I don’t have OCD anymore. It is gone, gone. Of course, that wasn’t simple. Many different factors went into getting rid of it: working with a couple of therapists, practicing Exposure & Response Prevention, learning Acceptance & Commitment Therapy techniques, experiencing so much anxiety it felt like my brain was going to jump out of my skull, etc. But now that I’m much more involved in mental health communities, there’s two factors from my recovery experience that I don’t see discussed very much, so I thought it would be useful to share those.
And the first is very simple: Nobody told me OCD is chronic.
I didn’t know I had OCD. Even when the symptoms were worsening in severity and I would be stuck in front of my stove watching it to make sure it didn’t spontaneously turn itself on, I didn’t think there was anything weird about that. I had totally rational reasons for all of my compulsions. So I never went online to research OCD or join a support group or anything like that. I didn’t know anything about OCD. But that also meant I didn’t hear this myth that often gets mentioned online or in groups that OCD is chronic.
When I finally went to get help, I went to get help for depression. After some fumbling with a terrible therapist, I was lucky that a smart counselor directed me to an ERP program for OCD.
That program was intense but it changed my life. The therapists I worked with in the program never suggested OCD was chronic. We developed a plan for cutting out the compulsions and then started eliminating them. We didn’t talk about “managing” OCD or living with it. There was no medication involved and nobody suggested I would need medication. The program was part of a research study so I think they really wanted me to recover. It was going to be good for their results.
I think it makes a big difference if you’re working with somebody that expects you to recover and gives you a plan for recovery instead of working with somebody that expects you to manage a problem and gives you a plan for managing a problem. Those are different paths. Building better mental health and fitness is no different than building better physical health and fitness. If you work with a personal trainer that gives you a plan for weight management, that’s going to lead to fundamentally different results than working with a personal trainer that gives you a plan for becoming a marathon runner.
The second factor that helped is something I don’t even know if there’s a term to describe, so I’ll call it the “breadth of symptoms”. This isn’t about severity. In terms of severity, I was still able to leave my home. There’d only been a couple of occasions when that hadn’t been possible. The breadth of symptoms is about the extent to which OCD infects every aspect of life. I had nearly every theme imaginable, at once. Not only that, but there was nothing I did in my life that wasn’t done through the lens of OCD behavioral patterns. I didn’t see it as OCD. It was just life.
Here’s why that was useful: because I had to change everything.
Imagine a wall painted neon green. The neon green paint is the OCD covering your life. But then you paint one blue square on it. That blue square represents one healthy change. Because the rest of the wall is completely neon green, it’s very easy to see the blue square. It’s obvious you made a change. So then you make another blue square. Now the area of healthy change has doubled in size. An improvement of 200% in just two steps! Keep going until you paint the entire wall blue. Once the entire wall is blue, it’s much easier to see if you make an unhealthy change–a neon green square appears. But now you know how to quickly paint it out of the picture again.
A challenge people often run into with recovery is that they see the wall as a patchwork of blue and green. It’s difficult to know what’s rational or unreasonable or healthy or unhealthy. For me, starting with nothing but OCD was an advantage. My concept of normal was OCD. So normal had to change. That meant tackling compulsions that went far beyond what’s typically described or diagnosed as OCD, which might sound like a lot of work, but I prefer my new healthy abnormal over the old OCD normal.
I hope you get to experience abnormal, unreasonable healthiness as well. These two factors that helped me with recovery aren’t inaccessible. Even if you aren’t working with a professional yet that recognizes you’re capable of recovery, an important first step would be for you to recognize you’re capable of recovery. And if you don’t think OCD is something that’s infected every aspect of your life, maybe it would help to see it as much bigger than it seems. Then every moment of the day becomes an opportunity to paint it out of your life.
All the best,