Here’s a helpful cautionary tale from the modern folklore that is Star Wars. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of Star Wars, you’ll pick up the idea. (Although it does matter if you’re not a fan of Star Wars – what on Earth is the matter with you!?!)
Anakin Skywalker is an heroic Jedi Knight who, for all his powers with the Force, harbours two personal struggles: one is a self-perceived guilt over the abandonment, and later death, of his mother; the other is that he is plagued by nightmares that the love of his life, centre of his universe, Natalie Portman (or Padme, as he likes to call her) is going to die in childbirth. Influenced by the guilt he feels over his mother, and the fact that his marriage to Padme is secret (so he is even afflicted by guilt over his own feelings of love) he does not only fear that these nightmares shall come true, but that this, too, shall be his fault.
Right, now you’re probably thinking ‘wow, that’s a great story Baz, but (either) a) I already know it, I’ve seen the films, b) I couldn’t give a toss, (plus) c) what the hell has this got to do with a blog allegedly about the mental health condition Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which was all very helpful and informative until you stopped bothering your arse even writing it at least a year ago?
Well, please – allow me to continue and to clarify. Back to the story, and enter Chancellor Palpatine, a.k.a. the evil Sith Lord in disguise who is soon to become the tyrannical Emperor, oppressor of all liberty and hope. A.k.a. the intrusive thoughts at the heart of OCD. ‘Ahh,’ you all say, ‘he’s using it as a metaphor!’
Yeah, yeah, thanks for keeping up – let me get on with it.
The Chancellor / Emperor has befriended young Anakin for some time now, and has been subtly manipulating him to believe that he understands the troubled hero whereas no one else does, making him the only one that can truly be trusted. So of course Anakin confides his fears to the Emperor, who then makes clear to him that not only are his irrational fears definitely going to come true! (cleverly reinforcing Anakin’s guilty feelings that what might go wrong is all his own fault), but that the only way he can stop this happening is to side with the Emperor and embark on an increasingly destructive set of actions which then actually result not only in the very things he has been fearing taking place, but also in the loss of everything else he loves, and the loss, effectively, of his own identity (replaced by something dark, corrupted, and destructive – Darth Vader).
Now, I’m not just telling you all this as an example of literary criticism, and presenting Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith as cinematic metaphorical depiction of how OCD can work (though it seems to work that way quite well, now that I’ve written it). Rather my intention was to use it as an example of something that is key to the perpetuation of intrusive thoughts and their impact in OCD, or indeed other experiences of anxiety and worry: the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The only reason, ultimately, that everything goes so very badly wrong for Anakin, was because he was persuaded that he had to do something about his worry: and those very things that he did were the actual cause of his fears coming true. I’ve spoken in blog articles before that the issue, when it comes to OCD, is not the thought (the ‘O’ – Obsession – component of OCD), but the response or reaction to this thought that we feel compelled (the ‘C’ component) to do about it. The thought becomes the central problem in your conscious existence when you follow it, believe that it will be this problem, and so you try to stop it. Things only go so badly wrong for you due to the measures that you carry out to prevent, change or nullify it: checking again and again that the door is locked; washing your hands if you touch a certain thing; avoiding seeing a certain food product in the shop; finding reassurance that the strange thing you just thought about is not the case, constructing arguments in your head about why it must not be the case. It’s not the problem to have the nightmare: the problem is to listen to what the Emperor says you must do about.
This Star Wars example, this metaphor, cropped up in a therapy session of mine a year ago. I had made certain progress at the time, but a small something occurred while I was watching a film (an activity that I enjoy a lot, but had been unable to consistently do for a couple of years at that point due to my OCD) and something I saw made me think of something, that linked to intrusive thoughts that I had been suffering. I actually did pretty well – I was discomforted for a few days, but recognised that I could accept that and that there was no need to follow the thought and demonstrate why it was not a problem; no need to avoid watching another film until I had managed to demonstrate this to myself – because it was only going to become more than a temporary discomfort and become a mentally crippling problem if I tried to demonstrate this to myself, to challenge the thought through internal arguments which would escalate, and get out of control, if I believed that any of this was necessary. My therapist was pleased with my response, with the insight, and laid bare the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in OCD, of recognising that is what it would become.
So, why am I writing about all this today, a year after that conversation, and about the same length of time since I last contributed to this blog?
In terms of recovery from OCD, I have been doing very well. A month after that session last year I had a bad, bad downturn and was in what cognitive scientists call a ‘right fucking state’ for a few months. But then in November / December I made a massive break-through, and a couple of brief slip-ups aside that I have sailed through well, this year I am pleased to say that I am doing much, much better – the best I have felt in four or five years.
In recent weeks however, I have noticed some warning signs. Not so much of OCD – but of becoming overwhelmed by my own feelings, of ruminating on this, worrying about it. I have experienced depression in the past as well as OCD and I have noticed that I am projecting the way things may pan out based upon those experiences: I have started applying certain negative interpretations to things happening around me, applying self-judgement as a result, ruminating over how I need to adjust my behaviour in order to avoid the path of depressive episodes before; to make sure that the faint whispers of OCD symptoms I’ve been hearing for a couple of weeks at the edges of my mind don’t grow into a problem… Then, it struck me, as I opened the laptop today, to work on the book that I’m writing (hence, so little blog activity), and weave in the Anakin Skywalker self-fulfilling prophecy metaphor into the self-realisation of one of my characters, that the very way I am approaching my feelings is same thing. It’s the Emperor, wearing a different outfit, and warning me what to do about a different nightmare. I am feeling a bit down at the moment, but the way it shall become the disaster I fear, is by my trying to work out what to do about it. There is only one thing I need to do: recognise the thought-distortions involved in my current thinking, take a step back, don’t judge and to be aware.
Very much advice Yoda would give, rather than the Emperor.
So I wrote this, to remind myself. But also, because I hope that it is useful and helpful. As I have said before, OCD is a disordered version of normal human cognitive processes: understanding what goes wrong, how it escalates and what can be done about it is useful for all of us. Recognising the role of self-fulfilling prophecies, of thought distortions in our thinking when feeling anxious or down, is helpful, because they can be countered.
That’s great, you all say. What are these thought-distortion thingys again? Are they like Jedi mind tricks?
Ah, no. They are something else. And because this is getting long, and I’ve got a book to write, I shall leave it there, on that cliff-hanger. But I shall be back very soon to explain their part in my current worries, and the part they play in all of our worries. Best still, I’ll suggest what you can do about them.