Monday, 3 November 2014

Using Buddhism to overcome OCD. (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

Simon Yeoman-Taylor

In 2008 I was diagnosed with cancer which I used medication and my Buddhist practise to overcome. 

What happened as a result of that was 5 years of battling a mental illness called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

As OCD is such a complex disorder I feel I need to explain a bit about it so you understand how hard it was. OCD is a very severe and crippling chronic illness that is often much misunderstood in popular culture. It is also very common, affecting around 1 in 50 people. It can manifest in an infinite number of ways and each case will be specific to each individual. The basis of the disorder is fear and anxiety that manifest in thoughts and worries that something bad might happen (obsessions) if you don’t do a particular thing (compulsions). For example you may think that you might get ill if you don’t was your hands exactly 3 times before dinner. OCD is a mental disorder but it behaves like a virus in that it can keep changing and adapting to trick you. It is as also as clever as you are and wants to stay alive. What the individual is worried about will be what is most valuable to them, such as family members or their health.
Looking back at my life before cancer I can notice instances of obsession and anxiety that had been with me for many years on and off, but I never really noticed them and it was never a big problem for me. However, when I was just getting over cancer I was subject to regular check ups at the hospital which were very anxiety provoking as I was concerned that I would get ill again. So my whole focus became on staying well and OCD started to creep in to my life, in small ways at first but then escalated in to what I thought was a complete nervous breakdown, but was in fact very severe OCD.

I started believing I had to take a certain amount of vitamins a day, wash my hands a certain way and if I touched anything dirty I would have to wash them all over again for fear of getting ill. My hands were cracked and bleeding but I kept on washing them. I would repeatedly check myself for symptoms of cancer, see there was nothing wrong, but then have to check myself again and again until I felt sure I was ok. I also had to check the door was locked about 20 times when I left the house for fear of someone getting in. I was often so anxious that I often had to rush back to the house when I had gone out just to check that everything was ok. I ended up taking videos on my phone to reassure myself it was ok. I also had thoughts that if I did or didn’t do certain things such as read something in a certain way or do things a certain number of times I would get ill, plus a host of similar OCD symptoms.

I didn’t know what was going on as I didn’t know I had OCD or even what OCD was, I just knew I was terrified all the time as if my life was constantly in jeopardy. It felt like the compulsions I was doing were the only things keeping me alive. I knew something wasn’t right but the thing about OCD is that that sometimes you are not sure what’s real. The anxiety was so strong it felt like that I just had to do these things or something awful would happen. The trouble is that the more you do compulsions the worse they become and the more it takes over your life. It was also seriously affecting my Buddhist practice.

So you can see what a miserable sort of life I was living. All the while throughout this illness I never lost my faith in Buddhism. I had used it to overcome cancer so was sure that it could help me beat this, whatever it was. I had no idea how it would help me because I thought I was going crazy but I just knew that somehow if I persevered it would be ok in the end.

It was clear that I needed some kind of medical help so I went to the mental health specialists and got diagnosed with OCD. This was a relief and up until this point I had no idea what was wrong with me. It was recommended that I undergo cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is where a therapist explains what OCD is, the tricks it uses to stay alive and how to get rid of it. Unfortunately the mental health service in this country varies in quality from place to place and it happened that the mental health service where I was living was quite poor and I did not have a good therapist. This made me loose faith in CBT as a therapy so I left treatment still just as OCD as before.

It was then that I decided that I couldn’t cope with this problem on my own any more and moved back to London and was looked after by my mother. To cut a long story short I spent the next 2 years in very intense suffering with various symptoms of OCD, seeking no further professional help as with my previous experience I didn’t believe they could cure me. It felt like that if I was able to make it through the day with myself and everyone else still alive then it was good day, but it was completely draining physically and mentally. My friendships suffered and I did not have a girlfriend as it would have been too much stress to cope with. My mother, who also practices Buddhism, was very kind in looking after me.

During this period I made a strong determination that I would get better. My mentor in life Daisaku Ikeda has written about linking our personal prayers to prayers for kosen rufu (essentially meaning world peace) being very powerful. So I chanted to get better so I could fulfil my responsibilities as a leader within my Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International UK. I also chanted to be able to give this experience of overcoming OCD in Buddhist magazines and at various meetings in front of people, so I could inspire others. As such being able to write this experience has become part of my victory. I chanted for 2 or 3 hours a day and attended lots of meetings including doing lots of Soka activities at the national Buddhist centre in Taplow and the South London National Centre. There were times when my suffering was so great I just wanted to give up but I re-determined and kept going. I studied more Buddhism and learnt that to overcome obstacles you must persevere and not be intimidated otherwise you cannot win.

I had started a campaign of chanting called The Actual Proof campaign in 2012, where we were encouraged to chant about something in our lives we thought was unobtainable. My only goal was to stop having OCD. Sometimes it felt like I was getting better but I really wasn’t. It wasn’t until August 2013 that things started to change. One day, I had a massive OCD attack. I was scared that if I touched or did anything that somehow people could be harmed, especially my Buddhist friends. These thoughts happened every time I touched anything so simple things like writing texts or emails was a nightmare. I couldn’t swallow food properly so sometimes I didn’t eat enough or even at all. I couldn’t work anymore so I had to give up my job. So this was very serious, my life was a real mess. The OCD had taken away my job, was trying to starve me, and most worryingly was stopping me from practicing Buddhism. This was the most important thing for me as I knew that if I could just do that I would be able to change everything else. In some ways the fact that OCD chose to attack me in this way was a compliment as it makes you fearful of hurting the things you care most about. This showed me that this practise was the most important thing in my life.

It was at this point that I decided that I needed to try and get some more professional help as I clearly wasn’t coping as I was. I went to the doctors and they referred me to a local mental health team with plans to give me more CBT, which from my previous experience I was sceptical about. This happened just before a Buddhist summer course and I was debating whether to go because I was such a bad state, but I summoned up all my courage and went anyway. The course was great but on the second day my OCD flared up and I decided I needed to get some guidance. So I was fortunate enough to be able to have guidance a senior Buddhist leader. The guidance was basically to not give up practicing, to chant for the correct medical help and to chant about what my life would be like after I had got over OCD, what things could I do when the OCD was gone. I took this away with me and started to chant about it and slowly but surely I was able to chant more and more until I was doing well over an hour a day again. I had also had some guidance from another leader who had had OCD themselves to chant to transform the negativity, so I incorporated this as well.

I chanted to have the correct therapist for me, and when I started CBT I was amazed that I got a wonderful therapist who was very knowledgeable about OCD, was compassionate, and was around my age which made him easy to relate to. He also knew a bit about Buddhism and I was able to share with him what we did in Nichiren Buddhism. I was in a group with some other people with OCD and we learned about the ways OCD worked and how to overcome it together. We were able to encourage each other and I chanted for each of their happiness’ and for them to overcome their OCD. I also chanted for the therapist’s happiness. I was recommended that I take some anti-depressant medication to help me cope with the OCD. I don’t like taking medication after having all that chemotherapy but I thought it was best. The ones they wanted to give me had lots of potential nasty side effects including coma, but I did a lot of research and chanted not to get any side effects, so when I started taking them all I got was some mild nausea which went away after a while, and the pills did help.

The CBT I was getting was so much better than the one I had previously I couldn’t believe it. It would take too long to go in to the therapy as it is quite complex but to surmise, OCD is a very difficult opponent but the sufferer learns to realise that the things they are experiencing are just thoughts, nothing more, they don’t mean anything. The way to stop OCD is to summon forth an exceptional amount of courage and not to do any of the compulsions, to tolerate the extreme fear and anxiety, and not avoid doing things for fear of what might happen. Once you start doing this you see that nothing bad happens at all, OCD is just a bully with nothing to back it up. However, this is much easier said than done as you firmly believe that something bad will happen. But this is what I started to do. I stopped doing the compulsions to a large extent and I felt so much I was able to get on with my day without suffering as much. I was so pleased. 

It’s now 6 months later and my life has improved dramatically. I’m back to normal now and am able to go about my life, have got a cool job and am getting my life back on track. I still have the obsessions attacking me daily but I know how to handle them and they bother me much less. I’m sure as long as I don’t give in to fear they’ll just fade away the less attention I give them. It’s up to me whether I give in to fear and anxiety and have a bad day or if I overcome my fear and live my life how I want to live it. It’s my responsibility for my life and my happiness. I think it’s easy to do things if you aren’t afraid, you just do them, but true courage is when you are afraid but do what you want to do anyway.

I believe that the CBT I receive the second time was so much better because I had had 3 years of chanting and Buddhist activities to change the karma I had to be ill with OCD. I will probably have to be vigilant against OCD for the rest of my life but as long as I do the CBT techniques and keep chanting it will not be a problem.

So what have I learned from this experience? That perseverance is the key to victory, that I never give up, to be fearless, and that with this Buddhist practise you can overcome OCD and indeed anything. The last 6 years of my life have been about being ill and I have gained a lot of compassion towards people who are struggling with illness. As a result I will be able to be a better person and help other people through their struggles with OCD.

I would like to finish with a Gosho quote that has kept me going and I feel is particularly appropriate to overcoming OCD:

One passage from the same volume reads: “As practice progresses and understanding grows, the three obstacles and four devils emerge in confusing form, vying with one another to interfere . . . One should be neither influenced nor frightened by them. If one falls under their influence, one will be led into the paths of evil. If one is frightened by them, one will be prevented from practicing the correct teaching.” This statement not only applies to me, but also is a guide for my followers. Reverently make this teaching your own, and transmit it as an axiom of faith for future generations.
WND 1: 61, p501 Letter to the Brothers.

Simon is a filmmaker living in south east london who had been practising Buddhism for 7 years.

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