Why therapy worked for me
I have suffered from OCD since the age of twelve. Two decades later I admitted to needing professional help.
My first session went something like this: I sat in a chair facing her, unsure as to whether I was ‘doing it right’. The last time I found myself in such a set-up was at a job interview, so perhaps my nervousness was understandable. After a few pleasantries, initiated mostly by me for lack of knowing what else to say, she simply asked, “And how are you?”.
Instantly my jaw clenched, my throat ached from the lump that had formed and my eyes searched the room for anything to distract me from the overwhelming and physical need to cry. The soft lighting, the dull and uninteresting pictures and the general blandness of the room, (all intentional, of course) offered nothing of the sort. Exposed, vulnerable and with no place to go other than inside my own head, I succumbed to my tears and cried like a child.
What was supposed to be a mature, stoical even, introductory statement to my therapist of, “I think I suffer from OCD that manifests itself as irrational behaviour”, actually came out as “I…I don’t even know [sob]…I’m not even sad, [sob, wheeze], everyone’s fine, but I get so…[wheeze]…angry and I dwell on things, it’s too much…[sob, splutter]”.
Having offered some insight into my affliction that first meeting, subsequent sessions would go one of several ways: sometimes I would have much on my mind and, therefore, much to say and take up the entire 50 minutes myself, with her saying little.
Sometimes I would have little to say and silence took up most of the session, with her gently offering observations of my mood, whilst I performed mental arithmetic of how much that minute of silence had cost me, scrooge that I am.
Lastly there were the ones where she asked or said something that resonated deeply, and an intense discussion ensued.
It may seem that only the last of the three would be of any benefit, with the other two being pointless, but that would be wrong. All of them allowed me to be introspective, to notice my thoughts (or lack thereof) and the feelings giving rise to them. All of them brought about calm self-awareness. All of them gave me strength.
But how did this help treat something as serious as OCD? I encountered some well-intentioned scepticism, not least from my own family.
My sister, a pragmatist, wanted a quantifiable benefit of a session. “Yes, but how were you better? You need to give me something tangible”, she would say.
I gave her the following example: my greatest fears and frustrations arose from an obsessive desire to control the world around me, my own life and that of others. In one crucial session, over a year into my treatment, my therapist simply said, “What a burden it must be on your shoulders, trying to control everything. Imagine how much more easily you could breathe if you just let it go.”. This may seem obvious to many — to me, it was revelatory. In my blinkered desperation to seek control, I had never stopped to realise how onerous a pursuit that was.
My father was curious to know what the sessions provided that a good talk with friends and family could not.
I explained to him that, unlike friends and family, my therapist never proffers opinions, advice or judgements, but she does know just the questions to ask and how to redirect my thoughts back to me. E.g. “Yes the man who cut you off is in the wrong, but enough about him. Why are you allowing yourself to get so angry about it?”
My mother accepted the necessity unquestioningly, most likely due to her being an OCD sufferer herself. She knew it required more complex attention than a chin-wag could offer.
Perhaps part of its success was purely down to knowing that I had scheduled, protected time set aside only for me. Perhaps paying (dearly) for it somehow formalised the process, and forced me to reflect more deeply. Perhaps it was all down to the therapist’s well honed skills. What is certain is that my therapy sessions made an impact far greater than the sum of their parts.
Ultimately, like any long-lasting self-improvement regimen, it is a process. The results come slowly and in small, barely perceptible increments. You do need commitment, patience and faith that you are getting something out of it.
Whatever the reason, three years of therapy later, my OCD is immeasurably milder and no longer the hindrance to living it once was. I know myself better, and I can stop those destructive thought cycles as soon as they start because I have learned quickly to identify the basic feelings underpinning them. The biggest gift therapy has given me is time — time I was previously losing to pointless rumination, angry inner monologues and futile worries.
And you can’t put a price on that.