“Oh my god, where did you get that bruise!?!” my husband asked as I was changing into pajamas after our long day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
“Where?” I asked, puzzled, not recalling any specific incidents during the day that would’ve caused bruising.
“Right there, on your side,” he pointed. With my shirt off, I looked in the bathroom mirror. Sure enough, it looked like an enormous bruise on the right side of my torso.
“Oh wow, yeah, look at that! I wonder if Baby S. kicked me while I was holding him for a little while this afternoon,” recalling my time holding my 18-month old nephew during the day. “What a strange place to get a bruise!”
Instinctively, I pushed on the bruise, expecting it to hurt. But there was no pain. So, I pushed on different parts of the enormous bruise. Still, no pain. I was perplexed.
Then I happened to look down at the shirt I had worn all day that was now laying on the floor. It was a teal colored t-shirt, a new one I had bought from Target just prior to the vacation.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I think maybe my sweat might have caused some of the teal color from the shirt to bleed onto my skin! I was sweating pretty good this afternoon when it was hot. It’ll probably come off in the shower tomorrow.”
I continued to change into my pajamas, washed my face, and crawled into bed.
OMG, I Didn’t Panic or Catastrophize!
It wasn’t until I was laying there in bed until I realized that I had just experienced an amazing Health Anxiety OCD success.
I was three months into my therapy, and I almost couldn’t contain my pride at that small victory.
You see, hypochondriac Melissa would have immediately tensed up at any mention of an unusual bruise. Begun catastrophizing. “Leukemia! Low platelet counts?! Oh god, what can it be?”
And, even when Hypochondriac Melissa would have come to a conclusion that the teal color had bled from my new t-shirt, hypochondriac Melissa would have started immediately scrubbing her side with a washcloth just to make sure that her assessment was correct.
It was one of the first noticeable successes of my therapy.
The second success
My second success came while walking through the Trader Joe’s parking lot. I got out of the car, and noticed that my side was starting to hurt. I opened up the back door of the car to get out my reusable shopping bags, and noticed that my side was hurting even more.
As I started to walk from my car to the Trader Joe’s entrance, I kept saying, “Ouch, fuck, my side. Fuck, my side hurts.”
But, that was it. I was just saying, “it hurts.”
It wasn’t until I got inside the store, as I was reaching for a shopping cart, that I had just had another major hypochondria win.
Why was it a win? Because all I said was,” Ouch, my side hurts.”
Hypochondriac Melissa would have done this:
“Fuck, what is that ache in my side. What did I do to it? Did I twist weird this morning? Did I sleep on it wrong? What’s on my right side? Is that the colon? Oh god, is it colon cancer? Or is the colon on my left side? Dammit, what if I’m getting a kidney infection? Ugh, that would be like three days in the hospital on IV antibiotics, assuming I don’t have any complications. Kidney infections can be pretty serious afterall. So, if this pain gets worse, you definitely will want to get it checked out. Kidney infections can lead to sepsis, and yep, death.”
By the time I would’ve gotten into the store, Hypochondriac Melissa probably would have started googling “pain in upper right side” from her phone. And, depending on the results, started feeling increasing thoughts of dread as I considered all the things that could be wrong with me. My walk through the supermarket would have been distracted and downtrodden. I would say, “Why bother to even finish buying groceries. I’ll probably be dead within a month anyway.” I would have been anxious to get back home and lay down in bed to see if that helped the pain in my side.
Instead, after several months of therapy, I just said “Ouch, it hurts.”
See the difference?
Pains are Normal
During one of my first therapy appointments, Dr. Lindo pointed out that non-OCD people do feel aches and pains and twinges. But, they just don’t really pay attention to them. They have not trained their mind, like I have, to concentrate on those bodily sensations and to pay extra attention to them. I had read all about it before, that human bodies are “noisy” and create all sorts of sensations that do not mean anything is wrong.
So, she reminded me that a goal of therapy would not be a complete absence of these sensations. But rather, to process these sensations like a non-OCD sufferer. And, with my lack of reaction, I felt like I was truly on the path to overcoming my health anxiety OCD.
Smaller Wins Prior to the Two Bigger Wins
Prior to these two “major” wins, as I’d categorize them, I was also experiencing some smaller, minor wins. One time, about 6 weeks after starting therapy and probably a solid 2-3 weeks of actively controlling my compulsions, my husband and I were heading out to dinner for his birthday. As we were driving to the restaurant, I noticed a kind of quick “jabbing” feeling in my abdomen. It went away almost instantaneously, but my mind still jumped to worry and catastrophic thoughts. However, I immediately implemented some of the techniques that I had been learning in therapy and from my OCD workbook. 1) I recited to myself, this is just an OCD thought. This worry is just an irrational, OCD thought. 2) I actively prevented myself from engaging in any of my compulsions. I did not touch the spot on my abdomen where it was hurting. I did not push on it. I did not Google the symptoms from my phone in the car. 3) I took several deep breaths.
I’ll be honest, at that point, only a few weeks into therapy, I still wasn’t sure how these types of actions (or lack of action, in the instance of the compulsions) were doing me any good. Even as I recited to myself, “this is just an OCD thought” and did my deep breathing, I couldn’t help but think that this was all some sort of expensive racket.
As we were eating in the restaurant, I realized that I hadn’t thought about the quick jab of pain in my side. Even though I had engaged in some “catastrophizing thoughts” in the car immediately after I felt the jab, I managed to quickly forget about the pain.
Pre-therapy Melissa would have been continuing to stress about the pain even though it was gone. I would have been an anxious mess, waiting for the pain to return with a vengeance. I probably would’ve Googled my symptom when I got in the restaurant. “Quick jab pain sensation in lower left abdomen.” But instead, without realizing it, I was enjoying my dinner, undistracted by worries of a totally inconsequential pain returning. Yes, I had still had catastrophe type thoughts when the pain did occur, but this, to me, was the first real scenario that indicated to me I was actually getting better. I was, perhaps, getting less obsessive after just six weeks of therapy.
Who knew! Maybe there was hope for me after all!