Friday, December 31, 2010

Dealing with Feared Consequences When they Happen: The Impossibility of Coming Out in Advance

What's Right Around Us

A post by Pure O Canuck got me thinking when she about her relationship OCD(ROCD) and homosexuality OCD(HOCD),
When does this horrible urge/need to find the answer end? And why does it seem like others have found the answer and I can't? It seems like others are living happily ever after. Can I say that I feel that way about my relationship at the moment? Definitely not. (Spend too much time on that and the ROCD starts up - but that's for another post.)
This desire to live happily ever after is seductive for all humans, and when you have OCD, there can be a gnawing, erosive need to figure out if you actually are living happily, or whether you have made a huge mistake in who you choose to be with by compulsively analyzing or avoiding all triggers of the fears. I read lots of "coming out" stories in college(which is one of Pure O Canuck's exposures right now), and I longed for the click, the final puzzle piece going into place, the revelation or vision that these stories seemed to offer. But I am realizing that the OCD is latching onto the metaphor of "coming out" as a form of absolute certainty, which in actuality it is not, and OCD is very opportunistic and picks up on other images like being "in denial about being gay." As Pure O Canuck says,
I know that I am not going to get an absolute, certain answer to these questions. (I don't quite understand why - it seems like others have it. But I guess that's just a momentary feeling and it will come and go.)
It's hard to accept that other people seem to have absolute certainty, and there's a longing to have some of that elixir, but in reality, people without OCD may simply be able to move on in spite of some uncertainty, rather than seeking to eradicate every last remnant. Others were indeed in denial about being gay because of strong cultural and religious pressure and condemnation, but eventually reached a point where they came to accept who they were, in spite of trepidation or fear, and often sound at peace, but this isn't the same thing as absolute certainty. OCD never grants peace in the long term. If I feed my OCD with figuring out, analyzing and avoidance, even if one obsession recedes, another one will appear.

My therapist likes to say, "If your feared consequence happens, you'll deal with it then. You don't need to know the answers to your OCD questions right now." That's the basic uncertainty--the women in some of these coming out stories didn't know that they would suddenly fall in love with a woman--but if they didn't have OCD, they dealt with it when it happened, not in beforehand rumination.

I did the exposure of marrying my boyfriend, my now husband, in spite of agonizing whether I was really lesbian, and might never truly be happy, and over the years have grown to love my husband more and more, but I had to deal with a burst of anxiety about whether I loved him "enough" and when our 10th anniversary came, and we planned to renew our vows, I had a panic attack about whether I really could say "until death do us part"(which totally misses the point that I already had taken that vow the first time around!!) OCD narrows our vision, and allows no possibility of grace or peace.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sensitized for Instant Response: Ruining the Day

Billboard advertisements for 7Up and Pure gasoline
This week I've been getting stuck in fear of ruining my day, that doing something "wrong" will contaminate the rest of the day. I'm so used to making up rules for myself as to what constitutes a good day, and the OCD has me sensitized to any thoughts of "you did that wrong" or "you should've done something else," that before I even realize it, I'm reacting to the thought, wanting to eradicate it.

When I think those kinds of thoughts, I tend to take them at face value, as if they were true and credible, and with power to change the entire quality of a day. The closest metaphor is contamination. One of my feared consequences is that if I choose an imperfect action, it will spread to the rest of the day, and can't be cleaned up. My compulsion is to undo the thoughts of having messed up by either ruminating on them, analyzing them, or going into habitual websearching as a distraction. And then, ironically, OCD causes the very thing I fear--this compulsing ripples through the day and takes up my time.

I asked my husband yesterday if he thinks this way, and he said no. He might do something that ends up being a waste of time, but then he moves on to something else. He doesn't have fears that if he somehow goes awry, it will haunt him. For me, it's very basic stuff, for which there is no handbook or optimal schedule. When to take a shower. When to eat lunch. When to take a walk. When to run errands.

I have a big fear of wasting time. If I have errands to run, I get mired in figuring out how to do enough at a time so I don't "waste time." The fact is that sometimes we waste time. It's as if the OCD decrees that I live in a universe where I don't ever make a mistake or take up time doing the activities of daily living, and the insidious part is that for a long time I truly believed that I could find certainty as to what I should be doing in any given moment.

In the past, I also feared ruining a day by having intrusive scary and anxious thoughts. I've gotten better at recognizing them as part of my OCD, and not getting into a power struggle with them, and eroding all possibility of being present in my own life, but the thoughts of doing things perfectly slip in under the radar, and I do get into a battle with them. I see more exposures in my future, choosing things to do in a day, and doing them, and facing the fear. I'm edging towards this, in spite of my aversion.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Intrusive Thoughts and the Search for the Answer: Part 2

I Figured You Out

As I said in Part I, the intrusive thoughts that seemingly took me over as a girl, became a fact of my history that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out. It was a reference point, a mystery, and an indictment in my mind. How could I say I was a feminist? How could I say I cared about women? How could I be a good person? Surely these thoughts and images of violence invalidated anything I might believe about the value of women. In my 30's I started seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety, and worked up the courage to tell her about the thoughts. She did something that many therapists do: she gave her interpretation. Interpretations can yield useful insight if they're not about obsessive thoughts. She said that it sounded like I was angry at my mother.

Although it was reassuring that she didn't think I was a bad person for having the thoughts, the idea that such violence in my mind's imagery was somehow symbolizing anger at my mother scared me. What kind of daughter was I? How could I ever survive such awful anger? Interpretations add fuel to the OCD fire. Each new interpretation brings its own set of things to figure out.

It is the painful irony of OCD that intrusive thoughts often strike at the very things that are most precious to us. A truly pious person has blasphemous thoughts, a gentle soul has violent thoughts, a feminist has thoughts of violent pornography. The other brutal irony of OCD is that even when books or websites that clearly describe the experience of intrusive thoughts, and the fact that they say nothing about you as a person, the OCD latches onto this and sets off a cascade of figuring out: "Do I really enjoy these thoughts? Do I really have OCD? How can I know if the thoughts are actually intrusive?" Or if you see a therapist, you can fall into the "What if I'm not truly expressing my thoughts clearly, so the therapist can't see how truly bad and twisted I am? What if I am deluding them?"

It helped immensely when I found an exposure therapist, and he knew that this cascade would appear--he would say, "I bet you are trying to figure out if your thoughts are an exception to the rule, and the OCD is getting louder and louder as we sit here--am I right?" Making the pattern explicit helped me to know it's sneaky insidious ways, and the insatiable desire to prove once for all that I am ok, not bad, not unredeemable.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Intrusive Thoughts and the Fear of Being Unredeemable

Rosalie Stanton recently found my blog and shared a post she wrote about her struggle with intrusive thoughts.
I had no idea my obsessions were perfectly in-keeping with my particular case of OCD until recently. I'm not certain if it helps others afflicted with OCD, but the knowledge that I was NORMAL probably saved my life. For as miserable as I was, thinking I was wrong and twisted and evil, finding out that my disease had a name and there was nothing I could do to prevent it, nothing I was at fault for thinking, was the biggest blessing I've ever received.
The pain of feeling wrong and twisted and evil is something I know as well. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I started having thoughts that most adults would find scary, violent, disturbing, let alone a child. It was as if they were injected into my mind, just suddenly there, in an occupation, a siege. I wondered why I couldn't make them stop. I began to enter the world of my thoughts in a set way, in a ritualistic sequence, as if I was standing in front of a mirror, looking at my face, and crossing through into a world of torture of women, an observer of it all.

How I came back out each time, I don't recall, but I remember feeling defeated when the thoughts came back again. The images spun themselves into a series of stories, expanding seemingly endless to my young mind. It was as if they wrote themselves. They were unfamiliar, alien. Even now, I can't comprehend where they came from. They so crowded my mind, that one afternoon, I asked a friend to play out part of the story where doctors kept women captive. Her look of confusion combined with a stabbing sense of shame, but also gave me a little room, to feel grounded in the actual world, not in my head.

She was completely uninterested in cooperating, and from the day onward the thoughts did not return in that form. I was amazed that I no longer was sucked into the narrative of fear and violence. The thoughts did remain as a memory, as something I wondered about, as a part of my history.

In college, I participated in a survey about women's sexual fantasies, and I was stricken with fear that my old thoughts were a fantasy, that they were something I wanted to think about, something I enjoyed. Filling out the survey filled me with dread about what my thoughts meant. Then I went to a presentation about the destructiveness of hardcore pornography, with a series of slides of some of the most violent images in magazines, and it was as if the images from my past were there right in front of me. I was in a state of anxiety and fearfulness. The slides repulsed me, and yet the old images from my mind were of the same substance. I was startled by the resemblance, and even more troubled about what this meant about me as a person.

I started to worry that somehow I had been subjected to pornographic magazines as a girl, but couldn't remember it. Or maybe I had been sexually abused. Or maybe I was just bad. That all my interest in helping women, the classes I took on women's history, my compassion for suffering, was all a lie and in fact I was twisted, that all girls were twisted in some way. I spent a lot of time in my head, trying to figure out the nature of my soul, the origin of the images, and the new set of horrors that the pornographic slides had introduced into my head, and desperately wanting to make them go away.

To be continued in another post.