Monday 14 December 2020

4 Lies my OCD Tells Me

Alyssa-Caroline writes about her experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and intrusive thoughts. 

- Alyssa-Caroline Burnette

If you’re not intimately familiar with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you may know it primarily through jokes about people who really like things to be clean or organized. Maybe you’ve heard the condition parodied through such jokes as “Obsessive Coffee Disorder.” But these jokes are both offensive and inaccurate. In reality, OCD is not something to joke about and it isn’t limited to washing your hands, organizing things, or keeping everything really tidy. Although these symptoms get the most attention and the most representation in the media, OCD is actually a thought disorder that produces deeply distressing intrusive thoughts that a sufferer struggles to control. And because people often think that OCD is a synonym for “organized,” many people-- like me-- suffer silently for years before they realize that there’s a name for the cycle of horror their brains put them through. 

That’s why I believe it’s vital to write about my own experience with OCD. Because if I can clear up the misconceptions that characterize our understanding of this disorder, maybe I can help other people avoid the same suffering I’ve gone through. Identifying common intrusive thoughts is crucial because there’s a reason the “Obsessive” part comes before the “Compulsive” when you talk about OCD. That’s because OCD generates terrifying intrusive thoughts that get stuck in your brain; it’s so difficult to exorcise them from your mind that they are referred to as “obsessions.” You don’t want those thoughts to be there, but because OCD thrives on attacking the things you cherish most, it can feel almost impossible to get rid of them. The desperation to free yourself of these unwanted obsessions then generates compulsions or rituals that you perform in a desperate attempt to placate your anxiety. Unfortunately, however, this produces an impossible cycle that ensnares your mind and feeds your OCD. So, for the purposes of this blog, I want to concentrate on four specific lies that my OCD often tells me and how therapy has helped me learn to fight them.

“You did something terrible and you’ve repressed the memory.”

I like to think of OCD as a sort of circus from hell. My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has an endless array of nightmarish star attractions that it loves to parade before me, and creating false memories is one of its favorite tricks. And it all starts with a random intrusive thought. Everyone has these freaky thoughts that appear to come from nowhere; you can probably pinpoint a specific time when you thought, “What if I just threw my keys into the lake?” or “What if I yelled, “Shut up!” at a person who’s really annoying me?” 

Of course, these aren’t things that you would actually do, so a neurotypical brain dismisses that and says, “Wow, that’s a weird thought!” But a brain with OCD fixates on that thought and says, “What if I’ve actually done that? What if I’ve really hurt someone and just repressed the memory?” The fact that I have no memory of doing something horrible is irrelevant to my OCD; it simply responds with the irrational assertion, “You did it and you just don’t remember.” 

“You’re secretly a terrible person and you’ve fooled everyone into believing you aren’t”

If your OCD can convince you that you’ve done horrible things, it doesn’t require much of a stretch to assume you’re a terrible person. And just as OCD can convince me that I have repressed memories, it also fights any effort at reassurance. When my friends and family try to tell me that I am not a terrible person, my OCD often responds with, “You are and you’re so terrible that you’ve fooled everyone around you into believing a lie.” 

“I need to know this right now.” 

Do you need to know what you were doing last Tuesday at 2:00 pm? Do you need to know it with the same urgency as a person who’s trying to establish an alibi for murder? Probably not. But my OCD often convinces me that small, meaningless details-- like something I said 11 years ago or what I was doing last week-- is vital information and I need to figure it out right now. Often, I have gotten so caught up in this lie that I have dropped everything I’m doing, made myself late, or skipped classes and meetings to solve the problem immediately. 

“I want my mum and my cats to die.” 

If you know me at all, you know that I love my mum and my four rescue cats more than anything in the world. And because I love them so much, my OCD latches onto that and convinces me that I’m secretly harboring a desire for all of them to die. (Because that makes so much sense, right!) For example, if I’ve forgotten to do a favor for my mum or if I’m a bit late in re-filling my cats’ food, my brain catastrophizes and says that I did it on purpose because I hate them and I secretly want them to die. Never mind that there is no evidence for any of this; my OCD encourages me to accept this as truth. 

These are a few of the most common lies my OCD tells me. Living with them is every bit as hellish as you might imagine. But therapeutic techniques have helped me to refute these lies and get my life back. Two of the most common coping mechanisms I use are “coping scripts,” like saying, “I don’t need to know that right now,” and “That is a neutral thought until I apply meaning to it.” These might sound like overly simple phrases but they have been a massive help to me! Because reminding myself that “I don’t need to know that right now” can help me break the obsessive cycle of chasing down meaningless information. It also helps me remember that my seemingly urgent need to know something is just a false signal from my brain and therefore something to ignore. Likewise, affirming that something is “a neutral thought until I add meaning to it” is helpful because it steers me away from the temptation to argue with my OCD. Arguing with OCD will only invite it to generate more horrible thoughts like, “But what if you did?” or “You’re lying to yourself,” so you should never argue with OCD. Instead, acknowledge the thought and allow it to come and go in a neutral state. Remind yourself that intrusive thoughts do not carry intrinsic meaning; this can help you to break the obsessive compulsive cycle and avoid believing that your horrible thoughts are true. 

To find out more about OCD and how to support someone, click here.  

Alyssa-Caroline Burnette is a PhD student at the University of Southampton and a member of the Student Minds editorial team. As someone who suffers from OCD, PTSD, and anxiety, she is passionate about using her voice to bring clarity and sunlight to misunderstood topics about mental health. 

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