This subject was the original reason I wanted to start a blog about OCD. I began to think about the terms lapses and relapses last winter when I was struggling with anxiety. Again. I had been in treatment since the summer of 2013. I immediately began to “work hard” at therapy. I was so excited that I found actual treatment for my OCD that I threw my whole heart and self into my homework assignments. Part of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is to expose yourself to your fears several times a week when you first begin treatment. So for me, this meant reading scripts that my therapist helped me write in my sessions. I even recorded them so I could listen to them at home and in my car. Slowly but surely, I began to get better. And miraculously, I found that those awful thoughts that I had didn’t scare me quite so much anymore. I didn’t get headaches anymore from trying to block thoughts out. I didn’t spend as much time ruminating over whether or not I had sinned by thinking a thought I deemed as inappropriate. This was real freedom. Like there was so much space in my head now. Life was so much better than it ever had been. I didn’t even know people could feel like this. For about 2 years I went along happy as a lark. Then in the winter of 2015, anxiety hit me hard. Hard. It seemed like it just came out of nowhere. My husband had just given me my baby horse, Koda, and things were pretty good. All of a sudden I had trouble sleeping. I began to have weird thoughts like “What if my family thinks I’m irresponsible because I have 2 horses now?” I couldn’t shake them. I just tried to ignore it, and I definitely didn’t think it could be OCD again. I fixed that. I didn’t have to go back there again. Plus, these weren’t my typical “obsessions”. They didn’t have anything to do with me disappointing God or sinning. But, alas, OCD had found a new way to creep into my life.
After about a month of struggling, not sleeping or eating well, I finally went back to my counselor for a private session. I was having panic attack-like symptoms of nausea and hyperventilation. I was in despair. I felt like a total failure and was beating myself up for still having this “problem”. I had bought a book on panic attacks, because I thought I maybe had panic disorder as well. I just wanted to put everything in a neat little box, get the techniques for that “problem”, work hard at making it go away, and move on. My therapist assured me that I was going through a “lapse” with OCD. So I went home and just tried to keep working at my techniques. I was using my paradoxes of “bring it on, anxiety!” and “I want this anxiety!” 24/7. I wasn’t really getting any better. I went back to my therapist and she asked me a question that brought me to tears, “What is really bothering you?” I felt like at that point, everything was bothering me. I told her I felt like a failure and that I should be getting better and that I was trying, trying, trying and nothing was working. I felt discouraged and thought that my life would always be like this, anxious and depressing. She told me something that I least expected, “I think that we should maybe give ourselves a break. Practicing is good. However, working too hard at ERP and therapy is not productive. Everyone needs a break. Trying to ‘make it work’ only reinforces anxiety.” I immediately thought “isn’t that avoidance?” But she is the professional, not me. Plus, my brain lies to me a lot, so who I am to say what is avoidance and what is not? I realized that I was actually torturing myself every day. Every time an anxious thought would come in, I would try to write a script and do ERP. I would purposefully trigger my anxiety so that I could just get used to it. Now, these are good things to do in moderation and when you have balance. If you are beating yourself over the head and making yourself miserable 24/7 to “make yourself get better”, then you have crossed the line. I realized I was being obsessive about ERP and therapy! Oh OCD, how you can disguise yourself so well. So I began to tell myself “I am going to give myself a break.” And I just tried to adopt this neutral attitude of “I don’t care if I don’t sleep tonight.” “I don’t care if I feel like I’m going to throw up when I eat.” This was a lot easier said than done. But, slowly I began to get better. That and the season changing to spring helped a lot. I’ve learned that my anxiety and OCD are the worst during the months of January-early March when I can’t be outside as much. One of the best things I did for myself during that time was write myself a letter. It sounds dumb when I write it down, but I cannot tell you how many times I have gone back to read that letter for encouragement. I wrote it toward the end of my first lapse. I was still pretty anxious and having trouble sleeping, but I could feel some hope. What I learned during that time was that no matter how bad the lapse seems, it will not last forever. It just feels like it will. It feels like you are right back at square one and that your life is always going to be like this. It feels like depression and anxiety are going to be your constant companions. But guess what? Your brain is lying. Again. I know because I believed those things and when I came out of that lapse, I realized those thoughts are false. I came back up to my freedom and my life.
Interestingly enough, I am having another lapse right now. And guess what? It’s the middle of February. So I have realized that there are going to be times when I am just vulnerable to anxiety and OCD lapses. These conditions are really beyond my control, and as much as I HATE IT, I have to accept my anxiety. See, I don’t want to accept anxiety. I want to resist it or work it until it’s dead. I want techniques to give me relief. I want the formula to work. Somehow, I got the misconception that: Doing ERP=Anxiety Relief. And what is this really? A compulsion!!!! I actually just realized that as I wrote it. Wow. OCD is very sneaky. It morphs into so many different things. So I have to understand that as much as I want there to be a reason to my anxiety that I can solve and fix, my brain and chemicals just do not work that way. I have to accept my anxiety as it is. As it comes. And not try to prevent it or make it go away. Maybe that is the biggest nugget of wisdom I have gleaned from this lapse in particular.
I also wanted to write a word about relapse. Sometimes we think we have relapsed, when in reality, it is just a lapse. A relapse would be if you found yourself exactly the same as before you started recovering. I have discovered that relapsing is not what I thought. It would be a relapse if I did not apply anything at all that I have learned through therapy. It would be like un-learning everything I have learned. Also, it seems to me that each lapse is not as bad as the previous one. Perhaps this is because we gain skills each time we go through a lapse or we are prepared for it because we realize it’s a part of life.
I always want my life to be wonderful and OCD free. But this is just not realistic. There are going to be ups and downs on the journey. I have to remember the victories in the past to encourage me to keep going along this road. It will pass. And there are still joyous moments in the middle of the lapse. I just tend to overlook those and zero in on my negative emotions. If you are going through a lapse with anything (depression, anxiety, even on achieving a goal), I would love to hear about it. I hope that this has encouraged you.