Tag Archives: Coping with uncertainty
Stuart Ralph’s The OCD Stories has just released his second interview with me. We discussed OCD Recovery, treatment resistance and listener questions. To listen, click below:
Click here to watch the Southern California OCD Affiliate’s 2nd annual conference 2 keynote addresses. The first is mine and discusses uncertainty and a number of primary mental obsessions. The second if Ethan Smith, a comedian, actor, spokesperson for the International OCD Foundation and generally a great guy.
This is from a livestreamed OCD Awareness Week Event. Click here to watch my presentation of “The ABCs of Overcoming OCD.” My thanks to Liz McInvale, Ethan Smith, Jeff Bell and Barbara Van Oppen for putting this together and for there wonderful presentations. You can check out their presentation which is also shared on this site.
For those of you who have been checking this site, I’d like to thank you for your support and apologize for not blogging enough.
Update on the release of the 2nd edition of Freedom from OCD. I just heard from the publisher that the release date is April 1, 2014. At worst, the book would be 1 or 2 weeks later. The 2nd addition will include additional manifestations of OCD, such a relationship OCD, sections on coping with treatment interfering behaviors (TIBs), how to add Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to your program of exposure and response prevention and much more. In addition, because in the electronic editions of the book, the forms aren’t printable, they will be available for free download on a site, that I will announce when we have it up and running.
Again thanks for your patience and remember, OCD is a problem that can be ruled by you rather than the reverse.
Max in a post to this site asked what about convincing someone, with certainty, that they have OCD, since this would be comforting and reassuring. There are three problems with this approach. First, as I’ve noted elsewhere, research has shown us that the only people who have absolute certainty are stupid, which eliminates this as a possibility for most OCD sufferers. Seriously, we find that attempts to reassure oneself by saying ‘x’ is OCD followed by the comfort that I don’t have to worry about ‘x,’ tends to be a short run solution. Usually the sufferer at some point will then begin to obsess and try to reassure him/herself that the problem is OCD and the circle goes round and round (this is 2 of the three points). We are for the sufferer admitting that it is likely that they have OCD, but that this is independent of whether or not there feared consequences are avoidable. For example, if your OCD issues focus on wanting your loved ones to never die, the fact this is an OCD concern is independent of the fact that your loved ones might die at any time, so treatment has to help you cope with this fact of life. Now it is true that some OCD concerns may involve lower probability fears, but that isn’t relevant to treatment. Whatever you fear is what the focus of treatment needs to be on. The goal is always twofold: I need to cope with the uncertainty that ‘x’ may happen; and no matter how horrific ‘x’ is, I need to try to figure out a positive way to cope with it, if it does happen.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is the first line treatment for OCD, but no one should do it! I do believe that any sufferer with OCD who would like to be free of this problem would be well advised to choose ERP for treatment. Many sufferers of OCD find their decisions and actions guided by shoulds, by what is right and wrong. They would say that this is being responsible. Wrong. Responsibility is not a matter of what you should do. Responsibility is taking the steps to accomplish the things you want to do. The responsibility of shoulds involves some authority shaking a finger at you demanding you to be good or to do the right thing or else. This is neither thoughtful nor helpful. When we are working with an individual, we emphasize that we don’t want them following the treatment we are proposing simply because we are experts who are supposed to know, we would like them to follow our treatment if we have convinced them that this is the best way.
The responsibility of taking the steps to accomplish what you want puts the power in your hands. With regard to OCD, this makes the decision to do ERP a matter of thoughtfully looking at what treatments and evidence for them is available. However, it does impose an additional requirement. It makes you responsible for possible outcomes. I often ask someone, can an individual be a responsible criminal and if so how? Many want to say no, because they confuse responsibility with right and wrong. Others will say yes, but if I ask how, they suggest by carefully planning their crimes. This would be part of it; however, in making a choice, I also need to consider the possibilities of what might happen. I used to work with drug addicts on probation and parole and I ran into responsible and irresponsible criminals. The responsible felons were those who had accepted the possibility of landing in jail, since most of the people they knew eventually were caught. They may not have liked prison, some went straight following their incarceration, but they accepted the consequence. The irresponsible felons complained about how unfair it was that they were in prison and why the system should be changed and so on. All of that might be true, but it was true, that regardless of what they feel, the law was the law and they apparently weren’t willing to accept prison as a real possibility. A similar example would be someone who would like to become an actor. It is fine to hope to become a Hollywood star, but if failure isn’t acceptable, then acting makes no sense to try, since this is the most likely outcome. If on the other hand, you want to devote a number of years trying before moving on, or if you are willing to accept not getting further than community theater, then attempting to go into acting is responsible.
Anyone suffering from a problem would wish the problem to be gone quickly. But at this moment in time, ERP is the most researched treatment and the only one that all of the experts and professional organizations (both the American Psychiatric Assoc and the American Psychological Assoc recommend ERP as the first line treatment for OCD as well as the International OCD Foundation). The possible feared consequences that most sufferers face are horrible, but consider a few facts. First, what have you lost to OCD and I don’t mean in general, but in detail, humiliating experiences, being late for important events, lost relationships and so on. Second, how have you hurt your loved ones – forcing them to do rituals, endlessly asking for reassurance, being angry at them for not giving in. If you have children, would you do anything for them? If you say yes, and I don’t mean to be offensive, but you are lying to yourself. You put your OCD fears in front of their welfare. You run the risk of having children who won’t respect you or who will live in fear of the world. There is a 1 in 4 chance your children may have OCD and your behavior teaches them that OCD is something to cope with or not.
And there is a third reason. At this point your OCD steals everything from your life and hurts your loved ones. Even if you were to leave them, they would just be hurt more by your abandonment. And you are willing to have all this happen because of a possibility of something bad happening. Whatever decision you make there is risk. However, the saddest thing about your rituals is that they don’t work. You never get the safety or reassurance you wish for. And if you described your rituals to me, I would be able to find flaws – reasons you are still at risk. So the saddest thing about your rituals is that for all of your pain and efforts, you never get the prize, all of your fears may happen anyway.
I have written elsewhere that the only thing we have is the present. Those you love are only there when you are with them. So when you are alone, there are past good memories and hopes for a future, but that isn’t now. And with your OCD, you don’t even have the present, because you are trapped in OCD land. Responsibility is taking the actions to achieve what you want and accepting the consequences. To give into your rituals is to decide to have a difficult life, hurt the ones you love and have not guarantee that what you want to avoid will be avoided. To fight OCD is to want to learn to live in the moment and enjoy it and to learn to cope with possible risks. Working on your OCD helps you and those you love. Not working on it hurts everyone. Running away hurts everyone. If you really would do anything for those you love, be responsible and take the steps to achieve your goals.
Recently I answered a question on a list-serv. The author noted that ERP wouldn’t work for her, because she wasn’t worried about immediate consequences, but disasters that might result in the future. I let her know that the point of ERP is NEVER to prove anything is safe, but to assist in learning to live with uncertainty. Her issue was chemicals, so I thought it would helpful to explain why her rituals weren’t complete enough. My answer to her is below. Even if you don’t have contamination, think about how you would apply these same ideas as to why your own rituals are inadequate.
My Answer: The goal of ERP is NEVER to prove that anything is safe. The goal of treatment is deciding the you need to learn to live with uncertainty. The world is full of low and high probability dangers. You are at greater risk to be in a car accident than you are to suffer from your fears and yet you might risk death to see a movie – why would you do that? Do you check your car tire pressure daily to insure proper inflation to maximize control and braking ability of your car? Do you talk on a cell phone when you drive? Do you every drink coffee/soda or eat when you drive? Do you talk to others which can be distracting or listen to the radio. Do you ever drive with a single drink in you which is legal, but still should change the odds.
Since you admit to having OCD, what do you want your relationship to your son to be? Do you want to be the mother whom he makes fun of to his friends when he is in HS? Or since he has a 1 in 4 chance of having OCD, do you want him to learn that it is something he can learn to cope with or do you want him to follow your example? If you choose the latter, the sad part is that his health won’t be significantly protected from your actions, but OCD will rule his life. After all, I don’t know what chemicals/germs you are concerned about, but if he isn’t wearing a mask in school, then he risks illness, because the germs aren’t going to wait until he gets home. Is he to have no contact with other children? Canhe never go to a friend’s house, because you don’t know what lawns they may play on and if they have been treated. Do you live in a pollution free arean(eg the middle of Montana with no industry or farming that uses chemical fertilizers)? How are you with food additives? Is he ever going to learn to drive?
If you are going to guard against low probability events, then you need to work much harder at isolating your family and teaching your children to live
in fear of the world? They won’t be normal, they actually won’t be safer, but you’ll feel better for having given into fear.
You actually have 2 problems. The obvious one is OCD and the other is an avoidance of a fear that every parent has – we can’t protect our children.
There are a million ways for them to die, diseases that don’t have obvious external causes, falling down, others and the only thing that saves them is
luck. Because although it is true it is safer to walk on the sidewalk than the middle of the street, walking on the sidewalk is not a guarantee that a
car won’t hit them.
The truth is that OCD is about wanting absolute certainty and there is a reason you can’t have it. Research has shown that the only people who are
certain are stupid people. OCD sufferers are usually above average intelligence and we don’t know how to make you stupid, so you will have to settle for second best: coping with uncertainty.
The truth about your loved ones is that when they aren’t in your presence, they are a memory of good times past and a hope you will see them again.
The only time you have them is when you are with them. But if you have OCD, you don’t even have that. So if your son dies in 3 yrs you will have
missed those precious years. And if outlives you, you will miss his lifetime. Can you learn to live with uncertainty? We know you can, because in the above paragraphs , I hopefully mentioned concerns that you don’t have; even though, they carry horrible risks. You can be sure that there is another OCD sufferer
whose fears were touched in the above paragraphs. The goal of treatment is to learn how to experience OCD fears the way you experience the uncertainties
you cope with. It is true there are some therapists who wrongly suggest that ERP proves something? Yes and your observation that ERP couldn’t establish that anything is safe was reasonable. Luckily certainty isn’t the goal of treatment. Again, think about the car accidents that aren’t a part of your fears. You don’t demand absolute safety upon getting into the car; and your plan for handling a disastrous accident is to wait for it to happen. With your OCD fears you attempt to know now. That is what you can learn to change.
These same ideas about all of the things that you don’t check for can be applied to any OCD problem you have, whether it be scrupulosity, violent thoughts, checking and so on. The conclusion is always the same, it isn’t possible to ritualize enough to be safe, so you need to decide to be more miserable with no benefit or learning to live with uncertainty and finding freedom.
Faye – I do remember you from last year’s Virtual Camping and it was nice to see it on Nightline — they did a decent job in showing what we did; although, more time and more explanation would have been nice (Click to see Nightline segment). In answer to your question, can scrupulosity be treated with exposure and response prevention? The short answer is yes. Like all OCD, the focus of treatment is learning to live with uncertainty. There are many kinds of scrupulosity, so depending upon the type there will be variations in treatment. In a sense, treatment will be taking a risk of offending God, but treatment will also be an act of faith. For everyone who believes in God, there is the question as to what is his nature – merciful and forgiving or angry and punishing? The religious texts can provide evidence for either. In the end, we are stuck guessing and if you think about it, either guess is possibly offending the other version. If He is forgiving, then isn’t it an insult to treat Him as cruel. And when you say a prayer over again, aren’t you offending both versions — after all, God always knows what is in your heart even if you don’t, so to repeat a prayer is to suggest he is stupid and can be fooled by words. So what is to be done? Like all questions, we have to guess and it doesn’t matter that we all would like to make the right guess, because we all don’t get to find out until we die, unless you get a personal communication and that would be a nice miracle. On the other hand, suppose God opens your ceiling, looks down and just says, “Hi Faye.” In the morning your hair is white, you’ve had this wonderful miracle; you know there is God. On the other hand, you are still uncertain. His appearance was a blessing, but was it a warning? What are you supposed to do? You are back to guessing.
So in treatment, we assume that you are guessing. As long as you are doing this, we suggest picking the God you would like to believe in. Because the one that leads you to ritualize isn’t comforting and really your prayers aren’t to him, but to the OCDemon. Your act of faith one that is scary – you commit yourself to the merciful forgiving God. And what if you are wrong. I would suggest that you love God so much, that you will accept punishment if you guessed wrong. I’m suggesting putting your faith on the line. Because you don’t really have a choice. Like all OCD treatment, this is hard, but not as hard as your life is when you devote it to the OCDemon. And the devil is the right analogy, because in listening to your OCD, your life loses meaning, you have trouble helping yourself or others. You lose everything listening to the false promises of the OCDemon. It is simple decision, but it is not an easy one. Obviously treatment and preparation are more complicated than I’ve written her, but I hope this gives you a good start. Just as you have begun to overcome contamination, you can overcome this.