As human beings, it is only natural for us not to want to feel any pain. That’s why one of the things we often focus on when reflecting on any problem we’ve encountered is what it has cost us. We tend to want to identify what has been painful and why, because we hope to “fix” it or avoid it in the future.
Unfortunately, pain is an inevitable part of being human. At the same time, hope can see us through even our darkest times. I have found it helpful to take this a step further by being intentional and asking myself, “What can I learn from this situation or experience?” Often, there is something we can take away from even the most heartbreaking of circumstances.
Exploring this viewpoint doesn’t mean that you are “finding the good in the bad” or being overly optimistic, though I don’t find anything wrong in either of those things. Some people may feel that this could give too much credit to what caused their suffering. I can relate to this, too; however, from my own experience, I have found it incredibly healing to understand how a situation has helped me grow or see things differently. Perhaps this can help you, too.
What OCD taught me
As someone who has suffered from OCD since I was a very young child, it has been an integral part of my journey to identify the things that OCD taught me. Maybe these are things I would have learned without this illness, and maybe not. Regardless, throughout my journey, I have found that I am stronger than I could have ever imagined. I know that may sound cliche, but there is something about going through adversity that brings about a quiet strength. A certain type of courage is developed—one that doesn’t hold you back from new experiences.
For me, the feeling of having experienced this disorder and coming out on the other side feels similar to giving birth. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, let me tell you what I mean: when I gave birth to my three children, it was the most physically painful experience I have ever felt, but at the same time, the most beautiful results came from it. At the time, I thought I couldn’t possibly keep going. I was exhausted, weary, and frustrated, and I wanted to throw in the towel. This was not an option, though; I had to push through.
There are similar experiences in many people’s lives. We are given circumstances that we may not have any control over, and we are faced with choices: do we carry on, or do we give up? For many, there is no choice but to go on, despite what we face.
Through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, I gained the skills I needed to battle OCD. I came to understand that I do not need to attach meaning to intrusive thoughts, images, urges, or feelings. I learned that I do not need to internalize the feelings that unwanted thoughts bring into my mind. ERP taught me to lean into fear, rather than avoiding it. By taking it step-by-step, and working side-by-side with a specialist trained in OCD and ERP, I was able to develop skills that will last me a lifetime.
As paradoxical as it may seem, when you accept the uncertainty of an intrusive thought and stop trying to run from it or figure it out, it becomes less and less present. What I (and many others I have worked with) have found is that even when a thought does come into mind, it’s so much easier not to apply meaning to it.
Gaining my life and freedom back
What can someone possibly gain from having a disorder like OCD and going through ERP? I gained back my life. I have been able to do things that I never thought were possible. Through treatment and practice, I have been able to recognize OCD when it creeps into situations. I know my triggers and no longer avoid them. I no longer feel the need to know everything with certainty. I can accept that bad, scary, and heartbreaking things can, unfortunately, happen in my life and in the lives of those that I love, and I will figure out a way through it, if and when it happens.
Before going through ERP therapy, it felt much easier to avoid things that could bring me anxiety. If I thought there was even a possibility of having an intrusive thought in a certain setting, I would avoid it entirely. At one point, it had gotten so bad that I refused to go anywhere by myself. I was scared of being alone–-scared I would not know what was real or what wasn’t. I didn’t see a way out. I lived in a glass case of fear and felt that at any moment a thought could break it and I would lose myself. It was terrifying.
Those who have experienced OCD might know exactly how tormenting this can feel. But there is hope. I didn’t stay in that place. Only by going through it did I start to see the other side. That taught me that when I am going through anything extremely difficult I can always remember that there is always something on the other side. So whenever I feel “stuck,” I am reminded of my OCD struggles and how I am no longer stuck there. I may have stayed in that place for many years, but I didn’t stay there forever. None of those thoughts, fears, or feelings were forever.
What have I gained since getting effective treatment for OCD? Feedom. Freedom to live my life, freedom to make choices based on what I want versus what I am afraid of. I have also gained hope. Things will not always feel how they feel in the moment. I have learned to persevere, to be tenacious, and to be patient.
For me, suffering drew out abilities I never knew I had. Things like being sensitive to the pain of others, and being introspective about who I am and the type of person I want to become. OCD strengthened my resolve to live life fully.
The time—and happiness—I regained
I have also gained back the gift of time. OCD took so many precious memories from me and dominated my formative years. I distinctly remember being a 20-something with my whole life in front of me, and yet I wanted to be older—I wanted to be closer to death. It pains me to write that, but it’s the truth. Living with OCD was so painful that I wanted to escape it. I wanted to run from it; I didn’t see a way out. At that time, it was all-consuming, and I rarely had glimpses of a life where OCD didn’t exist. The good news is that there is hope: you can get better, and you can get to a place where you want to live. I know because I am living in that space today. I look forward to what each day brings and I feel prepared to face it head-on, even if I am afraid.
The time I lost to OCD causes me a great deal of sadness to this day, but ERP allowed me to make fresh memories and create new adventures. Now, I can see that my fight with OCD also gave me a strong sense of purpose. My struggles led me to exactly where I am, where I needed to be. Through my recovery, I have been able to look at the parts of myself that my struggles OCD. I understand the meaning now of diamonds being refined by fire; under pressure, beauty can develop.
OCD even played a part in the personality I developed. The tools I gained through therapy have helped me see that some characteristics that proved less helpful in my struggles with OCD are quite useful outside of OCD. For example, caring for others is a healthy quality, but OCD tried to make this a disadvantage by causing me to overthink many areas of my life and relationships. After going through treatment, I was able to use this positively. Rather than feeling responsible for everyone and everything, I could move towards the things I valued. I put my energy and time into things that I truly cared deeply about.
I like to remind people that there is truly nothing special about my recovery journey. I am just a girl who grew up with OCD at a time when not much was known about it, and I had to figure out how to get through it. Thankfully, I stumbled upon ERP and worked with an amazing therapist who understood and saw me for the first time, and who gave me hope for a future I couldn’t yet envision. If I was able to get through it, anyone can—with the right tools.
When you feel all is lost, or when you feel that you cannot possibly face another moment, another obstacle, remember all you have learned and all that you have overcome, and know that there is nothing you cannot face.
Finding your way to ERP
If you or someone you love is struggling with OCD, I truly hope you will reach out to get treatment. ERP therapy is an active form of treatment that can be life-changing—it certainly changed my own life.
ERP therapy requires intentional buy-in, through participation in exposures, a willingness to feel discomfort, and honesty with the therapist about your obsessions and compulsions (even if you believe they are shameful or taboo). ERP therapy has been proven to effectively treat people with OCD. About 80% of people with OCD experience positive results, and the majority of people experience results within 12 to 25 sessions.
ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. If you have questions or think that you may need ERP therapy for your OCD, speak to someone on our care team on a free 15-minute call.
If you’re worried or uncomfortable about discussing your symptoms and thoughts with anyone else, keep in mind that a therapist won’t judge you, and a trained OCD specialist (like the ones at NOCD) will deeply understand all themes of OCD. You don’t have to suffer in silence, and many people find relief in sharing their experiences. Over time, you can learn how to manage OCD and regain your life, too.