Lizards, Blood & Guilt: Hit-and-Run OCD
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began mountain biking regularly as the gymnasium I typically frequent shut down. With my newfound outdoor activity, I discovered a new type of freedom; the slow heavy-breathing-meditative-like ascent up the mountain, personal reflections and a sense of accomplishment at the summit, and the thrill of the quick descent. Little did I know, an old form of OCD would return, but this time with a twist - a variant of Hit-and-run OCD.
Hit-and-run OCD typically manifests amongst people before, while, or after they operate a vehicle. Below are some of the core fears sufferers experience regarding driving (not an exhaustive list):
👉Hitting someone and leaving them dead or suffering in the street
👉Being a bad person as a result
👉Concerns over being neglectful if attention gets diverted by changing the radio station
👉Going to jail
👉Being condemned by society
👉Not being able to tolerate not knowing if someone was hurt
Sufferers with hit-and-run-OCD will often engage in compulsions to avoid or minimize their worst fears coming true, such as:
👉Turning around to see if anyone was hurt
👉Looking to see if the police arrived at the scene
👉Avoiding driving around people
👉Engaging in mental rumination
👉Excessive checking of mirrors
👉Watching/listening to the news
👉Always having a passenger in the car to serve as a "witness."
Hit-and-run OCD can cause a tremendous deal of suffering for those experiencing it. Many will often lose minutes to hours driving around to ensure everything is okay, and some may even stop driving altogether.
Ok. Back to mountain biking. Over the summer, I was riding very often, four to five times per week. In Southern California, the summers can be very hot. Being a cold-blooded animal, a lot of lizards appear on the trails during the summer. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. Generally the middle of the path is clear and then suddenly a lizard will dart across the path. Cat-like reflexes were required if I didn't want to hit the little guys. I found myself frequently hitting the brakes and making sudden turns to avoid running them over. Sometimes, I would even go back to check and see if I ran one over when I wasn't sure. So far my fatality count was zero. However, on one particular day, I decided to ride a very narrow trail. As I was riding down the trail a lizard suddenly tried to run across, I hit my brakes but it was too late; I ran the lizard over. I immediately saw the lizard's bloody guts on the path, and unfortunately, the lizard was still alive. I stomped on it to make sure it wouldn't have to suffer. I felt extremely guilty after this happened.
The truth is, lizards are on the road, just as pedestrians cross the street. Unfortunately, it is a possibility that I may run over a lizard again, or even hit a person. The general rule-of-thumb I use is that I don't get to go back to check unless I am 100% sure that I hit someone or something. The feeling of being 100% sure may sound contradictory to things I've written earlier, but think of it this way: you're reading this blog article right now on a screen and probably aren't too concerned whether you are actually reading it or not. There is, however, a possibility that you could be hallucinating that you're reading this blog, or you could be in a parallel universe reading this blog while the "real you" is doing something else. It is tough to prove these things aren't true (as ridiculous as they sound), so we have to take it at face value, that yes, I am reading this blog article on a screen right now.
Now let's say this feeling represents "knowing" with 100% certainty. The rule is you don't get to go back to check that you hit someone or something until you are as certain that you hit someone or something as you are certain that you're reading this blog article right now. This doesn't mean you have to "feel" certain that you didn't hit someone, and the truth is you probably won't feel certain because if you did this probably wouldn't be a problem for you. (This concept and approach is something I've taken from Dr. Jonathan Grayson. It is similar to his use of The Gun Test)
Our mind will then like to say "But what if you actually hit someone?" Which is similar to "What if you aren't really reading this blog right now?" The latter may not cause you the same degree of anxiety as it's probably not a focus of your OCD, however, both are possibilities. So why live with these possibilities? In short, because we have no other choice. Then why take the risk that maybe you hit someone but just didn't know it, and to find out all you have to do is turn the car around? Begin to think of how OCD has hurt you and the people you care about. Have you lost time or relationships to OCD? If you continue to go back and check, what will your life look like 1, 5, 10 years down the road (no pun intended)? What kind of life does OCD keep you from living?
We take risks like the above all the time. Take the surfer or cyclist for example; they could drown or get hit by a car. If you ever leave your house, why bother when something terrible could happen such as getting mugged? Why go to sleep at night when the house alarm or smoke detector could fail? The more we ask ourselves these kinds of questions the more we realize that risk and uncertainty are unavoidable. If we try to live certain and risk-free lives, we end up living very small and inadequate lives. What kind of life do you want to live?