|Sometimes we are so focused on battling OCD on one front that we hardly notice when it sweeps in from another angle, offering deceptively sweet new reasons to engage in compulsive behavior...|
Earlier this evening, as I did some of my exposure homework, I noticed something: Windex doesn't seem to cause me as much discomfort as it did in the not-so-distant past. I feel like the appropriate response would be: "Woo hoo! Hooray! I must be getting better! I can do this without it bothering me so much! Things are getting easier! Take that OCD!"
Hah. Wouldn't that be nice. It's more like: "Wait, hold on. Does this not bother me so much? I don't think it does. Oh no! I feel differently than I did before...which means...I might not be able to remember how I used to feel. Quick, this must be fixed! I have to make sure I can still experience the same amount of fear from this trigger. Do something compulsive to make yourself worse again! Go wash your hands for a long time. Engage in some really bad compulsive avoidance so that you can recapture the feeling you had before, the same level of discomfort you experienced in the past. You need to remember what that was like! Because, wait, if you can't remember, maybe you really are really better. What will you do now? Who are you? Your life revolves around OCD. How will you know who you are anymore? What will you think about? How will you know what to do? What to feel? Oh no!"
Lovely, right? It's just more proof that OCD will use whatever insidious means necessary to keep itself alive. It resists any and all change, at least in the direction of recovery. And if the initial reason to perform a compulsion fades, it tries to find new reasons to keep those same compulsions alive. There could be ten million reasons NOT to engage in rituals, but if OCD can find just one it its favor, it latches onto that one reason with all its might, parading that reason around in my head like its existence depended on it - because, frankly, it does. The odds are not in OCD's favor when it comes to logic, but it makes an appeal to the emotional part of my mind, and suddenly, against all the odds, OCD has the advantage. It may not have a lot of ammunition, but when it finds it, it knows how to use it well, and it goes in for the kill. And suddenly, I find myself tempted to undo my progress, if only to remember what it felt like "before."
It's sort of like the "back door spike" - the kind of spike that occurs when an OCD sufferer realizes that some trigger that formerly caused a lot of distress no longer produces so much anxiety. Again, at first glance, a reduction in anxiety seems like it could only be a good thing. But sometimes OCD latches onto that lack of anxiety and uses it as evidence that the one thing or idea that the sufferer fears most really is true.
Take for instance, someone who has OCD harm obsessions. They do exposure to their harm-related fears, and as a result no longer feel so distraught in response to the unwanted thoughts. This is what we hope for, this is why we do all these difficult exposures, so that we can learn to manage, and hopefully, reduce some of the anxiety we experience. But that reduction in anxiety can become the trigger in and of itself and can lead to more obsessing and more ritualizing. The person with harm obsessions might fear that the lack of anxiety caused by his unwanted thoughts is actually proof that he really does want to hurt others. The lack of terror he now feels seems to support his original fear - that he really is a killer.
My "oh no I can't remember what it feels like to have OCD" response is similar to the back door spike in that it is caused by an initial decrease in symptoms. I notice, for example, that the Windex is no longer as alarming as it once was, and that decrease in anxiety is the source of my distress. However, at the same time, it seems slightly different. While my improvement is the source of my distress, my feared consequence isn't that what I originally feared is now true - that I really am a bad and careless person for not being as concerned about Windex (though, now that I think about it, this sometimes bothers me, too). Rather, it's the fear that I won't feel "right" until I can remember just how it felt to experience as much anxiety as I used to. It's my "memory hoarding" tendency in full swing. It's the desire to feel like I can remember something solely for the sake of remembering, because my ability feel "right" in the present seems dependent upon whether or not I can actually capture and recreate how I once felt. Is this compulsion pointless? Usually. But it's powerful all the same. Again, logic doesn't have much power if OCD can find that one convoluted, but emotionally-triggering, reason to give in to its demands. The argument can be as simple as "you won't feel 'right' if you don't," and soon I find myself struggling to resist the urge to do whatever OCD says I must do feel "right" again. Even if it means intentionally unraveling my progress.
So, even though Windex and I are still far from becoming bff's anytime soon, the slight reduction in anxiety it triggers has become a trigger in and of itself. I want to be able to remember what it felt like to fear it, even if that feeling was only marginally different. Because, to me, that difference is really quite noticeable, and it seems to be the sign of more change to come, which scares me. Who will I be? What will I become, if I no longer have these fears? I'm not exactly sure at the moment, but as long as I am constantly trying to hold on to the past at all costs, I won't have a chance to find out.
That said, I'm going to try to embrace my desire to memory hoard my former feelings as just one more challenge on the road to recovery. I have to keep reminding myself while I am in this intensive phase of treatment, that the point is not to feel "right." That's not what I am going for. Instead, the goal is to be mindful of those thoughts and feelings I am experiencing, and to do my best to continue onward non-compulsively despite them. Because if you give OCD a cookie...things quickly get out of hand...