By Lane Brooke Fahy
This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.”
If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
My name is Lane Brooke, and I have OCD.
I had just graduated with a degree in clinical psychology when OCD brought me to my knees: for months, obsessional thinking, rumination, and avoidance dominated most of my waking moments.
I started seeing a psychologist who diagnosed me with OCD. He knew OCD well and was confident that ERP would help me. But for months, I had trouble accepting that I had OCD and could not unglue myself from a belief that engaging in ERP was a way to let myself off the hook for what a truly awful person I was. An OCD diagnosis was also hard for me to accept because I knew that OCD was a chronic and often debilitating condition with no “cure.”
This terrified me. Would I be like this for the rest of my life, and, even if my symptoms improved, would I always be in a constant battle with OCD thoughts? As I read more and more about OCD, I learned that treatment is effective and that living beyond the grip of OCD entails some level of continued acknowledgment and acceptance of OCD’s presence and the accompanying OCD-related thoughts.
I was in a really dark place then, and this didn’t sound good to me. I had already been through significant struggles with anxiety and depression, and I was tired of the struggle. Accepting that I had OCD felt like acknowledging just how messed up my brain was and how different I was from other people. I couldn’t stop obsessing about things that I knew didn’t bother other people that much, and I hated that. I wanted to be “normal,” and I wanted to be in control.
My initial obsession began to morph into additional obsessions and compulsions, and I remained largely incapacitated by OCD. I hated myself and felt like a broken human being. I had thoughts of suicide. I constantly questioned whether I really had OCD. My therapist was in my corner the whole time; his compassion never dwindled, and his faith in my ability to feel better and regain my life with the help of ERP remained steadfast. His faith and compassion, and the support of my family, kept me getting up every day. Even so, we eventually decided that doing more intensive treatment might help me more quickly.
I ended up going to a residential treatment center that had a specialty program for treating OCD. I was afraid to go, but so tired of being stuck. Deep down, I wanted to just let everything go, be immersed in treatment, and feel secure in a therapeutic environment. I knew I needed help and that I couldn’t overcome this on my own. When I started the program, I immediately felt guilty, and my mind gave me many reasons why I shouldn’t be there. How dare I go to an expensive, ritzy, treatment center when so many other people with OCD could not afford it? And how dare I go to an OCD program when I might not even have OCD, or at least not as severely as others? My obsessions and compulsions were mostly of the “moral scrupulosity” variety which to me seemed so unlike and less legitimate than the forms of OCD that are familiar to most people. I told myself I was a spoiled liar who was just too weak to move on with her life. My therapist at the program encouraged me to dive into the program, act like I needed to be there, and “fool” everyone with my nonexistent OCD.
I did, and my life is forever changed.
One of the main exposures I did during the program was to tell others that I had OCD and to be open about my struggles. At first I thought this was incredibly stupid and would be easy. What a silly little exercise, and another reason I didn’t need treatment – my homework was pointless! How hard could it be to simply tell someone that I had OCD, especially when people with other types of OCD confront images, objects, germs, etc. that truly terrify them? Turns out that telling people that I had OCD was incredibly difficult. I remember sitting on my bed crying after I failed to do it on the first try, berating myself for being unable to do something “easy.” But this moment was one of many turning points for me because I decided to let myself off the hook and have some compassion for myself. My therapist, like many therapists, was really into the idea of self-compassion, a concept I have generally considered to be too “woo woo” and sappy for me. I don’t need to be kinder to myself – I need to get myself together and be a better person! But as I sat on my bed thinking about my failed exposure, I remembered self-compassion and tried it out. I told myself that it was okay that my exposure assignment was difficult for me, and that it was okay that for someone else, such a task might be easy. It was hard for ME, because I have OCD, and my OCD has its own flavor. There, I said it: I have OCD.
Another turning point for me came when my therapist introduced to me the “spotlight” metaphor. He talked about how people with OCD tend to shine a wide spotlight on the world, meaning that they pay greater attention to details and their own thoughts, and they view the details as extremely important. That’s me: I feel like I remember everything and think in great detail about things; I’m an analyzer and a critical thinker. This metaphor, and my deepening understanding of OCD and how it works, really helped me understand myself in a way that I never had before. I’ve come to appreciate how aptly OCD describes how I think sometimes and the diagnosis has helped me make sense of myself in a way that I had never been able to before.
My experience in therapy helped me view myself in a more reasonable way, something that I think is a struggle for many of us, and maybe especially so for those with OCD. I (used to) spend a lot of time berating myself for my flaws. When my OCD was at its worst, I really criticized myself and the way I thought. I wanted my brain to not work the way it did; I wished that I wasn’t such an overthinker and could be more easygoing. I still wish that sometimes; it might be nice if my brain relaxed more. But then again, I love to think, learn, draw connections, and deliver quick-witted remarks, and I don’t really want to change those things. I’ve learned, with the help of my therapist, that I have both “assets and liabilities,” and if I can accept both, it can be a game-changer.
Being diagnosed with OCD was frightening, because living with OCD can be frightening. One passing thought can turn my world upside down for a while, sometimes a long time. OCD robs me of my time and joy. My mind can be a million miles away from my physical body, focused on something that I logically know isn’t as important as I’m making it out to be. But in the moment, whatever it is that my brain has latched on to seems like the most important thing in the world, and letting it go seems like a risk I can’t afford. Maybe the worst thing about OCD is that it keeps me in a prison of my own making, a prison that has an unlocked door to freedom, but the door is guarded by thoughts of my worst fears.
Writing this has been an exposure exercise for me. I started writing with gusto, then stopped abruptly because OCD got in the way. I told myself my OCD wasn’t bad enough to write such a thing, and then, when I was really triggered for a while, that I shouldn’t write this because I was a treatment failure. OCD has given me so many reasons why I shouldn’t share openly: I’ve exaggerated something, what I’ve said isn’t perfectly accurate, I missed something, I haven’t revealed everything, personal revelations like this might impact my professional life, I’m just trying to get attention, I don’t even have OCD… If you have OCD or if you treat it, you know that this list could go on forever. I don’t know what might come from sharing my story publicly. Some of the things I fear might be true. But for me, sharing my story is in line with my values, and I’m choosing to live with all the uncertainty and self-doubt this piece brings up for me.
I’m not looking forward to the moments when OCD thinking will inevitably take hold of me for a while. But I am grateful that I can learn, grow, and share hope with others on this journey. There is deep compassion in the OCD community; I have felt it from therapists, support groups, podcasts, and blog posts. Dare I say that I’m a proud member of this group that wakes up every day to face (and help others) face the things that scare them the most? I think I am.
Treatment got me out of the woods with my OCD. I still go back sometimes, but I don’t stay nearly as long when I do. I hope I can walk with others out of the woods too.
Thank you for writing this. I have OCD and I think we share some similar symptoms. I’m afraid that I’m I’ve been in the woods the last couple weeks. Your comment about “letting yourself off the hook” really matches with my experience.
Thanks again for sharing and for shining a light.
I just read a description of myself.