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You're Sober, But Are You Really? OCD & Sobriety

When I got sober in 2014, it was the beginning of a brand new life for me. Getting sober allowed me to build a life that I could be pleased with. I was also able to make significant gains in areas of my life which OCD affected, however, I was not prepared for a new form of OCD that was yet to come.

The particular grounds established for my "sobriety" and recovery entailed that, to consider myself sober, I would not consume alcohol or any other illicit drugs (including marijuana), maybe not easy, but simple enough right? I protected and cherished my sobriety like a precious family heirloom. This meant I wouldn't consume foods that used alcohol in the preparation; vanilla extracts, rum cake, and Italian dishes cooked with wine were out of the question. Ok, still simple enough, right? As my concern, aka obsession grew over what foods and products may contain alcohol, my freedom became more limited. I learned that vinegars often start out as an alcohol, and that fermented foods contained trace amounts of alcohol. I began avoiding these altogether too. Goodbye Kimchi, I'll miss you! I began looking over each ingredient in a product or nutritional supplement, and if I didn't know what the ingredient was I would read about it to try to ensure that there would be no way it could intoxicate me. My freedom with what I could consume grew smaller and smaller. I became fearful to order foods at restaurants because I didn't know if a particular sauce contained alcohol, so I started asking the wait staff. Something I used to enjoy, eating out at restaurants, became something stressful.

Sometimes, I would try to do an exposure by having vinegar on a salad or by eating kimchi. I would initially be proud of myself, only to find I actually started "feeling" different shortly after eating these "forbidden" foods. I would experience a disassociative-type feeling and my thoughts would race. I couldn't tell if I was imagining this or if it was actually happening. Nevertheless, it was terrifying. Thoughts went through my mind, such as "Did I just relapse and lose my sobriety?" And, "Am I high right now? Should I call my sponsor?" Much of this was follwed up by reassurance seeking in the form of internet searches and talking to other people. I struggled in this way for years.

I eventually came to terms with my situation and began eating the foods that scared me. It was nerve-racking at first, but a highly freeing experience. I was able to do this by essentially using cognitive techniques, such as the double-standard method. For example, I would ask myself, "Do I think it's okay for other sober people to consume these foods but it's not okay for me?" If the answer was yes, then I would move toward exposure and eat the food.

As time progressed I moved on to newer levels of chaos. If I would get a whiff of pot smoke from someone nearby I would begin to freak out and wonder if I caught a second-hand high. I would actually begin feeling different - it was terrifying! I began to doubt my intentions, "Did I intentionally breathe in deeper when I smelled the pot? Did I try hard enough to avoid it? What were my true motives in that situation? Did I secretly want to get high?"

At several points in my sobriety, I would obsess about what sobriety actually was. Many sober people will say that we should not consume anything that affects up from the neck up. Or that we should not consume any mood or mind-altering substances. I began thinking about these statements more and realized how fragile they were. For example, nicotine and caffeine are both mood and mind-altering, and many sober people consume both multiple times per day, and they're still "sober." I had to come to terms with the uncertainty.

At yet another point in my sobriety, I became obsessed about the step/recovery work I was doing. My journey consisted of various steps, such as: believing in a higher power, creating a personal moral inventory, and making amends where they were due. Words such as "rigorous" and "thorough" appeared in the instructions for my recovery assignments. I also had to recognize where I was "wrong" and make matters right if need be. This was the perfect environment for my OCD to latch on. The language in my mind would sound something like this: "Was I being rigorous and thorough? If so, was it enough? Could I do better? What if I left something out? Was I wrong for teasing my friend when we were younger? Should I apologize for that? Do I call my sponsor? Will I relapse if I don't talk about it? Do I actually believe in a higher power? What if I'm not actually an alcoholic or addict? Should I even be here? Am I a fraud? Am I wasting my time?"

I could go on and on about variations of the experiences above. It was rather clear to me all along that this was [probably] OCD, however, as many of us know too well, KNOWING isn't enough and logic isn't great at changing how we feel. This is one of the reasons why OCD is so distressing; we know one thing but feel another. At the core, this manifestation of OCD is really no different from many others. It involves a significant amount of doubt and compulsion. In another context, OCD may look like this: "Am I a good enough Christian, Jew, Catholic? Am I doing enough in this area of my life? Am I a hypocrite or a fraud?" I have experienced the same thing with veganism. "If I eat vegetables that were grown with animal-based fertilizer am I still vegan?" Again, I could go on, and on...and on. Those with OCD know too well how painful this can be. It's as if our whole identity and place in the world are at stake.

So what can we do? In short:

  • Embrace the uncertainty

  • Lean into fear

  • Use cognitive techniques

  • Practice mindfulness

  • Do exposure and response prevention

  • Avoid reassurance from sponsors, the internet, and others

  • Meditate

  • Exercise

  • Identify values

  • Create values-based goals and pursue them

  • Work with an OCD therapist

  • Join an OCD support group

While what I described in this writing may only apply to a small number of people, I hope it serves as something grounding to someone who may relate. I'm here to help if you have any questions.

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