It’s the classic scenario: I’m meeting for the first time with a client. He describes his struggle with religious OCD and then, almost by accident, mentions how God saved him from a horrible alcohol addiction.
I ask, “Have you struggled with other kinds of addictions, too?”
He nods rather sheepishly, and out tumbles a story of porn addictions, or gambling, or hoarding behaviors.
One woman tells me of a promiscuous younger life when she couldn’t stop her addiction to manhunting, despite knowing that it was ruining her chances at getting true love. Another man, somewhat incoherently, rambles about the illuminati, his inability to stop counting things, and the methamphetamines he took before he met the Lord. And overwhelmingly, there are the stories of alcohol, AA meetings, hidden bottles, and rehab centers.
Have you struggled with addictions in the past, or do you struggle with one now? You might be wondering which came first, the OCD or the addiction. We’ll talk about that in this article and hopefully shed some light one why there’s such a strong link between OCD and addiction. But first, let’s take a look at the data.
The Data on OCD and Addiction
According to the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, there is a high correlation between substance use disorders and OCD. 24% of individuals with OCD also struggle with alcohol addiction, which is 5x higher than the national average. This makes alcoholism the most common substance use disorder experienced alongside OCD.
But it is not the only one.
An astonishing 18% of people with OCD are also juggling a drug-related addiction.
And a little-known addictive disorder called Maladaptive Daydreaming also has strong links with OCD. In one study, just under 54% of maladaptive daydreamers (i.e. people who experience vivid, addictive fantasies that lead to dissociative behavior) also met the criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It’s clear that OCD and addiction have a close, toxic relationship.
But which one comes first?
Do we get addicted to bad things because we’re obsessives, or do we end up acting obsessively because of the aftereffects of our addictions?
As far as I know, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that being addicted to something today will lead to me having OCD tomorrow. I will definitely agree that drugs and alcohol can leave permanent marks on the brain, but we wouldn’t say that the things you did as a teenager in the back of the school parking lot caused the OCD you’re suffering with today.
Instead, the data suggests a different story.
70% of people with substance use disorders and OCD say that they had already been experiencing OCD for a year or more before developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Although I don’t have statistical data on this, my own interviews with OCD sufferers also suggests that other types of addictions often come as a response to the OCD.
This happens for two main reasons. Addictions may arise in the OCD context either for reasons of rigidity or escapism.
Mental Rigidity: A Link Between OCD and Addiction
Can you bend down and touch your toes? Are you flexible enough to do the splits?
Being physically flexible is a sign of good health. But have you thought about being mentally flexible?
Most of us with OCD are not mentally flexible. In fact, speaking for myself, I’m terribly inflexible. I don’t handle change very well–neither the big changes of life transitions, nor the little changes of having surprises in my daily schedule. I find it hard to let other people do things differently than I would want them done. I have very rigid expectations for how my house, my clothes, my spirituality, and indeed, my whole LIFE needs to be.
This is not mental flexibility. This is called mental rigidity.
Mental rigidity simply means we have a hard time changing directions, transitioning to different tasks, or giving up our preferred “way.” Janet Singer has written about how OCD makes time management difficult. In part, this is because we struggle to make transitions from one task to another if we don’t feel the first task is truly “complete.”
Those of us with OCD live in a different world than most people. It is a black-and-white world, a place where everything must be “just so” in order for us to feel calm. It is like living in an artificially sustained space colony, where the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and water quality must be kept at razor-sharp levels of precision to sustain life in an otherwise hostile environment.
Yes, when you have OCD, life feels like a “hostile environment.” We struggle to constantly organize and control our surroundings to feel safe. The momentary feelings of safety we garner from this controlling urge is just enough to reinforce our behavior–and thus, rigidity is born.
Mental Rigidity and Addictions
Being in a rigid mental state means that it is difficult to switch tasks. The research actually supports the idea that the OCD brain is deficient in areas responsible for suppressing repetitive action.
Bottom line: it’s tough for the OCD brain to move on from one task to another. We just get stuck in repetitive activities. This is, to a large degree, an issue of activity transition.
So what should we expect when we pick up a highly addictive substance? (Or engage in a highly addictive behavior, since not all addictions involve substances?)
It’s almost like we have a predisposition or vulnerability to addiction due to our mental rigidity.
If I can’t stop counting, or praying, or ruminating, what makes me think I’ll be able to stop drinking at the drop of a hat?
When I sit in sessions with my clients, I sometimes hear stories of how God miraculously rescued them from addictions (usually relating to alcohol). But I’ve also been heartbroken at times to visit online support groups where incoherent members are blurting out “help” messages, and it’s scarcely possible to know if they’re asking for help for their OCD or their addiction.
No, dear friends–addictions are not pretty. We want to avoid them at all costs, because it’ll be harder for us to escape than it would be for others.
OCD as an Addictive Vulnerability
Did you know that Native American Indians have the highest rate of alcoholism-related deaths of any ethnic group in the US?
Part of this is due to severe environmental factors like poverty and isolation which lead to substance abuse. But part of the problem is due to genetic vulnerabilities. Some studies have found that Native Americans do not metabolize alcohol at the same speed as people of other ethnicities, which can create a cascade of other effects. It has been suggested that this makes Native Americans more vulnerable to alcoholism simply due to genetics.
Have you ever thought of yourself as having a natural vulnerability to addiction?
This isn’t to knock anybody or make you feel bad. But awareness can give us an extra buffer of protection against addictive temptations.
Once we understand our own mental rigidity, it empowers us to be proactive in stopping addictive behavior sooner–before it turns into a bona fide addiction.
We can say to ourselves, “I’m probably going to get addicted to this much easier than others. I better take care of myself and nip this in the bud.”
Sure, decreasing our mental rigidity is definitely a goal. We need to work towards being more flexible. But until we get there, understanding our natural bend towards rigidity can be an empowering insight that helps to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Escapism: A Common Bridge Between OCD and Addiction
Another common link between OCD and addiction is simply the need for an escape.
The anxiety, rumination, obsessions, and compulsions are merciless. They won’t stop. You feel like your brain is on fire, and your nerves are so shattered that you can sometimes feel yourself shaking.
I know, it’s natural to want out. A smooth little escape, one that no one will notice or care about.
I mean, it’s not as if you’re committing suicide or cutting your wrists. You’ll be back at work tomorrow morning, and no one will know a thing.
It’s something quiet and indulgent. A few drinks, a couple of tablets. A few hours of daydreaming or food binging or watching porn while you masturbate. A few hundred bucks at the poker table.
In short, it’s anything that helps you escape the constant tattoo of intrusive thoughts and obsession.
The desire for an escape is how some of OCD’s most powerful addictions are begun.
The Erroneous Nature of Escapism
Escaping from OCD might sound like a good idea–at least initially. OCD is like a prison for the mind, and it feels good to get away for a while. But pretty soon, your escapist tactic becomes another prison. The alcohol, porn, drug, or junk food soon takes over, and life is nothing more than a terrifying shuttle between two prisons. You thought it was just an innocent way to soothe yourself before going to bed at night, but pretty soon you’ve got a spot on your lung and can’t see the bathroom scale when you step on it.
This is the true nature of escapism. It offers immediate relief, but long-term imprisonment.
And for those of us with OCD, we don’t need any more imprisonment than we already have!
Do you remember what Jesus said about feeling worn down?
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30
When you’re heavy laden and exhausted from the strain of OCD, the answer isn’t to escape. The answer is to trade our heavy yoke for the easy yoke of Christ.
Dear friend, let me assure you that whatever you may be going through right now, Christ can help you. Yes, you. No matter how dark your struggle with anxiety has been, He can help. Don’t turn to harmful substances or behaviors to soothe your spirit. At the end of the day, they will bite you. But the help that Christ offers will never betray or wound you.
Come to Christ. Tell Him, “Lord, it’s so hard for me to withstand the constant inner torture of my OCD. I’m so tempted to self-medicate with harmful things. Please, save me from my own vulnerabilities!”
The Reason We Self-Medicate OCD with Addictive Behavior
At the core of our escapist agenda is an issue of low discomfort tolerance.
We “can’t handle” this much discomfort.
Or can we?
Ask yourself what kind of inner dialogue you’ve been having with yourself. How often do you tell yourself,
- “I can’t handle this!”
- “This is too much.”
- “Nobody should have to go through what I’m going through.”
- “This isn’t fair!”
- “I can’t stand my OCD.”
This is low discomfort tolerance. We tell ourselves we “can’t stand” it, and pretty soon, we start to believe it.
I get it. I have OCD, too, so I’m not talking to you from a pedestal. I’m not that great with handling life’s discomforts either. But have to learn that yes, we can stand it. We can handle a whole lot more discomfort than we thought we could.
What makes you reach for that bottle? Isn’t it a core belief that you can’t stand the discomfort of OCD?
The good news is that our tolerance levels are not set in stone. This is part of your emotional intelligence level, and it can be grown, nurtured, and developed. You can gain more tolerance for OCD’s discomfort, so that the things which once felt impossibly stressful can be easily endured. As you develop higher levels of emotional tolerance, you’ll discover that escapism isn’t as necessary as you once believed.
Are you battling an addiction in tandem with your OCD? My heart goes out to you. I know it isn’t easy. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and you’ll make it through this.
My recommendation to you is to reach out for help if you suffer from an addiction. There are many support networks and rehabilitation centers that can assist you. There are even many churches and religious groups that offer support for addiction recovery.
Don’t be embarrassed. Reach out for help! This will make a huge difference for your OCD recovery process.
And let me add one more parting thought.
There might be something you’ve been engaging in that is not wrong or sinful, but you’ve been feeling like it’s an addiction. Perhaps you watch very harmless, innocent movies, but you’ve been binging for 6 hours per day, every day. Maybe you’ve got plenty of money and aren’t going into debt, but you’ve started noticing that you’ve got to go shopping every day for the little thrill of having made a new purchase. Even excessive sleeping or exercising can become addictive.
Take care that you don’t develop an unhealthy dependency on otherwise healthy things. Remember what Paul said:
You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything.1 Corinthians 6:12, NLT
In Christ, we are set free. In Christ, we break the chains of addiction.
(Now, if you have scrupulosity, please don’t interpret this to mean that anything enjoyable in your life is wrong! There’s a big gap between addictive behavior and enjoyable activities.) 🙂
Whether addictive behaviors seem to be the product of natural mental rigidity, or whether you’re using these behaviors as escape mechanisms, be encouraged: you are not doomed to stay here. If you reach out to get assistance, your prognosis looks very good. You are definitely going to make it through this.
Why don’t you share your story with the rest of the scrupulosity community? What has your experience with OCD and addictions been like? Tell us about in the comments below!
Glad to have you here!