Imagine having unwanted violent and sexual thoughts so extreme that you’re unable to sleep at night for fear you’ll harm your family. Imagine further that you have these debilitating, intrusive thoughts for 15 years despite diligently seeking adequate mental health treatment. Also imagine having to fight the stigma associated with your disorder while simultaneously struggling with the profound fear and anxiety it evokes.
Welcome to Maria Bamford’s world.
Rolling Stone named Maria one of their 50 Funniest People and in 2014 she won the American Comedy Award for Best Club Comic. Her exceptional comedic talents are on display in this short Comedy Central clip on dating.
Maria’s act often incorporates references to her struggles with mental illness, and she’s an outspoken mental health advocate who uses her difficult personal experiences to help others.
She not only encourages others to find humor in the midst of their pain, but to also find the help that they may not yet have realized is available.
Maria actively sought professional help for her intrusive violent and sexual thoughts from numerous mental health practitioners for 15 years to no avail before finding one with specialized training in her disorder.
She found a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who quickly recognized that Maria was suffering from Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome – a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in which unwanted thoughts grow into obsessions and result in intense psychological distress and anxiety.
Individuals suffering from Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome are not actually violent or aggressive, only their thoughts are. They turn the pain of those thoughts inward to hurt themselves rather than outward to hurt others.
Those who live with UTS live in deep fear that others won’t understand, that they will be considered “bad” for having such thoughts, and often don’t seek treatment for these reasons.
Maria’s story is for them, and for anyone else who fears pursuing mental health treatment for similar reasons.
The intrusive, disturbing thoughts she fought for 15 years were gone within two months of receiving the proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Maria’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapist used a CBT treatment technique called “flooding” that’s highly effective in treating phobias and anxiety disorders, including PTSD.
Flooding involves exposing a patient to their worst fears in a therapeutic environment to desensitize them to those fears.
In the following interview with Dr. Carolyn Phelps on PBS’s “Speak Your Mind,” Maria details her 15 year journey with Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, her difficulties gaining access to appropriate treatment, the stigma she faced along the way, and the wisdom she gained from her experiences, both good and bad.
Access to appropriate and effective mental health treatment isn’t always easy to find, but it does exist.
A common refrain heard among those with mental illness is, “You don’t ever overcome it, or beat it, you just learn to live with it.”
Maria Bamford, and others like her, are living proof that you don’t have to just “learn to live with it.” Many mental illnesses can, in fact, be beaten.
In the beginning of this article, you imagined what it would be like to suffer from unwanted thoughts of an extremely violent and sexual nature for 15 years.
Now imagine if you gave up seeking effective treatment after 14 years of searching for it. Imagine you accepted that you just had to live with your misery for the rest of your life, never knowing freedom from your pain was only a year away.
It’s important to look to those, like Maria, who have walked that path and who can show you how to successfully navigate it rather than allow yourself to fall into the all-to-common and self-defeating belief that you are merely a victim of mental illness who can never hope to become a victor.
For additional information about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the conditions for which it is most effective, read Dr. Ben Martin’s recent Psych Central article, “In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”