On Monday I might suddenly think I’m gay, then on Tuesday I’m convinced I’ll be detained under the Mental Health Act because I’ve gruesomely murdered my girlfriend.
I am Michiel, 35 years old and suffer from compulsive thoughts. In my case these are very violent and frightening thoughts about aggression and sex. I’ve been having these awful thought since the age of 25. I have never done anything bad, other than driving myself crazy with these thoughts.
Read out loud, arrange, repeat, repeat, repeat…
After trying several less successful therapies, I realized something really had to be done about these awful thoughts, so I decided to take part in the Dutch television programme Lifelong OCD.
The therapists in the programme use cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure exercises. For me it meant writing down, arranging and reading my compulsive thoughts out loud. That wasn’t an easy exercise. I wanted to get rid of these thoughts and now I had to pay even more attention to them.
You write down the most bizarre and horrible thoughts on paper -there were dozens- and then you read them out loud many times. The strange thing about it is, whilst reading the thoughts out loud, you feel the fear at first increase enormously but then eventually it just fades out. The more often I do it, the less tormented I am by nasty compulsive thoughts.
So I don’t run away from these thoughts anymore, I seek them out and “look them straight in the eye”.
Exposure compulsive thoughts
As well as reading out loud, the therapists asked me to do several exercises that would increase my fear of my aggressive thoughts to an unprecedented high level. How on earth do you do such a thing? Well, they’d figured out something “fun” to do.
The first exercise was to use a dauntingly sharp steak knife with my therapist and fellow sufferers right next to me. Pff, I broke out in a cold sweat, but finally the fear faded. This was similar to reading out loud those awful thoughts. Afterwards it was a lot easier to use the knife and I don’t put it away anymore either.
A knife at my throat?
A few days later the biggest challenge was waiting. I had to shave Kai, my fellow OCD sufferer, with an old-fashioned barber’s straight razor. This is a difficult exercise even for people without compulsive thoughts, but for me it was the ultimate test. I was gigantically nervous when we walked to the barber’s. Kai wasn’t afraid of anything; he already knew that nothing would happen.
On the way there the most bloody and horrific images came to mind. In an unprecedented way the fear took possession of me. The only thing I wanted to do, was to run away as fast as I could, from the therapists, from Kai and from the camera crew.
Having arrived at the barber’s, I had almost slipped into some sort of trance: this awful exercise felt as if I, not Kai, would get the knife at the throat.
Kai sat down quietly and the barber showed me how to shave him. I have no idea if I paid attention to what he said; I was totally panicked and didn’t think that I could do it. Yet I knew I had to persevere, there was no other way. If I ran away now, the fear would have won and this thought would influence my wellbeing more then ever.
The imp of my mind
After a couple of minutes I held the razor in my hands, very clumsy and scared I started this ridiculous exercise. But what happened then was very remarkable. I wasn’t afraid of wanting to slit Kai’s throat, no I was afraid that I would hurt him accidently, not on purpose and so I proceeded very carefully. The compulsive thought was there, but reality predominated.
A minute of shaving was enough for me; I felt the need to recover from all the emotions going round in my head. A few minutes later I felt relief, nothing had happened, I didn’t hurt Kai by accident and I certainly didn’t hurt him on purpose.
It felt as if the extreme compulsive thought, the imp of my mind, had suffered a defeat. I could hear him sulk and try to return but I was stronger! Not by pushing him away, like I tried for years to do, but by taking up the challenge. Not easy, definitely not, but finally I’ve got the feeling that I outsmarted my compulsive thought.
I’m certainly not completely rid of it yet, but I have progressed a lot. Everyone suffering from tormenting compulsive thoughts deserves the same relief. If the television programme leads to others finding a way out of obsessive compulsive disorder, then it hasn’t only been helpful for us.