Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My OCD Story: How I Found Out I Had It

Day by day I'm working on turning my OCD story into an OCD success story, but there was a time when I didn't think it could be done. When I was 13 I got my diagnosis (I call this my first OCD crisis, mentioned briefly here), but finding out wasn't really a eureka moment. It was just the answer I got when any answer would do; suddenly I wasn't myself and I wanted to know why.

"What Happened at Kerry's?"
My best friend invited me to her 14th birthday, and while I was there I didn't really feel like being part of the group. Friends were hanging out in her bedroom, watching TV, and in my mind I was somewhere else. I felt bummed.

When I went home my parents wondered what was wrong. "What happened at Kerry's?" they asked. Nothing did...I just couldn't stop worrying.

It Started with a Pen Pal
It was the 1990s and the internet was blossoming but I didn't have a computer at home. In junior high I used to spend my time at the library. I visited chat rooms, talking to people all over the world. I found a few pen pals; one in Chile and one in New York. They were both boys.

After a few months talking to them and exchanging packages through the mail, I think I got bored. So I moved on. But that afternoon at Kerry's I worried that my pen pals weren't who they said they were.

My parents were new to computers and the internet, so they weren't privvy to what went on in chat rooms. It wasn't their fault, though--the world wide web was flat earth to them! I am certain, though, that I spoke to internet predators during my time at the library, and I was afraid these were two of them. I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen if they tried to come and get me. They might hurt me. My parents would be so mad. I wouldn't have any friends. I was certain that I deserved whatever I got for being so risky. The worries took over so much that I thought sure some day I would see a dirty old pickup truck waiting at the end of my street until my parents left the house. It was scary.

Knowing I Needed Help
Mental illness is not a stranger to my family. Since my mom saw a therapist, I felt comfortable asking to see one, too. It was my idea. Still thinking I was depressed as a result of something that happened at Kerry's, my parents were convinced that this was serious. What insight for a 13 year-old!

While I was in therapy, the OCD continued to set in. My worries shifted, of course, and it was always a relief when that happened, because I could finally have a break! No sooner than the kidnapping fear subsided, the realization that another fear was near sent a sickened feeling to my stomach. One worry after the next. Even though I had been diagnosed, that's how it was, and that's how it would be until I got a hold of my first OCD crisis.

Sometimes I think back to that point in my life and realize how much better off I am now. I'm older, stronger, more independent, more mature, and wiser. I certainly haven't mastered OCD, but with each year I'm strengthened by the very fact that it hasn't conquered me yet!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Worst Therapist Appointment: Part 2

In my previous post, you learned what happened in the waiting room on an emergency visit to a new therapist. It was April '08, and I was in the midst of an OCD crisis. I thought it didn't matter who I talked to for OCD help. Boy was I wrong.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When they called my name I had never been more ready to get out of a waiting room. I found my way through the narrow hallway (remember, this place was like a rent-a-shed) and into the therapist's office. We began to talk about me.

He was "nice" in the most general sense of the word. If not for the OCD and the events of the prior 15 minutes, on any other occasion I would have found him satisfactory. But of course since this was the re-opening of my case, we had to go through all the silly stuff. What do I like to do? Where do I work? Am I married? How do I feel about myself? You know, all of the typical cognitive behavioral treatment getting-to-know you prodding. I only had 45 minutes with this guy, I thought, so let's get on with it.

"What do you do to relax? You should try Yoga." He went on to some generic gibberish about yoga, mantras, etc. I wasn't listening. When there were only 15 minutes left on the clock, we finally talked about why I was there.

It's Me with Scrupulosity
My obsessions at this time in my life are key to the story. At times I have dealt with scrupulosity, and this was one of them. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, scrupulosity is OCD with a religious spin.

People who deal with scrupulosity often feel a sense of inadequacy before God, and apply OCD to their spiritual lives. For example, they may repeat prayers, never feeling like they were "done right" or they somehow "didn't count." Long story short, I am a Christian and I believe in salvation through the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ. But scrupulosity exists completely separate from strength of faith. (I will devote an upcoming blog post about scrupulosity in depth.)

My scrupulosity, at this time, was stronger than it had ever been. My grandfather had just passed away, and I guess you could say that stirred up some fears about the afterlife. I felt the need to ask God for forgiveness of a very personal sin. I did what the scrupulous do. I repeated prayers. I asked my husband to pray with me over and over. I even asked for reassurance, by seeking the advice of anyone I could trust to see if they thought God forgave me. It was different than "regular" OCD because I thought I could never really know if I was forgiven until I died.

Awkward Help
I thought my appointment with this new therapist would give me just enough reassurance to move on to another worry, or finally, to peace. He asked me about my worry, and I told him about it.

I think he said something like, "Everybody does that." So? That didn't matter to me. My OCD was still telling me that I hadn't really repented because I had inklings what I did was wrong when I did it. What did the therapist have to say about that, my OCD challenged him.

"Well, what does Jesus teach? Jesus teaches forgiveness." He was right. I knew it, of course, but thought, Ok, let's see what kind of a therapist we're working with here.

"Remember? In the Bible? The prostitute. Jesus said she didn't have to be stoned," he went on, making awkward allusions to one of the most (dare I say) widely-known, too-convenient pieces of scripture. People who don't know anything about the Bible know this story. And HE thought he could use this to fix ME?! It was the way he said it that got to me. Like I was supposed to believe that this new-agey guy really understood me. The moment he began misquoting scripture was the moment I checked out. For a second time that day, I had already mentally left the builiding.

Why This Matters
If I was going to be invested in this guy, and trust that he would be invested in me, I had to know that he understood me. He clearly did not. He didn't understand my beliefs, my faith, or what I hold dear. One on hand, I needed to talk to a Christian counselor. On the other, I needed someone who understood OCD and how it permeates everything that is important to me.

The moral? I needed to find a therapist who could meet me on my level. Since then, I have, and she is fantastic! Now my scrupulosity is at bay and I'm not struggling with it very often.

Even better, the healthy me knows that I don't have to die to know I'm forgiven. The Bible says, and I'm paraphrasing, "as far as the east is from the west, God will separate you from your sin." Period. Doubting God is distrusting God. It's the hardest lesson for an OCDer, but I'm working on it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Quick Note: Please Pray!

Nothing serious, but if you are a praying person, please pray for my mom and dad.

My dad has been having ear trouble, and my mom's emphysema has been acting up. They both were smokers, and my dad still does smoke.

Thanks much.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Worst Therapist Appointment: Part 1

In Aesop's Fables, the moral of the story always came last. I'm going to give you the moral first. It's the reverse order that I learned it, but that way maybe you can have it easier! This is part 1 of 2.

The moral I learned: See a therapist who can meet me on my level.

During my most recent OCD crisis in April (mentioned in another post), I found myself in a predicament. I had an urgent need to see my therapist, who, before now, hadn't seen me for a few years. In the interim, however, she moved on to practice strictly as a high school counselor and alas, I was no longer in high school.

My case had actually been closed. To open my case I'd have to be evaluated again. But who should see me?

I had no idea. Up until now I had always seen women, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I would take the first therapist with a degree and a free schedule. I just needed to start feeling ok, and I thought it didn't matter who I told my OCD stories to. I made the call and set up my appointment for a new office.

Scheduling the Appointment
I found him! The mystery guy who would give me just enough reassurance to send me on my way with a few new OCD tools in my toolchest. I took a day off work to visit the office, which was in a shadier part of town. It looked like one of those trailers set up at a construction site--sturdy enough to handle the sudden onslaught of new cases yet curiously rickety enough to make an anxious person feel just a bit worse.

The Woman in the Waiting Room
I took my seat in the waiting room. I was more anxious than I had ever been. I hadn't slept for days, hadn't eaten for just as long, and was having a 72-hour panic attack. I had never felt that way before. My fears were deeply personal, painful, and all-consuming. But the woman sitting in the chair across the room didn't care.

"What are you here for?"
Really? What am I here for? Is it really any of your business? These were words I didn't speak because I knew if I did the devil would erupt from my soul and this woman would be a casualty.
"What medicine do you take?" I just ignored her.

Understand that the healthy me is very, very compassionate, and I have already told you that I was not myself that day. I love people, and I love to help people. Especially at a mental health clinic the healthy me understands that I could encounter other unhealthy minds, and some probably tragically worse than my own. These people may not behave like me, or understand social mores. I feel for those people, and pray for them daily. But on that day the VERY unhealthy me was not prepared to deal with the anxiety caused by the woman in the chair, let alone the man I was just about to meet.

Throwing Punches
He entered the waiting room. Of all the 15 empty chairs, he sat right next to me. I was feeling very insecure, scared, and downright ready to jump out of my skin. Why was this man sitting next to me? I could feel him breathing.

"Why are you here?"
"I'm seeing the doctor." (I thought if I answered his question, he might leave me alone. The woman across the room seemed jealous to be receiving such preferential treatment.) Another man entered the room and looked at me.
"Is that your boyfriend?"

What followed was a story I can't remember, probably because I had already mentally run out the door. It was something about getting shot in the leg, and his subsequent fight to chase the shooter down. No doubt was the story true--he kicked his leg into the air to show me the scar. With the story came a reenactment of the struggle, complete with flailing arms and the free-flying spit of excitement (not good for a person who, at that time, struggled with contamination.) I thought he was going to punch me, grab me, or do something really bad.

But it SO wasn't him. It was me. And I hadn't even met the therapist yet.

Click to read the conclusion in Part 2.


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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

OCD: Don't Give Up Hope

Sometimes getting better isn't easy, but it's not impossible. Isn't that how most things are, somewhere right in the middle of easy and impossible? It's just that we've tried so hard for so long, managing OCD looks extremely difficult. We think, "If the road ahead is as bumpy as the road in the rearview, I'd rather pull over into a ditch." Here's a catalog of where I've been as proof that working to get better can take time. Don't be discouraged!

I've been through...

  • 6 Therapists. It has taken me this many to find one who specializes in OCD! I've told OCD stories to some good ones and one terrible one. (Thankfully I knew that right away, and only went to one session. More on him in another post, I promise!) 6 therapists in 11 years is a lot, but unless my current therapist retires or moves, I'm sticking with her.

  • 4 Anti-Anxiety Medications. Given that it's not safe to hop on and off anti-depressants, it can take a long time to find one that works for you when you consider the time it takes to wean yourself off of one. Now I've found one that works for me and I'm willing to tolerate the minor side effects.

  • 4 Severe Crises. I use the word crisis because that is the most effective word to describe the intense hold the OCD had on my life in these instances. I literally hit bottom. The first time lead me to learn that I had OCD at age 13. Then came going to college. Then came another crisis during college. The death of my grandfather was my most recent breakdown, which resulted in desperate visits to the doctor's/emergency room, panic attacks, loss of 10 pounds in one week, intolerance to food, 4-5 days of nights without even a few minutes of sleep, and 4 missed days of work.

The crises aside, even when I'm doing well, having OCD would make a great full-time job. But though it might not seem like it pays, consider that the work we do in getting better has lifelong implications. So no matter how many therapists you go through, no matter how many meds you've tried, no matter how many times you've hit bottom, there's still plenty of time to wake up tomorrow and keep trying.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Support Groups: A Helpful OCD Treatment for You?

Like my profile says, I've had OCD since I was 13. Since then, therapists have recommended finding a support group. Only during my last severe regression in April of 2008 did I seriously consider it. I love my support group, and I've been going ever since. But it took a fit of desperation one day at work for me to find mine on the internet. Looks like you're in just the right place to find yours, too.

If you're considering a support group as a form of OCD treatment, perhaps these points to ponder will help you make the decision quicker than I did.

Support groups provide community.
I know OCD can make us feel lonely, stupid, and codependent. It closes the world in around us, isolating us. But at group I've met people who can sometimes think the same irrational way I think. I understand them, too. Bottom line: Join a group and if you were alone in your OCD before, you aren't anymore.

Support groups give you objectivity.
Join a group and you'll encounter all types of OCD--the hoarders, the scrupulous, the contaminated, the guilt-ridden, and those who can't be labeled. You'll hear all types of OCD stories. You'll see what it can be at its best, and you'll see what it can be at its worst, and hopefully identify tendencies in yourself so you can learn to keep the OCD in check. It's like looking in a mirror. If you see that a hair is out of place, you fix it.

Support groups let you see what works.
Before attending group, I had never heard of ERP, or Exposure/Response Prevention (more about that in a later post). My therapists through the years had always used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, the other part of the OCD treatment dichotomy. I never even knew that this other kind of therapy existed, or that it could benefit me. Join a group and you can discuss treatment styles, therapists, and mental exercises and analyze what works for you.

Support groups give you accountability.
Every week at group we get together in small clusters and set goals, and check in on last session's goals. If needed or wanted, group members exchange numbers to serve as checkposts with whom to check in and record progress. Conversely, if we want to sit a week out and not give ourselves a goal, we allow that. We understand that each of us is choosing to be here, and choosing to get better. There's a lot of power in that, and a sense of control over what feels out of control.

If you are not a member of a support group as a means of OCD treatment, click here to visit the OC Foundation's "find a support group" page. Until then, if you're reading this blog, feel free to call what we have going here our little support group. : )