It was an auspicious coincidence that I decided to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand back-to-back. Frankl’s book is the account of his life during and after being imprisoned at Nazi concentration camps in World War II. Hillenbrand’s book is about how Louie Zamperini survived after his B-24 bomber plunged into the Pacific, also during WWII. Both books gave me some incredible, new perspectives on living with and surviving OCD.
Tales of torment
Frankl’s book is sobering. Through his stories of life at Auschwitz as well as other concentration camps, we get a grim picture of the reality of day-to-day existence for those who were held by the Nazis. He states that of every 28 people who entered a concentration camp, only 1 walked out alive at the end of the war. Every day Frankl lived with the knowledge that he could be chosen for execution at any moment.
Zamperini was a bombardier on a B-24 bomber that crashed into the Pacific. He and two other crew members survived and floated with no food or water for 47 days, many times in the company of circling sharks. Day 48 offered no relief, however, as they were captured by the Japanese. One particular guard called “The Bird” developed a personal vendetta against Zamperini and brutally attacked him with such vengeance that he knocked Zamperini unconscious on multiple occasions.
OCD: a mental prison
How does all this relate to OCD? The analogy came to me as I was reading both books: having untreated OCD is like being in a mental prison. Further, even though we as OCD sufferers are in no more danger day-to-day than anyone else, i.e. we are not in a raft floating in the Pacific surrounded by sharks nor in a camp where we could be chosen for death at any minute, OCD makes us feel as if we are. Having OCD is like being in a mental prison full of hellish tortures that you just cannot escape. And, you have no idea when your sentence is going to end.
I could also relate to the challenges, described by both Frankl and Hillenbrand, that released prisoners re-entering the world encounter:
- Frankl talks about prisoners of concentration camps struggling with bitterness after the war. They’d lost their families, their livelihoods, their possessions – everything. It would take a strong person not to become bitter, resentful, and full of vengeance in these circumstances.
- Frankl also described that former prisoners were surprised when they encountered unhappiness in their lives. How could they possibly be unhappy after what they had experienced? How was every day not full of grace, peace and joy? They were alive, after all. They had a second chance at life. What was there to be unhappy about?
- After his release, Zamperini talked about how he was haunted each night by the Bird, who continued to beat him in his dreams. For several years after the war, Zamperini dulled his torment with an addiction to alcohol, as it seemed to banish the Bird from consciousness.
I think many of us who have done exposure and response prevention therapy and are in recovery from OCD can relate to the struggle to overcome these issues.
- Overcoming bitterness: It’s hard not to be bitter at the time we’ve lost, how long it took us to find the right treatment, the opportunities that will never come again. It’s why I’m currently reading Forgive for Good, because I think forgiveness is a better alternative than bitterness.
- Finding happiness: Life is also not automatically full of joy forever once OCD has been banished, as life isn’t that way for anyone. Being happy can take work, but it’s worth it. Further, while everyone’s brains are programmed to take note of the negative (because quickly identifying potential problems helps us to stay alive), I’m guessing that people with OCD have brains even more tuned to the negative. So for us, it can be like driving a car that’s out of alignment: it takes conscious effort to keep the car headed in the right direction so that we don’t veer into the ditch of OCD-fueled negativity.
- Overcoming addictions that we used to cope: I think many of us with OCD can relate to Zamperini’s use of alcohol to escape from the Bird. Sometimes we turn to a variety of types of escapism to cope with the unrelenting obsessions and exhausting compulsions, and these “escapes” can then become long-lasting bad habits or even addictions. I developed workaholism to help me deal with OCD, as I found that staying busy with work kept the OCD thoughts at bay. Even though I am in recovery from OCD, the workaholism is still there and takes effort to manage. Zamperini eventually was able to rid his mind of the Bird through a commitment to his faith, enabling him to overcome his alcoholism.
Fortunately for those of us with OCD, we don’t have to turn to escapism or addictions to deal with OCD, as there is excellent OCD treatment available.
A theme emerges from both books about how to deal with suffering—it’s a matter of finding meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist, and he founded a type of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which is all about finding meaning in life. Frankl states that we can find meaning in anything in life, including suffering, and that we have a choice to find this meaning. Zamperini and Frankl found meaning in their own suffering through helping others: Frankl continued with his career as a neurologist and psychiatrist, and Zamperini became a motivational speaker.
However, according to Frankl, meaning is not about achieving anything or being “useful” to society. Just being is meaningful. Just coping day-to-day with suffering is meaningful. He references a study done in Austria that showed “those held in highest esteem by most of the people interviewed were neither the great artists, nor the great scientists, neither the great statesmen, nor the great sports figures, but those who master a hard lot with their heads held high.”
For those of you out there still struggling with OCD, your life has meaning. For those of you who have recovered from OCD but face challenges of re-entry, your life has meaning, too. All of us with OCD can find meaning in our experience, and we can master our hard lot with our heads held high.
Have you found meaning from your experience of OCD? If you have experienced re-entry challenges, how did you overcome them? Please use the Contact Me form to let me know your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you!
I just finished Unbroken, and it was an amazing read. Although it was very difficult reading about Zamperini’s awful experiences, it was also strangely uplifting to learn how much we as humans can handle if we don’t allow ourselves to be broken. Almost a year ago now, OCD left me barely functioning. I had to fight my way back to almost normal. I’m doing much better, but ever since I have had times when I’m worried about falling back into that place…my version of “The Bird”, I guess. After reading this book, though, I have more faith in my ability to stay strong.
I actually found this post because I was wondering if Zamperini himself had OCD. Hillenbrand mentions his “germophobia” a couple of times and says it was especially bad (with what seemed like compulsions) after the war.
Hi Jennifer, I like how you compare OCD with “The Bird”…I’ve never thought of that before but it’s a fitting analogy! I don’t know whether Zamperini had OCD, but if you find out please let me know.
I’m so glad you are better and that Zamperini’s story has given you faith to stay strong and “unbroken” in the face of OCD.