Friday, November 8, 2013

You Can Recover Your Life From OCD

When I was at the absolute rock bottom of my OCD battle, I began to wonder if I could ever climb back out.  I tried everything I could think of, from reading all the books I could find about people who had recovered their lives, to doing the OCD Workbook, and everything in between.  While there were helpful bits and pieces, I think most of it really failed to address the situation in the way I needed. 

Counseling was not an option, as I could not leave the house at all; I couldn't even retrieve a package from my own front porch unless I could reach them by leaning out the door.  It struck me that there really needs to be some sort of phone-based counseling service for people who suffer from the truly debilitating, confining form of OCD that I went through.  Because no such thing exists, at least that I could find in my area, I was truly, utterly alone.

I turned to alcohol at one point; I couldn't handle the pain of what my life had become, of what I was putting my family through, or the way my husband dealt with his frustrations about OCD by blaming me, shaming me, and using my fears against me.  That was a bad idea.  Not only were my problems still there in the morning, the rebound anxiety as you recover from drinking the previous night is a major bitch.  My anxiety was already over the top and I effectively made it worse by trying to escape.  Alcohol is not an escape. 

At the absolute worst of my disorder, my rituals started the moment I woke up and culminated with a handwashing ritual that lasted anywhere from three to five hours nightly.  I dreaded going to sleep because of what I had to do to get there.  When the ritual became too much and I didn't want to contaminate anything by not going through it, I finally started sleeping on the floor.  No blankets, no pillows, often shivering through the night in pain from having no comfortable position.  My life was a living hell.  I cried everyday.  I considered suicide constantly.  The longer it went on, the more distant "normal" seemed to be.  I would watch my neighbors come and go, envious that they could and that it was so simple for them.  While my husband thought I derived some pleasure out of my OCD (otherwise, in his assessment, I would have stopped what I was doing), I wished that my life was so easy that I could make such an asinine statement as he did and actually mean it.

Laundry, a point of serious arguments for us, was my nemesis.  I had to wash every load many times, and I could only handle it with plastic baggies over my hands.  I destroyed so many clothes from the constant, relentless hot water washes.

I bleached the absolute shit out of every corner in the house, to the point the baseboards were destroyed, the metal registers were completely rusted and crumbling apart, and there was a constant latent odor of Clorox in the air.  I even washed my hands in bleach.  Yes, my hands.  Bleach.  I would clench my teeth in pain as my hands bled.  My nails were gone.  I could barely type or touch anything because my hands were raw.  I looked like a burn victim who had fallen hands-first into a fire pit and stayed there for a few seconds before moving away.  I couldn't bend my fingers.  There was a distinct line above my wrists which marked the frequent washings and chemical burns I had inflicted upon myself in the pursuit of comfort and feeling clean.  That comfort never, ever came; it was only exhaustion and a tearful submission to accept the fear that ever brought an end to a ritual.  I wondered if my hands would ever be normal again, if I would ever regrow fingernails, if I would ever leave the house again.

All of the books tell you to sit with the fear and let it be.  Feel the fear.  Don't try to avoid it, because if you do, it'll fucking drown you.  That's the truth.  I knew it, in theory, but I didn't know it.  "Take a normal risk, and simply don't do the ritual.  You will realize that nothing bad happens, and you will get better the more you do this."  Yes, and no.  This is what is always spewed, almost verbatim, by people who want to help.  Thing is, what they fail to address, at least in my own situation, is that OCD will have a "yeah, but..." for everything.  My fears were not the "simple" ones I used to say recovered OCD sufferers must have had.  If I don't flip this light switch exactly 247 times, my dog will explode tonight.  When the dog hasn't exploded by morning, it's all good.  Most people can make it 24 hours without totally losing their minds.  But what about those of us who are afraid of some far future consequence?  Kevin from the OCD Project comes to mind; he was afraid he was going to go to Hell for doing or not doing something.  My fears were not religion-based, but also future.  What if I unwittingly do something today that has a negative consequence weeks or months from now?  Better safe than sorry...was always the way my mind was attacking me.  That fear was crippling; literally every waking moment of my day was about making sure to take every precaution.  Even my dreams were infiltrated by this monster.  There was no escape, not the way I was doing things.  It was a lot like anorexia; there was no such thing as thin enough.  With OCD, there was no such thing as clean enough.  And ironically, the very things I was doing to protect myself were making me more vulnerable!

At some point, I realized I did, in fact, have a choice.  While I couldn't choose to not have OCD anymore, I could choose to adopt a new mantra: do it anyway.  It was a slow start.  I started by attacking things I knew would be easier for me, like switching my cleaning fluid of choice from bleach to something less caustic and destructive.  That was extremely difficult at first, but I did it.  Feeling a bit proud of myself, and with renewed hope that I might be able to climb out of the abyss after all, I tried new things.  What I learned is that I cannot get complacent with OCD.  To conquer it, you must do something every single day that scares you.   The moment you don't push through something fear-provoking, OCD is fast at work weaving it's vines through your brain and tightening its grip on your thoughts.  Do not get comfortable.  Comfortable comes later.

I no longer do laundry with plastic baggies on my hands.  I mop my floors every couple of weeks, and sweep as needed.  I wash my hands before bed, and sometimes I do it more than once, but it's five minutes, maybe ten on a really bad night - which is fortunately rare.  I can retrieve my own packages, take out the garbage, run to the grocery store - even if there is no self-checkout, pump gasoline.  This past summer, I took care of a garden, mowed the lawn, spent time outside with my kids, went hiking through the woods, bought and rode a new bike, and visited with some friends.  Recently, I started doing volunteer work for a local animal shelter.  There are no elaborate rituals when I come home; just a quick hand wash and I usually even stay in the same clothes I went out in until it's time for bed.  I'm living a fairly typical life.  I do still have OCD, and I always will; the difference is that now it doesn't have me.

When I used to search the web for OCD blogs, I always desperately hoped to find one where someone who had been at the absolute bottom of rock bottom came back and actually did normal things and had normal thoughts again.  I wanted to come back and say that, yes, it IS possible, you CAN do this, and please, please do not give up your hope.  OCD occupied probably 95% of all my thoughts for a very long time.  Now, it's more like 5-10%, depending on the day.  I'm here to tell you that if I could do this, YOU ABSOLUTELY CAN DO THIS.  My OCD was extremely severe and completely debilitating.  I did not have counseling, I did not have medications, and I did not have support from my husband (I had, in fact, quite the opposite).  I still have things to work through and I probably always will to some extent, but I enjoy my life now.  I want that for everyone who is suffering through this.

Every time we give into a ritual or an OCD-related fear response, we're rewiring our brain to give OCD control.  Giving in to the fear tells your brain that the fear assessment was correct.  Humans are excellent learners, especially where fear is concerned.  By not responding to the fear, you tell your brain that the assessment was inaccurate, and you wire your brain to give you back your control.

Another thing I learned through this journey is that, when you take a break, delay a ritual, sit with your fear, you absolutely cannot just sit there and think about how you are sitting there thinking about it.  The OCD will take advantage if this time to build your fear up to utterly intolerable levels.  The key is to outwit OCD by going and doing something else.  Take a walk, read to your kids, play with your dog or cat, anything that will actively engage your mind and leave little to no room for the previous fear.  Much of the time, I no longer feel the need to do whatever it was I was concerned about, and this is true for most people with OCD.  It may take a few tries, and it will not work perfectly every time, but it will be victories here and there which ultimately win the battle.

I don't know how often I will update from now on.  I wish everyone success, happiness, peace, and freedom from OCD.  Again, you CAN do this.