Stepping out of Vicious Circles: healing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
One pattern that may surface in a woman’s life is known to medical science as obsessive-compulsive disorder. If we can look past its pathologizing tone, forgiving the medical model its knack for phrasing things in a way that makes us feel like there is something terribly wrong with us, we can see that the title is apt. It captures the basics – obsession and compulsion.
Obsession is what happens when our mind can’t let go of something, when it loops and repeats and fixates. The mind has a tendency to do this anyway – on any given day we will have themes that are revisited in the mind with surprising frequency, if we are present enough to take note. Obsession is a key feature of the thinking mind. However, many of our obsessions are just mild annoyances and do not deeply disrupt our lives.
Even disruptive obsessions are known to most – for example when we become obsessed with someone we have a crush on, and our inability to stop thinking about them distracts us from work. Probably all of us know the state of being overly fixated on something in a way that we, and others, may sense is not completely balanced or healthy. For any woman with substance addiction issues, she will definitely be able to recognize the flavor of obsession – the way her mind can be captured by the orbital pull of her drug and never quite escapes its gravity.
Compulsion, the behavioral response to an obsession, is an experience that most of us also know to some extent. It is the feeling of needingor havingto do something, not out of choice, but more out of being driven to do something. As in “I’m not ok if I don’t do this” and “I won’t be ok until I do this”. This could be a compulsive need to clean, to check your appearance in the mirror over and over, to turn back (again) to make extra sure you locked the car, to reach into your purse repeatedly to make sure your wallet is still there. These little behavioral blurts, while not particularly rational, soothe our worries for the time being.
Severe compulsion overrides our free will, and when we are compulsive we feel like the behavior is not a voluntary choice but more like something that has to be done to make the obsessive thinking quiet down. Even if we see it as destructive – as when we compulsively pick our skin, overexercise, overeat, shop, check our phones, whatever it is – and even if we judge ourselves harshly for it – we still may find ourselves unable to stop. When we try to stop, we are so bothered by obsessive thoughts – that we are fat, that our house is messy, whatever it is that our mind is pestering us with – that we indulge the compulsion to try to get the negative thoughts to ease up. For substance abusers, we know this state of compulsion – demoralizing and degrading, it is sometimes called “the monkey on my back” in recovery circles.
When thinking about a diagnosis and whether we might have it, it’s helpful to ask oneself, not do I have this pattern at all – because we all do to some extent – but rather, is this pattern one of my core life themes? Does it show up in my life so strongly that it influences my life, my work, my relationships? Is it part of my destiny to overcome this? Is this pattern a problem for me?
Someone who feels that OCD is part of her destiny may find that she is unable to control her thoughts and behaviors even when she realizes they are unreasonable or excessive. She may find that she spends more time than she wants to with these thoughts and behaviors – maybe hours. She may get little pleasure from her behaviors, and her relief may be short lived, leading her to engage in the compulsion one more time just minutes later. She may recognize the pattern to be taking up too much of her energy, causing troubles in things that matter to her – her relationships, creativity, or calling.
OCD is classed as an anxiety disorder, and as with all anxiety patterns, the key experience for sufferers is terrible fear. When a person has OCD her uncontrollable, recurring thoughts, urges, and mental images are centered on terror-inducing themes: contamination by aggressive germs in the environment, for example, or being eaten up from within by psychological “badness”, being dirty and not able to get clean. Her urges to repeat behaviors over and over again are attempts to resolvethe fear-inducing situationbeing pointed out by the obsessive thoughts.
From the outside, we may see the absurdity of washing hands repeatedly – probably one thorough wash is good enough to remove germs, and if it isn’t, well, you can’t control everything, right? Wrong. From the OCD mindset, you mustcontrol everything, or else terrible danger will invade you – in that context, againand moreseem to be tools worth trying to use against the threat. In OCD the mind is obsessed with dangers, and pushes us to enact behavior to try to ward the dangers off.
Whenever problems with anxiety exist, we are looking at a pattern of getting triggered into fight-flight too often and for too long. The body’s security system has a hair trigger and will send the nervous system into emergency mode over dangers that others would call “unlikely to happen” and often “impossible to control even if they did happen, so may as well not waste time worrying about it” and “not happening right now so who cares”. The person with OCD’s body is frequently in a prolonged state of disaster preparedness: shallow breath, rapid heart rate, sweating, sense of constriction, tunnel vision, black and white thinking. She experiences trouble coming down from that state of hyperarousal into calm, and may not know how to do this without indulging her compulsions or using drugs.
For a person with OCD it must be understood and deeply, compassionately accepted that she does not, while in the grips of this pattern anyway, have sovereignty over herself, but is rather in a state of subjugation to her fear. When we have OCD we can’t snap out of it: by definition, our horrible obsessions are uncontrollable– we cannot stop them from appearing in our minds through sheer effort (or else they wouldn’t be obsessions). Compulsions are uncontrollable as well – we cannot stop ourselves from doing them (or else they wouldn’t be compulsions).
Some common themes for OCD obsessions are: fear of being contaminated, for example by germs, infection, or dirt; and intrusive, unwanted thoughts about disturbing, taboo, or off-color subjects, like inappropriate sex and violence. For example, a person may be trying to have a conversation, and suddenly experience a violent image of harming that person, harming themselves, or a grotesque, disturbing sexual image. This frightening intrusion into her thought stream understandably upsets a person.
Common repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought include excessive hand-washing, cleaning, and personal hygiene; arranging items in a specific order and way; checking and rechecking on things, such as whether the oven is off or the door is locked. The rituals and repetitions may have a superstitious quality to them, where the sufferer has the illusion that if she performs her acts perfectly and without any gap in vigilance, then external events can be controlled. Understandably, people with OCD often try to help themselves by steering clear of situations that trigger their obsessions, or they may use drugs, alcohol or prescriptions to relieve themselves of their acute anxiety.
If healing OCD is a part of your story, with support you can find a solution for yourself that creatively addresses the trouble of relentless, repetitive, intrusive, disturbing thoughts that fill you with fear. Likewise you can discover ways to stop those compulsions you currently are driven to in your attempts to relieve your fear.
Effective treatments for all anxiety disorders begin with restoring the ability to self-soothe, to master the maneuver of shifting gears back out of fight-flight. It also involves changing your relationship to those fear-based thoughts that pop in uninvited, from a state of submission to them to a state of empowered, neutral observation and calm challenge of them. At a certain stage of recovery, you are restored to your natural right to decide for yourself which thoughts you care to act on, and which ones you don’t.
Yoga, massage, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, expressive arts therapy, nutrition, gardening, breath work and the many tools found in recovery meetings are all potentially useful in your journey to taming the dragon of OCD. If you think you might suffer from OCD, please know that you will find a place of shelter with us at Villa Kali Ma, and that we will meet this part of your destiny with respect for the role it plays in you becoming the full extent of who you are. At Villa Kali Ma we will treasure your OCD alongside the parts of you you may more easily love, because, in the words of Pema Chodron “our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth.” Hidden in your OCD lie the keys to your greatest gifts, whatever those might be – we would like to help you find out what they are.
If you know the pain of looping inside ever-tightening vicious circles, please come, as you are, to VKM – we’ll help you step out of those circles and into the expanding spiral of recovery.