Friday 13 October 2017

What-If Avenue – OCD Awareness Week 2017

What-If Avenue – OCD Awareness Week 2017

By Casey Douglass

Image used freely from Gratisography

I think I read somewhere that our mind projects meaning out into the world and then responds to the echoes that bounce back. I forget where I read it but I think it’s an elegant way of describing what goes on in our noggins. Of course, our mind can also project meanings on to our internal experiences too, and that isn’t always helpful, particularly if you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Briefly, OCD is an anxiety disorder in which sufferers experience intrusive thoughts or fears, the obsession part, and feel compelled to carry out compulsions, to try to get rid of the anxiety. The classic example is someone who feels anxious about possible germs or contamination on their hands and feels compelled to wash them over and over. OCD can manifest in almost limitless ways, but that seems to be the most accessible example I can give.

When someone is hit with an obsession, the body reacts in a fight-or-flight way, pumping adrenaline and other stuff around and gearing the person up to enter into combat, or to run like the wind. Sadly, when the obsession is caused by a nasty email, a mundane thing that you’ve only now noticed, or a memory, this kind of response isn’t really ideal. If you are in a truly fight-or-flight situation, your actions would burn through the adrenaline automatically. As far as it happening in a modern setting, you will more than like just have to sit and bear it.

Sadly, during the aftershocks of an anxiety spike, you are most vulnerable to other ones hitting or new stuff arising. I lose count of the number of times I’ve been obsessing about something, gave into the compulsion, felt minutely better for thirty seconds, and then got hit by a worse obsession. This left me regretting giving into the first compulsion and at times, regretting even being born. It’s no fucking way to live I can tell you.

The problem lies in the excellent What-If generator that we call our mind. It’s fantastic for writing horror stories I’ll admit, but when you are afraid of something, and your mind can find fresh new ways to worry about it down What-If Avenue, you are in for a rough time. If you’ve seen Final Destination, the way a possible event has a knock on effect, then another, then another, you’ll probably understand something of what I mean.

Just writing this article as an example: What if nobody reads it? What if I sound silly, What if I’m wasting my time. Now, those What-Ifs are all floating around the central idea of doing this post. Imagine if instead it was something you were really really afraid of. What if I didn’t lock the door and burglars come in. So you go and check the door. You get back into bed. What if the window next to it is unlocked. You go and check, come back. What if I locked it too tightly and the key didn’t do anything, just went around and around. You go and check. What if someone is out there watching me do this checking and is waiting for the light to go out. Etc etc. Now, the What-If about the key really locking the door might sound a stretch too far for a non-OCDer, but anyone who falls down the What-If hole (What-If Avenue is a sod for potholes) will probably recognise that stage. You know it’s probably bollocks, but you have to check “Just. In. Case.” The words that can often rule an OCD sufferer more malevolently than the worst of dictators.

Stressed bodies and stressed minds set up vicious circles of influence over each other, keeping sufferers in that kind of fertile What-If state. There are ways to get through it, and the crux of nearly every one is to do nothing, but do it in the right way. When that first What-If strikes, at least give yourself thinking time before you act and trigger a gush of yet more anxiety. If you are in bed and you worry about a locked door, ask yourself if you can take the chance, just for tonight, of not checking it. You may be in for similar doses of anxiety whatever you do, but by not acting and accepting how you feel rather than fighting it, one dose will mean something, the other would just take you deeper and leave you more prone to the same thought in the future. (I would add that you have to decide the correct risks to take and when; you can never get rid of all risk. If you decide not to check that your door is locked and something bad does happen, that was your choice, so be sensible... and don't blame me. This is why it is best to get treatment from a qualified person).

I think that’s enough for now, as this is getting mighty lengthy. If you have OCD or suspect you do, you should seek help from your doctor or some other qualified person. There are treatments out there, usually Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention based, and these are effective in helping you to lead a better life. You may never fully get over your OCD tendencies, but you can reduce them enough to not be so bothered by them. 

I write this post after a hellish week where I felt I was at real risk of relapsing badly. I am still struggling with an overly sensitive body that is jumping at the slightest sound, but I am still here writing this post and moving forward. I know it will pass, and if it doesn’t, I will just do the best I can, as always.

Thanks for reading.