False memories are quite common when OCD gets bad. I have dealt with a number of people who were going round and round about false memories. They are not an extremely common symptom, but you do see them sometimes when the illness is bad. It’s generally a sign of a bad illness.
Ms. Z was periodically convinced that she killed people. She would have a conversation with someone for 5-10 minutes, then walk away ,and then suddenly think that she had killed them somehow during the conversation. Perhaps she had suddenly swung her fist out and beat them to death? Perhaps she had pulled out a knife and hacked them to death? Perhaps she had shot them with a gun? She would have all sorts of false memories of how she killed these people.
In the course of these false memories, she would become 100% certain that she had killed that person she was talking to in that store that day. In the next few days, she would ask around to people she knew if anyone got murdered or if she killed someone in the store that day. Of course she would always be told no. I’m sure her friends must have tired of answering these weird questions. As soon as she was told that no murder had occurred, immediately the firmly held belief that she had killed that person would vanish, and she would never think about it again. Until a little while later when she would be talking to someone again and then walk away and once again become convinced that she had killed that person…
Another woman, Ms. S., was a young college student. She was at a large California university that had a lot of long, winding trails with undergrowth. There were deep gullies on the sides of the paths that were overgrown with foliage. Ms. S. would be walking down the paths and as she walked, she passed all sorts of people coming her way. At some point, she would suddenly get an idea that she had grabbed one of the people coming her way and thrown them down into one of the gullies.
She had a pretty clear memory of who the person was she threw down there and exactly how she had done it. She would be overwhelmed with guilt, and she would take off down into the gully searching for the “body” of the person she had thrown down into the gulch. She did this on a pretty regular basis, and eventually the university wondered what she was doing floundering around in the gullies, and they sent the university police down there to see what she was up to. After a while, it become clear that she needed to go to the university counseling center.
In both cases, the women received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder in addition to OCD. This was an incorrect diagnosis, and it was based on the fact that for a short while after Ms. S was clamboring around in the gullies or after Ms. Z became convinced that she had somehow killed someone she was talking to, that both women were absolutely convinced that they had either thrown someone down into the gully or had killed the person they were talking to in the store.
The diagnosis was incorrect because as soon as the women were told that there was no one in the gully or that they had not killed the person in the store, the “delusion” completely vanished and they didn’t think of it again until next time. Delusions just don’t go away like that. It’s not a very strongly held conviction if can vanish with a mere word of reassurance.
We look at the whole process in a holistic sense. What is the nature of the process? Is this a characterological process (personality disorder), a mood process (mood disorder like Bipolar Disorder or Depression), an anxiety process (OCD, PTSD, GAD, Panic Disorder) or a psychotic process (schizophrenia, manic psychosis, psychotic depression, schizoaffective disorder)? It is important to look at things in an intuitive sense and get the “smell” or “feel” of what the basic process is that you are dealing with.
In the case above, this is an anxiety process, specifically an OCD process. It’s not a psychotic process, despite the fact that it superficially resembles a psychosis.
Some of these folks with false memories actually go to the police station and turn themselves in for crimes that they did not commit.
“Hi, I am here to report a murder.”
“Ok, what happened?”
“Well I think I killed someone last night.”
“You think you killed someone?”
“Well, where did this happen?”
“I am not sure. I think maybe the bridge over the river.”
“What time did this happen?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe midnight?”
“Who was the victim?”
“I’m not sure. I think it was a man, maybe.”
“What weapon was used?”
“I am not completely sure. I think it was a knife maybe.”
After a while the police started to get the message. He was not there to report a murder at all. He was there to find out whether or not he was a murderer!
As the conversation degenerated, the man started repeating, “How do you know if you killed someone or not?”
The police did not know what to say to that. After he left, the police were talking among themselves. “That’s so weird,” one of them said. “What does he mean, ‘How do I know if I killed someone or not?’ How could you not know something like that? That’s so weird.” The cops were shaking their heads.
As you can see, false memories are quite common in OCD when it gets very bad.
I dealt with them myself at one point in 1985 or 1986. I have to admit it was a pretty nutty way of thinking. I was so ashamed of my false memories (which I temporarily convinced myself were true) that I never told anyone except for a couple of therapists. I have not dealt with any false memory nonsense in over 30 years, and I hope I never have to deal with that again. It’s truly a crazy way to think.