As many of us are aware, one of the cornerstones of obsessive-compulsive disorder is doubt: Did I hit somebody while driving? Did I say or do or think the wrong thing? Did I shut off the stove, turn off the lights, and/or lock the doors? The list goes on and those with the disorder often find themselves obsessing over things that may or may not have happened.
But what if you are fixated on an event in your life that actually did occur? What if you did “something terrible” a long time ago (or last week) and now you can’t stop thinking about it?
You’re trying to remember all the details, you’re analyzing every aspect of the occurrence, and you’re wondering about how awful a person you must be to have done what you did. Then you could be dealing with real event OCD (sometimes called real life OCD).
I think it’s safe to say that most of us, whether we have OCD or not, have done things in our lives that we wish we hadn’t. It’s all part of being human. We are not perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes — in how we choose to act, in which road we decide to take, in how we treat people. Many adults cringe at the thought of some of their behaviors as children or teenagers and would now behave very differently if they could go back in time.
While people without OCD can certainly regret their actions and even be bothered throughout their lives by events they’re not proud of, it’s a whole different ball game for those with OCD. People with OCD just cannot let it go and likely feel a sense of urgency to figure it all out — quickly and thoroughly. As an example, let’s imagine someone with OCD who is a kind, caring person. She remembers that in middle school there was one girl who everyone teased, and on a few occasions she joined right in. She now thinks, “What kind of a horrible person bullies someone? Maybe I’m responsible for messing up this person’s life — scarring them forever?” She searches for this girl on Facebook so she can apologize, but can’t find her. Now of course she is thinking the worst: “Is this girl even still alive, and if not, I could be to blame …”
See the difference? OCD is laced with cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking and catastrophizing. While whatever real life event OCD latches on to might not be the person’s proudest moment, it is highly unlikely to be nearly as bad as the person perceives. Actually the problem is not the event, or even how the person with OCD feels about what happened. The problem is their reaction to their thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to “solve the problem,” thoughts, feelings and memories of the event should be observed, accepted, and allowed to come and go. No compulsions (which in real event OCD typically include reassurance seeking and mentally replaying the event) allowed!
There are so many variations of OCD: hit-and-run OCD, harm OCD, and real event OCD, to name a few. The good news, however, is the treatment is the same no matter what type of OCD you have. If you think you might be dealing with real event OCD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can help you turn your tormenting obsession into nothing more than an event of the past.