The Doubt Bully
A VERY unscientific explanation for obsessions and compulsions
Posted Aug 21, 2009
If you ask me, it doesn't take a brain scientist to understand OCD.
Okay, technically speaking, it does; and even they--the top neuroscientists in the country--confess to being somewhat perplexed by the structural and functional anomalies of the OCD brain and the reasons for them. Issues with the caudate nucleus? Problems with serotonin reuptake? Lots of still-inconclusive theories floating around.
I, myself, don't even pretend to understand any of the brain science behind this disorder. I do, however, have an explanation for the obsessions and compulsions that have plagued me and millions of other people with OCD--an explanation to which any kid who's every spent time on a playground can relate.
I say, The source of my OCD is quite simply . . . The Doubt Bully.
Now, lest you fear that this blogger has issues extending far beyond chronic anxiety (and involving imaginary friends), let me assure you that I've never actually "seen" my OCD nemesis. Moreover, in conjuring up my bully, I am merely following the advice of numerous OCD specialists who advocate externalizing one's OCD. In so doing, the thinking goes, an OCD sufferer is able to create an entity that he or she can then stand up to and fight back against. I, myself, have found this approach to be especially helpful, and in my travels I'm hearing from more and more fellow OCD sufferers who have benefited greatly from the concept as well. Interestingly, I'm also finding that my non-OCD friends and readers, too, have their own doubt bullies--the sources of not OCD obsessions and compulsions, but rather everyday fear-based doubts and their counterproductive responses to them. (More on that in future postings.)
So what does The Doubt Bully look like? And how does he operate?
I can only answer for myself, of course. But, in the interest of exploring the mechanics of doubt-bully-ism, allow me to introduce you to my own personal doubt bully, both my original one and my current model--or in the vernacular of our high-tech blogging world, Doubt Bully 1.0 and Doubt Bully 2.0.
Version 1.0 -- "Octi" (The Octopus Chewing Doubt-nuts)
For this early incarnation of my doubt bully I can thank my two daughters. They were still too young to understand the nature of Daddy's challenges when I first started writing about my obsessions and compulsions back in the late 90's, and one day they offered up their own creative expansion of the OCD acronym they'd seen on my notepads: Octopuses Chewing Doughnuts. Although at some point doughnuts morphed into doubt-nuts, the image stuck. And the description worked.
Imagine, if you will, a hungry octopus (the doubt bully). "Octi" (as my daughters later named him) survives on doubt-nuts (compulsions), but needs me to feed them to him. To this end, Octi taunts me with a series of distressing "what-if" questions (that become my obsessions), raising my anxiety until I fall into his trap of performing my compulsions and thereby feeding him said doubt-nuts.
Let's try an example: Octi is hungry. He wants a doubt-nut, so he starts with the "what-ifs." What if your hands aren't clean, Jeff? What if you're unknowingly carrying some horrific virus? The notion agitates me, but not enough to indulge my compulsive urge to scrub my hands. Octi steps up his taunting. What if you get your germs on the keyboard at work and one of your coworkers gets sick and dies? My anxiety is spiking and Octi knows he has me. You can't take that risk, he says. Scrub your hands to make sure everyone will be safe. I know it's a trap, but I fall right into it, heading for the sink and, in so doing, I feed Octi his doubt-nut. (Of course, I'm speaking hypothetically; I know better today!!) Octi is fed now, but--as with each previous time that I've fed him--his stomach only grows bigger. He needs that many more doubt-nuts to satiate his appetite.
Version 2.0 -- "Director Doubt"
Octi came to personify--hmmm, can an octopus "personify"?--my OCD for a lot of years, but in 1997, I stumbled onto an even better image of my own personal doubt bully. I was sitting in a movie theater, watching Peter Weir's brilliant film, The Truman Show, when I realized that the film's eccentric reality show director, Christof, was directing his unwitting star, Truman Burbank, in exactly the same way that my OCD nemesis "directs" me. It was Christof's job to keep poor Truman mired in doubt and fear, and to this end he created one trap after another, distorting reality at every turn, and taunting Truman into compulsive behavior--in his case, avoidance. Isn't that precisely how my doubt bully works??
Whether or not you've seen The Truman Show, I encourage you to rent it soon and see for yourself the uncanny OCD alagory it provides. To this day, my doubt bully (whom I've dubbed Director Doubt) looks a whole lot like Ed Harris (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Christof.)
Back to the Schoolyard
Here's the good news about bullies: they're seldom as tough as we imagine them to be. Take the kid on the elementary school playground who taunts little Johnny, maybe demanding day after day that he hand over the Oreos in his lunchbox. The more Johnny complies, the more he empowers the bully. Likewise, if Johnny falls into the trap of avoiding his nemesis, steering clear of the schoolyard altogether. But what if Johnny gets fed up one day and--perhaps emboldened by Yard Monitor Mrs. Smith--he simply says No? Chances are, the schoolyard bully backs down. We've all seen that dynamic in action.
To be clear, bullying at schools is an all too serious issue these days; I'm speaking metaphorically here. But I think you get where I'm going with this. The key to dealing with doubt bullies is to: (1) acknowledge their presence, and (2) willfully choose not to comply with their demands.
As anyone with OCD can tell you, this is FAR easier said than done, and it often requires the support of a professional equivalent of Yard Monitor Mrs. Smith. For those of you a step or two ahead of me . . . yes, I am talking about therapist-guided Exposure/Response-Prevention therapy, and we'll pick up there next time.
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Here's to believing... beyond our doubts!