Contributed by Tiffany Dawn Hasse in collaboration with Kristen Fuller, M.D.
The underlying reasons why I have to repeatedly re-zip things, blink a certain way, count to an odd number, check behind my shower curtain to ensure no one is hiding to plot my abduction, make sure that computer cords are not rat tails, etc., will never be clear to me. Is it the result of a poor reaction to the anesthesiology that was administered during my wisdom teeth extraction? These aggravating thoughts and compulsions began immediately after the procedure. Or is it related to PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal infection) which is a proposed theory connoting a strange relationship between group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal infection with rapidly developing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the basal ganglia? Is it simply a hereditary byproduct of my genetic makeup associated with my nervous personality? Or is it a defense tactic I developed through having an overly concerned mother?
The consequences associated with my OCD
Growing up with mild, in fact dormant, obsessive-compulsive disorder, I would have never proposed such bizarre questions until 2002, when an exacerbated overnight onset of severe OCD mentally paralyzed me. I'd just had my wisdom teeth removed and was immediately bombarded with incessant and intrusive unwanted thoughts, ranging from a fear of being gay to questioning if I was truly seeing the sky as blue. I'm sure similar thoughts had passed through my mind before; however, they must have been filtered out of my conscious, as I never had such incapacitating ideas enter my train of thought before. During the summer of 2002, not one thought was left unfiltered from my conscious. Thoughts that didn't even matter and held no significance were debilitating; they prevented me from accomplishing the simplest, most mundane tasks. Tying my shoe only to untie it repetitively, continuously being tardy for work and school, spending long hours in a bathroom engaging in compulsive rituals such as tapping inanimate objects endlessly with no resolution, and finally medically withdrawing from college, eventually to drop out completely not once but twice, were just a few of the consequences I endured.
After seeing a medical specialist for OCD, I had tried a mixed cocktail of medications over a 10-year span, including escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), risperidone (Risperdal), aripiprazole (Abilify), sertraline (Zoloft), clomipramine (Anafranil), lamotrigine (Lamictal), and finally, after a recent bipolar disorder II diagnosis, lurasidone (Latuda). The only medication that has remotely curbed my intrusive thoughts and repetitive compulsions is lurasidone, giving me approximately 60 to 70 percent relief from my symptoms.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists would argue that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and pharmacological management might be the only successful treatment approach for an individual plagued with OCD. If an individual is brave enough to undergo exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), a type of CBT that has been shown to relieve symptoms of OCD and anxiety through desensitization and habituation, then my hat is off to them; however, I may have an alternative perspective. It's not a perspective that has been researched or proven in clinical trials — just a coping mechanism I have learned through years of suffering and endless hours of therapy that has allowed me to see light at the end of the tunnel.
In my experience with cognitive behavioral therapy, it may be semi-helpful by deconstructing or cognitively restructuring the importance of obsessive thoughts in a hierarchical order; however, I still encounter many problems with this type of technique, especially because each and every OCD thought that gets stuck in my mind, big or small, tends to hold great importance. Thoughts associated with becoming pregnant, seeing my family suffer, or living with rats are deeply rooted within me, and simply deconstructing them to meaningless underlying triggers was not a successful approach for me.
In the majority of cases of severe OCD, I believe pharmacological management is a must. A neurological malfunction of transitioning from gear to gear, or fight-or-flight, is surely out of whack and often falsely fired, and therefore, medication works to help balance this misfiring of certain neurotransmitters.
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is an aggressive and abrasive approach that did not work for me, although it may be helpful for militant-minded souls that seek direct structure. When I was enrolled in the OCD treatment program at UCLA, I had an intense fear of gaining weight, to the point that I thought my body could morph into something unsightly. I remember being encouraged to literally pour chocolate on my thighs when the repetitive fear occurred that chocolate, if touching my skin, could seep through the epidermal layers, and thus make my thighs bigger. While I boldly mustered up the courage to go through with this ERP technique recommended by my specialist, the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors associated with my OCD still and often abstain these techniques. Yes, the idea of initially provoking my anxiety in the hope of habituating and desensitizing its triggers sounds great in theory, and even in a technical scientific sense; but as a human with real emotions and feelings, I find this therapy aggressive and infringing upon my comfort level.
How I conquered my OCD
So, what does a person incapacitated with OCD do? If, as a person with severe OCD, I truly had an answer, I would probably leave my house more often, take a risk once in a while, and live freely without fearing the mundane nuances associated with public places. It's been my experience with OCD to take everything one second at a time and remain grateful for those good seconds. If I were to take OCD one day at a time, well, too many millions of internal battles would be lost in this 24-hour period. I have learned to live with my OCD through writing and performing as a spoken word artist. I have taken the time to explore my pain and transmute it into an art form which has allowed me to explore the topic of pain as an interesting and beneficial subject matter. I am the last person to attempt to tell any individuals with OCD what the best therapy approach is for them, but I will encourage each and every individual to explore their own pain, and believe that manageability can come in many forms, from classic techniques to intricate art forms, in order for healing to begin.
Kristen Fuller M.D. is a clinical writer for Center For Discovery.
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