Our fears love to latch onto the very things we would never want to have happen. The problem is, the moment we start reacting to the intrusive thoughts with coping, checking, and controlling compulsions, we actually encourage our brains to throw those intrusive thoughts at us even more, and they only get more intense the more we engage in the compulsions to get rid of them.
I had lots of compulsions related to knives and they involved seeing and feeling intense, disgusting, horrifying experiences. So I was thrilled to learn the skills to get over these compulsions and the intrusive thoughts/images. Here are five things that helped me put this behind me:
- My knife compulsions were only a tiny part of the massive OCD beast so I did tackle them as part of eliminating all of the other compulsions. It’s tough to only cut out one compulsion if you’re still practicing lots of other compulsions. For me, knife compulsions were more difficult than some other ones so it helped to learn how to cut out easier compulsions first. I already knew how to cut out compulsions and accept difficult feelings or thoughts. So even if fears related to knives are bothering you the most, I suggest starting somewhere else first.
- I took cooking classes. I had to buy big chef knives and carry them on the subway for each class and I had to use the knives in a crowded kitchen, carrying them back and forth between different stations, and spend lots of time cutting vegetables. It was by far the most useful and delicious therapy exercise. I am super skilled now at onion dicing tricks and adding butter to everything. Learning how to cook also brought skills into my life that have helped me continue to build healthy skills and keep using knives.
- I cut out all of the compulsions I had with avoiding knives, hiding them, holding them, checking them etc. Compulsions feed obsessions/anxiety/intrusive thoughts, so it helped me to recognize that choosing to engage in those compulsions was choosing to have all of those intrusive thoughts and see those things I hated seeing and feel those things I hated feeling. It might be difficulty to take responsibility for those feelings, but I found it empowering. I can change the actions that were keeping me trapped in the OCD hole.
- THIS ONE IS A BIT GRAPHIC, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK: With knives, in addition to seeing myself stabbing others, I would experience very physical sensations when I got intrusive thoughts about myself. I would actually feel my fingers getting sliced off, knives stabbing through my feet, knives slicing into my gut, and I would feel the pain. Especially with believing I’d sliced off my fingers, my nerves would tingle up my arm and there was very real pain. I hadn’t actually cut myself but the pain and the physical sensations were so real, that I would put the knife down and look at my hand and have to reassure myself it was all there even though it felt like it wasn’t. But that was a compulsion. I really didn’t want that to happen so, of course, my brain worried about it happening and, from years of practicing reacting to that fear, my brain began to believe it really was happening. The more I reacted to that fear, the more my brain would worry about it so I could get the relief of checking that I hadn’t sliced off my fingers. To deal with that, when I would feel that I had sliced off my fingers, instead of panicking and checking, I would accept that I had sliced off my fingers. They’re all gone! I’d let that tingling in my arm be there and I’d welcome it instead of trying to get rid of it. I wouldn’t check my fingers. In my head, I would imagine holding up my hand with everything cut off and waving it around happily. I’d accept that there was nothing I could do about my fingers now, so I’d better wash the tomatoes and break up the lettuce for the salad. 🙂 And then my brain would worry about my blood getting in the salad and spreading some disease and killing all of my guests that are coming over for dinner. So then I’d agree with my brain: that’s exactly what will happen, so I’d better make sure I prepare an extra-delicious salad since it’s the last one they’ll eat. ** A big part of this practice was recognizing that the stuff in my head isn’t real. It’s just stuff in my head. Even though every cell in my body is in full-blown panic mode because it thinks I’ve cut off my fingers, I know I actually haven’t. I do know I have OCD. And reacting to the stuff in my head will only make OCD worse. All I can do in any moment is accept the stuff in my head and keep my focus mindfully on doing healthy actions in the present.
- I very much recommend tackling this issue with a professional. Knives do actually cut things. Any time you’re eliminating compulsions that involve something that’s potentially dangerous, always work with a professional that has experience helping people recover from those compulsions. I get a lot of messages from people doing Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) incorrectly and see people on forums describing ERP exercises incorrectly and wondering why things are getting worse. Don’t jump into tackling knife compulsions until you’re skilled at cutting out compulsions. Doing ERP or Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is scary at first so it definitely helped that I started out with a professional. I tackled the knife compulsions on my own after I’d done therapy, but I’d done therapy for six months prior to that, learning the skills to tackle those compulsions. So I definitely recommend working with a professional that can help you build up those skills for eliminating compulsions and for relating differently to the stuff in your head.
Getting over knife-related compulsions has been amazingly helpful because it’s helped me tap into the support of being able to cook for myself. I hope you’re able to turn knives into something that’s useful for you in your life as well.