I recently read a quote that goes something like this:
“You can’t understand ‘off’ without understanding ‘on’.”
Now, in fairness, this quote isn’t especially original. It’s a unique phrasing of a relatively common philosophical idea: we can’t understand a concept without understanding its opposite. You can’t define light without understanding dark, up has no meaning if you don’t understand down, and so on. In the simplest terms, opposites are inherently, necessarily linked, and they help to explain each other. In general terms, I suspect most of us could think of a real-life example that relates to this philosophy, but I think it’s an especially apt metaphor for understanding a crucial goal of OCD treatment: learning what it means to think, feel and live without (or with less) OCD symptoms.
Here’s the thing: people with OCD know that their obsessions and compulsions aren’t rational, and in that sense, we understand the metaphorical ‘on’ and ‘off’ of our minds just fine. Most people with OCD will easily tell you that taking five sips from a water fountain instead of four can’t rationally cause something terrible to happen, but there’s a part of the OCD brain that doesn’t let that threat response stop. We have to keep reassuring ourselves that we’ve done something to mitigate that threat, even if the threat is utterly improbable. In other words, the threat response centers of our brains are always, always on. So ‘on’, in fact, that it’s possible not to know what it’s like to respond to an obsession without the cycle of OCD. The human mind conceptualizes things by comparing opposites, but how deeply can we understand mental illness without a deep, authentic understanding of mental health? How are you supposed to strive for a reduction in your OCD symptoms if you don’t know what that new reality is supposed to look like? How can you understand what it’s like for OCD to be ‘off’, if you’ve only ever known what it’s like to have it ‘on’? This is where we come to the heart of the matter, and the central point of this article:
Sometimes, people with OCD need to learn, or be explicitly taught, what the ‘off’ state of OCD looks like, sounds like and feels like. We need to learn, discover and remind ourselves of what it feels like to interact with intrusive thoughts outside of the cycle of OCD; to turn that cycle off, or, more accurately, to live with the cycle turned way, way down. Easy to say, of course, but much harder to accomplish in real life. So, what are some steps we can take? I can only draw on my own experience, but these are the three steps I believe are most helpful:
Enlist an Expert
It’s both necessary and obvious to state that the best help you can get for OCD is a qualified therapist, but I think it’s important to take that justification one step further. Sure, a therapist can show you CBT and ERP, but they can do much more than that: they can teach you ways to objectively measure your symptoms, they can provide a neutral and confidential sounding board for whatever unpleasant or difficult questions you may have, and, most importantly, they can connect you with resources and community. The folks in the mental health profession spend their entire working lives striving to understand the human mind, and studying all kinds of data about what qualifies as functional and dysfunctional in our society. What better way to learn the difference between OCD thinking and neurotypical thinking than by consulting people with both the theory and experience to back up their opinions?
Write and Journal, Journal and Write
I’ve talked about this extensively in my book and on this blog, so I won’t repeat too many points here, but suffice to say that writing your obsessions, compulsions and other symptoms down is life-changing. Here’s why: writing your thoughts out gives you a chance to think about your thoughts without actually thinking them. It lets your rational brain (which, you will remember, is completely intact even though you have OCD) process your symptoms free of the obsessive-compulsive melee that typically interrupts your processing when you keep your thoughts in your head. Best of all, writing gives you a chronicle of your symptoms that you can use to set goals and, most importantly, read again later in life to reflect on your progress. As a wise person once said, the shortest pencil beats the longest memory.
Access a Community Support Group
This is likely the most uncomfortable step out of this list for most people, but, speaking from personal experience, group therapy and community support groups offer help in a way that almost nothing else can. The most important thing is that they let you know you’re not alone in your symptoms. Isolation is a terrible amplifier when it comes to OCD. If you believe your suffering is unique, you’re more likely to believe no one else knows anything about it, which, by extension, means no one knows how to fix it. In group settings, you learn that you are one of many people who suffer from the same symptoms. You also learn that the people in your group are just like you: normal, successful, generally happy people who have a problem they want to fix. You also meet people who are a bit further along in their therapy journey than you. Those people are incredible to talk to. They share tips, insights, and messages of encouragement. They also give you a real, concrete example of what recovery can look like. In other words, they show you what it’s like to live with OCD turned off (or at least way down).
Each of these things helped me understand what I was working towards in my OCD therapy. They showed me the opposite that I couldn’t imagine. In my earliest years of struggling with OCD, I spent many long hours focusing on what not to do, what to get rid of, and what I thought an OCD-free mind and life should look like. The trouble was, I had never experienced (or least couldn’t recall) the opposite. I didn’t understand ‘on’ well enough to conceive of ‘off’. That’s what experts, writing and support groups did for me; they helped me understand where my symptoms were at, and where I could take them. Most importantly, they gave me real, reliable strategies for getting there. If you’re finding yourself asking some of these same questions, please, get in touch, check out my resources page, or seek out someone who can help. Learning that ‘off’ actually exists isn’t just practical; it’s damn empowering.