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A better understanding of Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Posted 10:00 a.m. Thursday

According to NAMI, 20 percent of youths in the U.S. have mental health issues. One such condition is called Obsessive-compulsive disorder. I interviewed a young man who was diagnosed with OCD as a teenager to more fully understand the disorder. (Deseret Photo)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youths in the U.S. are experiencing symptoms associated with a mental health diagnosis, and that is problematic for many reasons. Fifty percent of American youths 14 and older, who have mental health issues, drop out of school while 70 percent of those in the U.S. juvenile justice system are affected by mental illness.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is suicide is the third-leading cause of death in young people aged from 10-24 and 90 percent of those who complete suicide had an underlying mental illness.

One type of mental illness that is relatively unknown about to the public is a condition called Obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is a disorder where the sufferer experiences obsessions, which are “persistent, uncontrollable thoughts, impulses or images that are intrusive, unwanted and disturbing.”

To cope, people with OCD will perform repetitive actions called compulsions to reduce the anxiety associated with the obsessions. The most famous example of this is repetitive washing of hands by those who are terrified of contamination and germs. Although OCD only affects 1 in 100 youth and 1 in 40 adults, it is interesting to note that it is one of the leading causes of disability around the world.

I recently interviewed a person who was diagnosed with the condition as a teenager to gain more insight on what it is like to have OCD. He wishes not to be identified so I will simply refer to him as “John Doe.”

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me. Let’s go to the beginning. When did your journey with OCD start?

Well, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting point. But when I was 17, I started having really disturbing images and thoughts pop into my mind out of nowhere. Images and thoughts of me doing horrific things to people; loved ones and strangers alike.

At first, I just shook them off and would say, “Well, that was weird.” I’d never hurt anybody in my whole life and never had any desire to do so. But then the thoughts and images became more intense and longer in duration. I would try to get them out of my head and would say to myself, “What’s the matter with you? Are you a psychopath or something?” It seemed like the harder I tried to make them stop, the more the thoughts and images came. It got to the point where they were almost constant, and I was terrified of myself. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

Wow. That sounds awful?

It was awful and very lonely. How do you tell someone that you’re having these terrible thoughts and images run through your mind all day? I thought for sure if I told anyone what was going on with me they would lock me away. I felt completely alone.

What made you finally reach out to someone?

Well, it got to the point where I was scared to leave my room or be around people for fear that something might happen. I started skipping school to isolate myself. I stopped having friends come over. I had trouble sleeping. I lost a lot of weight, and I was already thin before all of this. I was sinking. Finally, I decided I needed to tell someone out of a mixture of fear that something bad would happen and the fact that I was too exhausted to keep going this way. So I told my mom. I figured if there was any person who wouldn’t put me in a straight jacket, immediately, it was the person who gave birth to me. She listened attentively and suggested that I should see a psychiatrist.

Did you see a psychiatrist? How did that go?

Yeah, I went to a psychiatrist. He listened patiently to me as I unloaded everything on him. After I had finished, he told me about OCD. I was really surprised when he started talking about the disorder because I had always thought having OCD meant you wash your hands 100 times a day or need to have everything just so. He told me, though, that it is an anxiety disorder where people have distressing thoughts or images that they try to neutralize by doing certain behaviors.

Did it help when he described OCD? What kind of treatment did you do after this initial visit?

It did help when he described OCD to me. Mostly, it felt good to know that there was a name for what I was going through and that I wasn’t the only one out there experiencing it. That helped a lot with the loneliness factor. As far as treatment, he prescribed me a few different medications aimed at reducing the intrusive thoughts and decreasing the anxiety associated with them.

Did the medications help?

They probably would have if I took them consistently. (Laughs). They made me pretty drowsy, and I put on quite a bit of weight with them so I didn’t really like taking them. Plus, I kind of had the mentality that medications were for sissies. “I’m a man,” I would tell myself. “I don’t need medications. I can do this myself.”

What was the course of the disorder over the next few years of your life?

The intensity of my OCD waxed and waned over intervals of time. There would be 3-6 month periods where I would feel pretty good and not really have any intrusive thoughts or compulsions. This was problematic because I would always think I was cured somehow during these stretches. Then the symptoms would come back with a vengeance and be incredibly intense for months at a time. Besides that first encounter with the psychiatrist, I wouldn’t really seek out any professional help. I would kind of just grit my teeth and do my best. Looking back, that was really foolish because my performance as a student and an employee would dramatically dip during these periods. This went on for about 10 years or so.

What happened that finally made you seek out help after those 10 years?

When I took a terrible job out of college, my symptoms became unbearable. The job was incredibly stressful and my boss was on my back all the time. Even if I was feeling good, it would have been really tough, but with the added stressor of raging symptoms, it felt like I was drowning. My wife and I had a young kid, we were struggling financially, and I was a mess psychologically.

It got to the point where I saw no way out besides suicide. I wrote the note and everything. I wish I could say that I had a vision where an angel showed me how much the world would change if I wasn’t in it and all the good I’d done in my life that deterred me from taking my own life. In the end, the only thing that kept me alive is that I couldn’t figure out a way to end my life in a way that wouldn’t lead to my wife having to look at a gruesomely disfigured version of myself.

I guess at that point, I decided suicide was off the table so I’d better do something to get better for my kid and wife. I went to see a psychiatrist and got on a very aggressive regimen of medications to really attack the problem for the very time since I was diagnosed with it. It was hard at first. It took a while to learn which ones worked for me in terms of helping with my symptoms and reducing unwanted side effects.

How do you feel now?

So that was about two years ago now when I started seeing the doctor. I won’t lie and say I never have unwanted thoughts, but I don’t feel as compelled to analyze them and dissect them as I did before. My quality of life is leaps and bounds better now and I find myself being grateful to be alive much more often. I’m just sad I wasted 10 years of my life being stubborn.

What has helped you get to where you are now?

Well, the medications have helped a lot, obviously. OCD is a biological brain issue and the medication brings into a better balance those chemicals in the brain that go awry with OCD. But medications can only get you so far. You really have to put in a lot of work and effort to succeed with this condition.

The main thing that has helped me with the condition is having perspective. For a long time, I would become really depressed when I would think about having OCD. Like I would think it made me a worthless, unlovable person. I can’t honestly say I never have those feelings still, but I try to have perspective about it now.

There’s two ways I try to gain perspective. The first is through my religious beliefs. As a Christian, I try to think about what God wants me to learn from having this condition. The main thing I’ve learned from this condition is that we are all a little broken, a little damaged, a little weathered and that a little kindness and understanding can go a long way to helping people heal.

The second way I try to gain perspective is by having a sense of humor about myself. When you have OCD, it seems like all mental health professionals think it’s incumbent upon them to say that you are normal. One thing that I did for a while was I kept an OCD journal where I’d write out all my thoughts in a notebook. I looked at it one day and said to myself, “normal? You’re not normal! You’re bonkers!” And it made me laugh — a lot. Being able to take a step back and laugh at how ridiculous I am helps me keep perspective.

What advice would you give to those who might be struggling with mental health symptoms?

The first thing is, if you haven’t already, get help. Stop wasting time not living your life to the fullest quality possible. Get evaluated and commit to wellness. For those who have already been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the best advice I can give is a line from a John Mayer song: “Dream your dreams but don’t pretend; make friends with who are.” Accept the condition you have but don’t let it deter you from chasing your dreams.

Author’s note: For more information on OCD and other mental health disorders, visit www.nami.org.

Dylan Cannon is a regular KSL.com contributor and can be reached at DylanCannon86@gmail.com or via twitter @DylanCannon11. Listen to his weekly podcast, "Cougar Talk," on iTunes.

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