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When you have lived with OCD for years, and it has manifested itself in a variety of ways, or ‘themes’ as they are called, it becomes difficult to distinguish a ‘real’ and ‘rational’ worry or effort, from one propelled by your obsessive nature. Yes, I know, part of therapy involves learning to not ask those questions, whether this is real or that is not, but it’s not always easy.
Growing up, I struggled with Pure ‘O’, and ritualistic behaviour. When I was fourteen, during summer vacation, I suddenly had this thought, how can I be sure I’m not a cannibal. I don’t think there was a specific trigger, it was just something that occurred to me, and I could not shake it off. My mother was lying next to me on our bed, and I felt scared, that I would harm her. I could barely sleep that night. The next morning, I got up and started reading up on cannibalism, to assure myself my thoughts are wrong, that I cannot be, of course I’m not. However, the more I read, the uncertainty grew, from narratives of cannibalistic communities to a particular story about a group of expeditioners stranded in snow capped mountains, without food, who started feeding on the corpses of their fellow expeditioners, to survive. This, scared me. People could become cannibals. I could become one, maybe I’m one, and just haven’t been pushed hard enough. I got increasingly terrified of becoming, quite literally, a monster. This was bad as it was, and soon enough, my obsessive thoughts and consequent attempts to reassure myself by reading up had acquired a newer theme – which was of sexual in nature. I visited websites, trying to hide what I was reading, whenever my mom or dad would enter the room. I felt miserable, and dirty, and like a pervert. Soon enough, I could not take it any longer, I broke down in front of my parents, I told them everything – they were puzzled, but supportive and took me to see a psychiatrist. I live in India, and mental health is a taboo topic in most families, and awareness, even amongst those educated, is grim. After navigating through three shrinks, two of whom did not offer anything conclusive, I got third time lucky. Actually, being diagnosed was a relief. It meant, this was not me, I was not this pervert, this monster.
It has been years since I was fourteen. But I still struggle with OCD, and I’m going through therapy. But, for the past 5 years, I’ve been dealing with a more elusive theme. One, I cannot sometimes pinpoint and say is OCD. It doesn’t seem as irrational as the obsessive thoughts about cannibalism, incest, harm etc. I call this my ‘fresh start’ OCD. Also, the compulsions have evolved over time under this theme, to the point that I cannot even recognise if a certain action is for self-improvement and generally an effort to change my life for the better, or compulsively initiating a ‘fresh start’ as if I can press a ‘Reset’ button on my life, after which I’m not allowed to commit any more mistakes, I cannot be lazy, I must be presentable at all times, productive, witty, organised– and the list was ever burgeoning, and once I did commit a mistake, I would feel this urge to break down, lock myself in my room, eat junk, mess up my space, live like that for days, before preparing for another fresh start. Over time, this pattern has mellowed. I don’t break down that intensely anymore because I have a job and cannot take too many leaves, I do not lock myself in my room for days anymore, also, in my head I’ve stopped calling them fresh starts, stopped noting down the dates of my fresh start, but instead I just try to recall it from memory, sometimes. What’s new for me is that a lot of it, doesn’t seem irrational at all – it seems very real, very practical, in the moment – but when I look back, after each disguised attempt at a fresh start – I feel like my OCD played me. This theme is not as painful as the others, is not as urgent or debilitating in the short run, but it exhausts you, and takes up a lot of your time, sometimes weeks, planning for that perfect life, instead of living the one you have.
YES — In my experience, there are different degrees of rationality vs irrationality in obsessions, and they FEEL different. Almost as if they’re coming from different parts of the brain.
For me, my “irrational” obsessions have come with a lot of embarrassment and shame, while I’ve been more open about my “rational” obsessions.
For example, I struggled with spiritual/religious obsessions for decades. My “rational” obsessions had to do with theology, and I could discuss and debate these. (How do we know which religion is “right?” How could an omnicient and omnipotent God act this way? Etc.)
My “irrational” obsessions had to do with fears that the people I loved were somehow in league with Satan to mislead me. I was suspicious of my parents, my friends and even my husband. I saw “signs” in their phone numbers and addresses, or the colors of their cars. I KNEW INTELLECTUALLY this was NUTS. I didn’t even tell my shrink! Yet these ruminations were there constantly.
》》Yes, I know, part of therapy involves learning to not ask those questions, whether this is real or that is not, but it’s not always easy.《
I think there is value in asking these questions, though. In fact, an essential element of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is checking for “cognitive distortions.” The problem is that OCD is always leading us from rabbithole to rabbithole.
Thanks for sharing!
“Getting over OCD” is a great book about OCD treatment that you may find interesting. It’s written by Dr Jon Abrowmitz. He’s been on the podcast too.
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