My previous post discussed the sudden relapse (“relapse” in the sense of going from bad to worse, not from well to ill) that I encountered at the beginning of September. I thought I’d write a post to update you on how it’s been going since then.
I haven’t been myself during the past month. I’ve had to cancel plans because I’m too ill, something that I haven’t really had to do in years. I’ve cried most days – at times crying on and off throughout the day. Partly that was because being very sad was easier to handle than being terrified – to an extent crying provided a bit of relief from the fear. But I also cried at things the usual me would find faintly ridiculous – I visited a zoo nearby and kept crying because I’d been there with my partner when we were first dating. I watched a programme about guide dogs and cried at everything that happened – happy or sad. Today I’ve been crying because pushing on through OCD is so hard and I just wish I could be well.
One of the things I discussed with my therapist soon after I got suddenly very ill was that the last time I had a period of intrusive thoughts on this kind of theme (doubt and existential fear), it lasted for a year or two. It happened when I was about 15 and I remember it as a very bleak time. I was determined not to go through another year of it. The past few weeks have been so intensely hard to manage that I feel there is nothing I can do but very actively seek out strategies to get me through it. I’ve been devouring information and books that might help.
A few things have stood out in my attempts to get back to my normal state of being (I’m trying to get back to where I was in August – nowhere near well but not suffering like I have been lately). The first thing is my mum’s wisdom. She came to stay with me a couple of weeks ago and we enjoyed being together even though I kept crying and felt very frightened most of the time. I talked to her about the content of my constant intrusive thoughts and fear (focused on death and religion), and she listened and provided her thoughts. But after a while, she realised I was doing what I spent so many years doing in the past – asking the same questions repeatedly. She’d give an answer, I’d take it in, and then an hour later I’d ask a similar thing again. This is classic OCD, and my mum realised that.
Genuine questions respond to genuine answers. OCD doesn’t. It’s a constant cycle of “OK, but what if…”. My mum and I worked out that whilst I’m in this severe patch of OCD, my brain simply can’t take answers on board (as seen in recent neuroscience research on ‘safety signals’). Even if I were to come up with a true revelation on the meaning of life, so long as my brain was in OCD-mode, I wouldn’t be able to believe it! Therefore the only way to answer these constant doubts is to get well. If I have genuine questions/doubts when I’m well, I can use my well brain to respond to them. The way I got well last time was by not engaging with the questions. Therefore, if I genuinely want to get to the answer, I have to ignore the question.
The second thing that has really helped me in this period is what I’ve learned with the help of this website: http://www.accounseling.org/coping-statements-for-christians-with-ocd-scrupulosity/ My brain is desperately seeking certainty – OCD tells me if I can just find that one answer that sticks, I’ll be ok. But the nature of OCD means my brain can’t feel certainty at the moment. So instead of reaching for that certainty, I have been trying to redirect myself to doing the most loving thing I can do in the moment. Sometimes that’s doing my work, sometimes it’s walking my dog – it doesn’t have to be major. This is a way to live my beliefs even though I can’t feel my beliefs. I have to move forward through the uncertainty, not try to solve it.
I realise that talking about love in this way may sound dramatic or excessively grand. But the reason I am doing so is that love is the only concept bigger and stronger than the depths of this relapse. I think this will make sense to other people suffering with serious mental illness. Talinda Bennington, who lost her husband Chester to suicide, talks about moving forward in love – moving through the grief instead of becoming stuck in the despair. I’m using love in a broad sense – having compassion for others, choosing to be kind when it’s easier not to be, spending time with friends and loved ones.
The intrusive fears were almost constant when this relapse began – I wrote down a tally of each instance and it was more than one per minute. Now they are less frequent – I had about 10 when listening to an hour-long lecture the other day. I have got better at holding them off and redirecting my attention. I have periods of feeling ok, and these periods are getting longer. I’m still working at it very hard, but people close to me tell me I have improved a lot from where I was. I suspect this post may be more ramble-y than usual, but I hope it gives a good idea of what this is like. I’m quietly hopeful that I will be able to read this again in months or years to come and feel grateful that I got through it.