It’s a whiteknuckle ride

I came across an expression the other day which I absolutely loved. It was this: “white knuckling your way through an exposure” (found in this post by Angie)

It summed up something that I’d been thinking about in relation to exposures but I’d never heard mentioned in great detail. Having said that I think it could be the key to why a lot of treatment doesn’t work as adequately as it could.

So what is “whiteknuckling” your way through an exposure?

I became aware of it through a friend who is also undertaking ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) for her OCD. She was describing doing exposures but explaining that it all felt rather perfunctory. Whilst I heard her talk about the imagery scripting she was having to do it sounded as if she had very little anxiety from it. It was like she was doing it as a rather academic exercise but not really connecting with it. Once she described this I began to honestly reflect on some of my exposures and I remembered that I’d “whiteknuckled” my way through some of them too.

In my experience I didn’t always fully commit to the uncertainty and the exercise (sorry CBT therapist). In fairness to myself I did become aware of this but I never had a word to describe what I’d been doing.

Now I do. And it’s “whiteknuckling”. Whiteknuckling in my mind is doing your exposure but not really “being there” either. It’s doing an exposure but detaching yourself from what is going on. My friend spoke of not really believing it’s OCD so half heartedly doing the exercise fully expecting to have to “figure it all out” later. It’s gritting your teeth and kind of telling yourself that maybe you’ll believe that you’re contaminated/a paeodphile all the while telling yourself that you’ll keep checking later.

So now we’re aware that we all whiteknuckle our way through some of our exposures (we all do right?) what can we do to address this.

The first one is showing up wholeheartedly to whatever exposure it is. Really connect to whatever it is you’re doing; if it’s writing an imaginal script really embody the words that you’re writing. It’s no good writing it as if you were writing your times tables. You have to really step inside the script.
If you’re having to contaminate yourself with dirt then really smear it on and commit to the belief that you might be really truly dirty and so on.

Secondly, check your breathing. If you’re holding your breath then it might be a clue that you’re whiteknuckling through an exposure. When we hold our breath tightly then we’re often not really allowing ourselves to feel whatever sensations may arise (usually terrifying anxiety). I can remember having to look at pictures in magazines of children and kind of holding my breath and crossing my legs whilst I did it. I was doing my exposure right? Wrong, I was squinting at a picture but with one eye on the exposure whilst the other part of me looked in the other direction (metaphorically speaking).

Thirdly, be honest with your therapist if this is what you are doing. They may have some things they want to try to help you truly commit to the task at hand.

And remember it’s not about getting an exposure 100% right but it is about being honest with ourselves and getting down and dirty with exposure.

Any thoughts? Anyone else identify with whiteknuckling?

Emily x


Compulsive habits

When I was a teenager I had contamination fears. To deal with these I came up with some rituals which helped ease my mind. I was never an excessive hand washer particularly but I had other little routines to enable me to do things such as use a public toilet. Over the years my contamination obsession faded away, to be replaced with other more intense obsessions, but my toilet routines remained – except now they were just re-labelled as “quirky habits”. They weren’t extreme, they didn’t take up hours of my day and I wasn’t particularly distressed by it but I still needed to do them in order to be comfortable in certain hygiene scenarios.

I got thinking about these “habits” towards the end of my CBT and ERP. I think it could be an important part of CBT that when identifying your compulsions, that a good look is taken at “habits” that slip through because they’ve been given a more palatable name. Rightly so, in CBT I focused on my extreme compulsions related to my more current obsessions, that were taking up hours of my time. But now I am no longer having regular CBT I have decided that a useful next step is to challenge some of my other old ingrained beliefs and “habits”. This weekend, we have people to stay and I am doing some exposures around using the toilet when I know that strangers (I don’t know these people very well) have used it. How do I know it’s an exposure? Because not doing my usual “habits” leaves me feeling pretty uncomfortable. My anxiety isn’t through the roof but I’m left with a lingering feeling that something isn’t “right”. So those compulsions all those years ago (15 years ago!) that just became a habit? Turns out they’re just compulsions by another name. They’re ideas and beliefs that I never challenged. 15 years on it’s just a fact in my mind that I can’t touch the flush with my bare hand and so on. Yes, it’s very mild and yes a lot of people who don’t have OCD may have certain things they will and won’t do in a public toilet but why not challenge it? Why let OCD have the final say?

Emily x

“Something good comes with the bad, A song’s never just sad, There’s hope, There’s a silver lining…”

I’ve been thinking about silver linings a lot recently. It helps that I love this song by First Aid Kit quoted in the title. It was then suggested as a blog hop topic too by @FightAgainstOCD

It has always seemed a complete anathema to me that there could be anything positive about OCD. It felt a bit like saying that Hitler was just a bit misunderstood. OCD – you know the monster that convinces you that you’re some sexual deviant harbouring murderous tendancies that’s also likely to contract HIV, nope not much fun to be had in any of that. Let me be clear, having OCD is miserable, I would never try and argue otherwise, but since recovering I have grudgingly started to see some silver linings.

1) My blog – I have always thought that I like to write and would like to do more of it. It’s been the kind of thing that I’ve told myself throughout my life, a fact about me, as true as I’d like to do an open mic night and I’d like to dye my hair a brilliant red. All of which have never happened. If it wasn’t for OCD and anxiety I would never have set up a blog, I would never have started writing regularly and as much as it pains me to say it I am kind of thankful for that.

2) Support network  – Through having the blog I went on to set up a twitter account. I have connected with an amazing twitter community and have met some lovely people (some in person and some online).  I would never have known that lots of other people have the same thoughts as me and that there’s a whole little community if OCD hadn’t reared it’s head and pushed me in that direction. I can’t honestly say it’s been all awful when I’ve met such wonderful people who have really made a difference. Actually scrap that, I can say it’s been awful but it’s been made a whole lot better by the lovely people out there. I actually wouldn’t change that for the world.

3) I have learnt to say “No” – I’ve always been someone who thought that I ‘should’ be doing various things in my life. I’ve never been good at saying no to invitations or truth be told putting myself first. Last year that all changed. I was forced to re-consider my priorities, figure out what I did and didn’t like doing and what felt right for me. This came about through duress, anxiety made it impossible for me to do all the things I had done previously but actually I’m realizing that something good has come of this. I’m now able to say no with few qualms to things I don’t fancy doing and without feeling like I’m missing out. I put my health and well-being first so if something doesn’t feel right for me I am able to choose. Anxiety and OCD pushed me to the edges of myself but with that has come a greater understanding of who I want to be.

4) Mindfulness – I’d always had a fleeting interest in meditation (in the same way that I’ve decided I’m going to become an epic knitter only for it to be discarded after a few half-hearted attempts). When my anxiety and OCD reared it’s head I decided out of desperation to give it another go and so has begun what I really think will be a life long daily practice. It has taught me more about myself than I imagined it would and has given me a quiet confidence that I have the answers within. It has helped with tackling the cycles of rumination and compulsions beloved to an OCD sufferer. Not only that but it has given me a new career route – I have decided that I would like to train in facilitating Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy groups and am currently going through the necessary steps to start this. This will complement the work that I already do but now I will be able to do something that is a passion. It got me out of the house when I couldn’t face doing anything as the only thing that didn’t seem too daunting was sitting in a group of people who smile serenely and don’t say anything to you! In the same way that I have learnt to say no, through mindfulness I have also learnt the simple pleasure of just ‘being’. I love sitting quietly these days and have shaken off the false ideas I had that to live a happy life I must always be constantly busy, always on the go. By going through the experience of having a mind that has been filled minute to minute with horror, like a record stuck on the worst bit of the song, I now have glorious minutes where there is just peace and quiet and whereas peace and quiet perhaps once struck me as a bit dull it is now music to my ears.

It is as if now I have known absolute misery I can know absolute happiness. Mindfulness helps me see those moments. I notice and observe things in more detail; objects, views, music – things that previously I may not have paid much attention to I now enjoy with the pleasure of a thirsty person coming across water. Rose Bretecher sums it up perfectly for me (and more eloquently than I could ever hope to) in her article for the Guardian when she says:
“If it wasn’t for the comparative cacophony of pure O, I wonder, would these moments feel so impossibly beautiful in their sheer, simple unthinkingness?”

Emily x

How would you describe your OCD?

I got thinking about how to describe OCD to the lucky souls that don’t have this condition. I have had a few terrible days with it when I thought I was getting a handle on it and it’s hard to say to people “actually iiiitttttt’s back!” People try to be understanding of course but because they don’t see so much of the struggle (it’s the secret disease after all) I think we all hear the words “little” in relation to it a bit too often.
“You’re a little bit OCD”, “Are you a little bit obsessive?”  Feel free to fill in the blank I’m sure we’ve all heard it and sometimes I feel like screaming there is NOTHING small about it!! In my experience it is huge, it is all encompassing, it eats my days and swallows my dreams.
SO when I was talking to someone about it I came up with an analogy. It’s my analogy of ‘Pure O’ to explain it to the lay person who hasn’t been down that dark road and so I told them that OCD is a bit like chicken pox (bear with me). At first I was a bit baffled about where I was going with this but suddenly it started to kind of work. After all people love a comparison with physical illness – they can get their heads around that one.

So here it is, my ‘Pure O’ is like having chicken pox.
Remember having chicken pox and how consuming that terrible itch was? Well that’s my thoughts, they’re the itch. They’re all I can think about, every hour of the day and it takes over the whole of me. I’m constantly examining the spots, wondering what I can do about them. You know you shouldn’t scratch but yet it’s all you want to do.
Well meaning people tell you to “just not think about it” and so you dutifully try. Surely it can’t be that hard to be restrained? To not scratch at them until they bleed and you’re in misery? After all that’s in your best interests so why wouldn’t you do it? No one wants to suffer. And yes that works for a while, but the itch is still there as a dull ache and eventually when you’re not expecting it, it rears its head and in fact it seems to feel worse, causing a feeling of such acute distress and helplessness – it’s all you can think about again until you’re practically screaming in pain…
And so you have a good old scratch, you allow yourself to really immerse yourself in it until you’re sighing with relief convinced that you’ve solved it, got rid of it for good. You smile thinking that you know best after all and perhaps those people with their ideas and solutions to make it better, well they’re well meaning but what do they know after all? Satisfied you start to cautiously go about your business but then slowly, surely (sometimes quickly, rapidly) the itch is back, taunting you, telling you that you need to attend to it, something needs to be done….
You think that sleep might help, it will be soothing, surely it will get rid of some of the pain for a while. But even in your dreams the itch is there, a shadowy figure giving your sleep a restless and agitated quality.
When morning comes, you’re starting to feel a little desperate and you feel like you’re going to have chicken pox for ever, nothing seems to be making it better and you feel scared, swathed in a blanket of terror. You start asking family and friends, what do they think of your itch? Can they help? In your mind a good in depth conversation about your spots is going to be fascinating for all concerned. But really you’re only going to be comfortable with exceptionally good friends or family seeing your spots up that close and so you start trying to cover them up, presenting a front to the rest of humanity of normality – nothing to see here!
It is unbearably painful, isolating and frightening, nothing small about it whatsoever.

So how about you? Does that make sense to you or was it just a crazy blog post about chicken pox…What would your analogy be? How would you describe your OCD to those who don’t have it? I’d love to hear any ideas 🙂

Why the blog?

The word anxiety is thrown around all the time. Everyone knows what it is to feel scared and yes to feel anxious, it can be helpful in many circumstances making sure we know when there is danger and sometimes even pushing us to do well.

This blog is for those where feeling anxious has gone beyond helpful – where it feels like it’s become a permanent guest, one you’ve asked to leave many times, you’ve told them that you don’t like the things they say, the way they make you feel but still they cling on, saying not very nice things, stamping their feet. That’s anxiety. 
Just to give a brief outline, I’m someone who gets bouts of feeling anxious (I don’t even really like the word anxiety, it feels too much like an identity so I’m trying to train myself not to use it). Ever since I was young I can remember having obsessive thoughts, some of which are very distressing and provoke extreme feelings of fear, no scrap that terror. At my worst, if the feelings get too much I vomit spontaneously, no doubt to expel some of the pressure and panic that builds up in my body. I have had long periods where it hasn’t been a problem (even though some of the obsessive thoughts have still been there). I’ve built up some avoidant strategies and that has kind of seen me through. Right now I’m having a flare up of anxiety, a rush of obsessive thoughts and general feelings of panic. 
The purpose of this blog is not to over-share and divulge all the ins and outs of my obsessive thoughts or worries but it’s to provide some reassurance I suppose to me and others, a place of safety if you will where we can just come and say “today I feel anxious”. I like the idea of posting things that are soothing and so that will really be the main aim. 
Please feel free to post comments (I will aim to reply) but please be aware that I am not a counsellor and if you are finding things really difficult there are professionals who can help and who you can be put in touch with. 
*There is hope and where there is hope there is strength*