When he was dealing with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, my son Dan spent nine weeks in a world-renowned residential treatment program. During this time, he kept saying things such as “I’m fighting for my freedom,” or “I desperately want my freedom back.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about getting out of the program, or about regaining his independence from his family. Neither seemed quite right to me.
Turns out I was right. It was neither. What Dan wanted and needed more than anything was freedom from OCD. Since that time, I have read many blogs and spoken to lots of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I keep hearing variations of those same words: “I want freedom from OCD.” More than once, in fact, I have read first person accounts of those with OCD who have won their battle and they describe the “chains of OCD” being broken. They truly feel as if they are no longer prisoners.
But what does freedom from OCD really mean? Someone without the disorder might think it simply means saying good-bye to obsessive-compulsive disorder and having it be nothing more than a bad memory. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. While OCD is indeed highly treatable, it rarely goes away completely. So if you always have OCD, can you ever really experience freedom from it?
I would answer that question with a resounding Yes. Freedom from OCD does not necessarily signify the absence of OCD, but rather the lack of control that the disorder has over someone’s life. While a person who is not in control of their OCD will feel compelled to perform compulsions or avoid situations to rid themselves of the anxiety that comes with their obsessions, those who have freedom from OCD will accept their obsessions as just thoughts and nothing more. They will not let their OCD dictate how they live their lives. They are not prisoners.
It is not uncommon for those with OCD to name their disorder as a way of affirming that it is separate from themselves. I talk about personifying OCD in this post. While those who do not yet have their freedom from OCD might be dealing with something they call “The Enemy” or “The Dictator,” those who do have their freedom are dealing with something more akin to a little brother or sister tagging along behind them. Sure, they can be annoying and a bit of a nuisance, but you sure aren’t going to let them boss you around!
Gaining freedom from OCD takes a lot of hard work and doesn’t happen overnight. For many people, it might be an ongoing process. Exposure and response prevention therapy is the first line treatment for the disorder, and whether you work with a competent therapist or use a self-help book, ERP requires strength, courage, and an ongoing commitment. But it works. It’s not easy, but what worthwhile thing is?
When I write about Dan’s story these days, I often say, “Dan still has OCD, but OCD does not have Dan. There is a big difference.”
And that difference is freedom.