Therapy Success Stories
Graduate OCD Sufferers Speak Out
Graduate Story #13
When Being Good Goes Really Badly
There is a quote from the Scarlet Letter that reads: “She did not know the weight until she felt the freedom.” This line perfectly captures my history and experience with OCD. For the majority of my life, I did not know I had an anxiety disorder. I did not know I had a mental illness. Looking back, I believe signs of it started around the 4th grade, but I never really understood what I had until I was almost 30 years old.
OCD is an anxiety disorder that takes captive of its victims under the guise of helping or protecting them. It is the amygdala of the brain - the warning center of the brain - gone haywire. The brain sends you warnings in the form of troubling thoughts and uncomfortable feelings when there is really no danger at all. In other words, your brain wants to get your attention, and it does so through discomfort.
My journey towards discovering that I had OCD was a long one. I sought help from several professionals to try to cure my anxiety, and I also was on anxiety medication for a time. Sadly, nothing seemed to help. I kept researching and looking for help though, because I knew something was not right with me. At the heart of my OCD is the warning that I have done something wrong and therefore do not deserve to be happy or at peace. Anytime I would be about to enjoy something, or looking forward to something, my brain would send me a thought about something bad I might have done and accompany that thought with a flood of guilt. This guilt made it very difficult for me to enjoy anything, or feel present in the moment, because the discomfort with distracting. I always worked hard to put on a happy face, but this was in and of itself exhausting.
My quest for professional help lasted around 8 years. In the midst of my search, I came across a series of video lectures by Dr. Steve Phillipson. The lectures were excellent, and they explained exactly what I was experiencing. About 2 years after seeing these videos, the pressure from my OCD reached a tipping point. I had a 1.5 year old son and was expecting a second baby. I was physically exhausted, but worse was the mental and emotional exhaustion I felt from the continual bombardment of guilt-ridden thoughts. Life seemed harder than it should be; harder than it was meant to be. With this reality on my hands, my husband and I decided to set up a consultation with Steve over Skype, since his physical office was in New York City.
Our consultation with Steve went really well, and it was so consoling to speak with someone who understood what I was experiencing. Unfortunately, because of the stigma against mental illness, it is hard to feel understood some times. You would not tell someone with a broken arm to pray their way to recovery, rather you would tell them to see a doctor and get it fixed. For whatever reason, however, this train of thought does not seem to transfer into the mental health arena very easily. I believe this is a great misfortune, and delays proper treatment for many people as a result. All this to say, Steve legitimized what I had been experiencing for most of my life. He said that, for whatever reason, my brain had become programmed to “scan” for any misdeeds on my part before partaking in something I enjoyed in order to see if I “deserved” the good time or restful experience. My brain always found something. I asked why it did that, and he explained that it was actually trying to help me - trying to make sure I stayed on the straight and narrow path - but it’s advice and guidance were just dead wrong.
My husband and I both liked Steve, and his expertise was evident. So, in June 2016, I began meeting with him weekly at 6am. Every time I had a “spike” about something I did wrong, Steve advised me to write it on an index card and review it every hour, 10 times a day. I had to do this until the intensity / negative feeling of the spike went down substantially. Steve said I suffered from scrupulosity, one of the forms of OCD. Growing up, I had always understood scrupulosity as a spiritual problem that could be solved by increasing one’s faith and trust in God. I now see that this is an unhelpful away of defining and explaining scrupulosity. At the heart of scrupulosity is a mental problem, an overactive amygdala, not a spiritual problem i.e lack of faith.
Steve continued to have me expose myself to what he called my “many crimes.” This was very hard and painful. I desperately wanted to share my crimes with someone (a compulsion of mine) and get reassurance that I “hadn’t done anything wrong or hurt anyone.” But Steve told me that doing so would just add fuel to the fire - that it would legitimize the warnings my brain was sending me and, as a result, my brain would send more. The goal was to show my brain that I was unaffected by its warnings; that they were meaningless to me. I spent many days emotionally and mentally carrying the discomfort of guilt that the OCD would inflict on me to get my attention. But Steve kept encouraging me to do the index cards and have a cavalier attitude towards the spikes and discomfort. “Bring it on” is what he told me to say to my brain. To give you an idea of how relentless my brain was, one time Steve said my brain “made the devil look generous.”
Eventually, Steve and I agreed on an exposure exercise I would do that would produce the thought that I had killed a child and/or children (this then expanded to include the children’s parents as well, which just shows you the insatiable appetite of OCD). Doing this exposure exercise over and over again was one of the main catalyzes that moved me in the direction of recovering from OCD. The action I committed which put children in danger became a constant spike for me, and thus a constant opportunity to show my brain I didn’t care about the incriminating thoughts it was sending me. The goal was to go about my day acting unaffected by the guilt I felt. Steve coached me that this was the way to show my brain its messaging was unimportant. This was very difficult, but I tried to persevere and do the therapy.
Then, over time, I began to see improvement. The spikes became less, and when they did come, I would be able to brush them away with a fair amount of ease. The feelings of guilt accompanying the thoughts also became less. I began to do able to enjoy myself without the distractions of OCD. Steve said this was a dividend of following the therapy, but that my goal shouldn’t be to not spike or to feel good. My goal had to be a good morale, which was allowing my brain to send me as many guilt-ridden thoughts as it wanted to without trying to figure out if they were legitimate or not; without trying to figure out if I had done something wrong. With practice, developing this proper morale has also come. I give my brain a lot of freedom to come up with whatever it wants - to send me the warnings it wants to - without validating them. Now, almost one year later now, I am happy to say that I have made huge strides with my OCD. And, as my husband has said, this therapy has given me my life back.
In closing, having OCD is hard. St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic saint, said that “Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall a soul, except sin.” OCD is an anxiety disorder and it is real suffering. My hope is that those who read this and experience the anxiety that OCD brings will get help. Their anxiety is not caused by a lack of faith or prayer, but rather a dysfunctional amygdala that needs correcting. I am beyond grateful to my husband who has stood by me and helped solve this problem with me. I am also so grateful for Steve, who has used his gifts of knowledge, expertise and compassion to help people. As I mentioned above, I sought help in so many places, from so many people. Incompetence is prevalent. Steve is the opposite of that, and for that I am so grateful.
In our first consultation with Steve, I remember telling him that I needed help because I wanted to be a good wife and mother of our children - to have the energy to do those things. For the longest time, OCD has been a second job for me - taking much of my time, thought and energy. I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life where I can focus on the job I really want to do, without the burdens of one I don’t. This is possible with good help and the right therapy. So, if you have OCD, I hope you will consider quitting that second job soon.