Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fear of Thoughts Getting Stuck: The Challenge of Reading OCD Self-Help Books

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I had several responses to my review of J.J. Keeler's I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands: The Other Side of OCD, expressing fears that reading the book would give them ideas or cause anxiety.  I've been mulling this over, because it's a challenge to respond.

The simplest answer is that I don't know if J.J. Keeler's account of her OCD, and the specific things she worries about, will "stick" in your mind or create new OCD obsessions.

This is the nature of OCD that one person's trigger can seem completely harmless to someone else with a different form OCD; it's not only those without OCD who think that a particular obsession is incomprehensible.  There is a tendency to assume that other people's obsessions are easier to bear.  Conversely, if we suspect that a person's obsessions might be similar to ours, then there can be a desire to quarantine them, and not get anywhere near, as if the fears were contagious.  Or we are afraid of adding a whole new category of obsessing, and again, stay away.

This is OCD's mode of operation, to convince you that you can avoid the contagion of life, if you just screen out all things that might set you off, and enlist those around you to help in this task.   I know this from the inside.  Public health campaigns to raise awareness about various illnesses seemed designed by very cruel folks to torment me.  I was already highly aware of things that could go wrong, and I didn't want to know of any additional ways to monitor and worry about.  When I was a kid there was no internet but there were posters on the bus, public service ads on tv, special episodes of programs where someone had a disease, and magazine articles.  Women's magazines were the worst, and my mood would plummet if I was in a waiting room, reading one(which I picked up because I was anxious to be in the waiting room to begin with).

In college I was doing fairly well for awhile, avoiding obsessing about moles, until a classmate opened up his datebook, and I could see he'd written in an appointment for a mole removal.  I couldn't have predicted this.  Now, it might seem that you could at least keep yourself safe by avoiding what seems obvious, like Keeler's book or other OCD self-help books, or my blog, or the OCD Yahoo Group, or OCD support groups, but what is your definition of safe?  Avoiding all possibilities of help is not safety.  OCD would have you believe that it is possible to maintain complete quarantine, but triggers are part of life.

The irony is that when I was in an anxiety spike, I would then search out articles about whatever symptom was catching my attention, in order to reassure myself that I didn't have something serious.  There would be an initial calming effect if my symptoms didn't match, but then as I'd keep reading, I'd find something that again put doubt into my mind, or introduced an even more scary possibility.

I am not minimizing the abject fear of being seized by an OCD obsession.  I've been there.
But getting help for OCD is where the true hope of living beyond your obsessions resides.  OCD wants to maintain the status quo.  Don't get help.  Don't learn about how other people have coped.  Don't risk new pain.  

If you can't read a self-help book or OCD memoir because it's too terrifying, then this is a signal to find an exposure therapist, or a self-help group, where other people can help you.  I understand the irony in this.  I was once incredibly shy and my therapist suggested group therapy, and I was appalled.  How could I go to a group for help if I was terrified of groups??  But eventually, I realized that I didn't want to go on the way I was going:  the cost of my fear was too much, I was missing my life.

Keeler, in the preface to her book, writes of having severe fears of harming someone while at Disneyland, and self-loathing for what kind of person she must be, when a toddler ran over and hugged her leg.

It felt like she was telling me I wasn't what I feared.
I have no idea who this toddler was and I never saw her again.
But she saved part of me that day.  
Hopefully, this book can save part of someone else. 


  1. Great post and a great response to the possibility of avoiding OCD memoirs and self-help books because of fear of triggers. I don't have that issue myself, but I can understand that it can be an issue. You put it so well when you say, "But getting help for OCD is where the true hope of living beyond your obsessions resides."

  2. Excellent post! You reaffirm that avoidance is never the answer, even though that's exactly what OCD would like you to believe.

  3. Oh, wow, what an incredible post! Absolutely spot on advice. It's true, at times you think you can just protect yourself from any worries, but oh it never works like that. And trying to isolate yourself from the things that trigger the anxiety only makes your life worse. It sure did for me. Interestingly enough, for the most part, I don't think anyone's memoir or even talking to someone else with OCD has made my OCD worse. My mind can usually come up with it's own stuff (unfortunately).

    1. 71, well said. expwoman, excellent blog again, thanks for addressing this. I thought I just had 'odd mannerisms', but someone diagnosed with OCD just read through my blog and said some of my tendencies are worse than hers.

      I always thought I had things under control, but guess I need to look at them closer.

  4. Hi, I just came across your blog via google. Excellent observations. When you talked about looking up symptoms just to confirm that you didn't have a condition...Ahhh, spot on for me. :)

    One thing I struggle with is finding a normal balance. Trying not to avoid looking up a health condition that may need addressing because I know it may trigger an obsession, but also not obsessively looking up every symptom.
    Thanks for your blog.

    1. Welcome MinM--This is a centerpiece of my own life, the balance of taking care of my health, being informed, but not feeding the OCD. I like what my therapist says about it not being "pretend"--one of the reasons the fears are powerful is that there is uncertainty about whether a symptom is dangerous or not, and as humans we can't know the future without a doubt. But taking a best guess is more functional than getting stuck in web searching, which is where I frequently used to end up before I started exposure therapy.

  5. Really quite beautiful/incredible post. Your final quote from Keeler's book is a fabulous way to wrap up your post - and when I read her book it was the part that stuck with me most

  6. Hello i just wanted to share my new book that i just published to help ocd suffers out there. I was diagnosed with ocd in 1999 and it has been a struggle ever since. I hope this book can help other people out there. and available on The book is called diary of a fat woman.