When I Realized 'Harm OCD' Had Been Tricking Me All Along

I don’t recall exactly when it happened. 

I was sitting there, struggling with Harm OCD. Utterly unwelcome thoughts of harming others buzzed round my head like a cloud of mosquitos. They had become inescapable. I could do little more than despair. 

And then, suddenly, it came to me. 

I was being “had.”

Bamboozled. Hoaxed. Duped. Mislead. Deluded. Deceived. Hoodwinked. Suckered.

A card trick can be convincing. This is especially true when the trick is performed at close quarters, when the very nearness of the sleight-of-hand adds to its credibility. Imagine the result, then, if the magic trick is performed – effortlessly, flawlessly – inside your own head.

That has to be the most convincing trick of all. 

And I had been convinced for a very long time.

My wife had very serious health problems after the birth of our first child. For months on end, I was filled with fear. At work, at home, I simply could not shake it. The simple day-to-day act of living was exhausting. Then, out of nowhere, thoughts of harming others began popping into my mind. 

They were utterly alien things. But there they were — in my own mind. I was shocked. “What kind of person has thoughts like this?” I asked myself. And then, as the thoughts continued, “Maybe this means I’m the kind of person who eventually acts out such thoughts. God help me, they just keep coming! Why is this happening to me? How can I stop it?” 

And then, in a last ditch effort at flexing what I believed to be true about myself, I decided, “Maybe if I constantly oppose these thoughts, if I actively reject each and every one, that means I’m a good person. That has to mean I’m not the sort of person who acts on such thoughts — even if I do have them for reasons I can’t explain. But there comes another one. And another. And another.”

This went on for a long time. Eventually, however, that brief but telling insight arrived. Harm OCD did not deserve herculean efforts at vigilance and self-scrutiny. It was a simple parlor trick.

But you’re waiting for me to show you the trick. Of course, you are. Now, watch closely:

Do not think of a red rose.

That’s it. Show’s over. You’ve been a great audience! Goodnight, Padooka!

What? You want me to do it again? OK, keep your eyes on the cards. Here goes:

Don’t. Think. Red. Rose. 

Got it? Did you manage not to think of a red rose?

It’s impossible, right? In order to process my statement, you visualized anything in the statement that required visualization. You did this automatically, unavoidably. The result: the statement “Do not think of a red rose” effectively inserted a red rose into your mind — even as the statement created a sense that you should somehow be able to accomplish what it asked of you.

Now, do me a favor:

Do not think of something awful. 

You see where this is headed. 

I might be driving down the highway, listening to public radio. Nina Totenberg has just finished a report on the growing problem of (fill in the blank) in our society. I think, “Gosh, how upsetting. (Fill in the blank) is so awful. Imagine what victims of (fill in the blank) must go through.” Pause at a red light. “For that matter, imagine what persons guilty of (fill in the blank) must go through. I suppose they have thoughts of (fill in the blank). Hmmm. That’s strange. I guess I just had a thought of (fill in the blank). But I’m OK. I’ve never had thoughts of (fill in the blank) before, right? My memory is so bad though. I wonder if I have had thoughts of (fill in the blank) before. There may have been that one time… And then that other… I guess I have had a thought of (fill in the blank) pop into my head. But just because I had a (fill in the blank) thought once or twice before — that doesn’t mean I’m a (fill in the blank) person. I mean, you would have to struggle constantly with (fill in the blank) thoughts to be a (fill in the blank) person. And I’m just not going to have any more (fill in the blank) thoughts. Well, there goes another one. But that’s the last one. No more!”

Two days later, I’m a total wreck, shambling through work, afraid to tell anyone what’s going on. “Oh God, please help me not to have (fill in the blank) thoughts,” I pray. “I keep having them over and over again. I dread them! I guess this is what it feels like to be a (fill in the blank) person. I guess that proves I am a (fill in the blank) person. But I don’t want to go to counseling for (fill in the blank)! I’ll keep fighting it. I won’t give up.”

Given the mechanism I described previously — don’t think of a red rose — it seems like a sick practical joke played on an extraordinarily naive person, doesn’t it? Not an especially clever joke either. Nevertheless, when applied to me — a person predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a person already worn down by stress — it worked. For months on end.

Distractions would come along. They might claim my interest for extended periods of time — so that I forgot to remain vigilant and the very absence of this vigilance removed the mental leverage necessary for the trick to work. But then, one day, I would realize, “Hey, I haven’t had one of those (fill in the blank) thoughts for a while.” And (without my realizing it) entertaining that very sense of relief conjured up an example of the very thoughts I was so very glad to be rid of. And there it was in my mind again. And I become horrified again. And I fell for the trick again.

Once I caught on, however, I realized my vigilance necessarily required visualizing the thoughts I wanted to avoid. Vigilance, then, could not be the answer. The only answer was to seek help for the stress I was under, to carve out a space in my life for getting well, and to immerse myself in sources of the Good. In my case, that involved rereading the entire Narnia series. And taking Luvox for the OCD.

Today, if the Red Rose Hustle hovers at the edge of my consciousness like a dark cloud, I ignore it as best I can. Because I’m onto him, the magician has lost 90 percent of his mojo. Sure, he keeps trying. And sure, as a person prone to OCD I am peculiarly susceptible to his sort of trickery. But if I don’t assume victory consists of total mental health and happiness right this very minute, but assume instead that victory consists of knowing your enemy, knowing his tactics and rising above his ridiculous machinations — well, then I’ve won. I still struggle at times, but I’ve won. 

Not only am I part of an elite group — those who suffer from One of the Top Ten Debilitating Disorders Worldwide — I’ve moved up into an even higher echelon: those who don’t put up with any crap from One of the Top Ten Debilitating Disorders Worldwide.

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