How I Began to Heal From OCD and How You Can Too
Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.
Let me begin this piece by telling you how little I believed in the possibility of recovery from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I’ve spent the past 17 years living in fear from my own mind, convinced I might cause harm to myself or others. I live with harm OCD and more specifically POCD, which is centered around obsessional fears of being a pedophile. I need to just take a breath here to tell you, as little as a few months ago, I would never have been able to even see that word, let alone write it.
See, I’ve spent my life trying to avoid children because I feared, so deeply, that if I were to come into contact with a child, I would harm them. My obsessions were (and still are to some extent) brutal. I’m talking graphic thoughts of rape and murder. I’m talking images of naked bodies and inappropriate actions forcing their way into my mind, causing me to feel ashamed, scared and utterly alone.
Let me be clear — for anyone experiencing these kinds of thoughts, there is absolutely no pleasure. They are repulsive, repugnant and the exact opposite of how we truly feel. Those with OCD are not dangerous and we do not act upon these thoughts. On the contrary — we tend to run from our thoughts so we might feel safer.
I don’t know how long I’ve had OCD, but I know for certain that this type of OCD came about when I recalled memories of being abused by a family member when I was a child. These repressed memories presented themselves as flashbacks and nightmares when I was 14, which led to me developing POCD because I was so afraid of becoming the monster who had abused me just a few years earlier. So, since I was 14 years old, I have lived under the strict control of OCD. I have done everything it has told me to do and not do. I have avoided children, ended friendships where younger siblings were involved and even locked myself in my room all day and all night for years upon years for fear of causing harm.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I never believed in the possibility of recovery. OCD is the very worst part of my life. It has taken so much away from me — years I can never get back, a childhood I long to forget and the painful memories of several suicide attempts. But the day I decided to fight back was the greatest day of my life… though it didn’t feel that way at the time.
After years of experimenting with a variety of anti-anxiety medications — after years of waiting lists for therapy and talk of a lengthy stay in a hospital — I finally came across the treatment I had always needed in order to heal from my OCD.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is thought to be the most effective treatment for OCD. It works by breaking the link between the intrusive thought and the compulsion. The compulsion is the act we carry out in order to reduce the distress and anxiety from the intrusive thought. So, for example, let’s say I have an intrusive thought that I am going to touch a child inappropriately whilst in the store. The compulsion here would be to avoid the store altogether, or if I must go, I will try my best to avoid any children I see and walk with my hands and arms locked tightly across my body. I will also force myself to remember every child I pass so I can later recall them all in order to make sure I didn’t harm anyone. This compulsion takes the longest and can be incredibly distressing to carry out. Not completing it, however, feels risky because I am always seeking evidence to prove I haven’t done anything “bad.”
Compulsions trick us into believing they are necessary and helpful because they appear to reduce the distress caused by the thought, but in truth, they only reinforce the obsession and, in the longer term, will increase the OCD.
So, in order to combat OCD, what we need to do is forego the compulsion — not easy when you consider this is how we have learned to decrease our anxiety levels. Not easy, but very possible.
I recommend starting with something small, something you fear the least. So, in my case, I didn’t start by having a child over to my house, though I will tell you that since I began therapy almost a year ago now, this is something I have managed to do. Instead, I started with something much smaller: I began by looking at images of children in clothing catalogs. For me, this wasn’t easy at all, but it was the ideal starting place since I had, at that point, avoided even looking at a child for 17 years.
As expected with ERP, the anxiety I felt by forcing myself to look at the images was incredibly high. I experienced more intrusive thoughts than I had in a long time. The desire to prevent those thoughts by completing a compulsion was much higher than it usually would be. This is because my therapist urged me to remain in an exercise that made me feel uncomfortable and scared. It felt dangerous, even though it wasn’t. You might be wondering why this is necessary. Well, remaining in the exercise without carrying out the compulsion means your anxiety reduces naturally and as such, the strength between your obsession and compulsion also reduces. I was exposed to the fear, and I prevented my response to it by sitting with the anxiety.
ERP should be carried out on a hierarchy system, meaning you will confront easier situations first, allowing you to build confidence in yourself as you progress to the more difficult ones. Each time you carry out an ERP exercise, it will become easier and easier, meaning the distress will gradually subside.
Unbelievable though it was at one time not so long ago, such was the case for me. Over the past year, I’ve carried out so many different exposures, each feeling more and more dangerous, but all of them giving me the confidence to trust myself and my recovery. There was once a time when simply looking at images of children would cause a panic attack and would require hours upon hours of exhausting compulsions and reassurance-seeking, but now it feels simple, easy even. And that’s how ERP works — it provides natural safety and reassurance without worsening your condition.
I still have a long way to go in my recovery, but I am so much better than I was just a year ago. I am so much stronger and happier because of ERP.
Try to remember that it is natural for your anxiety to spike while completing exposures and that staying in the exposure will feel dangerous and scary. You will want to quit, to run away. You will feel like it isn’t working, but it is. It will. It is worth it, I promise you.
You’ve got this.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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