by James Callner, MA, AFOCD President. James Callner is an award winning writer, filmmaker and speaker on mental illness.
I was desperate for solutions in 1982. That was the year my OCD symptoms hit their peak. I was 29 years old, teaching at a local college, producing a talk-show for an ABC affiliate and living with my girlfriend. All of those wonderful things that made my life balanced disappeared when the OCD struck. And it struck with a vengeance.
My symptoms were classic for OCD. Hours of hand-washing, contamination/germ phobias and fears, constant checking and re checking, horrific thoughts of harming loved ones, etc… My OCD was so bad, I was finally hospitalized in November 1982. My stay in a psychiatric ward called Therapeutic Community One (TC1) was the best and the only answer for me.
That was the beginning of a long and tedious recovery process. The teaching, the television show and my relationship all fell apart. I felt what so many with OCD feel; isolated, alone, desperate and lost in my OCD. But I was one of the fortunate ones. My parents found a psychiatrist for me who had so much experience, sensitivity and empathy, he literally taught me how to help myself out of the throes of OCD.
The day I was to be hospitalized, my psychiatrist drove me there from his office, where I had been seeing him daily. I’ll never forget that day. As we walked together down the long hospital corridor leading to TC1 I asked him, “Are you sure this is the right thing for me?” His reply was my first solution, even though at the time I didn’t know it. He smiled and simply said, “Jim – think of this as an adventure, a journey.” I’ll talk more about that word “journey” later.
In the beginning my experience was no different than the millions of adults and children suffering from OCD. The difference came when my consciousness shifted from problems to solutions, from worries to hope, from fears to faith. Now, over a 23 years later, I share solutions that have helped me by lecturing at conferences on Anxiety and making films on OCD. I have resumed my teaching and developed new, wonderful relationships.
Before I share with you some of the solutions that have worked for me, I must qualify myself. I am not a therapist, psychiatrist or medical person of any kind. The variety of treatments, or as I call them, solutions, are strictly from my own experience. I havelearned, however, one fact for which I am grateful. Through all the pain and trauma of OCD, and continuing recovery, sharing my experiences of hope has become the most significant, important and passionate part of my life.
My first solution came in the form of medication. In 1982 Anafronil, the leading OCD medication, was not available in this country. I remember asking my psychiatrist, “Is there a pill that will work for me?” He replied that a specific drug for OCD was coming soon and that he would prescribe it for me as soon as possible. Anafronil was not approved for at least five more years. In the meantime, I took an anti-anxiety medication. It took time for my body to adjust. After weeks, the medication took some affect. It lessened my anxiety so I could take more risk facing my fears. I knew something was finally happening.
One late night I was sitting in the living area of TC1 with four other patients. We were talking quietly around a big bowl of popcorn. I, of course, had never touched or shared anyone’s food for fear of contamination. But that night a breakthrough came. After weeks of isolation and phobias around touch, germs and contamination, I found myself slowly reaching for just one kernel of popcorn. I cautiously picked it up and ate it. For anyone else this would seem easy. Yet for someone with OCD, this was a monumental accomplishment. I knew at some level there was now hope. The medication had lessened my anxiety enough to take that first significant risk.
All medications must be tried with an open mind. Some work, some don’t. One must find, under a doctor’s care, a medication that works for them and their individual chemistry. In my experience, I have never encountered an OCD medication that completely eradicates the symptoms of the disorder, although there may be one for you. It is my belief and experience that the right medication can balance your chemistry so you can then move on to the core issues of the disorder. Taking “meds” can be an OCD challenge in itself. You may have fears and phobias around the one thing that may help you. So what do you do? You learn how to take the risk to face your fears.
“The only way over fear is through it”, a great psychiatrist once said. Facing fears is the toughest work of all, but the most effective. For me personally, I learned a technique which I call ‘Risking’. Others may call this solution Behavior Therapy. I had to slowly take small risks to face my OCD fears. I can’t emphasize enough that this was a process that took patience and commitment. Believe me – I have made many slips back into anxiety, panic and fear. But for every one slip back, I have made two steps forward into confidence.
In 1982, California had one of its worst storms ever. Yet my devoted psychiatrist would come to TC1 every day to talk with me. Mostly to help develop my “risking” abilities and to invalidate my fears that were just illusions. I later learned the acronym for F.E.A.R. – False Evidence Appearing Real.
One day after weeks of not allowing anyone to touch me I took a risk. After my daily session with my psychiatrist, I walked him back to the double doors of TC1. He was going back into the world and I was continuing to stay in my isolated one. Instead of saying goodbye, he did something different that day. He put out his hand to shake mine. I guess he knew I was ready for that risk. I took the risk and shook his hand. To this day I remember that feeling. You see I had become “touch-starved”. His hand felt warm and comforting. I held it for a moment and then felt his grip releasing. So I held on tight.I just didn’t want to let go. I could have held that man’s hand all day. Finally he smiled at me, knowing how hard that risk was. I finally let go, but moved on to many, many more risks that I continue to this day, over two decades later. Now my risking revolves around opening up my world. Traveling, lecturing and my ultimate goal, to live one day at a time.
In the five and a half weeks I was in TC1 I learned many skills and risked facing many fears. It was now time for me to take these skills back out into the world. With continuing medication, therapy and support, I started a new journey in my recovery. Namely, allowing people, places and things back into my life.
Two solutions or concepts that helped me so much was the concept of “Futurizing” and “Feeling the feelings”. From my experience I know that anxiety lives, if you will, in the future. That is to say, when I worry or obsess about the “what-ifs” in life, I become anxious. I call it “Futurizing”. Whether it’s worrying about your health, your job, your relationships, or your survival. Just a little stress can
spark these worries into a dramatic scenario about the future and the symptoms of OCD will increase. The solution lies in making a decision to change one’s thinking about the future. For example, I always felt I had control over my future. It was all in my hands. I found out the hard way that the future is not under my control. I didn’t plan for my breakdown in 1982. I didn’t plan to meet my wife in 1999. I didn’t even plan for the 7.1 earthquake in California in 1989, and I certainly didn’t plan or have control over my OCD.
Coming from a liberal, reformed Jewish family, I was never very religious, but I do believe in a higher power. Call it God, Goddess, the Universe, my belief is that if some a higher power is everywhere it’s also in me. All the control I really have is in the present, in my thoughts, right now, moment by moment, minute by minute, day by day. I can choose to shift my negative thinking. I can choose peace over turmoil. I can work on all of these choices. I know how difficult this is but believing you have that power even with OCD, is the first step. This step is outlined so beautifully in the book Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer. I highly recommend it.
Now it’s important that you don’t confuse “Futurizing” or trying to control the future with setting goals. I have lots of goals. Getting more national speaking engagements on OCD, making more films, and finishing a book I am writing. The key here is that I set these goals, but I let go of the outcomes. If I practice this philosophy daily, my anxiety settles down and I live today – not yesterday or tomorrow. Remember anxiety lives in your worries about the future which you cannot control. A great slogan to remember. Let go of control and you’ll get control.
Another solution that continues to help me is the process called “Feeling the feelings”. You see, if I feel the fear and do nothing about it, the fear will eventually pass through you. Fear is energy, and all energy will dissipate if you show no resistance to it. Some months ago I got a big wave of anxiety, almost panic. My mind shot into the future. I started to think of all the “what-ifs”. Then I stopped myself and tried a technique my psychiatrist suggested. I laid down on my bed, slowed my breathing and focused my thoughts on the physical feelings of anxiety. If my mind started to obsess on something other than my body, I focused again. For example, I focused on my heart beating fast, or my hands perspiring. I gave no meaning to the feelings, I simply felt them. Within minutes I calmed down. I’ve learned that feelings are not to be judged, simply felt. If you need to judge something in life, place your judgment on actions, not feelings. Remember the slogan ‘Feel the feelings, don’t judge them, let the anxiety pass through you’. I recommend you work this solution of “Feeling the feelings” first with your therapist. And remember, be patient. It is tough work at first, but becomes easier with practice.
My last solution is the one that truly changed my life and continues to help my OCD daily. Around 1986, I joined a Twelve Step program. A support group of ‘like people’ who didn’t judge, criticize or shame me, but simply accepted me and loved me. When I was released from the hospital in 1983, my psychiatrist told me I would need a support network. The Twelve Step program of Codependents Anonymous (CODA) has worked for me. (Note: there are Obsessive-Compulsive Anonymous (OCA) programs.) CODA works best for me because I relate so many of my core psychological issues of OCD, such as self-esteem, people-pleasing, worrying, inability to trust and trying to control the future, to Codependency. Beyond the core issues, a support group allows you to vent your fears in a safe place where people will listen and understand. I truly recommend you try six meetings before you judge whether this solution is right for you or not. 12 Step programs are not for everyone. If it’s not for you try a support group or start a support group. Remember, trust is the opposite of fear. Surround yourself with trusting people and you’re on your way to healing.
There are many, many more solutions I have tried for my recovery from OCD. Some have worked, some fall short. But I have learned to try them all. I don’t believe one solution is the answer. A multi-solution approach works.
The bottom line in my on going recovery from OCD is this:
There’s only one way over fear…go through it. Stay in the solution not the problem. Choose recovery and get to work… one day at a time.