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OCD-Compulsive Rituals And Magical Thinking

Jul 16, 2008
This article is a shortened excerpt from the book "Tiger by the Tail" available at http://Lulu.com

Tiger by the Tail is the story of my personal recovery from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is not a scholarly work; it is a memoir. I have no credentials as a health care professional, nor am I a layperson who has done exhaustive research.

So much for what I am not--what I am, is a survivor of OCD--who has recovered. I wrote this book for others who would also be survivors and who would find the tools that they need to do so. It is also for those who love, wish to help, or live with someone who is afflicted with this disorder.

As a "lonely only," (as the term went when I was a child), I lived alone most of the time. My mother told my father to leave when I was eight and my mother had to work full time. I came home from school alone. I am sure the circumstances of my life at the time left me feeling rejected. But, due to this disorder, I projected it onto the garbage. Somehow, I managed to anthropomorphize garbage bags. I would hate to throw them out. It felt as if I were rejecting them. In itself, this is sad but not devastating. However, this grew into my making sure that bags were placed together touching, so they wouldn't be lonely, and much more. Collecting garbage is a natural outcome of this thinking. My father collected garbage. Was he lonely too? Please understand that I was not seeking companionship with the trash. I sympathized with its being discarded and did not want to be the agent of its rejection. In some ways, it is a noble act. I refused to do the same hurt onto "another" that, in my childish mind, I felt was being done to me. Nobility is the cornerstone of this disease--Misplaced Nobility.

OCD is no simple matter. It is not just one thing that causes a single behavior. An evolution takes place. A personal religion develops that is a response to many different feelings. Loneliness creates a need. Anthropomorphizing objects creates a medium and the disease finds an opportunity. We create a new ritual and the reason is lost in memory. Once it takes hold, it is very hard to stop.

This particular ritual found its way to the grocery store and made me feel the need to make sure that I pick cans, bottles and anything else from the end of the shelf, never from the middle. I would not have wanted to break up a couple or a family of bottles or cans. My original reasons are obvious, considering my "lonely only" life. But, that is simply not enough on its own to force an adult to do something they think is silly or that they wish they didn't have to do. There must be more. There is more. It is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I would spawn rituals. Those that involved fear were the strongest. Simple ones like the one I just described are not so strong but they are so easy to justify. What harm does it really do? Of course, it is silly but what if they do feel that way? It does not seem to create real hardship to continue. Nevertheless, continuing does in fact create harm. It supports the disease. In order to win you must be determined to weed out all rituals. This is very important.

This is still going on for me. I am still amazed to find myself doing small things that I never thought of as a ritual, just small traditions or something like that. Yet they are rituals, harmless in their own right, but harmful in that they support the whole mindset. They must all be stopped; I stop them as soon as I see them.

When you make a list of your rituals, similar to the partial list I have shown earlier, you will be amazed at their number and scope. No matter how complete your list may be, it will not be truly complete. It took a lifetime to develop your rituals. Some are so simple or even cute and loving that you may not even recognize them as such. It takes time. However, the minute you begin, you have won. Remember that--the minute you begin to stop--you have won.

There are worksheets in the back of "Tiger by the Tail" to help you begin the process of creating your list of rituals.

There are many good and positive rituals. A valuable ritual might be meditation or prayer. I feel the need to pray and meditate. Nevertheless, if I do not sit or pray, it is all right. Nothing bad will happen. I have not prayed for months at a time without fear of "not praying." Is that a good thing? No. It leaves me cut off from a valuable source of healing. However, there is no sense of doom, punishment, or loss that cannot be reclaimed. Prayer and meditation help me to maintain a sense of serenity. When I stop, my serenity lessens and I become more anxious. That is not a punishment or a penalty anymore than hunger is a penalty for not eating. However, if a ritual begins to have a perceived negative impact for you in itself, or becomes required to prevent some unknown or known catastrophe, then it is not a good ritual. If you fear loss of power, punishment or an unknown or known negative outcome, it is a negative ritual and must be stopped. Don't worry. They have no power. You will be fine. I know you do not believe that yet, but you may soon.

Rituals that must be stopped have common characteristics that make them very easy to identify. They are based on fear or supplication and have a penalty to pay, if not performed. I do realize that many of the world's formal religious rituals could easily be placed in this category. For conveniences sake, let us for the moment exclude such institutional activities and limit this category even further.

Here is how to tell the difference between the punishment that may be described by your chosen faith and the punishment of failing to perform Obsessive Compulsive Disorder rituals. OCD rituals have a penalty to be paid for not being performed--THAT IS KNOWN ONLY TO YOU. If someone else sees it performed or even participated in some manner, but does not understand the purpose of the ritual or the consequences of its failure, it is still secret and is known only to you. If your faith has punishments for failure to adhere to its doctrine, those consequences will be known to all learned practitioners of that faith. They are not a secret. Therefore, we have a few clues to help identify those activities that are actually an Obsessive Compulsive Ritual.

1. They are secret. No one but you knows their FULL significance.

2. There is a secret penalty for failure to perform the ritual. This may be something that will occur, which will not occur, or where something or some power might be lost.

3. There is a special feeling or moment when you know it was properly done. (You may then disbelieve it again a moment later). However, if that feeling is not present, the ritual must be redone properly. For some it can be as simple as hearing a proper "click" when a light switch is turned off or as elusive as a feeling in your mind that says it is satisfied.

These rituals are habits--nothing more. Why do professional athletes practice so often? Not just to build their bodies. It is to train their BRAIN. Repetition makes pathways that are optimized for the activity being repeated. Your Obsessive Compulsive Disorder rituals are maintained by repetition. Performing them optimizes you to perform them more--and more. There is a way out of this loop. "Tiger by the Tail" describes how I recovered. Now, I have no such rituals. When I see a new one start--I stop it instantly. You can too.
About the Author
B.Rockrunner is a pen name used by the author of "Tiger by the Tail" A personal story of recovery from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These articles are edited excerpts from that work.
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