Walking the dog with OCD

Proceed with caution if you have religious OCD, especially if it’s based on Christianity – here I talk about some of my religious thoughts without going into detail on why they’re wrong (though be assured they are wrong, as is every OCD thought).

Just got back from a dog walk. I fought hard with OCD on this walk – specifically, by allowing my feet to face white marks when I was walking, even if there was a beat at the same moment in the song I was listening to. This post is about the point at which I struggled most during the walk, due to a specific thought which took hold more than the others did.

The thought

There was a word in a song I was listening to that sounded a bit like “fool” (I don’t think it was “fool”, it might have even been a French word). My foot was pointing at something white, and in OCD parlance that means using that word to describe the Holy Spirit (white = Holy Spirit). OCD tells me that this in turn means I will go to hell, due to insulting the Holy Spirit. This is bolstered by a Bible verse in which Jesus says if you call your brother a fool you’re in danger of the fires of hell – so I’m quite nervous about the word “fool” in general, even though I’ve heard other Christians use it without concern, and even though I don’t really believe in hell. Interestingly it takes a whole paragraph (with additional links) to explain this thought, but in my head it’s pretty much instantaneous – all those connections are just something I “know” less than a second after it’s happened.

Whether to neutralise the thought

OCD said I had to neutralise what I’d done by winding the music back and walking back to the spot in order to “take it back” or “take it back into myself” by making some kind of mental movement towards myself whilst my foot was pointing at the white mark and the word came up in the song. Alternatively I could neutralise it by thinking or saying “no” or “not” whilst pointing at the white spot with my foot at the moment the word came up in the song. This would, according to OCD, “undo” what I’d done wrong. (Incidentally, beware of OCD claiming that your compulsion can make something ok – OCD will never be satisfied that you’ve done it correctly enough for it to be truly safe).

Choosing not to neutralise it

I didn’t want to neutralise it as I’m trying to do exposure when I walk. So I spent about 3 to 5 minutes stood still trying to work out what I should do (my dog meanwhile had a lovely run in and out of the woods). Then (and now) I don’t have a great deal of access to the reality that this is preposterous and makes no sense – it feels quite real. Nevertheless I used the arguments that a) God knows it’s OCD and doesn’t want me to obey it, b) my brain can’t use safety signals properly, so it won’t be possible for me to feel that it’s ok; I have to choose to believe it is safe even though it feels threatening. I didn’t go back in the end, though I’m still feeling anxious about that decision about half an hour later. My Fitbit reckons I was doing cardio exercise during this walk (a leisurely walk in the sun + OCD = 143 beats per min – I’m not especially fit but I’m young and physically healthy, so it shouldn’t be this high).

We walked through a meadow a bit like this

Yesterday, when I walked the dog with my mum and sister through a meadow, my sister commented on how nice it was and that we were living our best lives. I brought the tone down a bit by adding that I was in the process of trying to prevent my eternal suffering. It reminded me of a joke John Robins made, that when he goes on holiday he can’t relax because he (i.e. the problem) is still there. OCD is there 24/7, whether I’m in a relaxing situation like having a massage, whether I’m concentrating on something or doing my favourite activity. It did stop for 20 minutes when I gave an important talk recently as all my mental resources were focused on the talk. OCD also shut up for the majority of episode 5 of Game of Thrones season 8, as it’s my favourite programme and a lot was happening. OCD was there as usual in episodes 4 and 6 though.

Today’s exposure

My posts have been getting a bit long so I’ll try and keep this short! My exposure therapy for this week is to walk to places without listening to/obeying what OCD says about how I should walk.

I’ve written previously about how OCD makes it hard to walk. Typically, I have to think about almost every step, and place my foot in a manner that is “safe”. This involves making a decision about each step based on the marks and objects (e.g. grids) on the pavement. Marks become particularly important if they are white, red, or comparable to white or red, e.g. a brown grid counts as red, an old chewing gum stain counts as white. This makes it tiring to walk because I’m doing so much in my head, and can end up with me walking back to walk past a spot again if I haven’t done it “safely” the first time.

Today and yesterday I deliberately tried not to adjust my walking according to OCD, as this is what my therapist and I decided I would do. This is a form of exposure therapy. It did raise my anxiety quite a lot, and I didn’t really experience the pattern of high anxiety followed by decreasing anxiety, which is what you would expect and aim for during exposure. This might have been because of the different levels of distraction I had at different times. The anxiety started high and fluctuated across the course of the walk – when I saw a dog and texted my partner about it, my anxiety went down a bit. I like to listen to music when walking but it does interact with my OCD. Generally, my OCD makes me concerned about where I step/what my foot is pointing at/what colour I’m looking at on certain beats in the music. I also have to be very careful how I’m standing/what I’m looking at when the artist says swear words or insults.

At one point I thought “I’m just walking, like people do!” which was a nice moment. I haven’t been able to just walk like other people do for a few years now. I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the start of getting back to being able to walk without OCD wittering on in the background. My therapist emphasised that I should reward myself for effort, not achievement, so I’m going to have some baklava and a sit down later on.