As I traveled down the escalator of the conference hotel towards the registration booth on the lower level I was already reminded in the most visual way that I am not alone in my struggles. Hundreds of people were swarming around the different floors of the hotel, with their nametags and OCD Con marked shoulder bags. I immediately felt a warm feeling of connection and belonging. It is that very same thing that touches me deepest every year I attend the conference: the reminder that there are others out there that truly get what I am up against.
I absolutely love when people take the time to learn about OCD, talk about it and offer understanding. It is just the most beautiful thing and the greatest gift anyone can give a sufferer. It is this kind of open sharing of experiences and knowledge that will spread the word about OCD and make it so that it can be detected earlier, and treated more effectively.
However, I believe with OCD you can’t truly “get it” unless you’ve lived it. It is a very unique disease; when in the grips of it you play by different rules than the rest of the world. To truly understand the imprisonment and torture this disease brings, you have to have had the OCD tyrant inside your head brainwashing you and barking orders at you 24/7.
I know from personal experience that OCD often brings up a lot of shame, and it can be an isolating burden to carry. For someone who gets a lot of: “Wow really? That’s so interesting” responses when I share my story it is indescribably special to get a response like: “Yes, I know exactly what you are talking about, I have had that too”. It is freeing, liberating and all kinds of wonderful to be surrounded by people that really, truly get your issues and have experienced them as well. For me it is a reminder that I am not a freak, or some horrible monster, but instead just a regular ol’ human being that happens to be dealing with a challenging and invasive mental illness.
Attending OCD Con is also always a kick-in-the-butt reminder to be more proactive in treatment. I was especially inspired during a panel so wonderfully named “ERP Games for Living Joyfully with OCD” hosted by my previous therapist that has spent many hours torturing me with great results. One of the so-called games was literally going around the room searching for things that trigger your OCD and seeing who could count the most. My current therapist and I have incorporated this into my homework this week, and I now play this game everyday. It is terrifying and torturous (like all good OCD treatment should be) to actually not just accidentally run into triggers but to actually search them out. It has been a powerful way of regaining control over my OCD and to not fear it as much. It has definitely helped me engage in less avoidance and provided plenty of opportunities for me to learn how to set the boundaries between my value-based behaviors and my OCD-based behaviors.
Apart from being inspired to be more proactive in my treatment, the conference also always inspires me to be more active in my advocacy. During the weekend I was extremely happy and excited to see my personal hero Chrissie Hodges, win the IOCDF Hero Award. Chrissie is as brave and open about OCD as I hope one day to become. Often I’ve experienced things and never heard anyone mention those symptoms except professionals in short paragraphs in educational books. There have been so many things I’ve thought I, and one nameless case study participant, had only ever dealt with, until Chrissie starts talking openly about it and we find out it is actually really common. She brings attention to the topics often overlooked in the discussion of OCD, and doesn’t let fear stop her from tackling the most sensitive, awkward or taboo subjects with fearlessness, honesty and her wicked sense of humor. Congratulations Chrissie and I truly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all you do.
I have returned home with a renewed commitment to staying ahead in my treatment, as well as goals to become even more vocal in mental health advocacy. My friend and National IOCDF Ambassador, Ethan Smith, wrote a very powerful facebook post about increased fears over health insurance, and access to treatment. It is definitely an important time right now to not only talk about mental health, but also fight to get it covered on par with other illnesses, and then make sure insurance is available to all. This year I will dedicate myself to doing more to aid in that fight, and I hope others join me. By keeping sufferers away from treatment opportunities we lose valuable individuals from our workforce, experience an increased in disability payments, and keep people imprisoned in their illness, which ruins lives not only of the sufferers but those around them too.
For suffers of any illness, I definitely recommend seeking out conferences, groups or other gatherings for your specific illness. It is such a beautiful experience to connect with others that have been through what you have been through, and there truly can be strength in numbers. I look forward to seeing my OCD family next year in Washington D.C. and hope to share with them all then the great work and strides I’ve been a part of in this upcoming year.