So, it’s been a while since the last entry in this OCD story of mine, and for those who have been following the blog, it feels like I need to open up with an American drama series style ‘last-time on Sketches by Baz’ sequence of key points from the last few episodes. Basically those key points were:
- In OCD, despite all appearances, the intrusive thoughts are not the problem – it is the process of attributing an alarming significance to these thoughts, and the subsequent defensive reaction
- By disengaging from that defensive reaction – be it washing hands, checking things, making lists, generating counter-thoughts and seeking validating arguments – and letting the thoughts be, they lose their power
- This is all good news – but unfortunately the reaction is compulsive, deeply unpleasant and doing all this is, while achievable, bloody difficult
I’ve actually just looked back through the last few articles from late December and early January. Largely because I need to tell myself all this – because in the last few weeks I’ve had a bit of a crash in my recovery and am currently feeling really bloody awful.
What I want to explain is that this could be a crucial period in my battle, and it could actually be a positive thing, no matter how difficult that is to believe this very minute. Recently I have made a lot of achievements in overcoming my illness. Part of my current problem may have come about by giving the OCD a window of opportunity by the very act of reviewing my achievements and checking that they are stable. While the OCD has indeed taken this opportunity, it has made clear a characteristic about itself that my therapists say I can use to my own advantage.
Ok, first let me give you an example of a gain I have achieved over the OCD.
I had discussed in CBT this helpful analogy. When I first fell in love with a couple of my favourite Pink Floyd albums, my copies were tapes (kids – use Wikipedia to look up audio tapes), copied from fairly old LP’s (vinyl records kids – you’re not bloody cool if you don’t know what they are!) So as well as the music, there were a lot of crackles, pops, a couple of places where the needle on the record jumped a little. Does this mean that it ruined the experience of listening to the albums? No. Because I focused on the music. I could still process the beauty of the music in and of itself. I was long at the stage where by I did not process the crackles and pops at all.
The crackles and pops, are not part of the music. Just as my horrible intrusive thoughts are not part of the things in life that I have been struggling to enjoy. Whatever the thoughts tell me, what I enjoy, what I am, life – it is still beautiful and enjoyable if I focus on it, and not on the interference. And if I don’t focus on that inference, I’ll stop being aware of it.
Understanding the truth of this analogy makes me feel really good. Then, a day after talking about this in CBT recently, I had a wobble. I thought, does this analogy work in my particular case? Is it different because…? Does that mean what I thought I had achieved is wrong? If so then…? What if…? But… but… but… Before you knew it the intrusive thoughts were using my gain against me.
So what had happened? It’s not actually that complicated. You could say that because I had achieved something, the OCD threw a noisy strop. I stopped responding to it, so it shouted louder. You can demonstrate this basic kind of mechanism in behaviourist psychology. If you have a mouse (Gerald) who lives in a cage where there is a lever and he presses the lever, only to have a pellet of food delivered, he’s going to press the lever again. By delivering the food each time Gerald presses the lever, you have conditioned a behaviour in him. My intrusive thoughts, while not as cute as Gerald, have been behaving the same way. They pop into my head, I react to them. In reacting to them I have reinforced their occurrence, so like Gerald with his lever they keep coming back into my head demanding attention. Now, if you stop delivering the pellet of food to Gerald, what does he do? Does he think ‘oh, stuff it then’, and wander off, taking no further interest in the lever. Does he buggery! He presses it, presses it again – sooner than he normally would, and goes briefly berserk, pressing it with heightened regular intensity. Where is the food he’s conditioned to expect!? Where, where!? Press, press press! Eventually, of course, he gives up. And that’s what the OCD does. Shouts, jumps up and down, causes a ruckus: ‘where is my reaction!?’
Having achieved something over the OCD, unfortunately, I gave it an opportunity, an opening, by kind of safety-checking my thoughts and feelings. ‘I’ve made an achievement, is it ok now? Is my achievement stable?’ Doing that was just enough of an opportunity for the OCD to get its foot in the door, and shout desperately ‘no Baz, your achievement is shite! You’re shite! And you’ve got stupid hair!’
What is important to recognise however, is not just that the OCD is opportunistic, not just that it is reacting against achievements I’ve made. It is the manner in which it is reacting. It is a wind-up. It is acting just like an internet troll: its message (the content of the thoughts) don’t matter, it has no actual argument of its own, all that matters is its intention: to upset met. Trying to provoke a reaction from me. It just wants its pellet of food.
So if you say something good, something that you have achieved, something you deserve to be happy about on twitter, and a troll starts sending through messages that amount to saying your achievement is crap, that you are crap, what do you do? Argue with them? Does that make them go away? No. Just because they say you should worry about the validity of your achievement, should you worry? Should you try to explain to them? No.
Understanding this character of the OCD will help me win. I’ve had a bad few weeks, and have received excellent help in some pretty intensive therapy sessions, where it already has helped me, just I’ve then slipped a bit again. These troll like thoughts… pouncing on my own safety checking like unscrupulous salesmen, con men, tricksters employing suggestion and implication to get to me to doubt myself, tempt me back in to engaging with them… It’s difficult. But knowing that that’s all they are, trolls – that I can’t win by engaging with them and justifying myself, that there is no onus on me do so, it will help me win. They have no argument to present, and my achievements are real.
Be back soon with an article about how valuable the friends in my corner supporting me through my illness are.
And by pouncing on my own safety checking like an unscrupulous salesman, a con-man or a trickster, to use suggestion and implication, getting me to doubt myself, it is currently getting that reaction.