STRATEGY #8 LEAD AN ACTIVE LIFE
A middle-aged carpenter who had been tormented by fears that his house was infested with insects told our group: “Keeping busy is good for me. If I let myself sit around I start thinking about those termites. I imagine them in the wall, in the attic, in the floor, everywhere. I start walking around looking for little piles of their sawdust. So I work on my car, clean the house, buy groceries, start my mother-in-law’s wood stove–whatever needs to be done is better for me than watching TV. If I just sit around I start to dwell on things.” A young woman with handwashing and cleaning compulsions who worked as a hospital aide noted: “The best thing I’ve found is to schedule my days so that each hour is accounted for. When I have things to do, I don’t obsess so much.”
I was skeptical of the utility of this lead an active life when I first started specializing in OCD. A person should learn to be able to enjoy free time, I thought, and not be driven to activity. But I didn’t know much about OCD back then. The fact is that the strategy of keeping active can be extremely helpful.
A man with severe OCD shared a reminiscence that was both touching and edifying. During his twenties, when his OCD was at its absolute worst, the only thing that kept him out of the hospital was keeping busy by helping others. Every day he would go his relatives’ houses and ask if anyone needed anything done. He would fix a furnace, mow a lawn, chop firewood, anything at all. He became a sort of legend in his family for his good works. Yet, he told us, all this activity served a dual purpose: It kept his mind occupied so that he was not constantly tormented by obsessions; and, at a time when he was filled with agonizing self-doubt, it made him feel good about himself.
What helps OCD sufferers the most is being involved in tasks that are challenging and creative, those that provide a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps that is why Winston Churchill, who suffered tormenting obsessions himself, once said: “those whose work and pleasures are one are fortune’s favorite children.” A good strategy for anyone, but especially for OCDers, is to find a creative endeavor, a mission, and be devoted to it one hundred percent.