When my son Dan was struggling with severe OCD, his compulsions were all done “to keep something bad from happening.” In his mind, if he moved from his chair, neglected to engage in all sorts of mental compulsions, or even ate, something terrible might happen to those he cared about. While the rational part of him understood there was no connection between him eating and a catastrophe occurring, it didn’t matter. There was always that doubt. Rightfully so, OCD is sometimes called The Doubting Disease.
It’s so ironic when you think of it. The very behaviors those with OCD indulge in often produce results that are exactly the opposite of what they intend. Dan didn’t eat for over a week because he thought something bad would happen if he did. Well, plenty “bad” did happen as a direct result of his not eating: He became physically ill with dehydration and hypokalemia. He had to be taken to the hospital. His family was distraught. He could barely function.
My guess is that every person with obsessive-compulsive disorder can easily come up with his or her own examples of the opposite happening, courtesy of OCD. Perhaps someone obsessed with germs and cleanliness has developed shower rituals that last for hours. This person now avoids showering because it is just too stressful to complete these complex rituals. The result? The opposite of what was intended. They are now unable to keep themselves clean, perhaps mustering a trip into the shower once a month, if that. This happens more often than most people think. When Dan’s OCD was bad, his college dorm room looked like a hurricane had just gone through, and his reasoning was that it was too overwhelming to clean it because it had to be done “the right way.”
If you’re a Seinfeld fan, this post might bring to mind the episode where George, the ultimate “loser”, decides to do the “exact opposite” of what he usually does, with the hope of turning his life around. And it works!
Wouldn’t it be nice if OCD could be scripted as easily as a television show? While it’s certainly not that easy, there is good treatment available for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not surprisingly, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy involves doing the opposite of what OCD commands. Think you might have hit somebody while you were driving? OCD tells you to go back and check while ERP therapy tells you to keep driving. Think you shook hands with someone who is contaminated? OCD tells you to wash your hands for twenty minutes, while ERP therapy tells you to go on with your day and accept the anxiety you might feel from not washing. By going against what OCD demands, you are letting your brain know what’s important and what’s not worth giving attention to. While there is more to ERP therapy than just “doing the opposite,” it is an essential component of this therapy.
With the right therapy and therapist, those with OCD can learn to accept whatever thoughts they have as just thoughts and refrain from performing compulsions that will ultimately rule their lives. In short, there is a huge payback for people with OCD who have the courage to do the opposite. They get to live their lives on their own terms, not OCD’s.