Every family has its little secrets. Here’s one of mine. When I get caught up in my work, something else in my life gives. Usually, it’s my contribution toward keeping our home tidy. I stash stuff in our space room. It irritates my wife. Recently I had the great idea of inviting my brother over. He’s OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) about cleanliness. All it took was a casual mention about my needing to clean up my act for my brother to find a large cardboard box, scoop up my accumulated stuff, take it to our basement storage area and organize it.
In my brother’s world, there is a place for everything and everything has to be in place. Otherwise, he’ll drive himself crazy obsessing about it. No blame or shame about his behavior. It’s who he is. He knows it and accepts it. We do too. As a family, we even find humor in it, and in my case, sometimes use it to my advantage.
A couple in my practice is dealing with an out of control OCD behavior issue. It’s tearing them apart. Tom has always been a detail-oriented person. His extreme attention to detail has served him well in his profession. On the home front, however, his tendency to fixate has taken a strange turn. From out of the blue, Tom is obsessing about all the ways his wife Mary might be cheating on him. Mary is without a doubt not having an affair.
The strange behavior started when Mary received several late night work-related text messages. He got suspicious and asked to read them. Next, it moved on to him checking her web browsing history on the computer they share. Now he’s sneaking off with her cell phone, obsessing over names and phone numbers he doesn’t recognize, calling back and hanging up.
About two weeks after this all started, while having dinner with some good friends, Mary smiled briefly and sent off a text message. Tom insisted on knowing what that message was about. Mary ignored him and continued her conversation with their friends. At first, he backed off. But that didn’t last long. After festering a bit, he blurted out, “I guess someone is rather happy at dinner tonight. Wonder what makes her smile? Certainly not our conversation.” Instantly the mood shifted. An uncomfortable silence set in. All that was sent over a text message from Mary’s niece was a cute photo of her cat.
Deep down Tom knows that Mary is not cheating on him. However, he can’t explain his distrust. He’s tried suppressing his obsessive thoughts, pushing them out of his mind, ignoring Mary interacting with her phone. He’s tried not searching through history on their computer and her phone. All these efforts just make him more anxious.
Mary is fed up with his guilt trips and having to account for her every action. He is spiraling out of control. He can’t stop obsessing. Guess what? If I tell you to stop thinking about a yellow canary, all day long you’re going to be thinking about a yellow canary.
Tom needs help dealing with his obsessive-compulsive behavior. The challenge with conventional cognitive-behavioral therapy, made the therapist’s treatment of choice by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1950s and 1960s, in treating OCD is that it is designed to correct the undesirable behavior by exposing clients to their controlling thoughts, and then prevent those thoughts from triggering that action. Don’t think that and do that thing, think about how not to do that thing. Their attempt to fix it, however, resulted in fixation. Like stopping yourself from thinking about the yellow canary.
In Tom’s case, using the cognitive-behavioral therapy approach, we would expose him to block his thoughts that suggest his wife is cheating. If he thought she was texting, we would ask him to find ways to prevent himself from looking at her messages. In my experience, this doesn’t work. He would fixate on reading her texts.
A better way to deal with Tom’s OCD behavior is for Tom to recognize the obsessions that pop into his head during the day. For example, he thinks, I have to check Mary’s text messages; she might be cheating. Tom has been oblivious to the notion that this thought is an obsessive one that triggers him to act at the moment. By acknowledging it, he distinguishes it.
The clincher is not to act on suppressing the thought, but rather play with it. Maybe create a little jingle “Oh, that’s my OCD, that’s not me.” Engaging obsessive thoughts with an activity is a powerful tool. Swimming laps, tossing a football, mowing the lawn, or making up a “My wife is texting and cheating” song to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday are all possibilities of a platform for engaging obsessive thoughts but not acting on them.
Tom’s been using these strategies to engage his thoughts. Within weeks he realized he did not need to solve the problem or take any action on it. The urge to be suspicious and act still presents itself, but he’s learning how to pause, recognize the thought pattern and diffuse the impact.
Mary is happy with his progress and relieved that the blame game is over. Her admiration and deep level of empathy for Tom are evident. She knows he’s trying. There will be relapses for Tom, but in typical OCD manner, he is obsessive about practicing his new skills.
Do you recognize signs of mild OCD in yourself, your spouse or children? If so, you now know that identifying and labeling obsessive thoughts is half the battle in managing the resultant obsessive behavior.
Go ahead try this. Let me know the outcome in the blog post below.