Fearing the Return of OCD

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Reader’s Question

First, let me thank you for reviewing and (hopefully) answering my question. Let me just get right down to it: from the ages of 13 to 15 I suffered from an intense, crippling battle with OCD. I actually can remember having obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions since I was very young. Most of the time these thoughts were connected with my religious beliefs at the time. I thought that if I didn’t do such-and-such or if I thought about such-and-such God would punish me or my loved ones. After slowly emerging from the crippling apex of my disorder, I began to use drugs, eventually very heavily. I spent much of my teenage years in and out of rehab and going through the cycle of addiction. I was functional academically for awhile and was even able to enter university at the age of 16 by way of a State-sponsored program, until the drugs really got ahold of me.

While I was deeply in the throes of my drug addiction, I can’t recall a single time that I had any OCD-like symptoms. Still, I eventually decided to rid myself of drugs for good and from the age of 20 until now (I’m currently 25), I have been clean other than smoking some marijuana and taking an occasional drink. My life was steadily getting better, and the OCD has not re-surfaced. But I have also been coming back to my earlier religious beliefs (Christian, raised Baptist), and I can sense some of the same kinds of obsessive thoughts re-emerging. I am petrified that I might relapse into full blown OCD again, but up to now I haven’t found anything that is able to make me feel more at peace about my past and that also helps me deal with anger and stress than my belief in God. I suppose the paradox is that although my faith is helping me solve past problems and current issues, I also fear that it is going to bring back those days of feeling tremendous guilt for my actions and having obsessive thoughts. I don’t want to go back to being a non-functioning, anxiety-ridden zombie, but I also don’t want to continue abusing alcohol and marijuana frequently, and my faith helps keep me on track. I’m actually getting anxious about the anxiety I fear might return.

What do you recommend?

Psychologist’s Reply

Individuals with obsessive-compulsive tendencies typically have a hard time finding middle ground. That’s why the non-medical treatment of choice (i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT) for OCD employs strategies specifically designed to help people overcome their tendency to think in all-or-none and black-and-white terms.

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It’s also common for individuals who suffer from anxiety-based disorders to experience anxiety at the very prospect of having symptoms. This, of course, fuels a vicious cycle between symptoms and anxiety, making an already difficult situation worse. Cognitive-behavioral strategies for dealing with anxiety focus heavily on breaking the cycle that fuels anxiety and its various symptoms.

The good news is that you can indeed acquire a better sense of balance in your life. There is really no reason why your most deeply-held religious or philosophical beliefs can’t co-exist with your desire to be free of unreasonable and debilitating anxiety and guilt. And there’s also no reason why your desire not to be enslaved by drugs can’t co-exist with a desire to be free from spirit-killing or enslaving thoughts or beliefs. Learning how to change “extreme” and inflexible thinking patterns and replacing them with more balanced and moderate thoughts is what good cognitive-behavioral therapy is all about. So, rather than fret about whether you will or won’t end up in the grip of debilitating illness, you might take comfort in the notion that with good counseling you can achieve a better sense of balance and inner peace. So, seek out a counselor who specializes in the treatment of OCD and/or addictive tendencies, and begin the process of taking charge of your march toward moderation and a less anxious life.

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