Avoidance in OCD and in life


One of the clearest and most keenly felt ways in which OCD tries to direct and limit our lives is through avoidance. OCD will tell us that we can be safe, or in many cases we can keep others safe, if we avoid certain people or situations. Taken to its conclusion, OCD will push us to follow this course of action until we only stay at home or in our bedroom because this is the only way to guarantee our own safety and the safety of others. The all-consuming nature of OCD can be seen in the fact that such extreme measures taken in the interests of placating and satisfying OCD will do no such things. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy OCD's selfish greed for attention and control. By acting in the way that OCD tells us to act, we only dignify it with an authority it does not merit; we act upon OCD's lies as if they were truthful.

I have been reading a book called Break Free from OCD by Dr Fiona Challacombe, Dr Victoria Bream Oldfield, and Professor Paul Salkovskis. The book contains a section on avoidance that I feel applies not only to managing OCD but to living a fulfilling creative life. Break Free from OCD states that when we perform avoidance as a response to intrusive OCD thoughts, we strengthen the idea that we are responsible for these thoughts. This is like accepting the completely groundless charges that OCD makes against us as if they were utterly compelling. In my case, OCD would tell me that I had raped people. In the grip of these thoughts, I would avoid any situations with groups of people. I would isolate myself by staying in my room at university. I was taking on responsibility for my thoughts, feeling that I was to blame for my thoughts, and therefore avoiding all other people. 

The above illustrates my own experience of how debilitating and limiting OCD can be. The physical avoidance of places, people, and situations stems from what Break Free from OCD calls the 'futile and counterproductive' habit of trying to avoid certain thoughts. One of OCD's many devious tricks is to make us feel that certain thoughts are "bad" or "evil" in themselves. The truth is that all thoughts are just thoughts. We can't control the thoughts that enter our heads, and nor is it healthy to try to do so. I experienced the phenomenon known as "thought-action fusion", wherein my response to having a thought about rape or murder was a feeling of such guilt and discomfort that the distinction between a thought and an action was blurred. I tried to avoid having such thoughts. Anybody who has ever tried the experiment of trying not to think about something will know how effective that was.   

One example of avoidance in my own life is driving. When I first started driving, I would experience frightening thoughts that I had hurt or killed other people. I would think that I had been responsible for terrible crashes resulting in multiple casualties. I would then perform the compulsion of driving back out onto the roads when I had completed my journey in order to prove to myself that I had not caused these accidents. I have had an interesting relationship with driving ever since these early examples. I find that when I have to drive regularly as part of my job, I do this and it enables me to face my fears about driving. It has recently been pointed out to me that driving at work despite my fears and misgivings is a form of exposure response prevention. When I am not driving regularly as part of my job, I can then fall back into the habit of avoiding driving. I have to remind myself that avoidance doesn't help, for all of the reasons already outlined.  

I know from experience that avoidance can become an ingrained habit that can continue to rear its head even after you feel it has been addressed. Break Free from OCD points out that OCD will make us see danger absolutely everywhere. As I stated earlier, this condition is all-consuming and never satisfied. It will continue to try to torment us even after it has reduced our world to a small room. Once we begin to perform acts of avoidance, the list of things to avoid will only increase. 

Break Free from OCD makes the important point that with avoidance, we don't give ourselves the opportunity to find out what would happen if we ignore the intrusive thought and go to the event, or class, or workplace as we normally would. This has led me to think about avoidance in general life, not limited to an OCD context. We all avoid things. We all narrow our perspectives and tell ourselves that we don't like this or that, even though we many never have tried it. I have been thinking a lot recently about ways in which I might have been narrowing my own perspectives rather than embracing change and growth in the way that I would like to. In terms of literature, I like bold and experimental novels that are trying to do something new with the form. I realised, though, that I may have been cutting myself off from some of the classic Victorian novels simply because they didn't meet my usual criteria. I picked up George Eliot's Middlemarch and am very much enjoying Eliot's masterful technique and command of narrative voice. Middlemarch isn't the sort of novel that I want to write, or that I would usually read. However, I am open to the possibility that I can learn just as much about writing from the likes of Eliot and Thomas Hardy as I can from favourites of mine like Joyce and Faulkner.


In his book Leonardo Da Vinci The Biography, Walter Isaacson writes of Leonardo's approach to The Last Supper: 'Once he knew the rules, he became a master at fudging and distorting them.' I relate this to the discussion of avoidance and OCD. Nothing is gained in recovery from OCD or in creative pursuits by avoidance. I want to adopt Leonardo's questioning and curious approach to life and to art. I want to use the lessons I have learned about facing fears and embracing the discomfort of leaving my comfort zone. I want to be open to learning and improving at all times. I love the idea of learning all of the rules so that you can break them in the best possible ways. We can't grow and change unless we experience new things, and anything new has a degree of doubt and uncertainty attached to it. OCD tells us that we ought not to tolerate any doubt whatsoever, that's part of its big lie to keep us trapped and at its mercy. If we reject avoidance and embrace a healthy degree of uncertainty in our lives, we can prosper as creators and as human beings. 


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