Why "71º & Sunny?"

I consider 71º to be the perfect temperature. Not too cold and not too hot. I also love perfect sunny days. The vast majority of days are not 71º & Sunny and yet, all days were created by God's hand and they are still gifts, even if they don't fit my ridiculous definition of perfection. My struggle with OCD has at times imprisoned me in an impossible attempt to achieve perfection. I'm now learning to love all kinds of days that don't even come close to 71º & Sunny.

Please leave me a comment below. I really want to know what you are thinking!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Anxious and Emotional Tonight

The problem of living with an anxiety disorder is that, well, you get stuck with a lot of anxiety. Many times for no apparent reason. I had a pleasant enough day. Nothing especially bad or especially good happened. It was just a typical Saturday at home with my husband. Yet, tonight my stomach is in knots and I feel like crying. My first instinct is to ask myself why. What's causing this anxiety? What's wrong? Oh, I hate feeling this way, why do I feel this way?

I've been through this enough times now to know that asking why is only somewhat useful. If it can help me identify a problem, like lack of sleep, or too much sugar in my diet, or too many appointments in my schedule, then it's helpful. Sometimes, though, there does not appear to be anything in particular that is causing my anxiety. I could sit here and beat my head against the wall, or I could just accept it. That's hard to do. Anxiety is so painful. However, it's a part of my life. I believe it always will be, to some extent. So tonight, I've chosen to accept it and to turn to the One who can see me through it.

Some time ago, I read a book by Jennifer Rothschild entitled, "Lessons I Learned in the Dark: Steps to Walking by Faith, Not by Sight." In this book, Jennifer shared her experiences of following Christ, both before and after losing her eyesight. It's been a while since I read the book and though I no longer have it, there was something she wrote that has stayed with me ever since. Please forgive me if I'm not completely accurate, as I am very roughly paraphrasing her words from memory. If I remember correctly, she stated that if what makes her different from the rest of the world is what also keeps her close to Christ, then she would rather be different. Jennifer, I'm with you on this one.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pain With A Purpose

“Don’t turn around. Keep on walking. You’re OK. Don’t turn around. Keep on walking. You’re OK.” These phrases cycled through my mind over and over again as I walked away from the subway platform. The surge of adrenaline spiking through my body caused such incredible shaking that I was sure others could see it as I passed by them. I knew I could not allow myself to look back. Every atom in my body wanted to look back. Just once. Just to check and see if I knocked someone off of the platform and onto the tracks below. I was beyond desperate to put an end to my uncertainty. Something inside whispered that I did not knock any poor unsuspecting soul over. That was my voice of reason, fleeting as it was. I would have heard screams, wouldn’t I have?

Everyone who’s been in an automobile accident has experienced an adrenaline rush. It’s a terrible feeling. Your stomach is in knots. Sometimes you break out into a cold sweat. Your body is ready to spring into action at any moment. You can get a sort of tunnel vision, where you only see what is directly in front of you. That was what this felt like. My body was screaming for me to glance back at the destruction that I must have surely left behind. However, I did not turn around. I willed my feet to move forward, though I could not really feel the motion of my legs. When I finally arrived at my waiting car, I had to sit until my breathing returned to normal and it was safe enough for me to drive away.

I don’t remember exactly when this incident occurred. It was a while after I’d been in CBT. By this point, I had learned that performing Exposure and Response Prevention can, over time, literally make visible changes to the brain. I compelled myself to keep walking because I was aware that with each painful step I made, I was re-wiring my circuitry. Experiencing that terrible anxiety was simply proof of the positive changes going on in my brain. Later, after some reflection, I was pleased that I had this strong physical reaction because of what it meant to my recovery.

At times, ERP will seem so incredibly painful. However, my psychologist reminded me more than once that I was already in terrible pain. With ERP, you twist that pain around and make it work for you, instead of against you. Eventually, the pain subsides, even during an ERP. Today, when I do exposures, the pain is never as bad, nor does it last as long as it previously did. Now, I even have times throughout my day when I am anxiety free.

You can walk away from the “subway platform” of your OCD too. One tiny step at a time. That is all it takes to get started. Don’t turn around. Keep on walking. You’re OK.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

NH NAMI Annual Conference

Today I had the privilege of attending the annual conference of the NH chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Concord, New Hampshire. One of the main reasons I attended was because I wanted to make connections with the larger mental health community in my area. As I contemplate my own possible role as a mental health advocate, I thought it would be helpful to meet other advocates and to hear more about NAMI. Of course, if I'm going to advocate, I have to be comfortable with sharing my own story. I admit, it was a little difficult telling perfect strangers about my OCD. By the end of the day though, I was more at ease with blurting out my diagnosis.

I am glad I attended as I met some truly wonderful people from all walks of life. Most touching were the presentations given by family members of those with mental illness. There were certainly some tears shed by all. Today's speakers relayed how they advocated for, cared for, and cried over their loved ones. Their pain was real and palpable.

In our own personal fight against mental illness it can be so easy to overlook the feelings and needs of those who stand with and by us. However their love and care is invaluable. Family and friends may not always do or say the "right" thing in trying to help us. That's ok. I don't always do or say the right thing either. To my friends and family, I say thank you for standing by me! Sometimes, just knowing that you were there was the only thing that kept me fighting.

Even if your loved one with mental illness has been unable to express appreciation to you, please remember that you are doing a wonderful thing supporting him or her. It may seem like what you do is not enough or that it does not matter. Truly, it does.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Commencement

Commencement is a term usually associated with graduations. This terminology is not used to signify an ending, but the beginning of the journey that is to follow. Upon graduation, students are to commence with their new lives. Hopefully, their new lives will be enhanced by the knowledge gained, the failures endured, and the successes achieved through all of the time spent studying, learning, and growing.

Soon, the word commencement will be applied to me. After 2 years, 25 weeks, and 5 days, today I had one of the last sessions of CBT I will most likely ever have. Not that I’m counting. I have one more appointment in a month, then perhaps one more after that. Then it will be over. My psychologist has told me more than once that I can set up booster sessions with her should I ever need them. I suspect I will at some point.

With the termination of regular weekly therapy, I am taking on the full responsibility for my own recovery. Of course, the reality is that I’ve always had it. However, I've truly appreciated all the hand-holding, training, and coaching that my doctor provided. God worked through her to save my life. My psychologist will forever hold a special place in my heart because I believe she cared about me as a person, beyond the minimum required to be an effective therapist.

I’m a little frightened. What if I backslide without her constant presence and encouragement? It’s time though. I’m well enough now. I’m not cured, but I’ve experienced dramatic improvement and I have the tools to move forward. I’m pleased that my leaving her practice means that there is an opening for other patients who need her attention.

Commencement is a scary word. It implies the ending of something familiar and the beginning of the unknown. The OCD translation: uncertainty. It can also be an exciting word. One never knows what the future holds. I could not have imagined being at this level of health 2 years, 25 weeks, and 5 days ago.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Facing Fear

My husband and I just returned from celebrating our 25th Wedding Anniversary. We decided to celebrate at the House of Mouse. Yes, that's right, we chose Disneyworld. Though we're in our 40s, we're still just little kids at heart. As I've continued to improve and recover from OCD, I find that I'm ready to seek out more adventure. For so long, I've led a sheltered life trying to avoid anything that would trigger my OCD. Of course, my ever steady companion, OCD, accompanied me wherever I went. Though it tried to ruin my trip, I fought against it. There were moments of pain, of course. More on that in another post. However, I would like to concentrate on some victories, because indeed there were some.

I decided to really take Michael Tompkins' advice in his book "OCD:A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed." On page 95 of his book, he states, "Willingness to approach discomfort, rather than to escape it through compulsions or avoiding certain situations and objects, is an essential feature of your recovery from OCD." I did not, however, use this thinking for only specifically OCD types of issues. I tried to use it everywhere.

My husband loves Space Mountain. Me, not so much. But I knew my hubby wanted to go on it so we got a Fast Pass for it. However, before our Fast Pass became available, we noticed that the line was really short, so we went on the ride then. I was petrified. So much so, that by the end of the ride I was actually praying to God, begging him to make it end! When we got off the ride, we realized that our Fast Passes were ready to use. I could tell my husband really wanted to go again, but he also told me that we didn't have to if I was too scared. That's when Dr. Tompkins' advice started floating around in my head. I knew I needed to face it head on. So we went again. What a difference! Because I was so determined to face my fear, it wasn't nearly as frightening the second time. I truly could not believe how much easier it was. I was able to keep my eyes open the entire time, and I focused on looking at the ceiling, which was decorated with stars and solar systems, and the like.

Later on in our vacation, we visited Discovery Cove to go swim with the dolphins. I do not know how to swim, but they had life vests available for use. The dolphin swim was wonderful and not scary at all. The snorkeling, however, was quite another story. I had never snorkeled before. So my husband took me through the task of putting on my mask, and then putting on the snorkel. I took each task slowly. Once I got used to breathing through my mouth (you can't breathe through your nose with the mask on), I then put on the snorkel. That was scary. I had to learn to trust the snorkel. Once I got used to both the mask and snorkel out of the water, it was time to stick my face in the water. Again, very scary. The next thing I knew, I had my face in the water and I was breathing through the snorkel! At that point we set off to swim towards all the fish. WOW. There were all types of coral reefs and a variety of fish, including huge sting rays. Once I got over my fright, I even touched a sting ray as it swam by me. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I almost missed it because I was too afraid. That day I told my husband that I really felt like I was alive for the first time in many, many years.

I'm really praising God for bringing CBT into my life. I'm also praising Him for all the wonderful support I have through my family, my psychologist, my friends, my blogging family, my support group, and the wonderful books written by people like Dr. Tompkins.

I want to encourage you today. Please, please, take a step. Just a little one. You will never know how far that first little step can take you. You can do it. You really can. Believe me, I've been afraid of my own shadow for years. If I can do it, you sure can!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are thought processes that are not in line with reality. Unfortunately, people with anxiety disorders and depression tend to struggle quite a bit with these distortions. The ironic part is that the distortions always seem to be negative, never positive.

In doing an online search for a list of distortions I came across a blog called Therapy Worksheets which had a link to Lynn Martin's website, which has a good list of cognitive distortions. Early in my therapy, my psychologist handed me a similar worksheet of distortions. I read through them and thought, "Huh, how about that, I think I do some of them." We discussed the list for a bit and then went on to a discussion of ERPs. I did not realize at the time how significant the awareness of distortions would become to the improvement of my mental health. Session after session, my doctor would make me list the cognitive distortions I was laboring under. I started to realize that my thinking was really skewed.

One of my biggest struggles is with mind reading. We all have things that we are good at, and one of them for me is "reading people," so to speak. I can often tell what people are thinking by simply looking at body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, or even what specific words someone chooses to use. It's not that I'm looking for this stuff, it just sort of pops out at me when talking to someone. This ended up getting me into a lot of trouble with my OCD. I started to think that all kinds of people were thinking negatively about me. It affected a lot of my relationships. My doctor finally helped me to understand that, yes, I may be good at reading people, but not when it comes to something involving me. Anything involving myself is so emotionally charged with anxiety, that I tend to misinterpret signals others are giving off (and it is always negative, of course). It took over 2 years of therapy before I truly believed and understood this concept. Once I did however, it was real freedom.

Now, when talking to others, I try really hard to assume that any "off" signals I'm receiving are either misinterpreted by me or that the person's negative expression may have absolutely nothing to do with me at all. Unless someone is clearly upset with me, I try not to "mentally involve" myself with it. This is a work in progress as I still struggle with it a bit. It takes lots of time and practice to change thinking that has been in place for over four decades. It has been worth the time and effort however, as I no longer constantly feel that others have negative thoughts about me.

Do you struggle with cognitive distortions? What are your most troublesome distortions?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What Is The Right Question?

In July, 2010, I had the privilege of attending the International OC Foundation Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. I actually went by myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I had been in CBT for about 10 months. I was starting to get better. For so long I had been very needy and dependent on family members. I needed to know I could do something alone.

The trip to D.C. went well, and the conference was interesting. I met a really nice woman at the conference and we sat and chatted for a while. I even bumped into a few friends from a previous support group I had been a part of.

The real problem was the trip home on the Amtrak train. Everything was going fine, until the train made a stop. A young couple boarded the train with their newborn in a carrier. There were only single seats available, so I offered to move to allow them to sit together as a family. I reached into the overhead luggage compartment to move my carry on bag out of the way for them, and that is when I saw it. A loose screw. It was screwed into the overhead luggage compartment to keep the plastic cover in place. I saw the screw and thought, "Maybe I should screw it back into place. No, no one else would do that and this couple is waiting for me to move so they can sit." So I did nothing with the screw. I found a new seat nearby and sat down. Right in view of this little family and the overhead luggage compartment.

The dad opened the compartment to put their luggage in and that is when the terrorizing anxiety struck. I was just sure that somehow the dad would hit the loose screw and that the screw was going to fall directly into the baby carrier and that the baby was going to pick up the screw and choke to death on it. So I agonized about whether I should go over to the couple and mention that there was a loose screw and that they should make sure it didn't fall into their baby's carrier. Deep down, I suspected that this was totally OCD. I was sure that everyone on that train was going to think I was completely insane if I mentioned this screw to the couple. But then, I started to berate myself. "What kind of Christian are you? You don't want to protect this baby? You're a horrible human being." When throwing questions like that at myself, the only answer is that I am a terrible person. What kind of person doesn't want to save a baby? I was horrified and ashamed of myself.
 
These thoughts tormented me for almost an hour; back and forth, back and forth. That's when it hit me. This was the first real time that I was totally consumed by OCD and yet I was able to find some rational thinking in spite of it. It was like a light bulb went off, when I realized I was asking myself the wrong questions. If I ask myself, "Don't you want to save a baby?" of course, the answer has to be yes. I've stacked the deck with that kind of question. There is only one conclusion to that question. But then I understood that the real question I had to ask myself was, "Would anyone else see danger in that loose screw?" Ah, now that was the question I should have been asking myself all along.
 
I don't think anyone would have thought one way or the other about that loose screw. The baby's dad was an adult. He could see that loose screw as well as anyone when placing his bag in the compartment. There would have to have been a precise order of occurrences for that screw to pop out and land right in the baby's carrier. I guess what I'm saying is that in retrospect it would have been an unlikely set of circumstances to pose a danger to that baby. Somehow, my OCD mind made it a likely, no, a probable, scenario of danger. That's what cognitive distortions will do to you. All or nothing thinking. Catastrophizing. It's hard to see reality when distortions blind your vision. Even with my new awareness however, I still continued to struggle with whether I should approach the parents or not. That tricky, tricky OCD.

In case you're wondering, a little while after I realized my cognitive distortions, the family got off the train. Everyone was fine and in good health, including that precious little baby. Now as for myself, I continued the rest of the trip alternating between sky-high anxiety and utter exhaustion. Nevertheless, I was so excited with my "aha" moment. That's when I started to grasp that perhaps something good was beginning to take place in my brain.