The Single Most Important Ingredient of My OCD Recovery
My name is Joe Cianciotto and I have overcome my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Those are words I never thought I would utter in my life. For as long as I can remember I have had this disorder. I am lucky because I found a fantastic behavioral psychologist who through ERP (exposure response prevention) taught me how to retrain my brain to relegate this condition to mere background noise, with minimal infringement upon my everyday life functions.
While I got there through a mix of determination, steady practice, an amazing psychologist and supportive loved ones, the single most potent ingredient to my recovery was actually meeting other people out there who lived with obsessive compulsive disorder. I know that sounds like it is surely hyperbole or bluster, but I can assure you that this last piece in the puzzle was the most critical component for me in getting past the condition and on with my life.
Allow me to explain.
OCD is an incredibly lonely disorder to live with. The condition causes unwanted intrusive thoughts and responsive behaviors that can be quite embarrassing to admit to friends and family members. It is also a condition whose symptoms many times can be easily masked or hidden from others, which can lead to a lifetime of suffering in silence.
The thing is everybody has unwanted random thoughts that go through their head all the time… it’s part of what it means to be human. The difference is most people dismiss these thoughts without notice and go on with their day. For people like me, the very presence of the thoughts becomes a cause for concern and we do everything we can to avoid having them by engaging in compulsive behaviors and thinking, which only reinforces their presence and causes us to treat them as if the content is a real and present danger.
The best approximation I can give to someone who doesn’t live with OCD is that it’s a lot like when you go on vacation for a week and wonder if you locked the front door as you pull out of the driveway. This is a risk and an uncertainty that you usually take in stride every day without pause. However, the fact that this time you will be gone for a full week fills your mind with a bevy of possible scenarios that could occur (break-ins, flooding, etc.) and in that moment, gives your need to know if the door is a locked, a greater level of magnitude than it does on any other typical day. Viola, just like that you might even check the door “just in case.” Well imagine, if that was how your brain approached a multitude of other life possibilities each day.
That’s sort of what OCD is like, except there is no limit to the variety of topics that a person with the disorder can get stuck on. This can be anything from a fear of contamination, to a fear of hurting oneself and others to a fear of being terminally ill, or even a fear that you might do inappropriate things in a social setting. And because there are a multitude of possible topics one can obsess about, there are a multitude of ways the condition can manifest itself. With years to reinforce these random ruminations, it is quite common to meet five different people that seem to exhibit five distinct forms of OCD based on what topics they have become fixated on in a lifetime of worry. So as someone who has it, you come to the realization that your version of OCD is specific to your particular insecurities, phobias and issues that have molded your life and woven a version of the disorder that is wholly unique to you.
There is only one problem… this is an illusion.
Regardless of what your mind has settled on as your topic du jour, the reality is that on a biochemical level the function of the brain of someone who constantly worries about accidentally hitting someone with their car is identical to the function of the brain of an individual who might spend their day in fear of being contaminated by imagined radiation levels at work.
On an intellectual level, as a thinking human being, you might acknowledge this, but on emotional level, as someone with OCD, this doesn’t stop you from feeling like you live in a custom built phobia-reinforced cage of its own design. I felt this way my entire life. Hell, even as I progressed with the behavioral exercises and excelled at the therapy, I still perceived myself to be a leper alone in my own private purgatory that I could not escape.
That was until the day I got the chance to sit in a room filled with others that too struggled with OCD. And although I could not shake my own personal sense that I was a pariah, I was amazed that was not what I saw around me. Instead I met a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a famous journalist, several bright college students and two other people who worked in advertising just like me. And as much as that might seem like a cliché, it is all very much the truth… heck (and I mean this in the most respectful way possible way) even the girls were really cute.
I had known people who I suspected of having OCD as well, but this was the first time I actually met anyone with the condition who freely spoke of and acknowledged it. And as they went around the room introducing themselves I was amazed at how similar their struggle had been to my own. In that first session where I shared my OCD worries and the weird stuff I did to manage them, I was struck by how understanding everyone was, but even more so, by the shared vocabulary and understanding of the various aspects of the disorder that I had come to see as unique to myself. In the months that followed, I became a regular at the weekly group meetings. And instead of this being something as clinical as group therapy, it was really just a bunch of fantastic people going through the same crap and supporting each other with words of encouragement and shared stories of past successes.
I even met someone who had actually come so far in their progress with behavioral OCD exposure response prevention therapy, their symptoms were fully in remission. That just blew my mind. I had no idea that level of success was even possible. And as I got to know her, I learned that she had actually struggled with a more extreme set of symptoms than myself, but through perseverance and courage had been able to free herself of the OCD cycle. It’s funny, you can hear from all of the experts in the world, but it isn’t until you meet someone who has been in your shoes and succeeded that the words start to make sense. Knowing I could hope for an outcome like that gave me the juice to take on my challenges with renewed vigor.
And in my time with “group,” as we called it, I found my shame for having OCD diminishing and in its place a growing sense of pride. I was proud to have found this family and proud of the courage that was so regularly exemplified by these people who faced down their worst fears and reclaimed their lives. OCD really sucks, and to retrain your brain to develop a new set of behaviors in the face of this faulty wiring and maintaining that course is the truest form of bravery I have ever witnessed and experienced. The closest comparison I could offer to this would be the series of cross training gyms that have popped up in recent years. Much like those fitness collectives, in our group we regularly pushed ourselves, and each other, to be even stronger.
This experience has also changed the way I approach life post-therapy. I do not wear my condition on my sleeve, however when it does come up I am quite forthcoming that I have OCD, mostly because that’s not the whole story. I have OCD, and I have worked hard enough at it that it doesn’t affect my life choices. And if in that I can make someone else with OCD (or anxiety for that matter) feel less alone, than writing this article and posting my name in the first sentence has been more than worth it.
Getty image via SvetaZ