I am going to tell you about my sudden and unexpected self-cure of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) after 51 years on this Earth. But first, a brief personal background.
I don’t remember a time before my obsessive-compulsive disorder. In my earliest memories, from maybe nine or ten years of age, I am touching things for no clear reason; touching the ground while walking with friends, touching walls and counter tops as I walk by, touching my nose with the palm of my hand. Even as a young child, I was embarrassed by my odd behavior and tried to hide it or explain it away. I became an expert at incorporating my self-designed rituals into ordinary movements.
I felt like I was getting away with my strangeness undetected for the most part, but occassionally someone would ask what I was doing and I would have to come up with a plausable explanation: I was touching the ground to get a running start, like a racer.
As time went on, my rituals grew more and more complex and frequent. Going to bed was quite a chore, with several time-consuming rituals that could keep me up for minutes, hours, or even all night. I felt compelled to turn off and on the lights repeatedly until it felt “just right”; my shoes had to be aligned the right way; I had to get into bed a specific way, thinking the right thoughts; from the light switch to the bed, there could be a myriad of objects that had to be touched in the correct order. Once in bed, an obsessive compulsive thought, maybe remembering a certain number of lines from a movie, or from a conversation held that day, could potentially keep my brain whirling away, to my anguish, all night.
Complicating matters, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as “OCD” – as far as I knew, I was the only person on Earth tormented with self-inflicted, irrational behavior like this. When I was about 13, my parents took me to a psychiatrist who recognized my condition as some sort of anxiety disorder and prescribed Valium.
It wasn’t until I went off to college and researched my symptoms at the library, that I came across a description of “obsessive compulsive disorder.” Knowing that it was a recognized condition and that others suffered from it relieved a burden, but my OCD just grew worse in my 20s. I sought out some behavioral remedies from clinics, and I felt like I had some control over my symptoms for a little while. Even with OCD, I was functioning at high enough a level in life to accept the OCD as just a permanent quirk of who I was.
I would like to point out that my particular style of OCD, especially as an adult, wasn’t on any list of common symptoms that I could find. For example, I didn’t have the typical checking of locks, germophobia or repeated hand washing that you read about. Some of the fears behind my rituals were concrete – I believed that my childhood dog was hit by a car because I didn’t do a ritual thoroughly enough. But, most of the fears were existential – unless I thought certain things just the right way, I would lose the essence of who I was and another entity would take over my identity.
A good portion of my obsessive compulsive behavior was physical – it determined which door I entered, whether I walked to the right or left of a telephone pole, walking over sidewalk cracks with just my right foot, dragging my toes while I walked (which resulted in long-term knee issues), swallowing in numerical patterns, biting my tongue, clicking my teeth, etc. For a while, I had to spin once in a circle before I could enter a car, something that my girlfriend at the time found amusing.
Outside of the touching and walking rituals was a really annoying part of my brand of OCD: Reading was torturous. I had to reread the last sentence on a page before I could turn to the next page. And when I say I had to reread it, I mean, anywhere from two to 1,000 times, until I felt like I could keep going. This significantly cut back my reading, of course. Somehow, I managed to read textbooks for school, but it took me a long, long time. Another effect of my reading compulsion was that it would be very difficult to throw out any object – a box or an envelope – that had writing on it. Just when I had reread it a zillion times and thrown it out, I’d have to go back through the trash and dig it out to try all over again. Shopping was a challenge, as I’d be continually trying to look casual as I went back to the same product in an aisle, rereading a word while pretending to be mulling over an ingredient list.
But, the biggest component of my OCD were my thoughts. I made and went through lists – lists of actors, movie titles, singers…. and repeated this lists in my head throughout my waking hours, even when talking to people. Worse though than the lists were my complex mental rituals involving things I heard people say. If somebody said anything I disagreed with, something racist or sexist, or even used incorrect grammar, I had a rigid and complex way to unthink it. I had similar reactions anytime I heard anyone yelling, laughing, sneezing, whistling, yawning, etc., which kept my brain busy in every social situation. The same types of rituals would be triggered from noticing even the slightest driving mistakes. OCD also governed which words I could use in sentences and which subjects I could bring up in conversation.
I could go on and on describing my obsessive compulsive rituals, but since you aren’t my paid therapist, I think I’ll conclude by saying that it was all-encompassing, occupying a large amount of my brain activity. It also led me to avoid certain things – listening to the radio where I knew I’d hear mistakes in grammar, reading newspapers, or opening mail. I also developed strategies to help me keep track of my rituals, which as you would imagine would overlap quite a bit. Sometimes I would write notes to remind myself to get back to a thought process that might take some additional hours of my time. No matter what the activity, from hanging out with friends, interviewing for a job, making love, or even participating in my own wedding, my brain was busy in the background with irrational yet irresistible mental perturbations.
With that picture of the life-long disorder that gripped and largely controlled me, you can imagine my surprise when at about 7:00 on the evening of July 7, 2014, it instantly all turned off. For the first time in my life, I was free of OCD.
I don’t know exactly what combination of behaviors was responsible for my sudden cure, so I will just tell you what activities led up to that moment.
A few months prior to my cure, a personal trauma, which I won’t share here, shook me to my core. I fell apart, with panic attacks, overwhelming guilt, fear and thoughts of suicide. I stopped eating. My wife told me that I had to take care of myself, and suggested yoga.
I noticed that daily yoga helped to stabilize my moods, and it rekindled an interest in qigong as well. Qigong encompasses a variety of movements focusing on energy flow, and is the basis of tai chi. I also worked out at a gym about three times a week. I quit my job, and spent time every day taking care of myself physically. Let’s call that Phase One.
Wanting to change the circumstances that had led to the trauma, I was also reading a lot of books on spirituality and on the increasingly popular idea of manifesting one’s own reality. I read Rhonda Byrne’s the Secret (which I had spent the last five years ridiculing), and started delving further into ideas related to theories of yoga, qigong, Chinese medicine and spirituality. I was particularly caught up in Wayne Dyer’s There’s A Spiritual Solution to Every Problem and Rodger Janke’s The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques to Release Your Body’s Own Medicine. We’ll call this reading Phase Two.
Concurrent with Phase Two, I was listening to healing songs and tones that I found on line. I would spend hours every day with ear buds in, listening to “binaural beats” and “isochronic tones” that I hoped would help with my spiritual development. I found this music to be extremely calming. It was during this time that I began actually seeing energy fields around people, animals and plants. It looked like glowing white filaments emanating from everything alive. OK, that sounds a bit strange when I write it now, but remember that my waking hours were saturated with feelings of love for all beings and reading about the nature of God and the spiritual connections of all living things. We will call the healing music Phase Three.
I looked for connections in all of these readings, and was especially interested in the idea, so infused into qigong, of transcending my ego to become more in touch with my spiritual Self. This whole time, I was using various meditation techniques, from Transcendental Meditation to meditations I found on line. I was also utilizing relaxation techniques from The Healer Within, including the Remembering Breath. The Remembering breath is simply taking in a slow deep breath every time you remember to do so throughout the day. So, in addition to my readings, yoga, qigong and meditations, every minute or so I would slowly breath in and out a huge, relaxing breath. At this time, I was also reading The Master Key System, an early 20th Century instruction manual on how to perfect yourself and control your life and environment. Each chapter of The Master Key includes instructions for a meditation which I added to my extensive routine.
As part of my instructions from The Master Key System, I was repeating the mantra, “I can be what I will to be.” I was using this affirmation to deal with problems in my life, including any physical discomfort or improvement I wished to make. I combined this affirmation with the Remembering breath, thinking, “I can be what I will to be,” as I took in a slow, full breath every minute of the day.
In short, I became a New Age nut, which is actually reflected in some of my blog posts over the last few months. After about three months of this (oh, the convenience of unemployment), my wife and I went on a weekend yoga and qigong retreat at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. I participated in a two-day qigong workshop with Rodger Janke, the author of The Healer Within, the book I was reading on activating my inner healing resources. While on the retreat, and especially on the long drive home, I was doing the Remembering Breath every 10 seconds or so, along with various silent self-affirmations I read about or created. Yes, there are benefits to having an obsessive compulsive personality; when I go for something, I really go for it.
When we got home, I began reading another book by Wayne Dyer, Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting, which I had found at the Omega Institute bookstore. Of course, all this time I was also doing all of my own obsessive-compulsive rituals, and yes, this made reading all of these books a painstaking process. In the introduction to this particular Wayne Dyer book, a story was told of a girl with facial paralysis who cured herself through her own positive thoughts. “I can be what I will to be,” I thought. At that moment, it occurred to me that I could focus this energy of manifesting my desired reality on my OCD. Up until that moment, I had considered my OCD to be off limits. First of all, part of what makes treating OCD so difficult is that it is driven by fear – the fear that if you were to stop it, bad things would happen. Also, OCD had been such a central part of my life that I was afraid that I wouldn’t fully be me if it weren’t there.
All of this fear would have stopped me from directly confronting my OCD in the past. But as part of my work with The Master Key System, I had willed myself into being fearless. That’s right, I was not afraid, as far as I knew, of anything. In fact, I challenged myself in fear-inducing social situations that in the past had been impossible for me, and I astounded myself with my successes. There are obvious reasons for you to be skeptical of this. Isn’t fear an inevitable part of being an animal, let alone a human being? And how can one “will” oneself out of an emotional state regulated by a central region of the brain?
Nonetheless, at this point in time, reading about miraculous self-cures, and believing that I no longer feared anything, I simply looked up from the book and thought, “I can be what I will to be, and I will to be cured of OCD.” And I was, and I knew it right away.
It’s been over three months since that moment, and I am still symptom-free. I get a lot more done, by the way. I have time to read books (Outside of textbooks, I was reading at the rate of about one book a decade up to then). I can do the dishes quickly, without having to wash everything a certain number of times; I can breeze through a load of laundry without having to read and reread the tags on clothing; I can actually go through junk mail & throw it out, and it’s not a project that can take hours to complete. I can take the trash out to the curb, without having to touch the trash can a certain number of times and come back in the house only to feel compelled to go back out and touch the trash can again, as casually as I can manage.
As an aside, I’ll say that I was never a fan of the idea of “will power.” It seemed like a macho fantasy. But now I believe that if you truly will it, it will happen.
In retrospect, I wish I had been hooked up to a brain probes for the last several months so scientists could have a better idea of what was going on my brain to allow such a remarkable change. I have some thoughts on the matter:
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is thought to be related to a low levels of serotonin, and qigong, yoga and meditation may increase serotonin (they sure feel like they do).
- OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and frequent deep breathing lowers anxiety.
- My work on manifestation gave me an alternate way to try to control my world, something that OCD dysfunctionally tried to do.
- Efforts to control my thoughts through The Master Key System gave me experience overcoming fear, and OCD sticks around due to fear – it feeds on fear.
An obvious question now is, am I just replacing my OCD with all of these rituals, mantras and beliefs created by other people? This is a concern of mine, but there are some major differences between the two. While my OCD demanded that I perform specific rituals in response to specific stimuli, this doesn’t occur with qigong, meditations or my other relaxation and spiritual activities; if I have to stop any of these techniques midway, I don’t fear a bad outcome or feel compelled to repeat them. Furthermore, a hallmark of OCD is that the rituals are unwanted, and even result in more stress as they attempt to relieve stress. My healing and relaxation techniques just feel good.
To be sure that my qigong and other structured health and spiritual behavior don’t become OCD rituals, I frequently challenge myself to do them in a different manner, say with a different number of repetitions, or left only partially completed. Unlike OCD, I don’t feel any anxiousness to get back to them and do them the “right” way.
I do still feel urges to initiate OCD rituals, and occasionally, I find that I’ve automatically started one without thinking about it. I just stop and realize, “I don’t have to do this.” An amazing sensation of liberation washes over me.
Along with this sense of liberation comes the realization that for the first time in my life, I am free of the fear of my own thoughts.
Here’s a short story I wrote about OCD before my cure: