In The House of Velvet and Glass, Sybil Allston is trying to make sense of the death of her mother and sister on the Titanic several years earlier. She is also trying to understand where her own future is taking her, and whether she has the power to “see” what others cannot. The author deftly takes us between Sybil’s upper class Boston life in the early 20th century and the late 19th century searfaring adventures of her father, Lannie. As I was reading about Lannie’s escapades in Shanghai, something said by one of his friends, a Chinese scholar whom we know by the name of “Johnny,” struck me:
“Only by being present can you be happy. Too much attention to the past and the future takes the now away. And once it’s gone, you never get it back.”
When I read this sentence, I immediately paused. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “That’s what OCD does. It takes the now away.” I’d like to share a story of how OCD used to steal “the now” from me, and how, through the appropriate treatment, I have been able to steal it back.
The past is a playground for OCD
My OCD likes to straddle the past and the future, and before I did ERP therapy it made “the now” an unbearable place of anxiety, misery, and doubt. For instance, years ago I was fixing dinner for some friends. As I cut up the strawberries for one of the recipes, my OCD whispered, “Did you wash your hands before touching those berries? Because if you didn’t they are now contaminated with who knows what…maybe even juice from that raw chicken you were cutting earlier.”
I froze. I didn’t know. Did I wash them? Or didn’t I? Within a few seconds, my OCD had gotten me completely frazzled, and I started going over and over in my mind what I had done before cutting the berries. My OCD was showing its expertise at getting me to obsess about something in the past, something that was unanswerable because I just didn’t know whether I’d washed my hands or not.
And the future is its blackmail tool
And then, it started to focus on the future. My OCD continued, “You could give your dinner guests salmonella if raw chicken juice got on your hands, which you are now using to cut up the berries. You could be responsible for making people really sick. Someone might even die and it will be all your fault because you just weren’t careful enough!”
Now I felt completely nauseated, because I was thinking of the future when my poor friends would be sick or dying because of me and my contaminated strawberries. How could I let this happen? How could I be so irresponsible? My anxiety overtook “the now,” filling me with dread and misery. The only way I knew to make “the now” bearable was to do a ritual, in this case, throwing those strawberries away, because my OCD had blackmailed me, convincing me that I just couldn’t take the chance that they were contaminated.
OCD can make happiness seem just out of reach
Anxiety-ridden moments like these filled my days before I got the right treatment for my OCD. I lived in the past, worrying about what I had done, or I obsessed about the future, and what harm I might cause. If I was aware of the present moment, it was only to do a ritual to relieve the anxiety I felt about the past and/or the future.
To really focus on the present moment meant I would have had to acknowledge and deal with the incredible anxiety I felt, and my OCD told me I couldn’t handle that. If I think about Johnny’s statement, “‘Only by being present can you be happy,'” then it’s no wonder that I was so unhappy for so many years when I had untreated OCD, as I was never in the present.
But you can break free and be happy, even with OCD
Fortunately for me, I finally learned about exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), the research-based treatment for OCD. I learned through ERP that OCD is lying when it takes something from my past and threatens my future with it. I know that what I need to do is face my fear, and because I’ve done lots of ERP, I know that I can handle anxiety, and I don’t have to be scared of it.
So I could apply FDR’s famous words to OCD: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. OCD thrives on our fear, and through ERP, I am no longer scared of anxiety or of OCD. It has a much harder time using my past as a playground or blackmailing me with dreaded future consequences.
Though it takes lots of practice (as I have years of OCD-induced training to live only in the past and/or in the future), I am also learning to live in the present. And, to be happy.
And if you suffer from OCD, you can, too. Please call me at 404-632-4804 to learn more. I look forward to hearing from you!
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