By Rachel Factor LCSW
Many people who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders have come to accept their disorders as a way of life. Individuals suffering from OCD have learned to carry out rituals, (repetitive behaviors to alleviate anxiety) as discretely as possible. When that is not possible, they may perform some level of the ritual in public which can be humiliating. This, however, seems preferable to living with the unbearable feeling of anxiety that they would feel if they didn’t engage in the ritual.
Sara brushed against a car as she was walking through the parking lot. Her automatic thought was, “Maybe you scratched the car.” She tried to take a quick glance at the car and walk on but that gnawing voice inside said, “Maybe you’ve caused damage to the car. If you don’t know for certain that you didn’t, there is a good chance that you did. You cannot leave until you know for sure.” Sara circled the car several times and tried to figure out if the scratches on the car were caused by her. Her inner wisdom seemed to say that it was almost impossible that she caused that damage but she didn’t feel like she could tolerate the uncertainty. She debated whether or not to leave a note on the car windshield stating that she may have caused damage to the car but she held back. But even after all her checking, she felt awful inside.
It’s not enough that Sara may have attracted attention as she circled the car in the parking lot. She then went home and called two friends to get their reassurances that she couldn’t have caused damage to a car by merely brushing against it. Only after both friends reassured her did she achieve some level of relief. But that relief was temporary.
Everyone who knows Sara knows that she is a highly intelligent woman. Neighbors seek out her wisdom daily. However, there, in that parking lot, she felt helpless. Afterwards she felt depressed that she had made a fool out of herself. But what was her choice? To live with that unbearable level of anxiety? No, she couldn’t do that. She just had to go on living the way she did and perform as many rituals that she could in private.
People learn to accept the difficulties of living with OCD. This is because the thought of living with the anxiety and a feared situation occurring seem too great. However, obsessions and compulsions (threatening thoughts followed by repetitive actions to decrease the threat of the thought) can take up a lot of a person’s time and energy. Some become depressed as they are bright, talented individuals who are not living up to par with what they are truly capable of.
Sara was concerned that in the unlikely possibility that she had inadvertently damaged someone’s car and did not “fess up”, that made her a dishonest and unworthy person. Many people carry out their rituals because they fear that if they don’t, they may be either immoral, sinners or not simply the good people they want to be. The interesting part is that these people are usually the most wonderful, sincere individuals. The anxiety just prevents them from seeing it that way.
Sara was one of the lucky ones. She eventually learned that there was a name for her suffering and that there was help for her. She slowly learned to tackle those things she had been avoiding for so long. She learned to take good guesses rather than knowing for sure. She learned to live with uncertainty and saw that if left alone, the anxiety passes on its own. Her compulsive checking and reassurance-seeking was no longer necessary to remove feelings of anxiety. She also learned that she could live with the uncomfortable feelings until they passed. When, on occasion, she gets stuck, she takes a guess at what someone else would do in that situation and then goes with it.
Sara has learned to live in the present and let go of the constant chatter she used to carry in her head. She knows that just because she gets a thought, that doesn’t mean that she has to listen to it. She feels so much more alive now and that her life is so much richer. Now, when Sara walks down the street she is smiling both inside and out.