This week I share a painful therapy experience when I came to recognize the compulsions in my mind.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
My wife came with me to one of my recent therapy sessions. We have done this a few times, and it has always been impactful. Usually those sessions are challenging and painful for me, and also effective and full of growth. Part of the reason this is so useful is because insight is the first casualty of OCD, and many other mental illnesses. So my wife is often the first to know how bad things have actually become.
At this particular session, my therapist wanted my wife and me to have a difficult conversation, and she would interrupt to provide coaching as needed. She wanted us to pick something that we had tried discussing before without success, or that we had been avoiding.
We both immediately thought of talking about time.
I have long struggled with my view of and approach to time management. One of my longest standing goals is to reduce my sense of time ownership. When I make a plan, the time allotted to that plan becomes crystallized for that purpose, and if that is shattered, I feel great distress.
So the goal was for my wife to tell me how she felt about asking me to be flexible with time, or even just asking me to do something unplanned.
My instructions were to actively listen, and prevent myself from explaining anything. I was to engage and seek understanding, and that was all. Once she had been able to say something, I was to repeat it back to her in my own words and make sure I had understood properly. After my wife had clarified anything required, I was to validate her feelings.
Validation doesn’t mean supporting or agreeing with everything. I just needed to identify the emotion that my wife had and connect with the experience of feeling that emotion.
After validating, I was to ask if there was any more, and start that process again. If she said no, then I was to ask what she needed in order to address those feelings.
I thought I understood the rules of engagement clearly, and was prepared to start. My wife shared her first statement, and I froze.
My brain locked.
I sat for a minute in panic and distress, knowing that I had explicit instructions and feeling incapable of fulfilling them.
After sitting there for a bit in silence, I turned to my therapist and asked if I was allowed to ask clarifying questions if I didn’t understand something.
My therapist replied that if I was truly seeking to understand, I could ask whatever I wanted. But she could tell that I didn’t want to talk about the emotion that was being shared, and my brain was trying to take the conversation somewhere else. That was not ok.
I tried to force myself to repeat back what I had heard and clarify whether I had understood properly.
Almost before getting the words out of my mouth, I turned to my therapist again. “The thing is, I’m still stuck on this. My mind can’t compute what I heard, and I’m not able to move forward. She said one thing, and then contradicted it, and I don’t know what she’s actually saying. How do I proceed if I can’t understand?”
“Bullshit,” she replied. “You just don’t want to talk about it. You know exactly what she meant and what she’s feeling. And then you used your question to get out the thing that you did want to talk about. Try again.”
As the waves of distress crashed over me, I stared at the wall and practiced some box breathing for a few seconds.
Then I looked back at my wife and started again. “So what I heard you say was…”
We continued on for a few more minutes, and then my gears jammed again. Before I could even saying anything, my therapist jumped in. “I’m going to stop you again. You don’t get to say what you’re about to say. Just listen and reflect back what you are hearing, validate her feelings, and ask if there is more.”
This cycle repeated a few times.
Finally, around the three-quarter mark of the session, a tangible switch flipped. I felt myself breaking free and able to truly engage in the process.
It was as if I was underwater with a weighted jacket on. I had been kicking and pushing to get to the surface, but the weight of the jacket kept dragging me down. Finally, I realized that I was wearing the jacket and could just take it off. I slid out, and with a kick, shot to the surface.
It wasn’t that I had no more impulses to stop and clarify a word, or divert the conversation. But when they came, I saw them for what they are—compulsions. I could recognize the taste and texture of those thoughts and choose to not pick them up.
My therapist apologized at one point near the end for being so hard on me. Then she clarified, “It’s not Ben I’m being hard on. It’s OCD. You don’t actually think these things, or want to flee the conversation. But OCD does. And we’re not going to let it.”
As we left the therapist office, my wife and I went to lunch for a quick date. Often, after a joint therapy session, I need another hour or more to process and decompress what we just went through. This time, however, I was able to do much of that processing while we were still there. So by the time we went to lunch, I felt light and relaxed and we could just enjoy our time together.
At the time, I thought it was just that my therapist had run the exercise such that I was able to work through my emotions with her while we were there.
However, I am realizing right now as I write this that I had it all wrong. My therapist hadn’t changed things. She didn’t run the exercise differently.
I have grown.
The difference was me. I was able to move through the distress faster and get to a place where I could effectively engage. That is an encouraging realization. And basically the whole point of writing these weekly updates. Thank you for being audience to my epiphany.
Whether our impulses come from OCD, from trauma response, from everyday worry, or any other sources, we all get them. Our minds and bodies are programmed to avoid pain, including emotional. When something hard comes up, our instinct is to shy away.
We all need to learn about the shape and color and texture and taste of our weighted jackets. The better we get to know them, the quicker we can recognize when we are putting them on, and the sooner we can choose to take them off.
Our circumstances will never define us and our success. As Viktor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
So the challenge I issue this week is to take off the damn jacket. Be on the lookout for when our brain is trying to escape the present moment. Start introducing a small delay between the impulse to say something and actually speaking. Take a second before acting to question whether it’s what we actually want to do.
As we practice identifying these thoughts, we will become more capable of being our authentic selves. We will take charge of our lives.
And we will fail! Those jackets are going to get wrapped tightly around us before we realize that we are strapping them on. Panic will set in as our lungs fight for air. We will say and do things that we regret.
Let’s practice an extra dose of compassion in the coming week. Both for ourselves, and for those around us. We could all use it.