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Why This Famous ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Quote Is Relatable in OCD Recovery

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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 the International OCD Foundation’s website.

“’Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

“’A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’”

— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass.”

I love this quote from the novel “Through the Looking-Glass,” the sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Alice is running with the Red Queen, yet soon Alice realizes they haven’t moved. The passage is known famously as “the Red Queen’s Race” and is used frequently as a metaphor. For example, in evolutionary biology, it is used to describe the evolutionary arms race, for example, between a host and parasite. Both species keep running and changing and evolving just to keep their ecological relationship about the same.

I read these classic novels several years ago and instantly connected this passage with my experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). At the time, I was doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, but I didn’t see obvious progress. I would do my exposures, and one obsession would gradually improve, but while I was working on that fear another would appear or get worse. I felt like I had to run really fast, like Alice, just to stay in the same place, let alone if I wanted to get ahead of OCD. Ultimately, this contributed to my decision to take a semester off from college and do more intensive, residential treatment. Switching the main focus of my day-to-day life gave me time to catch up to OCD. Then, when I went back to school, I felt like I was running ahead of OCD, and I could continue working on exposures more effectively. This isn’t the path everyone takes to reach recovery, and it isn’t an option available to everyone with OCD, but that was what worked best for my treatment.

“The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’”

— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”

I want to reiterate that it can be incredibly frustrating when you are doing the hard work of therapy, you’re doing your exposures and maybe also taking medication, but it may not feel like you are moving forward. I remember asking a therapist, “What is the point of doing exposures if I’m not seeing obvious improvement?” It felt like I was working really hard just to keep OCD from getting worse. Of course, the answer is, if you stop doing the exposures or stop running, OCD will continue to grow and take over more and more of your life. When we let OCD shrink our life even in small ways, if we don’t fight back, soon there will be nothing left. Still, it would have been validating to hear that others felt the same way of needing to run really fast just to keep OCD at its current severity level, let alone reach a place of recovery.

At the end of the day, the treatment of OCD is hard work. Whether you are just beginning treatment or you are working on maintenance, ERP is hard work. There’s no point where you can accept where you are in recovery and stop running. We always have to continue to be aware of OCD and do exposures when necessary, to live a life as mildly impacted by OCD as possible. Putting down our guard is not an option, or OCD will expand again. We must keep running, even if not as fast anymore, again to stay in the same place.

I’ve been thinking about this metaphor for OCD and have had it as a draft blog post for literally years. A conversation with my friends convinced me to finally write it. After thinking about it for all these years, there still isn’t an easy answer to how to make running a race with OCD easier or simpler. Medications can help. Other therapies can augment ERP. And the support of friends, family, and others in the community can make a huge difference. But at the end of the day, we must do the hard work. Recovery is possible though. And one day, you will feel like you can breathe easier, despite running so fast. Keep running.

“And still the Queen cried, ‘Faster! Faster!’”

— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”


Illustration by John Tenniel via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Originally published: July 16, 2020
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