“It’s okay honey; you didn’t mean to kill the caterpillar. It was just an accident.” I attempted to reassure my son after the little white caterpillar he’d been taking for a ride on his raft died after falling into the water. But he wouldn’t be comforted. He kept on talking about the caterpillar for days afterward. He really seemed to be struggling with intense emotions. He was in a great deal of emotional pain and was experiencing an inordinate amount of guilt and anxiety over the death of this little critter. It was ruining his enjoyment of his vacation because he seemed unable to move past these feelings.
Recently I asked him what kind of feelings he was dealing with at that time. He said: “Well, I felt sorry for him; like I let him down. I wanted to make his life better, but I ended up taking it instead. It wasn’t about me, it was about him.”
But it really was about him. It was about him feeling a greatly exaggerated weight of responsibility and guilt over the death of a small caterpillar.
OCD will take something very minor and make a big, huge, hairy deal out of it.
He was probably only about six years old at the time and I hated to see him so distraught over something that he should have been able to shrug off after a few moments of disappointment. I didn’t recognize this to be symptomatic of OCD, but what I did recognize was his emotional distress. That was all too familiar to me as I had experienced a lot of this same kind of distress as a child. What he was experiencing was inflated feelings of responsibility and guilt which are common in those of us with OCD.
The caterpillar incident reminded me of something quite the opposite which was a poem that my little brother wrote when he was in grade school: “Butterfly, butterfly in the sky. Butterfly, butterfly now you die!” I’m quite sure having watched my little brother grow up into a responsible and caring human being, that this poem wasn’t born out of any kind of hatred for butterflies or a desire to kill small creatures. I’m pretty sure that the only reason he wrote the butterfly poem, with such a violent and tragic ending was merely because he needed a word to rhyme with “fly” and “die” suited his purpose.
But, if he’d been afflicted with OCD he may have spent a great deal of time wondering why he would write a poem like that in the first place. Then, if he’d accidently drowned a caterpillar, he may have attached quite a lot of false significance to his butterfly poem. He might have connected writing that poem with the death of the caterpillar. He might have begun to wonder if writing that poem was some kind of indicator that deep down inside he was some kind of monster who liked to kill things. He might have even thought of the caterpillar as a baby butterfly and then felt an even greater level of guilt and distress over it’s death.
OCD uses an inappropriate emotional response to cause the sufferer to question their character.
Thankfully my brother isn’t afflicted with OCD so these kinds of feelings and thoughts wouldn’t be something that he was likely to experience and even if he did experience them, they’d be momentary and fleeting. He would be able to shrug them off because his brain wouldn’t be overreacting to them in the way the brain of a person with OCD does.
OCD uses an uncontrolled and inordinate emotional response to cause a person to place an inappropriate amount of significance to an event or a thought that pops into the mind.
It’s this feeling of exaggerated importance which can lead to intense feelings of condemnation and guilt in the sufferer. When people with OCD have these feelings they are experiencing what is referred to as hyper responsibility and may begin to engage in behaviors or rituals which they feel might prevent something bad from happening.
If the feelings are attached to an unwanted/intrusive thought that popped into their mind, they will become mentally preoccupied with challenging or trying to counter the thought. This is called rumination.
OCD will cause the sufferer to get stuck on a specific theme or topic which in turn will cause the sufferer to try and find some way to escape from the anxiety which accompanies the theme. The effort to escape the anxiety whether through rituals or mental rumination is the compulsive activity of the disorder.
Learning to manage OCD means learning to tolerate these exaggerated emotions without engaging in the compulsions. It means being able to tolerate an excruciating alarm signal that’s misfiring in your brain.
This isn’t something that is easily achieved. It takes a lot of effort and practice to do the exact opposite of what your emotions are pushing you to do. And just when you’ve pressed through one theme it’s not unusual for OCD to generate this exaggerated emotional response to yet another thought or event.
OCD is a chronic disorder, usually starting in childhood. It waxes and wanes throughout a persons life.
OCD isn’t about being nit picky or having things “just so”. It’s not funny. It’s not quirky. It’s not trendy or cool as in: “I’m SO OCD!” It’ terrifying. It’s excruciating. It’s exhausting and often it’s debilitating. It pretty much stinks. People with OCD are continually fighting just to feel normal.
It hurts when people trivialize or mock our disorder even though we know that it’s usually done in ignorance. On the other hand, It comforts us when people validate our disorder. It comforts us when people offer to pray for us or make an effort to understand what we are experiencing. It feels good to be able to talk about our OCD without fear of being mocked.
So this is why I write these blogs. Educating people about what OCD is and what it isn’t makes it easier for the person who is afflicted to have the courage to ask for help without the fear of being stigmatized or mocked.