OCD’s Infernal Call and Response

by Matt B. on April 9, 2015

And as he is who dreams of his own harm / Who dreaming wishes it may be a dream, / So that he craves what is, as if it were not

— Inferno, Canto XXX

In exposure and response prevention therapy, (ERP) you’re supposed to lean into the sources of your fear.

But what if you’re afraid of everything? Answer: life becomes an endless exposure exercise.

The treatment isn’t supposed to be this harsh. Many therapists would say, Pick a few obsessions to work on for now, and don’t worry about the rest.

But as with everything, OCD wants to do therapy perfectly. If I give into my obsessions, they’ll only get stronger. I’ll overcome some of them, but never enough to keep pace.

So I become obsessed about not being obsessive. Like: I’m at home, looking to buy a plane ticket, and the internet is down. Try the café downstairs?

No – don’t. The internet is probably down in the whole neighborhood.


No – these are probably obsessive feelings at work, and you don’t want to act on them.

So…what do I do about this plane ticket?

You can check the internet here at the house after a reasonable interval.

How long is that?

Oh, you know – they usually get the internet fixed within a few hours.

But I don’t know how long it’s been down.

Right, but the point is to avoid getting involved in these obsession-fueled conversations where you try to figure out things that you can’t possibly figure out.

Too late.

Yeah, but you don’t have to keep going. When you feel things getting all crimped and obsessive like this, you can stop.

But of course obsessions are in the mix – I’m an obsessive-compulsive! I have obsessive feelings about everything; does that mean I can’t do anything?

No, no. But notice how you feel right now – that tightness, that claustrophobia. And notice how we’re not talking about buying a plane ticket anymore. All of a sudden, we’re debating life philosophies – as if your value as a human being depends on making the right decision in this moment.

And that is total bullshit. There is nothing on the line here. There’s nothing happening at all – except that your brain is spazzing out a little. Your mind is overloaded with fear and it’s battening down the hatches.

So…what do I do?

Well, that depends. Do you want to be in a fight right now? A fight that you can’t win, because there is no winning? A fight in which you throw blind haymakers that boomerang back into your jaw, because you’re actually fighting yourself?


So walk away. Get up, close the laptop, push your chair in, and walk outside.

But I don’t want to. There’s nothing out there for me. I’m supposed to walk around aimlessly in the liquid heat because my mind decided to get jumpy?

Doesn’t sound appealing, I agree. But let’s be honest about your choices here. You could a) stay here, getting sucked into a tinier and tinier compartment of your own mind, or b) do something else.

Now, your OCD is going to try to convince you that b) is the cowardly route – that you should stay and lean into your fears, no matter how shitty you feel.

But be straight with yourself: right now, you’re mostly frustrated that you don’t have your plane ticket, and that you’re gonna have to come back and try again later.

Your OCD is taking advantage of that frustration – it’s flattering you by pretending that there’s something deeper going on. The truth is, you’re just not getting your way.

And you don’t like what that means (or what you think it means). You don’t like that you just spent twenty minutes on the computer and have nothing to show for it. You don’t like the idea that these twenty minutes have been a big energy-suck, that you’re tired and frustrated now, that you’ve got less time to read and write.

No, I don’t.

Well, who does? Who likes wrangling uncooperative computers, or getting stuck in traffic, or hanging out at the DMV?

What’s your point?

People have to deal with these things. You’re no different.

Sure. But I get so little time to do the things I care about. So much of the time I’m just humping along, getting through, withstanding.

What are you withstanding, exactly?

These terrible thoughts – this endless stream of intrusive fears and anxieties.

And you feel like you can’t do anything about them – that for a few hours every day, you’re always going to be contending with OCD’s bloodhounds?

Well, that’s the way things have gone since I was eighteen. Fifteen years running, now.

Right – and you feel like you need to compensate for that time, to ‘make the most’ of the unhounded hours.

Something like that.

Because if you don’t…what?

Then I’m kind of worthless. I’m not doing anything. I’m just…surviving.

You know what I’m gonna say, right? That you didn’t choose this – that it just happened. That OCD sucks, but that it’s real – as real as cancer. That you have to summon an almost unbelievable amount of focus and fortitude to get through each day. And that part of me admires you for it.

And all of that is cool – but most of the time, I don’t really care. I don’t want my life to be just about OCD – even if I manage it with some grace and dignity. I want more than that.

And you have more than that. You have great relationships and meaningful projects and the freedom to travel. In some ways, you’re a damn lucky guy.

But underneath, the OCD termites are always at work – pulping and shaving and grinding down the studs. I can hear them in there, but I can’t get at them. It’s this powerlessness – this constant feeling that moisture’s creeping into the foundations – that creates the color and texture of my days (even if it’s opaque to others).

And sometimes, it’s not just termites. It’s much bigger and more destructive – and it comes out of nowhere.

I know.

But the readers might not.

So tell ‘em.

It comes outta nowhere. I know, because I’m constantly looking around, scanning the horizon. And no matter how clear the coast may seem, there’s usually something I’m not seeing – a steel-jacketed worry ripping low across the waters.

Okay, but can’t you use that fact – that your mind is always generating these disaster scenarios – to ward them off? Or at least talk yourself down when they ‘happen’?

You’re skipping past the storm – the way the wind changes, and the clouds wheel down over the fields. The way my body gets colt-skittish. The way my faculties are evicted by the thunder’s crash and the lightning’s shock.

So take shelter. Lay down, sleep, watch TV – whatever you need. But sometimes, you don’t seem to get up again for a long while. Why is that?

Because I feel like I should have been able to stop this from happening. And that because I didn’t, I deserve it somehow.

That’s fucking stupid.

I know.

Not well enough, you don’t. And that’s at the core of this. That’s half of why this disease is so sticky. You believe that you shouldn’t be like this – that to be a good person, you can’t be like this. But you don’t know how not to be.


And that is a recipe for misery. If your opinion of yourself depends on the kinds of thoughts and feelings that come into your head – that is, on things that are entirely outside your control – then you are fucked.

But it doesn’t feel like they’re entirely outside my control. Sometimes, I have the sense that I’m nearing the edge of the rabbit hole, and I think – Maybe I should stop now. Because the last time I went down there, it sucked pretty bad. But the thought doesn’t have any effect – except that I feel guilty for not acting on it. And then I end up falling in anyhow.


Okay, yeah – but at some point, shouldn’t insight get some traction?

Sure. And it does. It already has: you’re way better at managing this stuff than you were a few years ago. But developing new habits and instincts takes time – especially when you’re dealing with something this crafty and merciless.

So…in the meantime?

In the meantime before what?

Before I stop getting KO’d at least once a day.

I’m not sure it’s a good idea to divvy up your life like that.

Like what?

Into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ You might end up pinning your hopes on a day that never comes – or it might pass by without you even noticing.

Journey, not destination.

Yeah, but I’m not even worried about the metaphor. I’m wondering when you’re gonna realize that you’re worthy of love. That you can love yourself right now.

That’s the foundation, man. Other stuff matters too, of course – eating right, resting, exercising, doing your exposures, spending time with friends and family – but if you don’t learn to love yourself, then none of the rest of this stuff is gonna matter nearly as much as it could. You’re gonna spend your whole life chasing some image of yourself, trying to close the gap between who you are and who’d you’d like to be.

And it’s never going to happen. No matter how much you grow or how much progress you make, there’s always going to be a gap.

And that’s fine – but you gotta fill that space with love. Or if that’s too much for now, try forgiveness. Mercy. Laughter.

If you need something to implement, try this. Whenever you start freaking out about OCD’s latest trifle, remind yourself that you have two options: You can beat the shit out of yourself. Or you can say, Sure, this sucks. And I’m scared and ashamed beyond words. But I’m not gonna turn on myself.

And if some parts of you already have turned on yourself – if the chorus of cruelty is already roaring – then remember that they haven’t taken over entirely. If they had, who would they be singing to? And who would be there to listen? No – they’re singing to convince the rest of you, to terrorize your entire being into submission.

This is where you gotta remember that there’s another voice in you. He’s over there in the corner – a little boy, head down, fingers jammed in his ears. He doesn’t know what’s happening, or why everything is so loud and scary. And he doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.

So forget the endless debates and conversations with yourself – including this one. Just protect that little boy. Wrap him up and absorb the blows for him. Show him the love that you don’t yet know how to show yourself. And I promise: in doing so, you’ll learn.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Janet Singer April 10, 2015 at 7:54 am


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