The pain and sorrow that OCD can bring is indescribable at times. Yes, it can cause or exacerbate depression, which is an awful experience. But OCD creates an additional level of suffering. It’s like mental torture. So not only do you feel deep sadness, but your brain is sat in the equivalent of a torture chamber. The OCD uses any technique it can to extract information or try to force you to do it’s compulsions. Some people don’t leave the chamber for years. It’s like intellectual and emotional trauma.
The poet Victor Hugo said: “It is by suffering that humans become angels”. Whilst I am certainly no angel, what I can say is that my compassion towards others in mental distress is much higher now than it was pre-recovery. I sense suffering more than before and I empathise with people to a much higher degree. Even those who are easier to judge or cast away, I can put myself in their shoes and try to understand why they feel the way they do.
2. Tolerance of uncertainty
We all live with this illusion of certainty the vast majority of the time. I wrote about this here. OCD puts you at the extreme end of this quest for certainty, good enough is not acceptable, and 99.9% certain can feel like 1%. Probability theory goes out of the window.
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) puts you into an extreme state of uncertainty. Like an astronaut or pilot using a centrifuge to train their bodies to acclimatise to higher g-forces, ERP helps you to acclimatise to high levels of uncertainty. Even if your obsession was “unlikely”, it doesn’t matter, the disorder forced you to live as if it was like escaping imminent death. Hence why compulsions are so hard to resist.
OCD recovery requires that you follow the ERP road and look behind the curtain of certainty and find the Wizard of uncertainty controlling proceedings. Without this fundamental understanding of reality, OCD will always have space to work. There must always be room for uncertainty.
Once you get through ERP, and the illusion is shattered (or at least part broken), the ability to handle uncertain situations increases. You will probably handle uncertainty better than most. I used to spend most of my life worried about what could or might or will or won’t happen – now this rarely happens (unless I have an OCD lapse). It’s very liberating to be free from this illusion.
This is a term that can often bring confusion. Acceptance does not mean agree, nor inaction or giving up.
I’m always banging on about this in work when I see people getting stressed and angry about situations out of their control. People look at me now and say “I know I know [swear word] acceptance!!”.
One of the 4 noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering exists. It’s axiomatic, or in other words, it’s just a truth statement about the way life is. Yet we often walk around thinking that if only I had X, or Y would change, or if Z didn’t exist, then finally suffering would stop. Just like the quest for certainty, this again is an illusion.
Suffering can sometimes be removed, reduced and alleviated of course. However, there will always be suffering of some degree and that is just a fact. Even if you removed all human-caused suffering (which I doubt is possible), there would still be natural suffering.
I have worked with vulnerable young people for over 10 years. Countless children I have worked with have been abused – physically, emotionally and sexually. I have seen some horrendous suffering over the years. If I did not have acceptance there is no way I could work in this field without seriously damaging my own health. Nothing saddens me more than a suffering child. However, expending energy angry at the state of the world or wishing away these problems is not helping anyone. Acceptance is a prerequisite before constructive action. Without it any action is likely to be less effective because it will be based mainly on emotion, rather than allowing room for reason. Both are required for effective action.
The concept of acceptance has been critical for me with OCD. Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is another therapeutic tool people with OCD can use to manage the disorder. In simple terms ACT allows for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, with us then refocusing our awareness on an action that aligns with our values. Accepting OCD thoughts, which are highly disturbing and unwanted, is a very difficult skill to master (even to this day I am learning and at times failing). But if you can learn to do it, its helps tremendously with acceptance in other areas of life and gives you the skills to make better decisions.
4. Physical health
I was in denial for a long time before I finally accepted (there I go banging on about it again) that I needed to get serious with my physical health to help tackle my mental health.
I’ve always exercised regularly on and off, but it wasn’t until a friend invited me to play Soccer 6s in 2016 when I realised how unfit I had become. I did improve my fitness significantly playing regularly in this tournament but my diet still wasn’t great and I drank alcohol around 5 times a week.
In November 2018 I quit drinking. I didn’t want to admit it to myself but alcohol, even the smallest amounts, was making it much more likely for me to have an OCD lapse. My hangovers were lasting for days. Yet I kept going because I thought I needed it to relax after stressful days and to calm down my mind. I was wrong, I am so much better without drink. I am more present with the family, I have better clarity of thought and it’s a lot easier to stay in shape.
January 2019 I started getting more serious with my fitness. I was weightlifting mainly, but was also trying to cut body fat. I managed to get into great shape, but I definately over did it and this contributed to me having a burnout. I still tend to have perfectionist attributes and can sometimes take things a bit too seriously. However, with a bit of trial and error I am comfortably eating a well balanced diet whilst still tracking my calories and nutrients to stay in shape. I do need to work on thinking I must look a certain way though.
Couldn’t I have done all this without OCD? Maybe, but probably not. I almost certainly wouldn’t have quit drinking. I also doubt I would have stuck to a reasonably strict diet and exercise regime if it wasn’t also key to maintaining my recovery.
At it’s worst OCD strips you of your dignity and your ability to function. You truly know the feeling of helplessness. Relinquishing the imagined control you have over your destiny is the one of the keys to recovery. You must take a leap of faith into the darkness of the unknown to have any chance or emerging from the other side. Socrates said: “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. Obsessions take you into the void of nothingness, that bottomless pit of uncertainty. What can we ever truly know? Nothing. What can be a more humble realisation than that?
These days if I don’t know something, I’ll just say. If I’m not sure about something, I won’t act like I am. Even areas where I have good knowledge, I am always willing to accept I could be wrong. I also have no problem conceding a point to a more reasoned argument and thanking the person for explaining to me.
Was OCD then a blessing in disguise?
We have 2 choices in life: we either take the cards we are dealt and play the best game we can, or we complain and resent all the bad things that happen to us. A pessimist sees the challenge in every opportunity and an optimist sees the opportunity in every challenge. The former is fine on occasion, but focusing on the opportunities for growth is a much better approach in my opinion.
Would I go back to where I was when I was 16 and remove my OCD? No. Because everything that has happened since then; my marraige, my children, all the people I have helped along the way in work, would not have happened. Wishing away our problems doesn’t help and only creates further suffering.
Do I want OCD now? No, and I am trying to gain improvements all the time. 80% of the time I manage reasonably well. However, for most of us this disorder is chronic and I have come to terms with that (most of the time anyway). But I might as well continue looking for the good in the bad whilst I’m at it!