August 4, 6:00 pm — Before the Explosion
It’s 6:00, and I hang up with my last client for the day. I work as a spiritual life coach for individuals with religious OCD, and I’ve had a long day of blogging, coaching, and studying. My husband, Michael, is still in his office in east Beirut, where he works for a faith-based mission organization. I’m expecting him home soon. I’ll fix a light supper, we’ll finish up some emails, and then we’ll read the Bible together at 7:30.
It’s been a long day, but a productive and predictable one.
My last client of the day was a 17-year-old girl. I jot down some notes about our session and drag and drop a worksheet into an email that I want to send to her. I start typing a short message.
6:06 pm — The Explosion
Suddenly, our building begins to shake violently and the windows rattle.
A thought flashes through my mind that I should get into a doorway — it must be an earthquake. I am half rising, half leaping from my chair when a supersonic noise — the likes of which I have never heard before — slams into me. It is loud, sudden, all-consuming. It vibrates my bone marrow. I scream in panic. In my seven years living in Beirut, I have never absorbed a sound like this.
I have heard fireworks.
I have heard machine gun fire.
I have heard car bombs.
But this is a totally different sound. It is the sundering of time and space, a terror so visceral that I feel my heart stop.
I am sure that someone is bombing us. War is breaking out. But why here, why my politically insignificant neighborhood in east Beirut? I grab my phone to call Michael. My hands are shaking violently. I hear a machine gun firing and women screaming.
Time stops completely. Nothing I was doing before this moment matters. Nothing I will do tomorrow has any meaning. I am suspended in the eternal now, my senses electrified, focused on one task: calling my husband.
I hear it ring once. Twice.
A key turns in the door, and Michael bursts inside. There is relief on his face when he sees me at home.
“Get our bag ready,” he says. “This might be it.” Then he disappears to check on our neighbors. Dutifully, I pull out the mandatory evacuation bag we keep packed at all times.
And then — my heart barely beating — I wait.
6:15pm — Suspended Existence
The most terrifying moment of my life has only taken a few brief moments, but it has jolted me out of life as I know it. I am suddenly thrown into intense anxiety as I seek answers that do not exist.
What is happening?
Am I in danger?
What should I do now?
Crouched in the bathroom doorway, I notice the shiny balcony tiles outside are glowing orange. Creeping slowly away from my spot, I peek out the sliding glass doors. I expect to see a nearby missile crater or a tank. Instead, I see a plume of eery, orange smoke, rising like a gigantic genie from a bottle. It draws itself up, several thousand feet in the air, and slowly spreads itself over the city.
I find my computer. For a few minutes, the local news sites are silent. Then reports start trickling in — an explosion at the port. No one knows if it is an attack or an accident.
I feel completely disembodied. I have never seen war or significant violence, and I feel like my entire life hinges on the moments passing before me right now. Nothing else exists except now.
8:30pm — Shock
As I watch footage of the blast, I begin to put an image, an explanation, to the shockwave. Later reports inform us that we have lived through a force one-fifth as powerful as Hiroshima. I remain in shock for hours, unable to look away from the slowly-updating news feed. When I close my eyes, all I see is billowing orange smoke.
The feeling of suspense is overwhelming. In the hours of uncertainty following the blast, the city is on a razor’s edge, wondering if there will be another. Some victims report having heard a jet overhead before the explosion. Others say it couldn’t have been chemicals, it must have been a massive bomb.
The fear that the explosion may have been a deliberate attack is made all the more potent by the fact that current political tensions are already so high. The question of armed conflict in Lebanon’s future isn’t a question of “if” — it’s a question of “when.”
It isn’t until the next day that enough evidence surfaces to convince us that the explosion was a terrible industrial accident.
The Aftermath – And What It Taught Me About OCD
The day after the attack, I walk through the blast zone with my husband and the regional director of a faith-based relief organization. Granulated glass crunches like snow under my footsteps, mangled cars lie silent and blood-spattered. The shattered buildings look like a scene from an apocalypse movie.
I return home and wonder why I still feel so shaken.
I’m safe. I know I’m safe.
At least, I’m pretty sure.
Why can’t I calm down and relax?
My mind turns to something that I routinely teach my clients during the course of the 12-Step Scrupulosity Recovery Program. I tell them about an experiment that tested two groups of people: an OCD group and a non-OCD group. Both groups were trained to “fear” a certain picture by getting an electrical shock every time the picture was shown. Researchers scanned their brains simultaneously and found that both types of people — OCD and non-OCD — responded with about the same level of fear.
But then the researchers retrained the volunteers to not be afraid of the picture anymore. They did this by repeatedly showing the picture, but this time, without the electrical shocks.
What they discovered is that the non-OCD group quickly returned to normal. They were able to see the picture without their brains registering fear. The OCD group, however, stayed at elevated fear levels much, much longer.
Once fear entered the picture, it stuck. For a long time.
Researchers concluded that although people with OCD seem to experience about the same level of fear as other people who are exposed to the same stimuli, the OCD brain appears to have a mechanism preventing us from returning to our emotional baseline.
There’s a name for this part of the brain, in fact. It’s called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It’s responsible for sending a “safety” signal. Unlike the healthy brains being tested in this study, the researchers discovered that the OCD brains were unable to send a signal from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
The brain appeared to be physically unable to send the “safety” signal.
That’s huge. That explains…well, a lot.
OCD and Crisis
In my coaching practice, I constantly work with clients to face their fears by faith. I encourage them with various techniques to sit through their obsessions. I guide them through the process of exposing themselves to their greatest fears and learning how to lay it down at the foot of the cross. I discourage them from unhealthy ways of escaping or avoiding the things that trigger their anxiety.
We do this in a context of believing that most of our scrupulous fears are, in some form or fashion, illogical and invalid intrusions on the religious experience.
But it’s important to separate between OCD anxiety and real crisis.
The fact that people with OCD ought to face our fears doesn’t mean we ought to go looking for crisis — because our brain structuring tells us that we will not handle crisis as well as others, and we will take much longer to get over it.
When my husband was recruited to coordinate a relief team to provide supplies for the search and rescue teams at the explosion site, he asked me if I want to come. His invitation came a few sentences after telling me that the relief workers had also asked him to bring body bags.
I told him I would stay home.
Just because OCD treatment involves intentionally facing our fears doesn’t mean we should ask for overload in times of crisis. On Saturday, I’ll be heading to the mountains for a week to recuperate. Despite having overcome my own OCD symptoms, I think you never really escape the tendencies that come to us from our unique brain wiring.
And I’ve decided to honor those realities by giving myself the extra time I need to bring my emotions back down to baseline.
I’m signed up to a service that will text me if they need more of my blood type. I’ve helped clean up in my neighborhood. Now it’s time for me to take care of me.
And that’s the kind of thinking I want you to have during a crisis, too.
In therapy? In coaching? Push yourself. I want to see you push yourself hard.
But when life throws you something really unexpected, take time to take care of yourself. (Hint: you can know the difference between OCD and “real” crisis by checking if anybody else other than you is affected. OCD happens in your head; real crisis happens in a broader context.)
Are you going through a nasty divorce? Give yourself longer than most people to work through the emotions.
Did you get mugged on your way home from the office? Consider giving yourself a few days off to process and calm down.
Did you have a car accident and are still feeling anxious days later? Respect your brain’s slowness in processing safety issues.
As someone with OCD, how have you handled your crisis moments? Do you find that you need a few days to get back to normal, or am I the only one? Drop me a comment below!