A few years ago, my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was severe. Today, I’m in remission. It means I still get unwanted thoughts, though I manage them differently than before my recovery. Part of what helped me was changing the thinking errors that I had attached to the intrusive thoughts.
For example, in a harm obsession that carried false memories about murder and burial, I remember being terrified. I used to think that, because I was having these intrusive thoughts, it must mean I killed and buried someone for real, it’s just that I couldn’t piece the whole memory together. And my erroneous beliefs about self, others and the world had such an impact that OCD soon spiralled out of control. I used to think about others hating me when they found out what I’d done, or at least what my mind was telling me I’d done. I imagined the world turning against me and seeing myself suffering in prison.
I realise now that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that carries memories, is involved in the other areas of the brain known to be responsible for OCD. It’s quite clever how the inside of the head operates with all its components to make us think, feel, and behave, even in OCD. It’s even smarter when you can correct the faulty parts in this disorder. But that involves more than changing thinking errors, which I did with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). For example, seeking reassurance is a compulsion that reinforces and strengthens an obsession. It was tough for me not to get that reassurance within myself and others to prove I wasn’t a killer. Or more specifically, that my memory of killing someone could never be true. But by resisting the urge in small steps, it paid off in the end.
It wasn’t the harm obsession itself that pushed me to do reassurance and checking compulsions. It was the way I thought about it that did that, as in the example of my thinking errors above. I believed the rituals would ward off the perceived threat about self, others and the world, but what I hadn’t realised yet is that I could have changed my beliefs instead. Telling myself that I could let the thoughts pass without attaching meaning and doing rituals to avoid anxiety could have saved years of torment.
No more bargaining with OCD
Even in remission, doubts crept in and attacked me with what-if scenarios and magical thinking, but I stayed firm. Usually, I’d have bargained with OCD to prevent a terrible thing from happening. But throughout my recovery goals, I decided to chance risk instead of trying to grab hold of certainty. It feels scary at first to say, “Maybe I am a killer (but maybe not either), maybe others will hate me (though possibly not). And perhaps the world will turn against me, and I’ll end up in prison (but perhaps not either).”
No More Reassurance
Still, learning to accept uncertainty is something that helped me a lot. It taught me that I did not need to seek reassurance about the thoughts that came involuntarily into my mind. It was hard, to begin with, because, just like a user wants their daily fix, I desperately wanted my reassurance fix. However, I knew that unless I practised handling probability, I would never stop needing that kind of relief. And so I asked myself, “What is the likelihood that your memory is accurate?” It was reasonable to say low to zero, given that intrusive thoughts are nonsensical.
Since my recovery, I can see that OCD is a paradoxical disorder, and how it cannot determine what I will or won’t do in life. Neither can it define who I am or who I am not. Thought it tries to grab my attention with intrusive memories of a possible crime that happened decades ago, I can let such ideas in my head come and go these days. Recovery has taught me that you can build resilience to its paradoxes and survive its lies. It’s part of the process in treatment, and with a fresh perspective, I know I can return to the tools learned in CBT and ERP should intrusive thoughts start turning up the volume again.