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Calm • Anxiety
OCD — and How to Overcome It
One of the most painful patterns of mental life goes by the term OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. To the sufferer of OCD, there is something that requires constant rumination and investigation: a poisonous gas is seeping into the house, a sharp knife may have been left out in the kitchen and could be seized on by an intruder, there’s something inappropriate they might have looked at online a while back and the police might be on their way, their skin may be aging prematurely and they need to look in the mirror constantly to learn more.
There is no use, in such cases, offering simple reassurance. No matter how often one shows the sufferer that no gas is flowing, that the knives are locked away, that they haven’t done anything bad online and that they aren’t disintegrating physically, it doesn’t work (though one might do it for a bit anyway, just to be nice).
This is because the true object of terror lies somewhere else. OCD is a trauma from the past that has been projected into the future and metastasized into a paranoia. It can therefore only be solved by persistent detective work. We might, through patient investigation, discover that the terror of gas poisoning had its origins in a depressed mother who appeared to want to asphyxiate us in childhood; the dread of a sharp knife might reflect an unacknowledged fury at a caregiver who let us down appallingly. A fear of arrest might be connected to a sense of never being legitimate in one’s family of birth. Dread of aging might be a consequence of a parent’s rivalrous jealousy. Fear has jumped its cause in random, almost poetic ways; one has been left with its shell, while its innards remain protected.
Our minds are likely to insist that their terror has nothing at all to do with the past – and simply everything to do with the gas tap or the dimpled brow. We should stay sceptical before such protests – if only because, were we to solve one surface worry without drilling into its ultimate cause, we’d simply facilitate its movement elsewhere. We need to travel back to the source of dread and drain it properly. The world will only feel like a safe place once the unfortunate sufferer remembers their original injury, localises it and separates it off from modern-day anxieties.
As must seem entirely unbelievable to anyone in the grip of OCD, a day might come when one has relearnt what dreadful event shook one’s foundations and bred ensuing obsessions – and the present can start to feel as calm and as bearable as it should always have been.