Living with OCD II


I've selected Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters' to accompany this blog post because it's a terrific evocation of just how far beyond our control the workings of our minds are. 

Reason is switched off as the figure sleeps, and dark and shadowy beings from the recesses of the mind come into their own. The creatures become ever more shadowy and many in number the further back we go in the image. To me this suggests that the 'bats in the belfry' of the mind that Goya so dramatically brings to life are vast in number.

This image speaks to me as someone with OCD because it gives a visual example of the futility of trying to suppress, control, neutralise, or otherwise prevent the presence of troubling or intrusive thoughts. 

One person could not possibly capture and subdue all of the bats and strange birds (and the large cat!) in this image. And would it even be wise to try to do so? Goya makes it clear that the shadowy and troubling parts of the picture are just as much part of our minds as the 'Reason' that lowers its guard when we sleep. 

We may not like the bats in our belfry, but they will be continue to be there nonetheless. I have been working with a therapist and doing a lot of work around the religious beliefs that OCD targeted in my case. As a young man, I very much adopted the Church of England teaching of human beings sinning 'in thought and word and deed.' 

Having been through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention, a key factor in my ability to live with OCD now is the acceptance that human beings cannot sin in thought. A thought does not equate to a desire or an intention. Thoughts are not reflections of our personality or whether we are a "good" or a "bad" person. We cannot control the thoughts that come into our minds, and nor is there any use in trying to do so. Is it therefore a sin to have a thought about something troubling or unpleasant? I don't think so. 

Let us return to the Goya. If the weird creatures in that image represent intrusive thoughts, or perhaps dark parts of each of our unconscious that we're not fully aware of, what will be the toll upon us if we try to engage with each of the creatures when they come into our minds? Exhaustion; inability to think about anything other than the intrusive thoughts; falling further into the grip of the condition as we perform the very compulsions that it offers to us as supposed ready-made solutions to the fake problems that it has invented and inflicted upon us. 

The Goya image shows us that we all have what Nietzsche would call the 'shadow' part of our nature. My attempts to suppress or purify the shadow part of my nature through religious teachings and beliefs made me very susceptible to attack from OCD. 

One of the many sneaky and underhanded features of OCD is that it finds your values and the things you wish to think about yourself and turns them against you. OCD would tell me that I had raped and murdered people because it knew (and still knows) that thoughts of this nature would clash so strongly with my values and how I see myself  that they would most likely elicit a compulsion from me.

I have frequently in this blog compared OCD to Satan tempting Eve in the garden of Eden in John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Part of this comparison lies in the fact that Satan presents an invented problem to Eve (God's prohibition of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and the perceived deficient state in which this leaves the first humans); and then he offers her a seemingly simple and consequence-free solution to this invented problem (to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge). 

OCD works in exactly this way. It bombards us with invented problems (in my case it's usually "you raped that person"), then presents us with the apparent easy and perfect solution (in my case this is usually something like "find evidence", "seek reassurance", "go over the situation again and again to prove to yourself that you couldn't possibly have done this"). OCD wants us to take it seriously and give it our time and energy. It knows that the best way to keep us in its power is to create the most troubling thoughts it can that will therefore be more likely to bring about compulsions for short-term relief.

OCD wants to create a state in which we are unable to function. It wants every waking moment of our lives to be taken up with obsessions and compulsions. It wants to trap us in a state where we feel the only way we will ever return to anything approaching normal life is for OCD to be gone completely (clearly an impossibility). It will use this feeling to make us perform even more compulsions and seek even more reassurance that we have not done the things the obsessions tell us we have.

OCD is a trick on two levels: the initial troubling thought and then the presentation of the easy way to get rid of the troubling thought. Just like the sly words of Satan, OCD tells us that here is a consequence-free way to get rid of this troubling thought. It was only CBT and ERP (following a period of hospitalisation) that taught me that we can't control or suppress those creatures in our mind, and nor can we afford to take them seriously or dignify them with the performance of a compulsion. They may be in our heads, and they may seem shadowy and scary, but once we realise that they are not real and do not merit any response, well, then we can begin to manage the condition and get on with our lives.  


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