As I sit here thinking about what an amazing time I had at the 2015 IOCDF Conference—the fun I had connecting with friends new and old, the information I learned, the new perspectives I gained—I marvel that I was actually there.
Not because I couldn’t get a flight to Boston. (Well, OK, I did have to buy a new ticket to get to Boston an hour and a half before my previously purchased flight would have taken off … but that’s another story for another day.)
The real reason I’m marveling is because I’m 44. For anyone who has heard “Is Fred in the Refrigerator?” you know that my OCD loves the number 4.
It also loves irony.
And according to my OCD, this is the year … that I am supposed to die.
But because of a book I read on the flight to the 2014 IOCDF Conference, I have decided to live happily with the knowledge of my potential impending death. And because of attending this year’s conference, I have a better understanding of what “advocacy,” one of the themes of this year’s conference, really is. Since the clock is ticking and who knows when the specter of Death will be visiting my door (wow … a little spike of anxiety writing that!), I’d like to share in this two-part blog post about that book, my OCD’s doom and gloom predictions, my new friend Lily, and what being an #OCDvocate means to me.
I give you my Aha! Moments from the 2015 IOCDF Conference … the conference my OCD was sure I would never attend.
From guilt to wonder
A year ago, as I was packing to head to Los Angeles for the 2014 conference, I stopped by the bookshelves in my office to choose a few books to take along. My flight was at least 4 hours each way, so I’d have plenty of time to catch up on reading.
As I scanned the shelves, my eyes fell on the title I knew I had to take: When in Doubt, Make Belief: An OCD-Inspired Approach to Living with Uncertainty by Jeff Bell. In truth, I’d felt guilty that I hadn’t read this one yet. I’d had the opportunity to work with Jeff for my keynote at the 2013 conference, and I’d loved his first book, Rewind, Replay, Repeat.
“Well, feel guilty no more,” I said to myself as I picked it up off the shelf and threw it into my bag.
You can say that again.
As I turned the pages of Jeff’s book on my flight to LA, not only did my guilt melt away, but an unexpected and totally foreign, new emotion set in: wonder.
Because on page 66, Jeff was proposing something that I had never even considered before. That my OCD told me was not possible. That my constant low level of hypervigilance and anxiety, even after I had done tons of ERP, made feel impossible.
The universe isn’t out to get me?
Jeff was proposing that I could choose to believe that the universe is friendly.
Yes, I will say it again: I could choose to believe that the universe is friendly.
When you have untreated OCD, you actually don’t think you have a lot of choices. Period. You get an obsession, you feel anxiety, you do a compulsion. Rinse and repeat. After you go through treatment, you realize you do have a choice, albeit a hard one, to accept the uncertainty and anxiety and not do compulsions. I’d made that choice a gazillion times by the time I was reading Jeff’s book, and as a result my OCD was a lot better.
But I still felt, on a daily basis, that something was well … wrong. And I felt like fixing it wasn’t a choice. Because there was no fixing it…it was just the way things were.
It was as if I walked around just waiting for the sky to fall. I felt hypervigiliant. In fact, I’d combed the DSM’s criteria for PTSD, to see if getting hit by a car at age 4 (maybe that’s why my OCD likes 4….I’d never thought of that!) could have given me PTSD that was still going on and that’s why I always felt nervous. On edge. Uptight. Like something devastating might happen at any moment.
But I didn’t seem to really have PTSD. For the four years since I had been treated for OCD, I had puzzled as to why my hypervigilance, my constant low level of buzzing anxiety, never went away.
The moment I read in Jeff’s book, “Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that the single most important decision any of us will ever have to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly,” I instantly understood. I was so nervous because I believed the universe was not only unfriendly: I thought it was punitive! Out to get me! Conspiring to make my life miserable!
And according to Jeff, I could stop this. With one little choice, I could change my life.
Yet another OCD tantrum
I remember this feeling of giddy relief on the airplane, as this huge smile washed over my face. “The universe is friendly,” I whispered to myself. I could feel the hypervigiliance melting away.
“It is not!” screamed my OCD.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” I said, taunting my nemesis. It could be such a buzz kill.
“YOU CANNOT SAY THAT!” it screamed! “You are putting us in jeopardy! Only hypervigilant people stay safe. Only people who don’t feel too happy. Saying the universe is friendly is letting down your guard. It’s asking for trouble! You are going to kill us!” My OCD was sobbing at this point.
I handed my OCD a tissue, patted it on its highly annoying little head and said, “I don’t care. We are going to try this. I’m going to be happy. I’m going to act happy. I’m going to act as if the universe is friendly.”
I won’t lie. My anxiety was vying with the giddiness at this point. But I could feel the giddiness as potential….what I could get if I hung in here with what would be a huge exposure. The exposure of trusting. The exposure of letting go of control. The exposure of choosing to believe that the universe is friendly.
Allow for bigger plans than your own to unfold
By Saturday of the conference, I was convinced. This “universe is friendly” stuff was working! I was feeling better. Not hypervigilant. More able to be in the present moment. More like I was enjoying life.
I couldn’t keep this to myself. Jeff had to know how in just that one section of the book he had solved the remaining mystery of my OCD: why I was always so nervous, even after all my ERP. He had to know the amazing freedom he had given me by telling me I had a choice in how I viewed the world.
So I grabbed Jeff at the social at the conference and enthusiastically shared what his book had done for me. I told him I wanted to buy signed copies, that I was going to start using his book in my therapy groups and with my clients. That other people with OCD and anxiety had to know that they had a choice in what they believe.
And speaking of belief, believe it or not, that conversation eventually ended up, months later, with Jeff and I co-founding Beyond the Doubt, which also goes to prove the last of Jeff’s Ten Steps Out When Stuck in Doubt: Allow for bigger plans than your own to unfold. Indeed.
Isn’t it ironic?
Which brings me to my death. My OCD is a fan of Alanis Morissette’s song “Isn’t It Ironic?” In fact, this song could be my OCD’s homage to the critical importance of hypervigilance:
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
“Well isn’t this nice…”
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think?
So, turning 44? According to my OCD, this would be the best year ever. What could be better than 2 4s, which if you multiply together would be 16, which is perfect because it’s 4 squared, and the square root of 4 is 2 and again there are 2 4s, and 4 divides perfectly into 4….you get the picture. My OCD was going to wet its pants with glee about our turning this magic number.
By the time that my birthday month of February rolled around this year, I had been choosing to believe that the universe is friendly for at least six months. Although my OCD was deliriously happy about the whole 44 thing, it also was worried. (Of course it was…it is my OCD after all….)
So, on my big day, my OCD popped my birthday balloons with one really big scary arrow of a thought. It brought up again that my nonchalant disregard for the evil nature of the world was going to bring about my ultimate demise. Not only that, it taunted, because 44 is so perfect, this was going to be the year that it would happen. That I would die. Because that would be soooooooooooooo ironic. And such sweet revenge for my not listening to my OCD’s warnings about the dangers of my new belief in a friendly universe.
And if you think that writing this right now it not giving me any anxiety, you are sorely mistaken.
Because, you see, I still have 6 months left to be 44. And for my OCD to be right. It is a great act of exposure for me to write these words. In fact, I have wanted to write this particular Aha! Moment since the 2014 Conference. I am now realizing that it’s taken me so long to put pen to paper because I still hear vestiges of OCD’s Rule #1 in my mind sometimes….”we don’t tell what we think…because if we do, we will make it happen.” It’s one thing to act like the universe is friendly—my OCD has mostly gotten used to this and has mostly stopped sobbing and throwing tantrums about it. But it’s a completely different thing, from my OCD’s perspective, to post online about this new belief, to “tempt fate” in such a public way. So, I’ve probably been engaging in a teensy bit of avoidance over the past year in not writing this blog until now.
Well, no more. It’s now out there that I could die at any minute, just because I’m 44 and choosing a new belief. To quote myself from last year’s conference: Bring it on, baby!
A miracle or not…you decide
If you saw me at the conference, you may have noticed that I smile a lot. I do so because, for me, it’s part of choosing to believe that the universe is friendly. That does not mean I am happy all the time….I’m not, because no one is! That also doesn’t mean that I wasn’t triggered at certain points during the conference…I was. In fact, Part 2 is about my biggest trigger during the weekend, and how I used the concept of advocacy to help myself through it.
The conference is over, but there are still 6 months left for me to be 44. And if I die this year, I die! Oh, well. That’s not something I can control. At least before my untimely demise I will have had the opportunity to act on another wise Einstein quote from Jeff’s book:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Regardless of what my OCD wants, I choose to see the universe as friendly. Because I choose to see that life is a miracle. Even when you have OCD.
Shala, thank you for your post! Your bravery and continued advocacy in the face of OCD is really inspiring. I’m looking forward to you reaching 45 and laughing in OCD’s face at that. Keep inspiring us!
Thank you, Nicola!