Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Episode 3: What is OCD? | 05/11/2009
ANDY BURNFIELD: Welcome to Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, episode number three. We’re going to continue our talk with Julie Burnfield…
JULIE BURNFIELD: Hello.
ANDY: …and myself, Andy Burnfield, talking about living with obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s a disorder that Julie deals with on a regular basis—since she was younger. You’ve heard the past episodes, you kind of understand a little bit about this.
This episode, we’re going to kind of continue where we left off. I’ve also added a few little things in that we talked about last episode, that I kind of wanted to clarify a little bit. So—let’s get started.
I guess, first of all, Julie, was there anything, in thinking back to the past two episodes, that you wanted to say, or clarify, or add to?
JULIE: Just know that, if I get emotional, I’m not over here crying or anything. It just gets emotional when I talk about my childhood or when I talk about my struggles with OCD, as I think anybody can understand that. So, I’m not crying. [Laughs.]
ANDY: We talked a little bit about Julie’s background—her young childhood dealing with this disorder. And so we’re going to kind of go back to a few things that we talked about then.
So for those of you who it’s been a while, or you didn’t hear the last episodes, what we kind of covered was, Julie has—she remembers dealing with OCD since she was about age four. Correct?
ANDY: It got worse around the time you were sixteen, seventeenish.
JULIE: Yeah, that’s when it really started to develop.
ANDY: Have you had any more thoughts on maybe how you could describe OCD inside your head to people who don’t have this disorder or have no background with it? I know you’ve kind of expressed a few things to me during this last week—so I just wanted to give you a chance to maybe talk a little bit more about that.
JULIE: Yeah. Well, I’ve been doing some reading about that, and research about that, because I haven’t been able to really, I don’t think, explain maybe adequately what it’s like inside a person’s head with OCD to someone who’s not suffering from this disorder. But I read a really good description of it online in the last couple days that I kind of wanted to share; kind of gives you an insight maybe for someone with a normal brain vs. someone with an OCD brain. So I’m just going to read it, because I think it’s a really good example. It says:
“Okay, tell yourself you’re not to think about a red ball. I mean, tell yourself that your thinking about a red ball is not okay, so you can’t think about it. Not only that, visualize that red ball you aren’t allowed to think about. No red ball. No red ball. No red ball. On and on and on. Okay, now go look inside your mind, and you’re probably going to find a red ball is found all over the place. Probably, if you keep doing this for long enough, a red color in your surrounding might be enough to make you think about that red ball. Bad, bad, bad! I said don’t think about that red ball!”
So what that kind of illustrates is that, imagine a person with OCD is thinking about this red ball, but for a person with OCD it’s not a red ball. "Imagine that this thought that we’re not allowed to have (or rather, that you don’t want to have), that’s beyond our control), is really stressful in its content, that you’re thinking of, is not a red ball—but taking that knife and stabbing your loved one, or perhaps molesting your children." And I know that sounds really out there, and that sounds really kind of unbelievable to some people, but this is two things that people with extreme OCD really, really suffer with.
"And, you think it’s just a thought. Would you think, 'It’s just a thought?' Or would you try and find out ways of why you’re having this thought and trying to alleviate your anxiety that this provokes?"
[TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: In the above three paragraphs, Julie is mostly quoting from the website Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at http://understanding_ocd.tripod.com/ocd_obsessions.html.]
Like, normal people might be able to think about some things in their head and then it not really bother them. But the thing about OCD is that the obsessions people with OCD have are different than the normal everyday thing that might get stuck in a normal person’s brain. As I mentioned, people with OCD start to obsess about maybe picking up that knife that’s on the table and stabbing their husband. Or maybe, “Oh my gosh, am I going to molest that child?” I mean that sounds disgusting—and the thing is, since it’s a thought, you start to obsess about it, and obsess and obsess and obsess, because you think that if you think about it long enough and hard enough, that there is a solution in your brain. That there’s a reason that you’re thinking this. And the thing is with people who have these type of obsessions, is that these obsessions are totally repugnant to us. They’re totally disgusting. They make you want to get sick when you think about them. I’m like, “How on earth could I think about stabbing my husband? But every time I look at that knife, I just think about stabbing him.”
Well, that’s the thing about OCD. Most of the obsessions, some of the extreme obsessions that people with OCD have, are in direct violation to their ethical and moral standards. And that’s what makes it so upsetting.
That’s some of the way that maybe you might be able to think about it if you don’t have OCD. But there again, the point about it all is that the obsessions people have that have OCD, it disgusts them, and it’s repugnant to them—and that’s why they can’t stop thinking about them: because, “how could I think about this?”
But what you have to remember is, in all the things I’ve read, in all the books, all the therapists I visited, it’s a common thread that people have these type of obsessions. But the reality is, that these are just thoughts. People with OCD are not ever, will not ever act on these thoughts. It’s merely a brain malfunction that produces these things. And so, I don’t know how to put it all together, but I’m just kind of disgusted myself just here talking about it and saying that out in the open, but I know I’m not the only person, and I know that anybody else out there who has this extreme type of disorder has had those obsessions in the past that are so horrible and so go against everything that seems right to us. And that’s why it becomes so difficult, and that’s why your brain starts to over-react, and you just can’t get these things out of your head. So, that’s probably a long answer to your question, but I think that that might help people out there who wonder what it’s like.
ANDY: No, I think that’s pretty good.
To kind of summarize, what I heard from that was: in your mind you’ll have a thought that is, you know, gross and disgusting, and something that you obviously would never do, but you have the thought; and since you have OCD, that thought gets stuck.
ANDY: And you just continue to think about it, and continue to think about it; where a normal person may have a thought in passing, but they’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of a silly thought,” Or “That’s stupid,” or…
ANDY: …“That would never happen,” and it can just be released. Whereas, for you, it gets stuck. And then you just continue and continue to talk and talk—or to think of this—and think of, you know, why it’s bad, but…
JULIE: “Why am I thinking this?” and “What’s the solution?”
ANDY: …and the more that you think about that—about getting rid of the thought, or “why is that thought there”—the more it’s stuck.
ANDY: Is that correct?
JULIE: Yeah, because the thing is, with obsessions, once you start thinking about your obsession, it just gets even worse. And it sets off the whole OCD cycle.
So the more attention you pay to your obsession, the worse it gets. And that’s what makes it like a living hell within your brain—because you can’t stop it. You think about it, and then you say, “Well, maybe if I think about it it’ll go away.” But the more I think about it, the more I concentrate on it, the more it just keeps coming back, and coming back, and coming back.
It’s like, I heard it described once like, if you’re on the street and you see a really hot chick. Well, a guy might say, “Oo, wow, I’d like to have sex with her, or make out with her,” or something, and they think that, and then that thought’s gone. But for a person with OCD, they think that, and then all the obsessions start. And they’re like, “Well, why am I thinking that? I’m married; I’m happily married. Why would I want to do that?” And, “Well, maybe if I think about it long enough, then I’ll understand why I want to do it.”
But that’s the thing. There is no explanation—it’s just a thought. It’s like, in the book I read over and over, called Brain Lock, it’s like there’s a gear shift problem. And when that thought comes in, a normal brain will process that to the back of your brain, and it’ll be gone. With the OCD person it’s stuck in the front of your brain, because your gear shift doesn’t work to shift it to the back of your brain and get it out of your head, so…
[TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: More information on the book Brain Lock (by Jeffrey Schwartz and Beverly Beyette), can be found at http://www.coldflyer.com/suggested-reading.]
ANDY: I’ve also heard you talk about, you know, just this past week (because of some issues that we’ll talk about later), you kind of had what you would call a “flake out” or a “freak out” [Julie laughs] and you expressed saying that your mind felt “out of control”.
ANDY: When we first were dating, and when we first were married (first few years of marriage before you got a handle on this a little bit), you know, this was somewhat of a normal occurrence. But at that point in time I don’t think you really understood fully what was going on. So could you maybe explain a little bit about—you know, whatever you feel comfortable explaining about—but kind of what was going on in your head, and kind of why it was so difficult for you?
JULIE: Back then, or now?
ANDY: No. I mean like, this past week.
JULIE: Oh, this past week. Well, I think we’re going to start talking about medicine and drug therapy later on in another one of these podcasts, but basically, over the last four months, I’ve been trying to come off my Seroquel.
I’ve went to a lot of psychiatrists; I tried a lot of different medications for OCD. There’s a lot of, called SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), there’s a lot of those type of drugs that help people with OCD. I found that a lot of those drugs didn’t work for me; they just gave me terrible side effects. So I finally, after a bunch of different medicines, I finally settled on two medications. And I’ve basically was on two medications from probably about the first year in our marriage (so, nine years ago). Started on medicine called Effexor, then also on a medicine called Seroquel. Well, over the years I managed to be able to come completely off the Effexor and just be on the Seroquel. I would say, for the last, I don’t know, what do you think? Six years, so forth, I’ve just been on the Seroquel?
ANDY: I don’t know if it’s been six years. Maybe four.
JULIE: Has it?
ANDY: Four years…
JULIE: Well, heck of a long time anyway. So, but I’ve been on 600 milligrams of Seroquel, which is a lot of medicine for anything. Especially for a, you know, personality, mental disorder.
Seroquel is a antipsychotic medication. Don’t get scared out there—it sounds scarier than it is. It’s supposed to be for people with schizophrenia and so forth, but it also works for anxiety disorders.
So I’ve been on 600 milligrams of that, and last year we decided that I was going to try and come off of that. In preparation for, in the future, being able to have a kid. All psychiatric medications have a risk of causing problems while your in pregnancy, so we decided that I was going to come off of it. So the last four months have been slowly decreasing from 600 down. And it has been rough. It’s been really rough, it’s been a really hard four months, but in the beginning it was mainly just decreases physical withdrawals: like really bad headaches, dizziness, upset stomach, so forth.
And then as it went down and down and down—the dosage got lower and lower—I found out that the withdrawals became more psychological, and it was—I got down to 50 milligrams and it got (this was just in the last couple weeks) and it got to a point where I just couldn’t control my brain anymore. And that’s why I’ve had some flake outs in the last couple of weeks.
(That’s what I call them, “flake outs”. You know, mini panic attacks. Uncontrollable crying, blah blah blah blah blah, all the fun stuff that Andy loves, that I save for him. [Laughs.])
And I kind of felt like when I was on that much medication, after kind of reflecting this week, I felt like I knew what a normal brain was when I was on 600 milligrams. And now that I’m back to 50 milligrams, I realize the difference between what a normal brain is and what an OCD brain is, because within the last couple of weeks, all the OCD stuff (as far as brain activity) has been coming back. I think everybody knows when they get to the end of their rope, and this last week I knew that I had gotten to the end of my rope, and I had to do something, because it all just started become too much. Couldn’t shut my brain off, and all the obsessions started again; all the compulsions started again.
Not so much physical compulsions this time, like washing my hands or stuff, but just mental compulsions. Because, as I mentioned before, there’s a type of OCD—“Pure O” is what it’s called. But I did some research on that this week too (to see if that’s really what classifies—what I’m classify myself as right now), and it said that if you are “Pure O”, you can have your obsessions and your compulsions, but you just do your compulsions internally, in your brain.
So that’s what I’d started doing—because a lot of the physical compulsions, like I said, had disappeared; but then I started doing the whole routine, the whole OCD cycle in my head, and I didn’t realize that that’s what I was doing. I thought it was just the thoughts, but I was actually—and still am—performing the compulsions in my head.
And it’s like, I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up, because, when I go to sleep—not kill myself, that’s not what I’m talking about—but when I go to sleep, that’s the only time that I get any relief from my brain, is what I was thinking. And so Andy came home the other night, and I was like, “That’s it, I can’t do it any more!”
And he’s like, “What are you talking about?”
And I was like, “I reached my limit, I reached my breaking point, and this is it, because I cannot control my brain anymore. And I cannot shut it up. And it’s just like being in a living hell, being inside my brain all the time.” And I know that might be hard for some people to understand, but I was like, I have either got to do one of two things: I’ve got to go back up on my medicine, or I’ve got to do some serious therapy or some serious rereading of this book that helped me so much last time.
So we talked about it and we decided that I would go back up to 100 milligrams instead of 50 milligrams. Now still, 100 milligrams instead of 600 milligrams I think is pretty impressive for me (and that has helped quiet the brain somewhat), but then, even in the last week, I’ve started rereading this Brain Lock book. And I’m not trying to plug this book as like the “end all and be all”, but for me, even reading the introduction and not even getting through the first chapter yet, I already feel like ten times better than I did last week.
And I think it’s all to do with understanding your OCD: being able to realize that this is OCD, this is not me. And I think, it keeps saying that in the book, and that this can provide great relief for people—just knowing the fact that this is not you, this is OCD. And this is conquerable. And in Brain Lock it outlines four steps—it’s like self cognitive behavior therapy.
Flaking out like that has it’s advantages. Because I think you know that you’ve reached your limit and you have to do something, so you have to do something about it. And I just wanted to share that. Just know that it’s OCD, it’s not me; it’s totally different. It’s got to do with chemicals in your brain and false messages and so forth. So you are a normal person. You’re just suffering with a disorder.
ANDY: And just few more things that I wanted to add, that kind of you and I had talked about off of the show, is you mentioned that you don’t actually get anything from your compulsions or rituals.
JULIE: No. Not at all.
ANDY: It’s like you would get stuck with these thoughts or these things you needed to do, whether they were mentally or physical, like rituals (if you want to call them that), but they don’t acutually help; they don’t actually solve any of your problem.
JULIE: No, not at all. That’s what makes it so insanely crazy, is that the whole issue, I think, is about control. And people want to be able to have control—of their own brains and of their own person and of their own environment, so to speak. And you can’t get control of the obsessions that go on in your brain, in my idea, unless you keep thinking about them. But once you keep thinking about them, as I mentioned before, they just get worse and worse.
So it’s like a vicious cycle. And until you break that cycle, you’re really never going to be able to get any relief, and you really have to just understand what these thoughts are and how you can make them go away. Because thinking about them and trying to get control of them, that’s really, ultimately, that’s never helped me. It just goes on and on. It’s a cycle, like I said. Just keeps getting worse and worse.
ANDY: Yeah, If I understand it correctly, you literally have to be able to get thoughts out of your mind.
JULIE: Yeah. And that never happens.
ANDY: Well, it does, with the proper help and training.
JULIE. Yeah. Yeah.
ANDY: But, normally…
JULIE: But in and of yourself…
ANDY: Yeah, in and of yourself it doesn’t.
JULIE: Just me trying to make it happen… doesn’t help at all.
ANDY: Ok, and one last thing, cause, wow, the intro of this show’s actually ended up being the entire show….
JULIE: Mm, sorry.
ANDY: No no, that’s—it’s not your fault—fine. [Julie laughs.]
Just one other thing I wanted to say that we talked about. And we’ve kind of talked about, but never really answered the actual—the question. But I just wanted to throw this out there: that the urges to count things and to do things…
ANDY: …are uncontrollable. It’s like, when you used to turn off and on the light switches…
ANDY: …or the things you do in your mind now—it’s not something that you, I mean you consciously do it, but it’s not like you have an option.
JULIE: No, I don’t have an option, because if the thoughts and the rituals and the urges don’t take place, then I will be so uncomfortable inside my brain, and inside of myself, that I cannot move on. Like for example, the other day I was lying on the couch, and I saw an actor in a commercial. And I was like, “Man, I know that actor from somewhere!”
Most people would be able to like, “I know that actor from somewhere,” move on, go watch the rest of your show.
For me, I couldn’t get that actor’s name—because I couldn’t think of his name—I couldn’t get that actor’s name out of my head. So for me, there was no relief until—I couldn’t move on with anything, I couldn’t move on to the next thought, I couldn’t move on to watch the rest of my show, I couldn’t move on to answer the phone or answer a text—until I knew that guy’s name. So I had to go back, rewind the television, look at that guy’s name, think of who he was in the head, look him up on the Internet, find out who he was, find out what show he had been in, and find out where I knew him from, until I could move on.
Because I can’t do a single thing until I knew the answer to that question: until I had, quote unquote, “solved” that obsession. So one thing may have been solved, as in “I know who he is now, and I know his name,” but it just set off a vicious cycle of other obsessions.
ANDY: Okay, well, I think we’re going to stop there for this episode. I—
JULIE: I talk too much, I know.
ANDY: No, no, no, it’s fine [Julie laughs]; it’s great. But we have reached about, you know, our close to 25-minute mark…
JULIE: Dang, that went fast.
ANDY: …so, I think we’re going to stop there. And just to prepare you guys for the next episode, in order to get a little bit more knowledge of, kind of where Julie’s coming from (because this show is, it’s about how she’s dealing with her specific obsessive compulsive disorder), and so in order to kind of get a little more background, we’re going to do exactly that—we’re going to kind of tell Julie’s story, kind of like the history of her life a little bit. And that’ll be the next three, probably three episodes—maybe four depending on how long they end up going. [Julie laughs.]
So we are going to be talking about OCD, but in the next few episodes it’s more a personal background—so that you, as the audience, can kind of understand maybe where this came from for her. And once we get through her story, then we’re going to kind of go back and look at where her OCD came from—whether it was genetic, or whether it was a learned behavior, or whether it’s a little bit of both.
So if you’re not really interested in, you know, Julie’s actual story of her life, then you can skip ahead three or four episodes, and the titles will… it should be obvious.
And if not, stick around—you’ll get to hear a lot about Julie! So, thanks for joining us for this episode. And see you back here.
Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder