This article is an excerpt from James Callner's up coming book on OCD, "It's a Matter of Trust ~Life Lessons from OCD ~ A Memoir”.
Mr. Callner is President of The Awareness Foundation for OCD afocd.org
Life Lesson: Letting go of Control
In the last Life Lesson I talked about my experience with surrendering to “feeling the feelings” and doing nothing but feel them until the energy of the anxiety passed through. I also mentioned the importance of letting go of control.
Letting go of control was crucial to my emergence from the darkness into the light and at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to conceive. It’s important that I share with you how it came about and how I try to practice this way of thinking each day, and will for the rest of my life.
In fact, the control issues that I’ve lived with for most of my life had nothing directly to do with OCD. It was the disorder, however, that brought the underlying control patterns in my life and personality to the forefront, smacking me head on and saying, “Hey Jim, you better work on this control stuff if you want to feel good about yourself, want to maintain a relationship, want to have more peace and less anger, and want to live a truly balanced life rather than a “righteous” or constricted one of black and white.”
More on all of that later.
The idea that OCD could be labeled in part as a control addiction felt very wrong to me when my psychiatrist, Phil, of 25 years offered that notion.
“Are you calling me and addict?” I said defiantly with a charge of anger in my voice. Phil replied in a gentle but thoughtful way, “Well, in a larger sense I think we are all control addicts of one kind or another.”
This didn’t sit well with me. What was I trying to control? And, the word addict only conjured up additional fearful, out–of-control thoughts. To be honest, it scared the hell out of me. I have ODC and now I’m an addict, too?
What was I trying to control?
While I stated this in the last Life Lesson, it is too important not to reiterate. Unconsciously, I had been trying to control my feelings of anxiety for nearly half of my life. What did I do to control those feelings of anxiety? I used sex to put a damper on, or suppress the out of control feelings I had around anxiety. The 70’s were not particularly wild for me but more dysfunctionally controlling and sex was easy and available. I was using sex to avoid feelings of anxiety.
The control game was played like any other addictive behavior. I would get an endorphin high from the sexual experience, but it would be fleeting. Inevitably, the anxiety would return and the dysfunctional circle of trying to fix the feelings would continue. More sex would masquerade as my feeling in control of the anxiety until the next stressor or life situation. And just like that, the process would begin all over again.
In short, I was always trying to fix my feelings of anxiety with the same vicious cycle: A kind of insanity that is defined by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I never obtained the different results.
As I was beginning to see small rays of light, relief, and even hope during my time in the hospital, Phil began introducing the control aspect to OCD.
Was I an addict in the sense of drugs and alcohol?
Would I dare use the word addict as defined as a person who wanted more and more of the same to feel different?
“But, OCD is not an addiction!” I screamed in my head.
Phil, a Johns Hopkins trained psychiatrist, was not saying OCD was an addiction but rather, that control could be thought of as an addiction.
As Dr. Wayne Dyer has taught me: When you change the way you look at things the things you look at change.
I opened my mind and challenged myself to look at it differently – to look at myself differently than I ever had. It was later in my recovery that this self-awareness became even stronger.
In opening my mind and looking at myself through different eyes I was able to acknowledge thoughts and concerns that I had previously attempted to suppress or control. I acknowledged that I was fearful, phobic, I experienced anxiety and panic. And none of those feelings were feelings I wanted in my life. Those feelings turned into obsessions which I attempted to control, but the awful feelings kept returning. My overwhelming urge to fix or control these terrible feelings became the impetus for rituals and compulsions.
And, I don’t let go.
Letting go meant I had to face my fears. In the hospital we started calling it risking but what was really happening was my introduction to ERPT - Exposure Response Prevention Therapy.
For me, risking or ERPT, was all about letting go of control - and it started with popcorn. Yes, popcorn.
As I made a few friends in the hospital I was told that I was doing better, even though I wasn’t aware of my own progress. And as I learned much later, the patient is always the last one to see their own progress.
One late evening, I found myself with a few people in the living room of TC-1 and surrounding a large bowl of popcorn. It was relaxed and I was connecting with people. And although I was aware that I felt less anxious, I wasn’t about to touch that bowl of popcorn.
Everyone’s hands were in the bowl; an absolute OCD nightmare! I just sat there and watched. Most of the people knew me for my sense of humor, which was coming back, and they embraced my personality not the OCD.
I remember vividly the coziness and comfort of hanging out with like-minded people just sitting around eating popcorn, and how at that moment my anxiety was slowly turning to trust. But, was I trusting enough, for the first time in weeks, to touch food that others had their hands in?
This went against all of my fears of germs and contamination and harming others. The OCD reminded me that if I touched the popcorn and had any germs on my hands, then someone else grabbed a handful that I had contaminated, they could become sick or maybe even die. At that moment, my trusting mind said to me, “Now wait a minute Jim, are you seeing anyone dropping over and dying in this group? You used to do this as a kid with your family...Take a risk.”
I think the others sensed that I was on the verge of letting go of control and taking that monumental risk. I could feel it. Some even gently encouraged me. ”Go ahead Jim,” they offered, “nothing is going to happen.”
Here I have to say, there is nothing more nurturing in this world than being with people who believe in you. And armed with that strength I paused for a moment, and ever so slowly put my hand in the bowl, surgically removing one small piece of popcorn - and ate it.
They all just smiled and went on taking. I felt as though I had just reached the top of the mountain and so empowered, I tried it again. What did I feel at that moment?
The only word is freedom.
By the end of the evening I was able to take a handful of popcorn and eat it. I felt alive again.
As Susan Jeffers reminds me in the title of her book, Feel the Fear and do it Anyway, that night I did it anyway - by trusting others and in turn - trusting myself.
This was the first of many break-through's in letting go of control of my fears. But some were much more painful than others.
A more “alone” break-though came while standing in front of a linen closet. Remember, at that time most of my fears were based around germs and contamination.
In TC-1 they wanted you to do as much for yourself as possible. That was perhaps one of the hardest parts of being in a psych ward. Talk was available, but when it came to doing, you were on your own much of the time including getting your own towels and sheets stored in the main closet for the entire ward.
As you can imagine, this was more than a challenge for me due to my extreme germ phobia. How many people touched those towels? What sheets were touched by others and then put back in the closet for some reason? My mind went on a fear ride that paralyzed me as I opened the two doors of that huge and ominous closet.
I must have stood there for three hours. I noticed that several of the techs who knew me and knew of my risking process were hanging around. They were not helping me nor offering to help, but rather waiting to see if I would take a set of towels and sheets that I desperately needed. Remember too, that I was still in a washing hands ritual most of my days.
So, there I stood looking at all these white hand towels and white sheets. I started to sweat which always meant to me that my anxiety was ramping up. But I was determined. One hour went by. Then, two. I tried to reach out and touch but just as quickly retracted for the fear was overwhelming.
Now, there were more techs watching from afar, but acting as if they were preoccupied. “A little help,” I said softly, but no one responded. I believe they knew I was ready to take the risk.
Sweat dripped down my face. I was a mess but couldn’t seem to move from that spot. There was something about to happen and part of me knew it.
Finally, I quickly grabbed ten towels and two sets of sheets and dashed for my room. I placed them on my counter and sat on my bed. I felt like I had just ended a marathon of emotion, crossing the finish line with an armload of towels.
The techs said nothing to me about my success but I knew they were talking to each other about my progress.
It was a painful risk. Painful and hard to let go of control in order to obtain control, but it worked and I haven’t stopped working on letting go since.
Weeks and months after I was released from the hospital my control issues were better, but I wanted to learn more about how they expended into my life as a whole, and how to better deal with them.
How to stop being a controller?
The answer came in a form that was not so easy to swallow and quite frankly, pissed me off.
I was advised by my main guide, Phil, to try a 12-Step program in addition to everything else I was doing, including Cognitive therapy, Exposure Response Prevention Therapy and medication.
“What?” I said with my usual resistance, “a 12-Step program? I’m not an alcoholic or drug addict.” Phil smiled and said, “Just trust me, Jim. You’re bright enough to take that first step of the 12 Steps and fill in the blank, aren’t you?”
I am powerless over _______ and my life has become unmanageable.
Instead of “alcohol” or “the alcoholic” or “cocaine” or any number of descriptions that go into that blank depending on the 12-Step program you attend, I chose “anxiety” to fill the blank. I started with the Al-Anon 12-Step group for there were no Obsessive Compulsive Anonymous 12-Step programs as there are today. I just filled in the blank with anxiety, OCD or fear – any or all would do.
At first I was resistant to hearing all the problems and slogans that come with any 12-Step meeting. Phil encouraged me to just stay with it and talk. I did, and after some time the wisdom, comfort and connection started to filter in.
I’ll talk more later about how 12-Step programs helped me and could help you, too.
It was there, however, that I learned about how to look at control issues from a spiritual perspective. This was not a religious perspective at all, but one based in developing my intuitive spirit that was lost with the onset of OCD.
It was a reclaiming of my wounded spirit and believe me - a wounded spirit takes time to fix – and gentle hands.
Slogans came from those meetings that in my earlier years, sounded like a Hallmark card: Progress not perfection, One day at a time, Turn it over, what others think of you is none of your business, fake it until you make it, and my favorite, let go let god.
Wait a minute! I thought this was not a religious program. It’s not. The use of the word God or Higher Power is intended to mean something outside of yourself and in my opinion, inside of you at the same time.
Some people make the meeting their higher power, not a bad idea. The collective wisdom of those people is bigger than me, and yet I’m a part of it at the same time. Some make their higher power the ocean. Also, a great image for it is outside of us, and as we are 70% water ourselves and can’t survive without it, that connection can be a powerful one. And, some make and call their higher power God, whatever that means for them. It is individual, it is a choice.
What matters most is that you believe in something more than your fears - something bigger than you that you can connect with.
So once I got past the god thing, I still wanted to understand the slogan, let go let god. What did that mean? And what did it have to do with my control issues?
Let go, let god. Oh no the ‘G’ word! I heard it over and over again. I heard it from all kinds of self-help inspirational experts; Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williams, Deepak Chopra, and my own Phil Kavanaugh. Everyone I respected was using that phrase in one way or another. Again, what did it mean in relation to control, OCD, and me?
Finally, I cornered Phil. He simply said, “All it means is to stop trying to figure it out.”
Well, that stopped me boldly in my tracks. Challenged by OCD, I was trying to figure out all of my fears. What did they mean? Were they real? How would I negotiate with them?
Ok, so I got that part of the slogan, let go of controlling my life so harshly and let life happen. Let go of being in a constant state of figuring my life out.
But, what about the god part? Phil sat back in his chair that I had seen him in for 20 years and simply replied:
“Oh the god thing. Well don’t get hung up on that, Jim. You know we are all part of the universe, part of god if you want to use that term. If that bothers you, Jim, use the word source, that works too.” Phil grinned out of respect for he knew that I could handle the concept that we are connected to something, something bigger than ourselves. The name wasn’t as important as the idea that we did come from something and that something is still around. We’re not alone.
He looked at me directly and gently wrapped it up:
“So, I’m telling you that the way to stop the controlling is to stop trying to figure it out, whatever ‘it’ is in your life and turn it over to the universe. The universe or source or god has a much better handle on things, don’t ya’ think?”
He then smiled and sent me on my way.
Now I was left with all of this spiritual wisdom that seemed easy enough to comprehend but how was I going to put it into action? I reminded myself of what I learned in surrendering.
“If I let go of control and just feel the feelings they will dissipate because all feelings are energy and all energy goes somewhere else if you don’t fight it and get out of the way.”
So, there I was feeling all feelings and doing my best not to ritualize or obsess. I allowed myself to feel it all – and I took no action. Let go of control. It was not easy and it took a lot of practice, and many times I needed outside help, whether Phil’s help, or help with expressing my frustration, fear and anger at meetings. Some days were just spent sweating though it, and to this day, as I continue this practice, I still at times forget the process and must lean on others to remind me to feel my feelings and let go.
Ah ha! So, that’s what the slogan “progress not perfection” means.
There are some days, weeks and months where amazing things happen not only with the OCD symptoms, but also in all aspects of my life. The more I let go of control the more I felt in control. It felt good. I felt good – a feeling I hadn’t considered for a long time - feeling good by letting go of control and handing it to the universe.
For many years, I had thought of this as such a strange or foreign concept, but it worked. It worked with OCD compulsions and obsessions. It worked with calming down from anxiety. It worked with any external and internal conflicts, with worrying about money, relationships, on and on. Literally all aspects of life and living could be managed, or at least made easier, by acknowledging and practicing this concept.
To this day I still struggle a bit with the “let god” part of this, but I have come up with a way to soothe my struggle that works for me and may work for you, too. The formula is as follows:
If god doesn’t work for you try a word that represents it: Peace, serenity, connection, abundance, soothing, gratitude, appreciation and love. In my ongoing recovery from OCD I will gladly embrace any of those wonderful words and feelings. Wouldn’t you?
Phil always told me it “was about believing.” And, if I wasn’t ready to truly believe, well...I faked it
until I made it. Not that I was disingenuous, but more relaxed and open hearted to all possibilities. I went along with the program until I chose something to believe in that ended up being me.
I believe more and more each day, that letting go of control and feeling the feelings is the way to turn all that crippling anxiety over to the universe.
In letting go of control I’ve gained a feeling of control.
In letting god, my higher self, the universe or source handle it, I am truly operating in spiritual gear.
Reclaiming my spirit that the disorder robbed was now my hope. Spiritual gear is good place to be.
You can catch yourself when you are in control mode. Letting go of that control is the key to feeling in control. It’s a paradox that puts you in spiritual gear. If you believe in a god above or the source within or just that the universe is bigger than you, hand that control over to it. Trust it will change your life in every way. Remember: Your objective is to feel good. What better way than to feel connected and at peace.