Hi! My name is Azure. I want to pay it forward and share a few things I’ve learned about living with OCD.
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
Shortest blog post you ever read, huh?
Kidding aside, my OCD has often put a sinister twist on those two words, “The End.” Because when OCD’s got me in a chokehold: it says, “This is it. This is The End. You will never have any other emotion besides this intense terror for the rest of your life.”
Everything is Temporary
Life is a rollercoaster, life is a journey, life has ups and downs—all synonyms, you could say, for “no feeling is final”—these phrases are woven into our vernacular because we know the truth of them.
OCD says the exact opposite because it isn’t logical. It believes whatever it wants to believe—and wants you to believe it too.
When I was little, I would tap on stretchers underneath chairs with my feet. I didn’t know why I did it. I just knew that if I tapped on one side, I had to tap the other side with an equal amount of pressure.
One night, when I was about nine, I kept getting out of bed to tap the bathroom door against the wall. I’d get back in bed and have to do it again. After several trips, I started to cry. If I had to point to a distinct moment where I knew something was wrong, that would be it.
OCD: My Drunk Amateur Philosopher
My obsessions remained more in the physical realm at that stage, but after I hit puberty, they transitioned into an emotional one. I wasn’t as worried about symmetrical tapping anymore. Now I was worried about my words and thoughts and other people’s words and thoughts.
Living with my OCD was like living with a drunk amateur philosopher. It wanted to debate with me on the nature of humanity and the extent of one’s personal responsibility and other concepts that seemed to enter an insane, metaphysical realm. I couldn’t believe half the conversations I had with myself.
It’s Possible to Live Well With OCD
And that’s when I got in touch with an OCD therapist.
Thank you, Tammy, you definitely saved my life. OCD might not have killed me, but my quality of life had long been dead.
As soon as I started working with her, I noticed a remarkable improvement. A resurrection, you could say. Maybe I didn’t have to be trapped! Maybe I could actually live.
I’m sharing my story with you because if I can share what helped me, maybe it will help you.
Actually, helping you is what helped me. During the worst times, I always had this idea that one day, I’d talk about it, and it would help someone and give my suffering some purpose. This thought, combined with the fact that Tammy was giving me a new lease on life, is the first thing that helped me: Hope. Have hope that things will get better. You have no proof that they won’t.
The second thing that helped was to start seeing OCD as a separate entity, not the voice in my head I must blindly obey. Tammy compared it to being a little girl inside of me, like the baby version of myself, uncertain and scared of the world, and not knowing anything about it.
I could now challenge what OCD told me: “You don’t know anything about life.” At the same time, it was no longer a monster to be vanquished; having a kinder viewpoint was really helpful.
I started talking to it like I would talk to a very young person. “That may or may not happen. In the meantime, we’ll do what I say.” (There are times, however, when the niceness approach won’t work and you have to be tough with OCD. Tammy’s also compared it to an overprotective security guard that won’t let you live life.)
I Am More Than OCD
OCD attacks your confidence. You doubt everything, you doubt yourself. Once I realized that about OCD, I started to question whether what I once thought was my personality— timid, passive—was the real me.
I took one of those personality quizzes and it said I was almost 50/50 introverted/extroverted. Me, 50% extroverted??? Imagine that! I’m determined to get to know this hidden, self-assured woman.
Having an inner dialogue where I gently take control away from OCD and into my own hands does more than treat faulty thinking; it’s making me a stronger person.
Over the years, I’ve had many ups and downs. Times when I thought I was “cured,” times when I thought I couldn’t get any worse. Each experience leaves me either a little stronger or a little scarred. (I still have a strange relationship with carbon monoxide detectors.)
One of the many things I’ve learned over time is to be aware of changes in your life and stress levels.
I lied to myself about that for a while. I’d say, “But this obsession isn’t resulting from stress! It’s because I told my friend to try Pilates without knowledge of her medical history and I have to remind her to check with her doctor before trying any new exercise regimen!”
“No one can be responsible for themselves,” OCD claims. “Policing everyone’s lives and regularly stating the obvious to them is the only way to guarantee their safety!”
No, I’ve learned you need to be extra diligent with OCD when you’re stressed and I know this from experience now.
I have had three majorly stressful events happen in my life since November of last year. I started a full-time job for the first time (I do enjoy my job—keep in mind that even “good” changes are still changes and can still affect you emotionally), my mother had a stroke (she’s okay now, but the effects and the trauma linger on), and we are now in the midst of a global pandemic. Yep. Heavy.
The week before my work shut down for COVID-19, I was under severe stress. Every day, the news brought in more reported cases. Contamination obsessions and weakened immunity made me feel so vulnerable and no amount of gloves and handwashing would cut it.
Once we began working from home, I was relieved, convinced that my anxiety would drain away. Wrong! It spiked to like a 12 out of 10!
It’s Easier to Be Tricked in Times of Stress
Why? I think that the past few months of stress, the new threat of becoming mortally ill, that long, intense week before closing, and the sudden change in routine came crashing down on me. And I fell, boy, did I fall, down what Tammy calls the rabbit hole.
I fell for some really basic tricks, too. And it was as if everything was magnified. I worry about people slipping on the stairs anyway, but this time around, I’d sit on the stairs for what felt like an eternity, carefully examining minuscule scratches and removing bits of fuzz. That’s just one example of the OCD things I did the first week of sheltering at home.
I’ve tried bargaining with OCD before, resisting a compulsion here, but giving in to another there. Surprise, that doesn’t work! And it especially wasn’t going to work this time. Tammy had laid the foundation, and I knew that the only way to bring myself down from anxiety that high was to do something drastic to combat it.
Two experiences helped in this regard. They worked in conjunction with each other, but I just don’t remember which one happened first. This month of sheltering in place has been a bit of a blur, and I know I’m not alone on that!
The first experience: I was taking a walk with my mom and wishing that I didn’t have this one obsession in my mind so that I could enjoy my walk. Then I had my lightbulb moment. I will always be anxious about something.
Let Anxiety and Joy Cohabitate
There’s no point in trying to pretend I don’t have this illness. Healing, we’re told, begins by feeling. I was just going to have to let the anxieties come, instead of desperately trying to fight them off (usually by giving in to compulsions—not a good strategy).
And instead of waiting until they’re all gone to enjoy myself, I was going to have to let anxiety and joy cohabitate, and hopefully, by focusing on the joy I wouldn’t focus on the anxiety. It’s not like I didn’t know this before, I just—didn’t realize it fully until that moment. And I was going to have to find a way to live my life despite it.
The second experience: I was going to bed one night with a sky-high list of accumulated anxieties. I was convinced that the house was either going to fall down or burn up. I had already gotten up and checked so many things. I’d kept checking and checking, and my anxiety kept growing and growing, and finally, I couldn’t check anymore. I knew I couldn’t.
I’d Rather Accept the Risk Than Live Like This
I crawled back in under the covers feeling like my body was made of lead. It was such an awful night. I’m quite a positive person, but there’s no other word for it, it was simply awful. I tossed and turned all night and at one point I think I was soaked in sweat (I probably should have been more worried that I had the virus!). But I just had to ride it out. I had to let myself feel all that crushing anxiety without trying to do anything else to make it go away.
After that, I noticed a shocking change. Sweating through it was like weathering a storm. And the clouds broke and suddenly my anxiety dropped! Who knew!
The Only Way Out Is In
So I’ve learned a few things from these experiences. First of all, whether you’re looking down into the rabbit hole or already well along in it, whether you’ve checked something once or one hundred times, whether your anxiety is at a 2 or a 10—wherever you’re at, stop. Let the anxiety come, let yourself experience it in all its fierceness. The longer you try to paddle around the storm, the more it will suck you back in and the more energy you will waste. Sweat right through the centre of the storm. It’s the quickest way to get to the other side.
Ideally, you want to stop at the entrance of the rabbit hole before falling down it, right? For years, I struggled with that. I would dip my toe into the rabbit hole, thinking that if I did “just one compulsion” I would “satisfy” my OCD and get rid of enough anxiety to let go of whatever I was obsessing about. I’d think, “It doesn’t have to get rid of my anxiety perfectly. Just enough so I can ignore it.” What do you think would happen? That’s right, I was well on my way to another Alice in Wonderland experience!
OCD will trick you into believing that if you just perform the compulsion, you’ll feel better. If I tell myself that isn’t true, it doesn’t work. OCD says, “No, it’s true.” And that’s because you do feel better.
Even though that relief is temporary, maybe only lasting a second, OCD will convince you that the compulsion is worth that second of relief. So instead of saying, ‘that isn’t true,’ I’ve started telling myself, ‘yes, that’s true, but then it will get so much worse.’ Not, ‘it may get worse.’ I have to be very strict. ‘It WILL get worse.’
I know from experience that as soon as I perform that compulsion after the initial relief passes, another compulsion is right on its heels, and it will suck me in deeper. Hello, rabbit hole.
Tammy once gave me a business card that said: “This compulsion is a hoax. The relief from this compulsion will not last.” Repeat it until you believe it.