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.


  1. I can definitely relate to this. For the longest time I was terribly afraid that I was fooling my therapist and everyone else. I was convinced that there was a possibility that I didn't really have OCD or that I did but I was intentionally prolonging it and resisting getting better. I was so afraid that I was a fake. Why would I do such a thing? I didn't know, but the threat of such a thought loomed large in my mind.

    I can also relate to having experiences in other types of therapy that weren't as helpful. In fact, I remember so often coming out more confused than I was before. I'd leave with the thoughts cycling through my mind. Everything seemed to lead to the conclusion that despite how I yearned to be set free from the things I felt "had to be" done, I still had to do them because the therapist had never explicitly said "don't do this" or "don't do that." Instead I would get recommendations to try to be less perfectionistic. To try to be more forgiving of myself. That was all nice except that I was so wrapped up in the OCD that I was constantly trying to figure out when and under what circumstances it would be okay to apply such an approach. Having a therapist tell me those kind of things was like telling anyone with OCD in general something along the lines of, "Hey, just try to do your compulsions less, okay? Be nice to yourself and don't make yourself do them. Sound good? Great!" Uh sure...if only OCD were that easy to push aside with someone simply there to tell you to stop. I am still really frustrated with those times - my therapist's failure to recognize, diagnose, and effectively treat my OCD. I am also frustrated with my mother's accusations that I was not taking the therapist seriously, that I was just "blowing her off." Now I suspect that it was really difficult to stop my perfectionistic behaviors because they were so heavily entrenched in OCD thiking and a very OCD approach to life. And without very active and aggressive CBT, I struggled to find my way out of the OCD maze.

  2. Wow - this posting is so "appropos" - if you read my last post. I can so relate to your experience with OCD and your experiences with other therapists - especially in terms of analysis. It sounds like your therapist has caught on to your thinking and can "catch you" before you can! Thank you for this post and your wonderful insight. I love your comment "interpretations can yield useful insight if they're not about obsessive thoughts". I think I might write that out and post it somewhere.

  3. "Do I really have OCD?" That's such an irritating question! And then some people don't seem to recognize my OCD as much and so they become "evidence" that maybe I just made the whole OCD thing up.
    Good reminder that the questioning is just part of the ocd and stopping "figuring it out" really is an option, even though it doesn't feel like much of one.

  4. Fellow Sufferer--The recommendations to be less perfectionistic is one of the more frustrating things I experienced in previous therapy, since it meant one more thing I wouldn't be able to do "right."

    Pure O--Yeah, we've been thinking about similar themes lately!

    Abigail--The "under the radar" stuff is so hard to deal with--the OCD uses anything as evidence against me, stuff that seems "reasonable" like all my old therapists who didn't really understand OCD. Stopping the "figuring out" seems impossible, but I have learned it is possible.