‘Fixing OCD’ Article Is Badly Misleading

An article in The Atlantic called “5 Very Specific Ways to Fix Your OCD” blows it from the start — in the headline.

OCD sufferers know damn well that you can’t fix OCD. You can only learn to manage it and make it less of a disrupting force in your life.

Mood music:

Knowing that as I do, I’m dissapointed that the writer would give OCD sufferers false hope, followed by five pieces of advice that are not totally unhelpful, but also not very realistic.

I still write some clunkers with the best of ’em. All writers do, especially when you produce articles daily. But here, I think the author was mislead by Concordia University psychologist Adam Radomsky, who spelled out the five strategies.

What follows are portions of the article in italics and my responses in plain text.

Re-examine your responsibility. Many of the symptoms of OCD can be caused and/or exacerbated by increases in perceived responsibility. The more responsible you feel, the more you are likely to check, wash, and/or think your thoughts are especially important. Ask yourself how responsible you feel for the parts of your life associated with your OCD, then take a step back from the problem and write down all of the possible other causes. For example, someone who would likely check their appliances repeatedly might feel completely responsible to protect their family from a fire. If this person adopted a broader perspective, they would realize that other family members, neighbors, the weather, the electrician who installed the wiring in the home, the company that built the appliances, and others should actually share in the responsibility.

Radomsky misses the point — OCD sufferers usually know the reality of these situations. But our minds spin with worry anyway. Like the addict who knows he-she will eventually die from their bad habits but can’t help but continue with them anyway, the OCD sufferer knows that he-she shares responsibilities with others, but can’t help but take on all the problems of the world anyway. The brain is constantly in motion, taking small concerns and sculpting them into huge, paralyzing worries.

Repetitions make you less sure about what you’ve done. This is bizarre because we usually check and/or ask questions repeatedly to be more confident of what we’ve done. OCD researchers in the Netherlands and Canada, however, have found that when repetition increases, this usually backfires and may lead to very dramatic declines in our confidence in our memory. To fix this, try conducting an experiment. On one day, force yourself to restrict your repetition to just one time. Later that day, on a scale of 0-10, rate how confident you are in your memory of what you’ve done. The next day, repeat the same behavior but rate it a few more times throughout the day. Most people who try this experiment find later that their urges to engage in compulsive behavior decline because they learn that the more they repeat something, the less sure they become.

I appreciate what he’s trying to do here with the role-playing game, and it can be helpful to try tracking how much you repeat an action and what it does to your memory.

But he again misses the crucial point: We OCD sufferers already know these repeated actions fuck with the memory of what we have or haven’t done. One of my OCD habits has always been going over the checklist for what I need to do before leaving for work the next morning. Clothes laid out? Check. Coffee maker programmed? Check. Lunch made and in the fridge? Check. Laptop bag stuffed with all the necessary work tools? Check. Then, even though I know full well what I’ve just done, I run through that same check list over and over. I’m not as bad as I was before treatment, but it’s still in me.

Treat your thoughts as just that — thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are normal, but they become obsessions when people give them too much importance … Spend a week making this distinction between your OCD thoughts (noise) and thoughts associated with things you are actually doing or would like to be doing (signal). See what happens.

I’ll tell you what happens: Your thoughts continue to run wild despite the exercise. Not that you shouldn’t try it. For a few people, it may help. But one of the very first things we learn is that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts and reality are not the same thing. But this is like the responsibility example above. We keep thinking because we can’t help it.

Practice strategic disclosure. People with OCD fear that if or when they disclose their unwanted intrusive thoughts or compulsions, other people will judge them as harshly as they judge themselves. This sadly often leaves the individual suffering alone without knowing that more than nine in 10 people regularly experience unwanted, upsetting thoughts, images, and impulses related to OCD themes as well. Consider letting someone in your life who has been supportive during difficult times know about the thoughts and actions you’ve been struggling with. Let them know how upset you are with these and how they’re inconsistent with what you want in life. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response. If not, give it one more try with someone else. We’ve found that it never takes more than two tries.

This piece of advice is sound, but gets buried beneath the unhelpful material.

Observe your behavior and how it lines up with your character. Most people struggling with OCD either view themselves as mad, bad and/or dangerous or they fear that they will become such, so they often go to great lengths to prevent bad things from happening to themselves or to their loved ones. But ask yourself how an observer might judge your values based on your actions. If you spend hours each day trying to protect the people you love, are you really a bad person? If you exert incredible amounts of time and effort to show how much you care, how faithful you are, how you just want others to be safe and happy, maybe you’re not so bad or dangerous after all. And as for being crazy, there’s nothing senseless about OCD. People sometimes fail to understand how rational and logical obsessions and compulsions can be. Remember, your values and behavior are the best reflection of who you are, not those pesky unwanted noisy thoughts.

This too is sound advice. But it leaves out something incredibly important: You can’t review your character and reconcile it with your OCD habits in this simple step he lays out. It takes years of intense therapy  — and for some, like me, the added help of medication — to peel away the layers and get at the root of your obsessions.

You can learn to manage OCD and live a good life. But it’s a lot of hard, frustrating work. And that work is ALWAYS there, until the day you die.

Know that before you dive into the search for simple solutions. If it looks simple, it’s probably too good to be true.

The Monkey Will ALWAYS Be On Your Back

I’m standing at a bar in Boston with my wife and stepmom. They order wine and I order coffee. My stepmom beams and says something about how awesome it is that I beat my demons.

I appreciate the pride and the sentiment. But it’s also dangerous when someone tells a recovering addict that they’ve pulled the monkey off their back for good.

Mood music:

Here’s the thing about that monkey: You can smack him around, bloody him up and knock him out. But that little fucker is like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. He won’t die.

Sometimes you can keep him knocked out for a long time, even years. But he always wakes up, ready to kick your ass right back to the compulsive habits that nearly destroyed you before.

That may sound a little dramatic. But it’s the truth, and recovering addicts can never be reminded of this enough.

Dr. Drew had a good segment on the subject last year, when he interviewed Nikki Sixx:

Sixx talked about his addictions and how he always has to be on guard. Dr. Drew followed that up with a line that rings so true: “Your disease is doing push ups right now.”

So painfully true.

I know that as a binge-eating addict following the 12 Steps of Recovery, I can relapse any second. That’s why I have to work my program every day.

But Sixx makes another point I can relate to: Even though he’s been sober for so many years, he still gets absorbed in addictive behavior all the time. The difference is that he gives in to the addiction of being creative. He’s just released his second book and second album with Sixx A.M. Motley Crue still tours and makes new music. He has four kids, a clothing line and so on. He’s always doing something.

I get the same way with my writing. That’s why I write something every day, whether it’s here or for the day job. I’m like a shark, either swimming or drowning. By extension, though I’ve learned to manage the most destructive elements of my OCD,I still let it run a little hot at times — sometimes on purpose. If it fuels creativity and what I create is useful to a few people, it’s worth it.

The danger is that I’ll slip my foot off the middle speed and let the creative urge overshadow things that are more important. I still fall prey to that habit.

And though it’s been well over three years since my last extended binge, my sobriety and abstinence has not been perfect. There have been times where I’ve gotten sloppy, realized it, and pulled back.

But the occasional sloppiness and full-on relapse will always be separated by a paper-thin wall.

I’ll have to keep aware of that until the day I die.

The monkey isn’t going anywhere. My job is to keep him tame most of the time.

Drawing by JUSTIN MCELROY (imaginarypeople26@yahoo.com). Click the photo to see more of his work.

Strong Too Long, Or Weak Too Often?

There’s a saying on Facebook that depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but simply the result of being strong for too long. Somewhat true — though weakness does feed the beast.

Mood music:

I’m feeling it this morning.

I’ve always taken a certain level of satisfaction from my ability to stay standing in the face of death, illness, family dysfunction, depression and addiction. Sometimes, I get an over-inflated sense of survivor’s pride.

People love to tell you how awesome you are when you emerge from adversity stronger than before. The victor is placed on a 10-foot pedestal and life looks hunky-dory from up there. But it’s only a matter of time before the person on top loses balance and crashes to the ground.

I’ve fallen from that pedestal a bunch of times, and my ass is really starting to hurt from all those slips off the edge.

All this has me asking the question: How much can you blame depression on being strong too long when many times it comes back because the victim has been weak?

I don’t think there’s a precise answer. I only know this: I feel like I’ve been trying like a motherfucker to be strong 24-7. But I don’t seem to have the fortitude to maintain it, and I give in to weakness.

In the past, that weakness would involve indulging in food, alcohol and tobacco until I was too sick to function.

Today, the weakness involves getting angry and self-defensive and distant at the drop of a hat.

For all the progress I’ve made in managing my OCD, there are still moments where I go weak, put the blinders on and do some stupid things.

It’s the compulsion to keep staring at the laptop screen when one or both kids need me to look up and give them some attention.

It’s stopping in the middle of a conversation with my wife because the cellphone is ringing or someone has pinged me online.

It’s spending too much money on food and entertainment for the kids because it’s easier to me at the time than  cooking the food myself and playing a board game with them instead.

I’ve been working double-time at bringing my compulsive tendencies to heel, going through some intensified therapy. The short-term result is that I’m an angrier person than I normally am.

My therapist made note of that anger at our last meeting. The trigger in the room was him taking me back to my younger years in search of clues to present-day debacles. I thought I was done with sessions like that five years ago.

But I’m learning that the road to mental wellness is not linear. It goes in a circle. It’s like driving to the same place every day for work. The drive to work and back is a loop of the same landmarks, the same traffic patterns and the same behind-the-wheel thinking sessions.

I’m learning that managing my issues is going to involve frequent trips back and forth from the past to the present. This pisses me off. But I know I have to keep at it.

I guess I’ll always have my weak moments because of the events that shaped me.  But you can still be strong throughout it, learning to regain your footing more quickly  and being better at the kind of discussion with loved ones that prevents endless miscommunication from adding up to a mountain of pain.

I don’t know when I’ll truly reach that level of strength. But for now I’m leaning hard on all my coping tools, including the music and the praying.

Two Days, Three Shitty Anniversaries And One Bloody Month

Earlier this month I wrote about two sad anniversaries: the deaths of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Layne Staley in 2002. But today — April 19, and tomorrow, April 20 — we have a trio of tragedies to remember.

Mood music:

Full disclosure: I’m about to steal liberally from Wikipedia.

April 19, 1993: Waco, Texas

The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, and ended violently 50 days later on April 19. The siege began when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), accompanied by several members of the media, attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, a property located 9 miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. On February 28, shortly after the attempt to serve the warrant, an intense gun battle erupted, lasting nearly 2 hours. In this armed exchange, four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Upon the ATF’s failure to execute the search warrant, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The siege ended 50 days later when a fire destroyed the compound when a second assault was launched. 76 people (24 of them British nationals) died in the fire, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and the sect leader David Koresh.

File:Mountcarmelfire04-19-93-l.jpg

April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City bombing was a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It would remain the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Oklahoma blast claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. Extensive rescue efforts were undertaken by local, state, federal, and worldwide agencies in the wake of the bombing, and substantial donations were received from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated eleven of its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, consisting of 665 rescue workers who assisted in rescue and recovery operations.

Within 90 minutes of the explosion, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger for driving without a license plate and arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon. Forensic evidence quickly linked McVeigh and Terry Nichols to the attack; Nichols was arrested and within days both were charged. Michael and Lori Fortier were later identified as accomplices. McVeigh, an American militia movement sympathizer, had detonated an explosive-filled Ryder truck parked in front of the building. McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, had assisted in the bomb preparation. Motivated by his hatred of the federal government and angered by what he perceived as its mishandling of the Waco Siege (1993) and the Ruby Ridge incident (1992), McVeigh timed his attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at Waco.

File:Oklahomacitybombing-DF-ST-98-01356.jpg

April 20, 1999: Columbine High School

The Columbine High School massacre (often known simply as Columbine) occurred on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado, United States, near Denver and Littleton. Two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, embarked on a massacre, killing 12 students and 1 teacher. They also injured 21 other students directly, and three people were injured while attempting to escape. The pair then committed suicide. It is the fourth-deadliest school massacre in United States history, after the 1927 Bath School disaster, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and the 1966 University of Texas massacre, and the deadliest for an American high school.

File:Eric harris dylan klebold.jpg

April is also a bloody month for other days, like the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007 and the start of such bloody conflicts as the American Revolution and the Civil War. I could mention dozens of other bloody events that happened in April, but I think this is quite enough for now. If you want a fuller accounting of the bloodshed, check out this article by Chaotic Ramblings

I pray for everyone who died in those tragedies. As I write this, the sun is shining through my window, warming my hands as I pound away on the keyboard. I’m going to make this a good day, despite those bad memories.

I suggest you do the same.

Teddy Roosevelt Did It All. What’s Your Excuse?

Today is Teddy Roosevelt’s birthday, which I bring up because his is the ultimate story about staring adversity in the face, grinning and spitting in its eye.

Mood music:

TR was a sickly boy whose asthma often left him struggling for breath. He could have used that as an excuse early on to avoid life’s big challenges. Instead, he lifted weights obsessively and built himself into a bull of a man who would live what he called “the strenuous life” until it drove him to the grave.

TR went through a lot of bad stuff in his life. Let me demonstrate with a little help from Wikipedia:

–Sickly and asthmatic as a child, Roosevelt had to sleep propped up in bed or slouching in a chair during much of his early years, and had frequent ailments.

–His first wife Alice died young of an undiagnosed case of kidney failure two days after their infant Alice was born. His mother Mittie died of typhoid fever on the same day, eleven hours earlier, in the same house.

–His youngest son was shot down behind German lines during the first world war.

Despite all that hell, he lived every day like it was his last.

–He was a prolific author, writing with passion on subjects ranging from foreign policy to the importance of the national park system. wrote about 18 books (each in several editions), including his Autobiography,[90] The Rough Riders[91] History of the Naval War of 1812,[92] and others on subjects such as ranching, explorations, and wildlife. His most ambitious book was the four volume narrative The Winning of the West, which connected the origin of a new “race” of Americans (i.e. what he considered the present population of the United States to be) to the frontier conditions their ancestors endured throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.

–He was a political warrior. We all know he was president, but before that he was governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, vice president, NY police commissioner and a state assemblyman.

–While running to win back the presidency in 1912 (he didn’t succeed), he was shot in the chest. He delivered his speech anyway, speaking for 90 minutes.

–After the presidency, he lived hard right to the end, going on expeditions of Africa and South America (the latter journey nearly killing him) and staying active in politics.

I think of him whenever I have a tough day, get sick or experience tragedy. He never took it lying down, and neither will I.

So, what’s your excuse?

How To Talk To A Liar Who’s Been Caught

A reader who recently found the two posts I wrote on addicts as compulsive liars had a sad story to share. Her husband, a compulsive spender, gambler and drinker, lies to her all the time. He apparently sucks at it. She always finds out.

Mood music:

How, she asked me, does she deal with a person like this? She still loves him, and in many respects he’s still the great guy. But lies are a cancer on even the most tried and true relationships.

It’s a hard question for me to answer. For one thing, it’s self-serving of me to tell a person like you how to talk to a person like me. My instinct will naturally be to tell you to go easy on him and calmly talk it through. It is true that yelling at a liar won’t make him stop. In fact, it will probably compel him to lie even more, convinced that any shred of honesty will result in a verbal beating every time.

This part has been especially challenging for me over the years. I grew up in a family where there was constant yelling. Because of that, I react to yelling like one might react to gunshots. I instinctively avoid it at all costs, and that has led to lies.

But if your significant other is stealing money behind your back to buy drugs, a friendly, smiling reminder to him that grownups aren’t supposed to behave this way won’t work either. The liar will simply thank God that he got off the hook that time.

You just can’t win with a liar.

I lied all the time about all the binge eating and the money I spent on it. I’m guilty of the lie of omission when it comes to smoking. And in moments where I felt like I was in trouble, I lied about something without meaning to. The instinct just kicked in and a second later I was smacking myself in the head over it.

Here’s where there’s hope:

Lies tire a soul out. It weighs you down after awhile like big bags of sand on your shoulders. Guilt eats you alive. That’s how it’s been with me in the past.

If you’re like that and there are any shards of good within you, you eventually come clean because you want to. Remember that lying is part of two larger diseases: Addiction and mental illness. Nobody wants to be sick.

But while some who get sick wallow in it and make everyone around them miserable, others are decidedly more stoic about it and try to do the best they can with the odds they’re dealt.

I was a miserable sick man but eventually, through spiritual growth, I tried to become a more bearable sick man. That meant dealing with the roots (addiction and OCD) and the side effects (lying).

I still fall on my face. But I work it hard and seem to have gotten much better than I used to be.

I credit Erin for a lot of this. She could have either thrown me out or thrown up her arms and turned a blind eye to my self destruction. But somehow, she has found a middle ground in dealing with me. It hasn’t always been pretty. But we’ve had our victories along the way.

You want to know how to talk to a liar who’s been caught? You’re better off asking her than me.

Faith: An Excuse To Duck Personal Responsibility?

A friend and reader is unconvinced when it comes to my posts about surrendering to a higher power as part of recovery from addiction. Here’s what she said:

“Bill while I agree with a lot of what you say in this article. I fail to see the “surrender to a higher power model.” In fact, that is one of the many flaws I find in AA styled groups. I have no addictions (well maybe caffeine), but have read a modicum of information about them. My perception is that yielding resolve to a “higher power” seems to be an excuse for not taking responsibility. I say this after spending a good deal of my early 20s looking for some spiritual certainty. At various points I think I’ve found it, but then I realize it was just my own inner-needs presenting a false image.”

She makes a fair observation. On the surface, it’s easy to see addicts turning to Faith as just another crutch. And I’ve known people who use it to justify bad, selfish decisions. One guy would prattle on about the Lord providing whenever he borrowed money he never repaid. Others seem to have a level of Faith that grows when things are good and dwindles when things don’t go well.

So let me try to answer the question. First, I’ll point out that this is how I see it. Any number of religious people might explain things differently.

For me, when I try to control everything and handle everything by myself, I overwhelm myself and everyone around me. Part of my problem is that I can’t control a lot of things. If I crash and burn, I blame it on how hard life is and how I’m working so hard to handle all the challenges. When I do that, I’m avoiding personal responsibility.

It’s a common problem with addicts. We need help because we are too mentally damaged to make good decisions when we’re under the spell of our substances. We see things as us against the world. There’s nobody to help us. We’re on our own. And it’s hard to face your fears when you’re alone.

You can lean hard on other people, but when you do that you eventually burn them out. When someone is constantly calling you or showing up at the front door because they can’t handle life, it becomes disruptive to everyone in the immediate vicinity.

Enter the Higher Power.

A person’s higher power isn’t necessarily the conventional concept of God. It’s simply the realization that something bigger than yourself is at play and ready to help if you simply accept it. Your Faith can be rooted in Buddhism. You could be a Wiccan or Jewish. Or, like me, Catholic. You don’t necessarily have to be a regular church or temple goer, though I choose to go to church at least once a week.

It’s about the higher power of YOUR understanding.

While this is a central part of the 12 Steps and AA, I don’t believe that this is the only way to kick an addiction. Some people just decide to stop drinking, eating or drugging and manage to quit cold turkey. I envy them. Others do it with a strong support system of family and friends. Others, like me, need more.

Personally, I think surrendering the idea that I could control my demons alone was the first step in taking responsibility for my actions. The surrendering isn’t an act of giving up and becoming dependent on Faith like a cultist robot. Specifically, I surrendered an idea and a behavior that wasn’t working. I surrendered the image I had of myself. That’s when I was able to move forward.

It doesn’t mean I’m cured. I still struggle. But if I fall on my face, the responsibility is all mine. I think people who expect God to keep them from failure and bad fortune are delusional. Our mission is to learn to stay upright when things aren’t going so well, so we can come out of it better than before.

I hope that helps.

Art by Bill Fennell