#76: Therapist therapy

#76: Therapist therapy

This week, I share the story of providing therapy for my therapist. Or at least something close to that.

These weekly updates are an ongoing series in which I share what it is like to live with OCD in an effort to reduce the stigma around mental health, particularly in the workplace.


Story

I shared recently about a difficult therapy session in which my therapist started by having me listen to music that resonated with my emotional state and loosened me up enough to talk. One of the songs we listened to was by Billie Eilish, who recently came to Utah on tour.

My therapist told me about her experience going to see Billie Eilish in concert. Her daughter had bought tickets early, and was on the second row or so, in seats 3 and 4, but her tickets were in the middle of a section much further back. Before the concert started, she sat down by her daughter, as seats 1 and 2 were not yet occupied. Even though it was a packed house, the people who bought those seats never came, and she was able to watch the whole concert from the front, near the aisle, with an extra seat. As someone with claustrophobia, that made a huge difference in how much she was able to enjoy the concert.

She told me about other concerts she has been to that have been an amazing experience, and that this one was on a whole other level. The biggest thing was that scrupulosity was not present for those couple hours. Now, she has learned to sit with her OCD, and its voice does not take over her life. But it is still exhausting to fight against it all the time. And it was totally gone at the concert.

As an example, she was ready to move back to her own seat when the people came to sit in seats 1 and 2. But she never thought about it again, except to marvel that they stayed open. Under typical circumstances, there would have been a steady current of anxious thoughts about when the people would come, and when she would have to move. That’s the voice that OCD usually speaks with, but it was totally silent.

She commented that she was thinking about going to another city on Billie Eilish’s tour to go see her again. As soon as she said that, I knew what was going on for her. It is natural to want to experience something positive again. But OCD latches on to something like that and insists that you must recreate the amazing sensations that you had. Especially in this case because she had some time in which OCD was quiet. Oh, to get that back!

This is basically the cycle of OCD. A threat will appear, often in the form of an intrusive thought. Then your mind will insist that you perform some action (the compulsion) in order to escape the distress. The danger mounts, and your mind continues to fixate on the threat (the obsession), clamoring that you must take action to neutralize the threat.

Essentially, you experience a difficult emotion, such as distress, and your mind says that the only way to find relief is to take the required action.

In my recent therapy session, I told her that I had been thinking about her going to the concert again, and that I almost texted her to say not to go. I said that it seemed clear to me that she was chasing the dragon. She wanted to experience the feeling of living without OCD for a couple hours, but it wouldn’t work.

More than likely, one of two things would happen. It could be that the experience was just as transformative. Afterward, she would be in the same situation that she is now. The cycle would start all over again, and she would feel the insatiable need to chase it. More than likely however, the subsequent experience would not measure up to the memory of the first time. Then she would experience a huge letdown, and would probably sour the taste of the first time.

She needed to let it go.

As soon as I said that, she said she knew I was right. That resonated with part of her, deeper down, that was fighting against the urge to go again. The obsession had become so strong though, that she was about ready to drive down to Phoenix, costs be damned.

I watched as her face fell as she realized that she needed to not go. She had to grieve for a few minutes before we could move forward. I had so much compassion in that moment. I had been on the opposite side of that exchange so many times with her. It is so painful to realize that you have to abandon something that your mind is promising to be sublime.

My therapist transformed back into my therapist after grieving, and we processed that moment together. She commented that my experience is exactly what it looks like to live well with OCD. When you can get to the point where you recognize it immediately in someone else, and you know what they are doing without being told, you know you are sitting with it in your own life. This is why recovery groups are so powerful. It is powerful to have those give-and-take moments when you see your own issues show up in someone else’s life, and can provide the insight that the other person is lacking.

She commented that it would be easier to sit with losing the concert now, because she could blame it on me. In the same way, she tells me to blame her for taking away my compulsions. That gives my mind a target so that it doesn’t just fixate on itself and spin endlessly. She can be the enemy because she is detached from the situation.

Takeaway

I wasn’t exactly providing therapy for my therapist. But often one of the most valuable things that happens to me in therapy is for her to point out my blind spots and tell me what I already know to be true. Usually, it’s needed when the truth is more painful that I want to sit with, and that’s why my brain has been unwilling to accept it. That’s the function I filled for her that day.

This experience can be an example of how to help myself as well. One of the best ways to deal with a difficult situation is to ask yourself what you would tell a friend who is struggling with that situation. That provides enough emotional distance to see things more clearly.

One skill that was discussed repeatedly in my OCD treatment is mindfulness. This was what I saw modeled by my therapist. The steps are:

  • Observe
  • Describe
  • Participate

You start by being present in the moment and noticing what your actual experience is. Not what you expect it to be, or what you fear it to be. Practice distancing enough to describe what is happening without judgment. An exercise like the mindful sketch I developed can help with this. Finally, show up completely. Allow yourself to experience the emotion and sit with it. Then you can move through it.

Challenge

Over the coming week, let’s try to be a good friend to ourselves. When we find ourselves struggling with something difficult, try to take a step back. Think about how to comfort a loved one dealing with that. And then offer that compassion to ourselves. We almost always have the answers that we need—we just lack the insight to identify them.


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