Can I Accept OCD? Won't I become Complacent?

by: Jennifer Brighton, MSW, RSW, Ph.D (c), Clinical Director, Exhale Academy

Today I was working with an individual who struggles with OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Every moment of their day is wrought with challenges because of this illness.  This isn't just a "wiggy" feeling they get but rather every day feels like death is lurking if they do not do a series of ritualistic behaviours.  Many people will joke without much thought saying, “I’m a little OCD.”  But there is no such thing as “a little OCD.”  This is a debilitating neurophysiological disorder that can devastate an individual’s life.   We can have quirks and desires that are rigid, and feel like we cope better when things are just so; this may be that you experience personality traits that are reminiscent of OCD.   The average individual with OCD is often deeply ashamed of their illness and will likely never make light of it because of the internal torture it causes.  

I’ve worked with many people with this mental illness over my years in practise.  My first step is to ensure that my client understands this is by no means their choice.  It is the result of faulty brain functioning.  There are many reliable research studies that demonstrate particular areas of the brain light up and almost lock up when an individual with OCD is triggered.  The average person might have these brain centres light up but they very quickly can adjust, whereas, functional brain scans and show that a brain with OCD lights up faster and remains firing in these centres for much longer periods of time.  

My recent client has spent the better part of his adult life, wanting to change, be free of these symptoms and be cured.  Desperately wanting something that can radically change him so he can slip out of the OCD and into the confident, 'I’m living my life” self.  The only trouble is, the OCD is not going anywhere.  OCD is on the severe end of anxiety disorders, and as far as the research shows to date, there is no cure, it is an illness that you must learn to manage. And, it can be managed, well!

When I say this to my client, he tells me that “just managing” would be a massive failure in his eyes.  I urge him to see that he has spent his entire life trying to “fight” this illness and it has only made it worse.  I explain that “fighting” was always the wrong set up for treatment.  I urge him to see that his system turns to a pattern of behaviours to protect him.  To “fight” against a blueprint of protection, even if the pattern is not logical, would only put his body in a tail-spin, creating dissonance, loss of trust in himself and further anxiety and compensatory behaviours.

So, he asks, "how will I be cured?"  I suggest that looking to be “cured” is again the wrong approach and that perhaps healing starts from a place of deep self-acceptance.  To this, he says, “Acceptance equals complacency!” To that, I say, “To accept is to be empowered!”   Who is right?

I tell my client about a friend of mine from my early 20s.  I reflect on me going white water rafting with a bunch of friends and this individual.  "We were all having a blast, as we bounced out of our raft so many times, dove from cliff edges and bungee jumped.  We were young and energetic and living the life of emerging adult freedom."  Only a few days after this trip my friend was out on his motorcycle and ended up in a terrible accident.  He just survived but ended up paralyzed from the waist down.   For so many years he just was not a part of our group anymore.  He isolated himself and would not come out anymore.  He went into his own place of self-hate and anger, asking “why me?” He could not accept how radically his life had changed in a matter of moments.  He felt we wouldn't "see" him anymore and would only see the chair and his obstacles.  Years passed and then one day I walked into a party, and I saw him from behind, in his wheelchair.  For a few moments, I was rattled, thinking “what do I say to him?”  We have never addressed the accident, I have never caught up with him, do I say something about the accident, do I ignore it, do I pretend like its not a thing.  While I was saying my hellos to other people, I was feverishly thinking how do I manage this?  And, then, with such grace and ease he rolled up beside me and said “Hi, Jen!” and as he looked into my eyes he said, “It's okay, it really is okay!”  With a tear to my eye and a sigh of relief, he and I both knew we didn’t need to say anything else.   We moved on quickly to catch up, he told me about his journey, and we laughed together as if no time had ever been between us.  He told me about the cool devices he had to assist him and then went on to tell me he was married and had two children. For all intents and purposes, he seemed happy.  I couldn’t help but ask him how he went from anger to who he was at that moment.  He ever so eloquently taught me one of the most helpful lessons I have ever learned.  He said “I learned to accept that no matter the why, this was his now.  This was his life.  He could be in a state of anger all the time and not really live his life, or, he could accept his new life and really live it.”  He chose the latter.   

When my client heard this story, he was reflective.  His response was a question of doubt whether the other people in his life could accept his illness.  He retorted that his family believes he chooses his illness given he knows his obsessions and compulsions are not logical.  They figure that because he knows it is not rational, he should be able to just stop himself.  I explain to him that this is the hardest part of the illness, knowing what you are obsessing about and what you feel compelled to do is not logically, but literally being unable to stop yourself.  I further explain that this is 100% a brain dysfunction and not something he can simply will himself to stop.

I further encouraged my client to reflect that if he accepted the OCD as a brain dysfunction that he had to learn to manage, his loved ones might be able to do the same.  Until now, he has been incredibly self-loathing and feeling like he is a weak man who has failed.  I also urged him to recognize that if his loved ones could not accept his illness, he had more information about what his family was capable of providing him in the way of support.   Most mental illnesses are hard for loved ones to understand and it often requires that the family take the initiative to learn about the illness so they can be of genuine support.

I encouraged my client to understand that his process of learning to manage the OCD might be bumpy as he was up against a lifetime of negative thinking and self-talk, along with poor self-worth and tremendous self-loathing. It was going to be a slow process of developing mindful awareness and discretely shifting his philosophy on his illness.  I reflected back to him that just like my friend normalized everything for me, my client was holding that power with their own family and friends.  If my client could normalize the OCD as brain dysfunction, then what felt so abnormal, could be understood within this framework and then perhaps his family could understand it this way too.  I pondered reflectively that if my client’s family observed that his acceptance enabled him to start living his life more effectively, they might just be supportive.  I further brought my client's attention to the fact that this "disability" of his was really an "ability."  Perhaps over-expressed and thus problematic, but still skills that others might not have.   You see, my client is a fierce advocate for what he feels is right.  His rigidity ensures that he will fight the fight if need be.  He is also incredibly detail oriented, picking up on things the average person would miss.  Furthermore, he is tremendous at researching topics and issues, and because of this, he is a fountain of knowledge that so many people benefit from.   I could go on, but do get my drift here?  This person is amazing!  Even with OCD.    If my client could be self-compassionate, see his strengths, and genuinely accept himself, flaws and all, life wouldn't be such a struggle, even with OCD!  If for even a moment, my client could liken his OCD to the paralysis my friend has experienced, he might have a chance of choosing a new way of living rather then feeling flawed and damaged.

There is no “right” way to live our lives, but there are some “right” values that we can have that will enable all of us to settle into contentedness.  Like for instance, acceptance.   With a history of self-loathing and criticism learning to accept ourselves can be a process of "acting as if" for quite some time.  There is an internalized blueprint you may be working against.  It might feel like the salmon swimming upstream, but, it is so worth it. Acceptance creates the platform for growth, it is the soil to the seed that needs those nutrients to grow into the plant. 

So, then, does acceptance lead to complacency.  100% NO.  It leads to living an authentic life, a life on purpose, a life that is in alignment with what is real, right now.  Acceptance leads to being empowered to live your life with authenticity.  Acceptance of what is, lead to clarity.  With clarity, we can make decisions that are healthy. So if my client could 100% accept his OCD when symptoms started to present themselves, he would not turn to self-hating thoughts, or, fear that others will hate him if he indulges the illness.   Instead, he would say something like this, "Hey there OCD!  I know you are here to help me.  Thanks!  I know you worked for a long time.  I know you showed up when I had no other resources to cope with really overwhelming life circumstances.  And, by god, you worked for a long time.  I'm learning however that this kind of help has consequences for me in the long-term.  I am still scared of change, so, I promise I will not do anything too fast or too radical.   I'm wondering if you could let me experiment just a little with some new ways of dealing with stuff?  If it doesn't work, hey, I know you well, and I can come right back to this pattern.  You game?"  Then slowly, like a snail, he would be able to nudge himself to a degree of freedom that perhaps would allow him to tap into happiness for what is.

We all have our struggles and challenges and we all need to lead from a place of self-acceptance.   Form this place, tremendous growth is possible!

Namaste, my dear friends, I see the light in you.

Jennifer

Romance After Baby

Romance After Baby

by: Ashley Mariani, MSW, RSW, Psychotherapist

Let’s be honest, life is busy and as a parent it’s easy to get stuck in the Groundhog Day routine of life. Sleep deprivation, chronic exhaustion and over scheduling of ‘empty’ slots on the family calendar. Not to mention, meals, dishes, laundry, oil changes, family events…the list goes on. We pride ourselves on being busy. The question is, do we prioritize our partner? Are they placed at the bottom of the totem? What is cost of doing this? 

The first year with a new baby is the most encumbering. All of our attention, focus and energy is directed to caring or providing for them while our own needs and the needs of our partners get misplaced. Admittedly, I am not a Hallmark Holiday believer. I feel that love for one’s partner should be celebrated outside of consumerism, ten-dollar cards and twenty-dollar roses. However, with the postpartum brain fog and memory loss I was thankful for the reminder of Valentines Day while shuffling through the grocery store on a blistery January afternoon. As I caressed the overpriced plush teddy bears, I was reminded that my partner and I needed to get back to celebrating our gratitude for one another more frequently. I understood, in that moment, the need for such a “holiday” given the madness of new parenthood and the ease to which couples can become complacent and mindless. 

Mindfulness is a skill and tool that allows us to become observers of our lives. It challenges us to view our day to day through a new lens. Mindfulness can become an aid in rediscovering romance in your relationship; slowing down time to appreciate the qualities of our partner that we initially fell in love with. Even if the process has to be intentional to get the ball rolling on habitual romantic behaviours and expressions of admiration, intentions that are motivated by the genuine desire to connect will create connection. 

Communication with your partner about your insecurities, your desires, wants and needs are important to rekindling the romance. It may feel counterintuitive to the desired outcome, but establishing clear communication about what your expectations are regarding romance and intimacy is important. This might look like sitting down once a week for a discussion about the upcoming weekly activities and where you will schedule in “me” time “romance time” and if needed, sex. If sex needs to be scheduled for it to happen, then there should be no shame around that. By scheduling it you’re making it a priority, which communicates to each other your commitment to connection. 

Next, it’s important to take time to understand what your partners love language is. If its gift giving then perhaps flowers and chocolates will elate them. If their love language is quality time, a weekend or day trip to a romantic place could spark romance. A partner who’s love language is physical touch may enjoy a couple’s massage and soft caressing under the stars. The person who feels most loved through acts of service would enjoy breakfast in bed, a candle lit home-made dinner (including clean dishes and kitchen), and finally a partner whose primary love language is words of affirmation may feel most loved by a well thought-out and hand-written card or love letter. Gary Chapman, Author of Love Languages offers a handy quiz that can be found at https://www.5lovelanguages.com/ It is a good resource to help us narrow down how we can connect deeply with our partner.

We also must take into consideration mental health challenges that either you or your partner may be facing. Both chronic stress and postpartum anxiety/depression can be hard on a relationship. Quality and stability of a relationship has been associated with the severity of postpartum depression. Emotional and practical support during this vulnerable time has a direct impact on optimal mental health functioning for new parents. When a birth parent has a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder “their feelings not only influence their perception of the baby but…they report inadequate communication with their partners and feel less likely to openly talk about problems in the relationship” (Kleinman, 2014). Postpartum mental health diagnosis can cause parents to withdraw and retreat from their relationship while also rejecting the emotional connection with their spouse. “Intimacy can feel raw, like touching an open wound” (2014). 

The take home message is that intimacy and romance need to be prioritized and communicated in a way that feels good to the recipient. If you’re feeling like perhaps there is a wall between the two of you, it will be important to rule out any postpartum mental health diagnosis before placing expectations on one another that are unrealistic. Educate yourselves about the postpartum body and mind and offer support in whichever way works for the other. Don’t forget the importance of therapy and how it can help facilitate the difficult conversations around romance and intimacy. Finding a safe non-judgemental therapist who’s experience in both couples and perinatal mental health will be an asset in moving forward in your relationship.

Yours truly,

Ashley

We are delighted that Ashley will be providing clinical services at Exhale Academy, she is also the owner of Mind Online an innovative way to make therapy more accessible.

 

Reference 

“The Married State.” Therapy and the Postpartum Woman: Notes on Healing Postpartum Depression for Clinicians and the ... Women Who Seek Their Help, by Karen Kleiman, Routledge, 2014, pp. 201–205.

 


Emotional Self-Care

Emotional Self-Care

by: Jennifer Brighton, MSW, RSW, PH.D(c), Psychotherapist, Meditation Teacher & Somatic Therapist

I wonder what it would be like to spend this entire month simply respecting and honouring our emotions.  Would it be possible to do this while at the same time not taking them too seriously?  

The fear many people have is that their emotions will overwhelm them, so they stifle them in an effort to cope.  The difficulty is that this does not allow our feelings to process, but instead displaces them until the next time they get triggered.  We don’t learn from the emotions, and we repeat patterns that enable them to rise to the surface over and over again.  At the same time, we do not want to get swept away by our emotions as this does not serve us either.  There is a balance with this. 

Can we give ourselves permission to feel our emotions within our tolerance?  Dipping our toes into them with openness and surrendering ourselves to self-discovery and evolution.  Our desire to make sense of our emotions takes us on a train of thinking that is often retrospective or projective.   That is, it takes us away from the present moment.  It takes us into story land.

When our emotions are strong, we can incorrectly assume they show us our truths. When in reality, emotions are merely information, they are anything but factual.  Understanding our emotions is laden with interpretation and skewed by our personal schema.  So as we honour and respect our emotions can we just allow them to be felt, have curiosity about the information they are giving us and temper ourselves from creating an interpretive narrative.    

One of the most powerful and humbling realizations I have had is that we genuinely don’t know what we don’t know.  Our brains are tricky and implicit memories will influence our interpretations.  Implicit memories are recollections that are stored in our subconscious but are outside of explicit awareness.   I often tell my clients that if an emotion causes you to feel like you have been sucker punched it likely is due to an earlier memory that you just don’t have access to.  It is at these times that we want to be consciously aware of our internal dialogue as this is how we will steer ourselves away from the information arising from the implicit memory.  It will also determine how we ultimately feel.  

For some of us, emotions can feel scary.  It can feel almost like the first time we started to learn to bike ride, only there are no training wheels and you know you are going to fall and get bruised.  We can forget that all we need to do is put our feet down and stabilize ourselves.  It is as though we fear we have chosen a steep hill and we are practising going downward, and the bike picks up momentum so quickly that we crash and get severely hurt.  The thing with emotions is that even when they are rushing like this we can still put our feet down, breathe and stay in the present moment.  We can also work deliberately to explore emotions with care and compassion and not choose the steep hill to practise on.

When we step away from our habitual responses even for a fleeting second, we can be humbled by everything.  We truly do not know everything about ourselves or about the world that we live in.  We are given a simple but blessed reminder that we ought to remain as a curious observer of our emotions, life, and experiences.  When we take the path of an observer, we develop awareness of our internal self-talk that is causing us to feel particular emotions.  Once we have this awareness, we can make a choice to bring increased conscious awareness to our emotions and respond to them from a place of insight rather than react to them mindlessly.  

No one is perfect, that isn’t the point of being human.  You will make mistakes, you will react, you will misinterpret things, you will be your emotions rather than merely feeling them.  And, that is all okay.  How beautiful it is to get the chance to make mistakes, to react, to misinterpret and to be our emotions.  For in there is the muddled, muddy path of self-learning and growth.  If it were a squeaky clean path, we wouldn’t experience our victories and triumphs with the same enthusiasm. 

As the Peruvian Shamans say, everything is medicine!  

Jennifer

What is the Point of it All?

What is the Point of it All?

By: Jennifer Brighton, MSW, RSW, PH.D (c)

I hear the furnace turn on with a rumble.  It is a gentle reminder that I have heat to warm my home.  I am nestled in after a long day, taking a few minutes to decompress.   I am feeling grateful for so much.  I am also mindful that this time of year can be difficult for people as it stirs and causes deeper self reflection and inquiry.

Depending on our self-assessment we can have positive or negative reactions. Some of us may review where we are in life. We may feel lonely or alone. We may miss family, friends and loved ones. Life can be messy. Somehow many of us have grown up aspiring to hallmark moments so much so that in our self observation we feel we are falling short. 

Everyday I work with clients that talk to me about their suffering.  I was stirred last week when multiple times from different people I heard “what is the point of all of it, what is the point of life”? They were genuinely asking what the point was of all their difficult experiences. They want it all to end.  I think we all do when we hit those periods in life.  It is natural for us to ask what the relevance is of our darker times.  The key is that this questioning is from a place of self growth and learning, not from a place of feeling victim to our circumstance.   There may be parts of us that feel lost and confused in this and we can get caught on the train of negative thinking.  We may even feel disillusioned. No one is absent of this feeling. In fact, I think this is a universal feeling when you are at the cusp of major life awakening.

I like to think of healing our wounded hearts like the healing of a broken limb. It is the pain that tells us something is wrong. It is the pain that calls us to action. It is in following through with compassionate action, like cleaning our wound and getting care that the broken arm has the chance to mend. Perhaps we even have to immobilize it for a while for it fully heal.

Our broken hearts and wounded souls require the same nurturing, love, care, compassion and stillness. It is only when we sit with the suffering and allow it to process that we have the opportunity to see that this is genuinely a benevolent universe; that everything we go through, and yes I mean EVERYTHING, is here FOR US! Sometimes our hardest times hit when our authentic internal self knows we are ready to grow. Like a butterfly finally pushing through the chrysalis. It takes courage and strength to be set free from the bondage that once kept us safe.

In the bondage of the mind we can retell a narrative of feeling stuck. We may not have the foresight to see that we only need break through the walls that hold us back. This gift of life is not about having the hallmark story, it is about personal evolution. It is about us growing, expanding, learning and leaning into that which scares us. It is about having a greater sense of purpose. It is about knowing that who we are, flaws and all, is enough to powerfully impact the people in our sphere. How we make that impact will be determined by our narrative.

I have a saying I tell my clients “we are our stories, so tell good ones.” Much like the movie “The Matrix” we have to choose our reality. As hard as that may feel when we are raptured by suffering or mental illness, it always remains possible. Suffering is offering growth at all levels.

So if you are suffering, like so many, know first and foremost that you are not alone. Know that you are deeply heard, seen, and understood! Know that no one can push you through the chrysalis, you have to dig deep within and know that your purpose is not within the bondage but outside of it. When you have even a glimmer that there is something more outside that wall, start to push, giving space for your fear. Giving yourself love, compassion and understanding for the strength and energy required to grow, blossom and thrive.


May you be filled with peace.


Jennifer

The Holiday Season is About Joy!

We are just over a month from Christmas break and holidays.  When did Christmas become mired with pressure instead of just pure joy?  I'm not sure.  

What I am sure of is that I am making a promise to myself this year that it will only be about joy.  Whatever it takes, because how we do anything is how we do everything.  So, I'm making a commitment to slowing down, breathing in rejuvination and exhaling all the stress.  Everytime I feel the stress starting, I am going to recite in my mind "just this moment."  

I know when I breathe in the air and exhale with a long breath out, my body relaxes and  I am able to connect with what really matters.   I am able to find that place within that is centred, like the eye of the storm.  I can watch what is going on around me and make a choice to participate in a way that is peaceful and harmonious.

Just a year ago we were starting to move into our new offices in Erin, Ontario.  There was much to be done.  The excitment was building as we planned our launch and hired staff.   Our offices and studio started to feel like a second home, in a good way.  We were all happy there and felt surrounded with positive energy.

This past year has continued to feel like this, only Exhale Academy is now not just our home it has become the second home to hundreds of people who believe in mind, body and breath healing.   We are overjoyed that our community has received us with open arms and that we are on this journey together.

In this spirit, how about we all make a commitment to this holiday season being pure joy?  Yes, even if you have difficult things to deal with.  I know it can be hard to tap into joy when our negative emotions feel justified.   We need to build in a pause, a breath, a moment of stillness and connection, for us to remember we are so much more then our emotions.  We always retain a choice around how we respond, no matter the circumstance.  

If this is a tough time, use the mantra, 'just this moment." to guide you within.   Know that even when we feel most alone, our breath reminds us that we are interconnected with everything.

Sending you peace, love & light.

Jennifer

www.exhaleacademy.com