Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – a reflection

From the time I went public with my own story, to the similar stories we hear in our work at the SMTC today, my colleagues and I are well versed in the governing limitations of anxiety.

One of those limitations is the diagnosed condition of OCD – obsessive, compulsive disorder.  Here are a couple of extracts from my story – In Stillness Conquer Fear, circa 1983.

“Acceptance of the existence of anxiety in life is realistic. But to accept a specific label for oneself according to that anxiety is practically to accept the accusation of personal limitation. Today, people are categorised as having anxiety disorder, social phobia, agoraphobia or obsessive compulsive disorder.  Such categorisation may be diagnostically useful to the clinician. But I find that these labels are rarely helpful to individuals who have, for unknown reason, developed unhelpful, defensive habits.

Habits, when recognised, can successfully be overcome

To the phobic or obsessive person, the idea of breaking this fear cycle may seem impossible. This is not necessarily so. At some stage of life, the habit of tension has been learned as a ‘normal’ coping mechanism and has become an automatic response.  If properly advised, it’s entirely possible to try another approach — true relaxation — and make that a habit – the automatic response of ‘living calm’.  Tension brings no happiness; the opposite can bring much happiness. Phobic reactions or obsessive reactions are habits where people automatically practise avoidance or obsessive compulsive rituals to allay their anxiety.”

Using the label for a moment, let’s look at obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  In a recent article in the Age Good Weekend, Jane Carrington explores this ‘condition’ using ‘David’s’ story as an example.

The young male whose story is told there, exhibits anxiety from an early age.  By the time he reaches his mid-teens, David has developed many rituals and these escalate to the point where his anxiety is creating more than anxious feelings for his mother – even to the point where she recognises David’s habits as ‘the monster’.  Reading this article I’m starting to speculate less on David’s anxiety and more on his mother’s!  Remember the mirror neurons … children learn from example, especially the example of their parents.  So when we notice symptoms of anxiety in our kids, that’s our clue to consider what they might represent.  Here’s where we adults can be extra-reassuring, especially during tough times where various insecurities may lurk in the inner life of the child.  And while family closeness is always the best form of support, the appearance of symptoms (in any age group) is a good time to seek professional help as well.

David ‘demands’ her presence – and her reassurance – as he completes his rituals.  In reply to her question as to why he does all this, David simply says ‘to keep me safe’.  And later, with the help of a certain doctor, he has to admit that habits and rituals don’t keep him safe anyway.  Of course they don’t – surely we all know that because all people practice habits and rituals to a lesser degree.

Why does anyone do what we do?  Yes, safety comes into the picture.  But mostly we perform certain tasks and small rituals to keep control.  Human beings need a certain level of control, without which life would become chaotic.

And yet how does a young child maintain control when his or her adult world dictates the environment, the events that take place and the outcome of those events?

David in the article mentioned above, obviously a very tense little boy, had experienced the separation of his parents.  What else had he experienced from an early age that he, personally, could not control?

Here’s a little anecdote from my own early life when I went through an obsessive compulsive phase myself. ocd shoes

While my developing years were safe and happy, yet they were punctuated by issues of stress.

At a certain age, probably around eight or ten, I began to develop the bedtime habit of straightening, for example, the shoes I’d removed and left beside my bed.  I would also straighten the small rug near the bedroom door.  These are the two focal points that I can strongly recall.  Correcting the placement of the shoes and straightening the rug by using not my hands, but the edge of my shoe became an extremely time consuming exercise; somehow, none of my attempts to achieve the regularity my mind desired could be achieved.  So a never ending task (OCD – involving shoes as it happens – aha!) was at hand.

Though control, and responsibility for stressful life issues primarily rests with adults, the child or children is feeling the situation; a situation that incites anxiety and insecurity and is way beyond his or her control.  So the child, overcome by feelings he or she cannot otherwise express, attempts to control the things that can be managed.  Seeking order in life, in my case, the shoes and the regulation of the little patterned rug.

Now what was going on around me to create insecurity?  Looking back to that time it’s clear to see uncertainty in my environment.  Though superficially happy, there were consistent tensions between my parents, my grandmother who had been part of the family had recently passed away, I was aware of problems within my father’s work situation and corresponding financial constraints, the nuns at school taught fear not love, world peace was threatened and I was a born peace-maker, constantly trying to patch up quarrels and worrying about matters beyond my control.

As my habit persisted, I was teased by my sister and scolded by mother for the scratch marks I was making on the polished boards.  I was aware that my need to regulate the rug was causing damage yet I was incapable of ceasing.  I was wasting time and annoyed with myself but I simply had to attend to these habitual and useless tasks.

And then one day, happily, I just stopped those rituals.  Something changed and I don’t know what – though of course the essence of that change was that something happened within my life that permitted me to be able to relax into a sense of security.

My book mentioned above, discusses the anxiety that recurred later and overwhelmed me through my twenties, lingering until I learned true relaxation within the concept of living calm.

Now back to David and all the other Davids of the world.  He was undoubtedly an anxious little boy who, like me, needed ritualistic habits to try to control of his life situation.

So, according to his mum, his ‘OCD hasn’t completely disappeared, but he has learnt to manage it’.  Well, by taking rational steps to diminish his need, he has learned to manage it – for now.  But he will need far better management skills than the rational to help him into the future.  Because anxiety is seated within emotion and rational management rarely endures.  As my later story discloses, anxiety lingers under the surface of one’s being and can readily erupt when adult life brings different stressors and more insecurities.

Many children and adults (like David) can overcome OCD through persisting with the simple and natural practice of SMTMy books and audios show the way and we at the SMT Centre offer the facilitation and support that can help you ride life’s ups and downs.  With less anxiety, less tension, calm control – and a whole lot more inner ease, each day can become so much better in every way.

Pauline McKinnon ©
July 2015