I only learned that I had OCD thanks to a diagnosis by A. Wikipedia, Ph.D. I admit I was initially highly skeptical of Dr. Wikipedia’s credentials, but, after all, I was referred by Dr. Google, who I’ve trusted implicitly for years. I understand it may seem inadvisable to diagnose oneself with a mental disorder by utilizing a website, but I hadn’t had any success after years of talk therapy with flesh-and-blood counselors.
I knew that I was plagued by recurring, disturbing, and highly intrusive thoughts and images, and that my (let’s call them) obsessions were making it nearly impossible to live, let alone to function as a full-time college student at an extremely rigorous academic institution. And yet my therapist at the time never made the connection, even when I flat-out asked her if I might have some form of OCD. She quickly ruled this out. “You don’t have any repetitive behaviors,” she told me. It was only when I went to the internet for help that I learned of a more subtle and complicated form of OCD, one without physical compulsions, that seemed to explain the horribly graphic pictures and ideas that troubled me.
It didn’t stop there, of course; even a correct diagnosis can’t do much if you don’t do anything about it. My family and I sought out a doctor trained in the treatment of anxiety disorders who confirmed my suspicions. I then started down a path that would bring me to successful treatment at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA.
Now, I’m not encouraging anyone to go out and start searching for the solution to their psychological problems on the internet, which as a source of diagnostic information probably ranks somewhere between daytime television and Tom Cruise. But I start with that story because I’m stunned by how ignorant many mental health professionals can be about OCD. I’d seen upwards of a half-dozen counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists over the course of my life, and none of them was able to figure out what was stunningly obvious to a college kid with an anxiety disorder and an Ethernet connection.
Maybe your life has been complicated in some way by OCD: either as a sufferer, or through a friend or loved one, or with a patient. And I’m convinced that this means that for you, like me, this already formidable obstacle has been made more painful by our society’s misunderstanding of the disorder. Perhaps you or someone you know suffered a misdiagnosis from a well-meaning but uninformed counselor. Perhaps an acquaintance has unknowingly made thoughtless or triggering remarks. Perhaps you’ve watched in frustration as someone you care about suffers for reasons you don’t understand. Perhaps you’ve struggled to balance the management of the disorder with the everyday pressures of work, school or family, and yet felt unable to ask for help due to the nature of your symptoms or the stigma against revealing mental illness.
I’m convinced that, until the glorious day when psychiatry invents a magic anti-obsession pill that also prevents hair loss and promotes weight loss, information is the best medicine we have in the fight against OCD. It was a deficiency of reliable information about OCD that allowed the disorder to gain strength until it took over my life. But it was information that empowered me to quit ineffective treatment and seek out a form of therapy that could help me. It was information that guided my treatment through Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), where I used more information (triggering words, pictures and experiences) to reduce my anxiety and take back control of my life.
I’m wary of clichés about illness and opportunity; being trapped in your room by anxiety isn’t an opportunity - it’s a prison sentence. It’s solitary confinement. But at the same time, the therapeutic process didn’t just help me recover my mental health; it led me to a new and healthier way to live. For me ERP became, not just a method for fighting OCD, but a way to confront all forms of fear and anxiety.
Before I was diagnosed, I obsessed, I performed quiet rituals, I covered my face or locked myself in my room - not because I enjoyed doing this stuff or because it worked, but because I was too frightened to try anything else. But as my therapists atMcLeanled me through my ERP therapy, and as I confronted the primal fears that fueled my obsessions, I realized I didn’t have to live this way. If I could confront my worst and most personal fears in therapy, then couldn’t I face down everyday worries and anxieties as well? ERP showed me courage I didn’t know I had.
‘Diagnosis’ shares a root with the Latin gnosis: knowledge. It was the absence of knowledge that led me to suffer for so many years, and it was knowledge that let me finally take back my sanity. At the end of it, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is habitual unhealthy thinking, an addiction to bad ideas. It’s only appropriate that better ideas like ERP are the best curative.
If I’ve learned anything from my treatment, it’s that curiosity, adaptability, and communication are anathema to mental illness. Tell your story and listen to others. Test new ideas instead of clinging to old ones. Teach and learn. OCD thrives on ignorance but withers and starves when confronted with truth; by keeping up our conversation about the disorder, we can make things better for ourselves and for those who suffer without understanding.
(Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2012. Adapted from “Information is the Best Medicine,” originally published in the IOCDF Newsletter, Volume 26, No. 3, Summer 2012)
Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”
Visit my website: http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/
Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered