It’s not about the content, it’s about the process.
This is something my CBT therapist discusses with me a lot. He’s pleased that recently I’ve been attending OCD support groups and Bryony Gordon’s excellent Mental Health Mates meet-ups; things I’d have previously shied away from. We’ve discussed the therapeutic benefits, amongst which is finding the similarities with others who overtly, at least, seem to experience something very different to me. Realising that the similarities lie in the process of how the illness works, not the content of thoughts and scenarios experienced, is a very valuable thing indeed. For the more that you realise that the content of intrusive thoughts does not matter, the closer to recovery you come.
Let’s strip OCD down to the basics. Meet the stars of today’s two made up examples: Buffy and Davros (what?! That’s their names, ok?). Buffy loves going jogging, but has been terrorised by this intrusive thought: that when she runs along the street and encounters a little girl playing on her scooter, she’s going to violently shove that little girl out of the way, into the road, under the path of a speeding van. She is horrified by this image, appalled that she has thought it, and terrified about why she has thought it. Is there something bad in her? Is she actually going to do that? She can’t get rid of the image, and she stops going running, or even walking in the street.
Davros doesn’t understand Buffy’s problem at all, and wishes that was all he had to worry about. His anxiety has gotten out of control since he nearly left the house with the kitchen tap running. He turned it off, but then turned it on and off again to be sure. He finished getting ready to go out, but then checked the tap again, turning it on and off again twice more. Getting to the front door, he thought, what if he left the bathroom tap on as well? So he went back, turned that on and off again three times to be sure of that too. Feeling better he finally left, but now he keeps thinking about the incident. Before he knows it, he is struggling to ever leave the house or any room without turning taps, light switches, all sorts, on and off three times; and his anxiety about it and how weird it is, is making him feel sick. Buffy hears about this and thinks it’s stupid. Why worry about that? It’s not like he’s being terrorised by images of pushing little girls in the road all day long, which might mean she has evil impulses!
The scenarios differ in content, but the process of Buffy and Davros’ problems are the same. There is a thought that invades their minds (‘push girl in front of van’, and ‘left tap running’). This thought glares the spotlight of each ones attention, gets trapped in their minds, like a song you can’t stop replaying in your head.
To try to neutralise this obsessive thought, both carry out a reactive behaviour. Even though she loves running, Buffy stops going. When this doesn’t work she even stops walking in busy streets. Davros checks all the taps. He checks excessively by turning them on and off three times each. When this doesn’t work, he starts checking all manner of things, turning them off multiple more times. This is a compulsive behaviour.
Ok, but last time I talked about mental images that upset me, and about abstract misery regarding the concept of humour. They were obsessive thoughts, sure, but where was the compulsive element? These type of OCD experiences are sometimes referred to under the umbrella term ‘pure O’, meaning pure obsession. It is a term that I dislike for a couple of reasons. Firstly it sounds to me like the title of a porn video! Secondly, it is misleading, as there is a very strong compulsive element in terms of my reactions to the obsessive thoughts. For a start, I do carry out overt behaviours, such as avoidance. Also, the behaviours don’t have to be overt – they can be internal, mental. In my case I try to transform the images to make them more acceptable or manageable. Or I try to justify reassuring arguments that I construct to deal with the obsessive abstract terrors; try to ‘solve’ or ‘clean’ the thoughts. Inn Buffy’s case she tries to stop the image, or questions the reason for it.
However, the real compulsive element in all cases, is not just found in the action carried out to manage the situation, but also the initial reaction to the thought. This is a very important point in understanding and fighting the illness. Because this negative reaction involves an interpretation of the original thought. Buffy thinks ‘that’s horrible – but why did I think it; what if I actually do it;I must not do that; does it mean there is something bad in me; what if I can never walk in a street again?’. Davros thinks ’how do I know I turned off the tap if I forgot before; why am I still worried about it; I must not let this happen; why did it feel better after three times; what if I can never just do things first time again’. These are thoughts-about-thoughts – meta-cognitions. They tell you that you need to do something about the thought. Now. NOW!! They tell you the thought is dangerous, frightening, disgusting – do something about it, neutralise it, NOW, and don’t stop until it is gone.
And how do you make the thought gone? Do you try to ignore it? No, no, no. Ok, you need to keep acting out sets of behaviours or counter thoughts until you find the right one to stop it, right? Do you arse! (if you are reading outside the UK, this translates as ‘most certainly not’). Look at Buffy and Davros’ examples. The more they do, the worse it gets. Oh, ok, shit. So what do you do to stop them?
Well – you don’t.
What?! But… surely…. What?!
What I mean, is that you don’t try to stop them. And also, you can’t stop them. But don’t worry, you don’t need to stop them.
You see, the thoughts themselves are not the problem. They are just thoughts. No matter how weird or unpleasant. Everyone has thousands of thoughts passing through their minds every minute, and some of them are, well, weird and unpleasant. Having the thoughts is not the disordered component in OCD. How could it be, when the thoughts themselves can be about anything at all? What is disordered is the reaction to the thoughts. The severity of that compulsive reaction, that alarmed interpretation, keeps the thought in the spotlight of attention. The meta-cognition which demands corrective behaviour, a mental solving of a problem, that doesn’t actually exist, maintains the obsessive problem in a vicious cycle.
This is the reason that, in cognitive-neuropsychology terminology, OCD is such a total, utter, bastard. But while it is a long, long way from easy, once you fully get to grips with where the disorder truly lies – in the process, not the content – then you can start working towards dealing with it effectively.