OCD AND THE PERMISSION TO LIVE
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”
- William Shakespeare (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 32 of "Julius Cesear")
Okay, perhaps Shakespeare’s line doesn’t quite apply. After all, people surviving a life with OCD are often some of the bravest you could ever meet. But The Bard has an important message for those of us with OCD. The sometimes overwhelming fear that OCD fosters in us causes us to pull back from life and aliveness. While most of us would say that our obsessions revolve around illness, death, or some calamity, in some ways it would seem the real fear – or at least what our fear causes us to hold back from – is LIVING!
A little background is in order. Since the mid-1990’s I have continued an ongoing, (and obsessively:-) complete review of just about all available research literature in the field of Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Disorders. I have correlated this with my experience counseling hundreds of people with OCD and teaching thousands of professionals to treat OCD. I believe the evidence strongly points to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as being a genetically determined defect in the cortial-striatal-thalamic pathways of the brain which is then influenced by input from the social environment (as well as immune system events and other physiologic factors).
So for those of us with OCD it is as if we are born with this deflated “balloon” in our hand which we throughout our lives. For some of us the balloon remains small and insignificant and for others an illness or life event triggers it to become inflated to an overwhelming size. It is our social environment that, to a large extent, influences what type of “gas” will fill the balloon – and thus determines the “form” of our OCD. Will it be hyper-religiosity, hypochondriasis, harming obsessions, checking, counting, washing? Often the determining element will be messages we have taken in from the world around us. We don’t get to determine our genetics (the balloon), or even the messages we encounter (the type of gas which fills the balloon), but we do, as Shakespeare suggests, have to some degree a choice of how inflated our balloon will become.
OCD says to us that the world is dangerous and we must be cautious – very, very cautious. In this way it pulls us backward and inward least we get a little too excited, a little too happy, a little too wild and carefree. There are many ways we might experience this: as low self-esteem, guilt, fear, not being worthy, not deserving things, not being as good as other people, feeling we are “bad”.
There are various tools, strategies and medications which can help us to transcend the horror of OCD. In the end though it is a question of courage – courage to stop listening to the voice of fear and embrace the risk to refocus on the reality of the present moment. OCD is always a voice inside our head which often has little to do with that is actually going on around us. What is going on around us is LIFE! So if we look clearly and deeply we may find it is more true to see the OCD as holding us back from LIVING – of risking, letting go, throwing in our hand with everyone else. They have no idea either where or when the “end” will come or even what will happen tomorrow – BUT are letting go and being part of the ride. OCD, however, pulls us back, it says, “Be cautious. Don’t take that risk.” It holds us in a sort of no-man’s-land where we don’t risk but don’t take part in LIVING. And so we “die” a thousand times.
Of course, this is not a trait exclusive to people with OCD. Indeed, the denial of permission to live seems to be part of our human struggle and even entwined with our theology and views of the universe. Right back to the Garden of Eden and “original sin” no one in the Christian world escapes the question - does God or some other cosmic force judge our every move and evaluate our right to enter the Kingdom of Heaven or are we made in the image of a God who loves every hair on our head just exactly the way we are and wants the best for us? Other faiths have their own versions of much the same thing.
And so we may do all kinds of helpful or unhelpful things to get ourselves the “permission” to let go and live from the traditional (earning money and fame) to the not so traditional (engaging in self-debasing sexual behavior) to the destructive (committing a crime to gain notoriety). Even as I write this article the part of me which thinks it needs permission to live is hoping that people will admire this article or that it will be helpful to many people so that I will then have “earned” permission to live.
But I can tell you this. In the times and situations where I risk just being in the face of an uncertain life I experience the world as magical, mysterious, exciting, even thrilling.
Not so many years ago I would hold the armrests of the airplane feeling that if I just wanted it bad enough, literally “held up” the plane we would arrive safely at our destination. Today a board the aircraft excited at the prospect of a chance to “let go and let God”. I know that, just like a new baby coming into the world, once the aircraft leaves the ground I have NO CONTROL whatsoever. None! And so there is only one thing to do – let go and enjoy the ride. To choose not to “die” with anxiety each time we hit turbulence, but rather to choose to die only once should that 200,000 pound machine decide today is the day it will go on strike. Easier said than done by far, but worth upholding as the end-point for which we strive.
Christian R. Komor, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who combines 15 years of clinical experience treating OCD-Spectrum disorders with discoveries from his personal journey with OCD. Dr. Komor is the author of The Obsessive Compulsive’s Meditation Book (2000), OCD and Other Gods (2000), The Power of being (1992) and Driving Ourselves Sane (2012). Dr. Komor is the founder of the OCD Recovery Centers of America based in Grand Rapids, Michigan and leads seminars for professionals around the US in optimal treatment methods of OC Spectrum disorders. A CD of his presentation is available through the OCD Recovery Centers and an audio tape through Cross Country University at (800) 397-0180. The OCD Recovery Centers of America can be reached at www.ocdrecoverycenter.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the OCD Recovery Center web site.