Harm OCD, Religious OCD

Glimpses of a life without OCD

My name is Eric Ray Kupers. I’m 44 years old and live in Oakland, California with my husband and our 3 dogs, Doodle, Bubbles, and Abe. I’ve had OCD since I was a child. And even though I have been in therapy with a steady stream of therapists for over 30 years, both my parents are therapists, and I’ve done extensive experimenting in countless personal growth modalities I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 19, and didn’t find out about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) until my early 30’s.

The pain of OCD has at times felt unbearable, and I’ve tried just about every kind of therapy and spiritual practice I could find. And yet, through it all, I’ve managed to build a life that I love.  I’m in a deeply fulfilling long-term relationship, and am a dance/theater/music artist, a tenured professor of dance at Cal State University East Bay, the director of a professional, experimental performance company, and part of a community of soulful artists and loving friends & family.

OCD has been so deeply interwoven into my life and my sense of myself, that it seems I can’t really write my OCD story without writing my whole life story. I started working on my entry for The OCD Stories website, and am already on page 10, and not even out of my teens! So, I decided to share a summary of my OCD journey. I seem to have a lot to say, as now my summary has also gotten quite long.  My sense of this is that I’ve kept my OCD a shameful secret for so long, that as I start to share my story more publicly, it’s like a dam is breaking down and layers upon layers of experiences are flooding forth. So, please feel free to read or not read as much as you’d like. I’m going to continue writing the full story, and will make it available for anyone that’s interested, as soon as it gets a little farther along. Maybe it will become a whole book one day!

It is my hope that sharing this will aid me in my healing, and others in theirs. It’s been quite a journey so far.

I’ve had OCD as long as I can remember. It’s has taken on many different forms. Avoiding lines in the sidewalks grew into having to pet my 13 stuffed animals a certain way every night (3 – 4 times) or one of them would make something terrible happen. At 11 years old I began a near impossible regimen of doing pull-ups, hundreds every day, often in the middle of meals. I became a perfectionist in school and with friends. I was rigorously careful about everything.

Then in high school, as I left home for a year and began awakening to the realms of spirituality, sexuality, and independence, I strayed so far from what was familiar that I fell apart psychologically, and my OCD took over. I was paralyzed by terrible fears that I had fallen from the spiritual path and would never be able to get back on—that I would never reach God, or Truth, or Enlightenment. I wasn’t even exactly sure what that meant, but I knew it was awful and that I was all alone. I followed the whims of my cruel mind as it pushed me to do stranger and stranger things (in greater and greater isolation) in order to regain some sense of okayness.

Once I was out of my first major OCD crisis, I would go along fine for a while, and start to approach happiness, and then something would change and I’d crash again. Each time deeper than the last into the confusing swirl of fears of punishment and doom.

In college my OCD shifted to fears of going to Hell. And then to fears of The Devil.  I guess it was a form of religious OCD. However, I was raised in a secular Jewish family, and we thought of religion as an “opiate for the masses.” And my spiritual seeking came from deep within myself and from outside the family, rather than any particular religious tradition. Neither my upbringing, nor my newfound spirituality contained any concepts of Hell or The Devil. I thought of these as old myths that had been perverted by religions to “keep the troops in line.” But that didn’t matter to my OCD.

Looking back on it now, it seems that I chose things to obsess about that my upbringing, my family, and my community were all unable to help me with. Since we didn’t believe in this stuff, how could I really talk about it with anyone? How could I get answers? Help? Some sense of security?

The OCD got debilitating and I often could barely make it through my day before I collapsed at night, exhausted from fighting the constant stream of compulsions. A wonderful therapist became my ally, and was willing to listen to my seemingly insane ramblings without getting too drawn in. He pushed me towards opening up to others, to being in relationship, to talking to my family about old wounds. He helped me to feel less alone.

I was diagnosed with OCD and returned to taking Prozac (which I had started in high school.) It helped a little, but not enough. I didn’t know anything about CBT, and it seems like those around me didn’t either.

My main lifeline came in the form of a book, “Who Dies,” by Stephen Levine.  My obsessions were almost completely about terrible things happening to me after I died, because of some little thing I thought or said or did. The fear was so strong that it overrode all my beliefs and reasoning. I figured I better look into the nature of death and dying, and so went directly to Stephen, who was known as a major teacher in this area. His book lit a candle in the utter darkness of my anxiety.

This began a journey into spiritual practices of all kinds. I attended every workshop I could with Stephen and Ondrea (his wife and spiritual teaching partner.) I started meditating regularly. Since my fears were about religious images, I decided to try and learn as much as I could about them, and so decided to major in Comparative Religion. I was especially drawn to Buddhism, and spent a semester immersing myself in Buddhist practice in Bodh Gaya, India.

Meanwhile I had returned to my longest running passion, dance. Dance had been a saving grace for me throughout my life. It was almost always when I stopped dancing that the OCD flared up. Through dance in college I met the woman who I ended up spending a decade intertwining my life with, eventually getting married and starting a dance/theater company.  We moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after college and I continued my cycles of slowly climbing up out of OCD crises, engaging with my life, getting busy (which always made the OCD less powerful,) then taking a break or slowing down and being overrun by my OCD. Still it was fears of The Devil and Hell. Still it seemed completely irrational. Any mention, image or thought that could somehow be associated with images of ultimate “evil” would send me off into spirals of obsessing. To make the thoughts stop I would argue with myself inside my mind, and/or perform private, prayer-like rituals. Neither could stop the thoughts for more than a brief respite.

I continued my spiritual practice, sometimes switching from meditation to martial arts or yoga. I was able to mostly manage my OCD. My wife helped me however she could, but neither of us knew how to deal with this. I was ashamed to tell anyone besides her and a few family members, so kept my OCD a secret by any means necessary. At times things were good. At times I felt hopeless and despairing.

Then we broke up when I was 29. It was horribly painful. The immediacy of the break-up seemed to stall my OCD, but then it of course came flooding back in, stronger than ever. We had pretty much grown up together since age 19, and now that was ending and my whole life felt uncertain and overwhelming. The silver lining, or perhaps the deeper impulse to break up was that I now had a chance to try out being with men. I had realized I was bisexual in high school, and after a few passionate and disastrous flings with boys, I ended up falling in love with a woman in college (much to my surprise.) But I had always known I needed to explore my gay side at some point. And now was the time. So I began.

And I noticed a shift in my OCD. I felt like I was more myself. I could be truthful about more of my inner experience. Allowing my sexuality and intimacy with men ended up allowing other parts of my inner world to emerge into the light. It was a huge relief. And the OCD softened some.

At the same time, I was turned on to CBT and ERP. It was terrifying to begin reversing the habits of avoidance I had built up for over 20 years, but it was helping, so I gave it a shot. After about 4 months, I took a break, as I wanted to find a boyfriend, and it was taking me too much energy to keep doing the ERP while entering the vastly uncertain world of dating. (I see now that perhaps this was a mistake, and that I could have done both.)

I soon met my future husband and we began a relationship that helped me to ground myself in entirely new ways. He wasn’t put off by my OCD at all. His acceptance was profoundly healing. Over the next 15 years I continued to slowly grow, get more confident, learn to manage my OCD more, try other kinds of therapy, work out many other psychological issues that were fueling my OCD, and build a career for myself in dance that I had dreamed about since I was 12.

I now find myself at an interesting juncture. My outer life is where I want it to be. In that sense I am happy. And yet, the stability of my relationship and career has brought into stark relief all that still needs healing inside.

I had a particularly rough bout of OCD fears (the same old Devil and Hell obsessions) this past summer. I was used to going along fine for awhile and then getting knocked down for a few months—but always finding a way to get back up. But I found I was now fed up with this pattern and wanted to make some bigger shifts. I decided to face my OCD in new ways.

For the first time I started going to OCD groups. First just a peer support group, and then a CBT Practice group, led by a therapist. My fear was intense and I almost didn’t follow through, but now I’m so glad that I did. The horror of letting my obsessions just float there without doing my mental compulsions was excruciating at first. But very quickly the horror turned into an unexpected courage. And the practice of telling others about what I had been ashamed about for so long was a godsend.

I saw very clearly that the principles of CBT and ERP are almost exact mirrors of many Buddhist practices that guide the practitioner to sit with and tolerate greater and greater levels of uncertainty, groundlessness, and anxiety. Both modalities encourage us to relax with, and even embrace discomfort. I had continued meditating in recent years, a little bit each week, but had found that I would often obsess a lot when meditating, so mostly avoided it. I now saw that this made meditation its own form of ERP, and that I could use my years of Buddhist practice to help me do the ERP, and that the ERP could help me with my meditation practice.

For the past six months I’ve been in an intensive phase of exposing myself to images of The Devil and Hell, and using meditation, work with my therapist, and ERP practices to help me not retreat into compulsions. Perhaps it had to unfold this way, and I wasn’t ready for CBT and ERP, or being honest about OCD earlier. Perhaps I needed to go through my countless flare-ups to finally see that OCD isn’t just gonna go away and I have to face it head on.

I am often struck by how bizarre my fears are, given my values, beliefs about life, and my work in the world. My obsessions are extreme versions of “right and wrong” and yet, most of the time, I don’t believe such things exist. When I feel most clear, everything seems non-dual and interconnected to me, with no room for things like ultimate judgment or eternal punishment—no room for superficial dualisms like “good and evil.”  My therapist has reminded me at these times that this is the nature of OCD—that it doesn’t make sense, and is often in direct opposition to the rest of our lives. It’s a strange illness.

I’m getting glimpses of a life without OCD, or at least with very little of it. I’m seeing that my OCD has over and over again been what has prompted me onto the spiritual path, and led me deeper into my practice.  Even now my OCD snags in daily life are often pointing out some emotional conflict I’m having that I need to become aware of.

A big part of my work now is coming out about having OCD.  Through participating in groups, and sharing my OCD experiences with wider and wider circles of people, the shame that has held it in place for so long seems to be melting. I’ve told all the artists in the performance company I direct. I’ve told some people at work. I’ve even begun to tell some of my students. And serendipitously there are students starting to come out to me, many of them before I’ve shared anything about my OCD.

I’m beginning to find ways to bring my OCD story into my dance/theater/music works, which I think will offer a whole new realm of challenges and healing. Most of my art is based in a radical inclusion of people with and without all kinds of disabilities and non-mainstream bodies and minds. I feel most at home in environments in which everyone’s differences are celebrated, and in which we constantly acknowledge that each of us has unique limitations and unique gifts—that there is no such thing as “normal.” Having OCD has made me feel like an outsider, and so even when I couldn’t yet tell people about this part of me, I was drawn to other people who didn’t fit in. My friendships with people with disabilities and outsider artists has taught me about accepting all parts of myself and to practice thinking “outside the box” about my OCD. My ongoing experiments in this realm can be found here: www.dandeliondancetheater.org.

I’m curious about the ways that people that people with OCD who also have dedicated artistic and/or spiritual practices have integrated the two. I’m drawn to find and interview such people, maybe leading to a book or documentary.

I’m motivated by a strong desire to help others with OCD, particularly those who are walking similar paths to myself. This desire has helped me through particularly dark moments, and continues to guide me forward.

And telling my story here, feels like a major step. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to share, and to begin connecting to the brave community of OCD spiritual warriors worldwide.

Thanks,

Eric

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4 Comments

  • Reply Ashley March 23, 2016 at 1:48 am

    I loved your quote “very quickly the horror turned into an unexpected courage”. What an inspiring message for other sufferers, and something I will keep in mind as I delve into the scary world of ERP for the first time next week. I also love how your are bringing your OCD story into your art. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Lauren Milano April 21, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Thank you for sharing. This gives me hope. I’ve been struggling for awhile and am very slowly learning how to get out of the rabbit holes of OCD. I really enjoyed the way you divided your experience into journal entries.

    • Stuart Ralph
      Reply Stuart Ralph April 24, 2016 at 5:37 pm

      Thanks for the comment Lauren, I’m glad the story inspired you. I just interviewed Eric for the podcast, it will be live soon!

      Stu

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