Graduate Story #2
by Professor Mike
I am presently fifty-four years old and have suffered from OCD since I was fifteen. Although originally a native New Yorker, I have been a college professor in the Deep South for at least twenty years. During my life my OCD has focused on different issues: e.g., concerns about scratches on eyeglass lenses, whether eyeglasses were properly adjusted, wristwatch straps that might cut off circulation, inappropriate noises in the environment. This last concern became so severe that eventually chronic obsessing about the origin of neighborhood noises prompted at least one relocation.
I have seen several psychiatrists. None of these really offered a therapy that worked. I have tried the following drugs at one time or another: elavil, limbitrol, sinequan, Ativan, Valium, Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft. Although some of these drugs relieved the anxiety and depression which accompanied my OCD, none eliminated the root cause of my distress which were obsessive thoughts and rituals. They also had bad side effects. Currently I take no drugs.
In 1991 I read Dr. Steven Phillipson's article "Thinking the Unthinkable" in the OCD Newsletter (Volume 5, Number 4, 1991). I related to this article more than anything I had ever read about OCD. I made an appointment and came to New York City. At our first meeting, Dr. Phillipson (Steve) noticed how loose my watch was on my wrist. He asked why and I explained my fear: obsessive concern about cutting off circulation. Dr. Phillipson asked if I would consider tightening the band and accept the associated risk. This was my first challenge in therapy. Today I wear a tightly fastened wrist watch and take pride in this achievement as a trophy of my progress.
I have learned much from Steve about how to handle my OCD. Very important is his distinction between the initial thought to perform an OCD ritual (the spike) and the actual doing of it (the ritual). The spike is something we can't control, but if we recognize it as an OCD spike and refuse to do the ritual, we are on the road to recovery.
With Steve's help I am usually able to see spikes for what they are -- as mental false alarms, and to treat them as such, accepting the risk and uncertainty they present. The anxiety accompanying spikes doesn't have the same power to terrorize me. In my best moments I'm able to laugh at a spike, invite it to do its worst, admire its ingenuity and tenacity, and even enjoy its energizing effect. By "turning the tables" on the spike, by accepting rather than fleeing from it, I "take the wind out of its sails" and it quickly recedes.
Steve has been particularly helpful to me with his insight into the difficulty that OCD sufferers have with the so-called gray areas -- determining whether a thought is an OCD spike or a legitimate concern. He says if there is a doubt as to its legitimacy, treat it as an OCD spike. For people with OCD, doubt is always a warrant to "swallow" the risk and uncertainty. Steve says that people with OCD have judgment which is fundamentally sound and when a perceived threat is truly legitimate, it will be immediately apparent because there will be no doubt.
For the most part I have been doing very well with my OCD. Steve considers me a graduate, although I still struggle at times. One is never cured of OCD, but one can learn to cope with it. I have continued to see Steve when I can get to New York which is infrequent. However, I do call him for therapy sessions over the phone. Steve tapes these sessions for me, and I can review them when needed.
Since seeing Dr. Phillipson, the quality of my life has much improved. I have achieved a measure of control I haven't had before.