature

Image credit: found this all over the internet, couldn’t find original.

OCD: Unwelcome but not Unexpected

How many times do I have to say that OCD is a joy-thief before I should realize: Oh.  Hmm.  You’re pretty happy right now.  OCD will be along shortly to steal that away?

I should learn to brace myself.

On Friday, November 22, I announced on Facebook and on my blog that Harper Collins offered me a two-book deal.  Shortly thereafter, amidst all the “likes” and congratulatory comments and joyful sharing, OCD came calling.

I spent the majority of the evening obsessing over future revisions.  

not you again

I practiced ERP, walking myself through that lovely mantra of “it’s POSSIBLE, but it’s not LIKELY,” then discussing with a friend (asking for no reassurance), and also spending time in prayer.

Life, as I continue to learn, is risky, and the more I learn to embrace risk and uncertainty, the happier I am.

Which is why I flat-out refuse to flat-out refuse any revision suggestions.  I will consider everything my wonderful editor suggests, knowing that God is in control and that Jill loves my characters too.

In this sense, I’m growing as an obsessive-compulsive in remission, an author, and as a person.

Jackie 1

Related posts:
Uncertainty is the Key
Taking Risks

OCD and writing

Recently, my friend Tina at the Bringing Along OCD blog wrote about “reading OCD” — which she had in an earlier post described this way:

Imagine opening up a book to begin reading it. Chapter one. You read a paragraph. Then you reread it. Then you move to the second paragraph, but you realize that you may not have read the first paragraph well enough. So you go back and read paragraph one again. Then you read and reread paragraph two several times. You finally make it to the end of the page, and in turning the page, you think, “I’ve read page one adequately.”

  But you can’t be sure. Did you understand everything you read? Will you remember it?
  So you reread page one, reading and rereading the paragraphs again. After an hour of being on page one, you get tired and decide to put down the book. You’ll get through the book someday. It’s only the third time you’ve tried to read chapter one.
Tina said, “This makes reading laborious and sometimes unbearable. I find myself avoiding reading.”
I really, really hate OCD.  I hate the way it tries to steal whatever is most important to us.
For me, it tried to steal (and for a time DID steal) my writing.
At the time, I was working on my first novel, which was all about OCD, and my OCD kept reminding me of the Bible verse that says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
My head snagged on the verse.  I was writing about OCD … and OCD was not lovely; that I knew for sure.  OCD was not pure or commendable.  It was ugly, tyrannical … not worth of praise.  And yet, I was spending all this time writing about it, all this time thinking about it.
I started to obsess that my writing was sinful.
Writing, which had always been a lovely release for me, a respite … even that was being stolen from me by OCD.  This is the scene I ended up writing about it (eventually):

“Stella,” I said, reaching out and touching her hand.

She looked at me.  “What’s up?”

“I think it’s wrong to write my poems.”

She frowned.  “What.”  It was an accusation, not a question.

I tried to explain my logic.  “So I write about feeling scared about hell, for example, okay?  And then other people read about it, and I’m causing them to sin.”

“Neely, the Bible talks about hell.”  The brown eyes of Stella Bay-Blake were flashing—and looking dangerously similar to Trapper’s.

“There is that,” I said, pausing to think it through.  Maybe Christ’s brief mentions of hell didn’t warrant people’s actual dwelling on it, whereas a poem would.  In that case, I’d still be out of line.  “I don’t know.”

“Neely, there is rape in the Bible.  And adultery.  And murder.”

“But maybe not really in a way so that the reader dwells on those things, you know?”

“No,” she said.  She sounded angry, and with her curls falling forward into her face, she looked violent, like a lion.  “This is the one way that you can healthily process your stupid OCD.”

“Maybe I could try to dwell on lovely things.  Write about lovely things.”

“Yeah,” she said sarcastically.  “You can write ‘Walking on a Rainbow to the King: Reprise.’  Because what I want to read are a hundred pages about sunshine and puppies.”

“Not sunshine and puppies, not necessarily,” I said.  “But things like … like faith and confidence.”  Father God, I love You.

“You have OCD,” she reminded me, “and you are going to write convincing poems about confidence?”  She had a point.  “My gosh, I will really blow a nut if you quit writing.  I’m the writer who doesn’t write!”

But we sat in silence at the tiny table, my closed journal a symbol of all my failure.


OCD. Is. A. Thief.  It will steal whatever you love best.  It will warp your mind into believing things that are so far from the truth.  It is a liar.  I hate the bondage it keeps so many people in.  I am so glad to no longer listen to and believe all those lies.