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“Okay, Lisa. Go.”
That’s Carol Hevia, a behavioral therapist at the OCDI, talking to me in my head, as if I was sitting in her Intrusive Thoughts group. Once again, she’s telling me it’s time to spill my guts.
When I was a resident at the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute (OCDI) one year ago, attending Carol’s group was part of my treatment plan. I hated every second of it. I even stormed out of my first group after she insisted I had to talk openly about the horrible, shameful thoughts I was plagued with. There was no way I was going to do that.
Today, I don’t mind telling you that I have really nasty thoughts that I can’t control despite my efforts to prevent them, and I’m willing to admit that these thoughts are about hurting children. (Satisfied, Carol?) I definitely couldn’t have written that a year ago. I was convinced that my self-loathing and willingness to sacrifice myself were the only things keeping me from acting on the intrusive thoughts (even though I didn’t want to act on them), so hating myself was a kind of mental ritual. It made me “safe.” A year ago, rather than accept that I have thoughts I can’t control, and that they don’t mean anything about me, I would have rather been dead. In fact, I tried to kill myself. Twice.
At the OCDI, I struggled through three of the hardest months of my life. To say that I doubted the possibility of a positive treatment outcome is an understatement. Thanks to the support and care I received from the staff, who treated me as a whole person despite all of my faults, it did work. That is to say, my team and I made it work. I eventually even learned to love going to Intrusive Thoughts group.
I made many mistakes—serious mistakes. I lashed out at myself and at my behavioral therapist. To my astonishment, he challenged me to learn to accept my anger and shame rather than trying to make it go away. Instead, I was told to embrace it, become curious about it and sit with it, and then go on doing what was genuinely important to me.
I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I don’t think the odds of success were much in my favor. I still struggle to understand why I was able to tolerate such intense feelings, of shame in particular, and ultimately to succeed in treatment. I know that in part it was because I felt that I had hit the bottom. I had hurt my loved ones too many times and I didn’t want my parents to outlive me. This alone gave me reason to work as hard as I could to overcome the obstacles that stood between my illness and being well.
Another important aspect was a concept my therapist named in our first session: “effective over right,” or, in other words, doing what works rather than insisting on being right. I mean, maybe I was right, maybe I was as evil as I thought I was, but did it actually matter? When I considered how I’d hurt myself and my beloved family and friends to prove that I was evil, it was clear that being right was not effective. What was effective was to learn to step back from the intensity of my self-judgments and my emotions, to act with kindness toward myself, and to turn my energy outward to pursue what I care about most: helping others, working for social justice, and working on my visual art.
At this time last year, I was still recovering from my most recent suicide attempt, and I could not have conceived doing many of the things that I am doing today. I actually like kids and it is a huge relief finally to be able to express that. I know I have a lot of love to give, and that, rather than what OCD tells me to think about myself, is what is truly important to me.
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Lisa Walter is a visual artist, educator, and writer in Toronto, Ontario. She is currently working on a graphic novel, Dinosaur, about her experience in treatment for OCD.
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