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Ridiculous Ignorance: Letter to a Friend with Pure OCD

What if in your attempt to eradicate the enemy, you were actually constructing danger that was never there to begin with?

Written by Leham B. Bekele

Ridiculous Ignorance: Letter to a Friend with Pure OCD

01 Leham is a student majoring in psychology who has been struggling with OCD since she was seven years old.

02 However difficult it may be, Leham wants to live in a way that honors her values over her anxiety.

03 By sitting with the troubling thoughts and feelings as they visit her, she’s learning to let them pass instead of trying to control them.

/definition/: Pure O is a form of OCD marked by repeated, intrusive, and uncontrollable thoughts (or obsessions) that are usually not accompanied by outward behavioral compulsions. While an individual experiencing pure O may not engage in obvious physical behaviors related to their intrusive thoughts, such as counting, arranging, or hand-washing, the disorder is instead accompanied by hidden mental rituals.

Friend,

You’re here again. In the same exact spot. The place you thought you were safe from.

“I’m clean. I’m good. I’m safe. They’re safe.”

“That won’t happen, it didn’t happen.” 

You repeat this to yourself because you’re here again and you’re not sure about anything anymore.

At some point, it feels like the rope will end, doesn’t it? It feels like, if you could just detangle it enough, then wring it out and grab the end, you’d feel the sense of safety and relief that your brain has convinced you is not there. You feel like if you exert enough energy, if you fight every fire, if you extinguish every thought, then you’ll be safe.

What if in your attempt to eradicate the enemy, you were actually constructing danger that was never there to begin with?

It’s like a story where the protagonist faces the villain only to realize that they are looking at themself. You are shocked to learn that you are the one performing the dastardly deeds! You’ve been firing into oblivion, and now there is a notion of peril that looks and feels authentic. Born from your very own hand.

Yes, you’re here again. And after that previous breakthrough you thought you made? 

This disorder, consisting of a misguided trek to extinguish an unanswered “what-if,” manifests itself in the most convoluted ways. You find yourself constantly assessing if that empty feeling you had when watching that murder documentary was a distracted kind of empty or a soulless kind of empty — “what if I could do that?”

You feel yourself burning with shame at your need for reassurance that your heartfelt tears for that beautiful coming out story does not mean that you have suppressed your identity and are lying to your partner. A series of these complex self-destructive habits plague your day, and the awareness of your missteps only occurs while you’re already waist deep into the mire, with no prospect of peace until you figure it all out.

You think, “Did I like that? Did that feel like me? Am I capable of that? Am I in stubborn denial? What was that?” Like an architect of cognition, you develop markers and tests for your uncontrollable thoughts and feelings, ones that need to be passed in order for everything to be okay. “What about this scenario?” you imagine.

And then, splitting yourself in half, you step aside and observe yourself reacting to a certain idea, which was always an inherently neutral stimulus in the first place.

“What was that response? Would I ever even do that? What was the feeling that I got when I envisioned it?” You feel like you need a “no” to feel safe, because you think that an unanswered question means “yes.” You believe that the stakes are just simply too high and that your morality as a human being is on the line. And just for extra precautions, you test again. One more time, just to be clear. Yes, this feels perfectly valid to you. 

You simply can’t seem to grasp the idea that the very act of arguing with OCD is what legitimizes its shrieking message.

The cycle doesn’t end because there will never be anything convincing enough to stop it.

“You’re not safe, check again. Just make sure. You weren’t sure just then, check again!” When OCD says this, it wants you to pay for security with your time, your checking, your two cents.

It’s a primal response to evade danger, but OCD has only tricked you into thinking that you need to find safety again. Since when do we offer two cents to buy things we already have free access to?

OCD isn’t trying to agree with you or compromise, and it definitely isn’t looking out for your best interest.

It’s there to feed you a constant loop of what-ifs, like little forest fires, that it wants you to put out. It is addicted to the all-encompassing relief of putting out a fire, and you fall for it every time. (You forget that the hose that you are using, obsessed with starting problems to fix, will soon start spitting out gasoline.) The cycle doesn’t end because there will never be anything convincing enough to stop it.

Now, OCD doesn’t want you to know this, but you do not need to offer it contrary evidence to an intrusive idea, feeling or thought. In normal, logical scenarios, you need contrary evidence to disprove certain ideas.

However, for an opponent like OCD that does not follow the same rules of logic as you do, this method will never work. Here, you must ignore any notion of legitimacy at all, by not engaging in any back and forth. Your opponent isn’t on the same playing field as you, and everything has been stacked 100% against your favor. What do you gain from arguing with something that’s on a mission to light a flame of fear under you?

OCD will allow you to watch yourself turn a stove off — just to reject that information and convince you that it is still on. It will convince you that there is unresolved business, loose ends, or danger. It says that something is burning beneath you and that you might be smelling smoke and now you are sure there’s a fire.

You watched yourself turn the stove off, but there might be a fire. How can you then split yourself in half and deem a feeling that you have “correct,” if in the same disorder it is possible to watch yourself lock a door and feel as if it is not locked? This evidence is tangible and yet you still are not sure — the status of the door is provable and yet you still doubt.

How then would you be able to believe that the love you have for your significant other (an intangible sensation that only you can define) is real, by “testing” it? OCD tells you that you need to feel a certain way about something for it to be true, and in the same breath, watches you complete tasks that it screams you have yet to complete. It prioritizes feelings with no regard to fact—do you see how these never-ending compulsions tie strings to your arms and puppeteer you into stealing your very own solid ground?

You’re frantically reacting to a false alarm, giving it the reaction that it needs to be able to work as a real one. You, love! And you can’t seem to grasp the fact that a false alarm won't give you the comfort in knowing that it is false, until you decide to ACT like it is. This is your prerogative. 

Treating something like a threat makes it a threat.

Characterizing Pure OCD

Dr. Phillipson compares Pure O to the traditional understanding of OCD and explains how obsessions and compulsions differ between the two.

So, with what feels like a ridiculous ignorance, you are required here to drop your weapons. You’re required to stay seated even though you feel the heat of flames. You’re required to look danger right in the eyes, but only long enough to realize that it isn’t danger at all. Your eyes simply need to adjust. The lens just needs to focus. You need to stay long enough to realize that this terrifying figure is just another average customer. Would you have ever gotten the chance to see that if you had run away? 

Stay, my friend. In the heat of the flames, stay. Just a moment longer. Just past the point where you think you can’t possibly anymore. Don’t try to fix it. Stay in the confusion and pain, the discomfort and fear. These thoughts and feelings are not compasses to a deep seated truth. They are neutral neurochemical reactions, signs of a working limbic system. Sit and stay and breathe; be still with the thought—not at a distance but right next to it. For once, don’t try to protect yourself from it. Be open to all of it and then find that the suffocating armor that you were wearing was the only real danger. 

Being okay does not always come with feeling okay. It has become increasingly habitual for you to disregard any fact of your wellbeing to align your beliefs with the loud feelings that occupy you in the present moment. We have all become deaf to the idea that feelings are visitors that don’t plague us for longer than we can handle — but that they only threaten what we think we can handle. We arm ourselves with the weapons needed to fight an absent opponent and shoot, killing nothing and no one. Getting nowhere. Emptying our arsenal, wasting our time. The only thing eradicated is our peace. The shots felt powerful, yet when the smoke cleared there was no one.  

When will we learn — there never was anyone? 

These feelings are visitors that simply need the space to exist before they move on to other places. Let them be because mind you, they’re sticky. And they don’t like being bothered. They will counter your questioning with passive-aggressive tactics that will sneak up on you in the quietest ways before they explode. And how does anyone else react after being questioned? 

Being okay does not always come with feeling okay.

Your thoughts and feelings are visitors. Please let them be. Let them breathe, in their piercing authenticity. In their life-like wonder. In their horrifying realness. Let them be. Then, with no work on your part, watch them go.

Let them be the chromatic shades of gray neutrality that they already are. Let them be loud and visceral and realistic. Stop splashing red onto them for dangerous, green for safe. They are neither good nor bad, safe or unsafe. They simply are.

When did we begin to reject the ambiguity of having a thought? The human experience is too nuanced to be understood as a straight line or in a black and white way. Can’t we remember that a single neural impulse, the firing of a neuron, the brain activity that allows for the scientific wonder of cognition cannot be confined to categories such as “good” or “bad”? It’s science. It’s magic. It’s too extraordinary to fit into boxes and under our wings. It occurs outside of our volition, and the laws of morality cannot touch it. 

Stop trying to. When are you going to decide that something isn’t up for debate? More importantly, how? 

Uncertainty is not a felony. It’s a moment in time where things feel different. You’re allowed to feel different and then the same, confident and unsteady, then fiercely alive. When will you allow yourself to feel? Who but you will give yourself the space to feel and breathe and live?

Yes, you might feel chained, but if you release the white-knuckled grip your hands are in, you will realize that you are also holding the keys to unlock your own chains. Do it, friend. You deserve peace now. You deserve joy. 

Parading a ridiculous ignorance, you deserve to laugh and feel it in your chest.


Sincerely,

Your friend on the same playing field


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leham Bekele is a psychology student who plans to go on to complete a PhD in clinical psychology. She is considering working with people suffering with OCD, as she understands the overall lack of understanding of the disorder in the field of mental health, and the value that her personal experience with OCD holds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @leham_bekele.

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