I am pleased to introduce our newest guest blogger to you today, Leo Smith. Some of you may recognize Leo from the OCD in the Media panel at the Annual OCD Conference in Los Angeles this summer. As a health editor with the Orange County Register in Southern California, he has seen first hand how OCD and mental health are portrayed in the media. He also oversees faith, travel, and some entertainment coverage. Leo, a native of Oakland, California, has had OCD since he was a young teen. He didn’t realize it, though, until he was a health reporter with the Oakland Tribune and in that role came across Dr. Judith Rapoport’s groundbreaking book, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leo will be a guest panelist in today’s #OCDchat about “Coming Out with OCD,” along with IOCDF Spokesperson Jeff Bell and IOCDF blogger Alison Dotson. Click here to learn more.
I didn’t have to open the book to know it had something to do with me.
“The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing,” Dr. Judith Rapoport’s groundbreaking text on OCD, came across my desk when I was a 24-year-old reporter at the Oakland Tribune. Up until that moment, I thought I was the only boy (now man) who couldn’t stop washing … who had to line up his shoes every night, who had to fold his towels so they leaned slightly to the right, who believed that his thoughts could cause his mother to have an accident driving home from work.
Probably the most shocking thing to me was that up until that moment, I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. Of course, I knew there was something “quirky,” but then I was brutally shy too, was constantly sick to my stomach and had just left a job after a week because I was terrified of failing. So what was one more quirk, anyway?
But looking back now, knowing so much about OCD, it’s so clear.
It started when I was probably about 7, when I had what I’d tell my mother were “bad thoughts.” And yes, I had to tell her just about every time I had them. They weren’t your more common “I hate my parents” type of thoughts. They were random, nonsensical phrases shooting through my brain that I seemingly – and in reality – had no control over. And of course, as someone who even today tends to need reassurance with my OCD thoughts and actions, I had to tell someone. So it was always, “Mommy, I had a bad thought.”
Then it was the shoes. If I lined up my shoes at night, the next day would go smoothly at school.
Then it was reading books. I needed to understand every single word I read. And if I didn’t, I’d have to read a page over and over until my brain told me I had perfect understanding. I recall my jaw being clenched while reading because of the high-wire act it had become. My mother years later told me at one time I asked her what the meaning of “the” was. I can’t only imagine what she must have thought.
After that — or maybe simultaneously — it was the dust bunnies: If I picked up every bit of dust I could find at home my ill grandmother wouldn’t die. She did, but that didn’t stop me from thinking my routine actions could impact someone else’s well-being.
I’d be thrilled to say that even though I recognized something familiar in “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing” that I immediately opened the Yellow Pages – yeah, I’m that old – and made an appointment with the first therapist I could find. But to be honest, it took probably another 5 years until I saw any therapist and another 15 after that until I truly targeted my OCD.
Being a newspaper editor — where my job is to catch mistakes before they’re published – lends itself to a bit of perfectionism. But OCD took it too far and, though I was self-diagnosed at that point, I knew that’s what I had.
They say some people take action only when it’s too much to stand inaction any longer and I suppose that’s what happened with me and my OCD. One day at work, during a down moment, I searched online for “OCD conference.” I figured — and prayed — that one existed but I had no clue, really. Up came the IOCDF conference in Washington, DC. It just so happened, I was planning a vacation in Maryland a week after the conference, so I extended the vacation by a weekend and attended.
I was stunned to hear other stories like mine — amazed to discover my random thoughts, my repeated checking of locks, my fear of running over people while driving, were not unique to me, but shared by others who also had this nasty three-letter condition.
From there I sought out an OCD specialist at USC who was speaking at the conference, began seeing her back home in Southern California, started Exposure Response Prevention therapy, and was on my way.
On my way where? I’m still not sure. Most days are still a struggle, mostly trying to control my random “bad thoughts” that I’ve now had for 40-plus years.
But I’ve come to believe the trick is not necessarily wiping out OCD, but learning to lessen its impact and live with a diminished version of it. It seems like it might be a lifelong fight, but the main thing that’s different now from when I was a 24-year-old reading a book cover, is I know it’s not me, it’s my OCD.
And I’m not going to let my OCD dictate how I live my life.
As I write that, I know it’s easier written than done, but the fact that I know there’s a fight to be had with OCD is a big step from just accepting my “quirky” brain as something I’m just going to be stuck with.
– Leo Smith
Join today’s #OCDchat live online at 1pm ET about “Coming Out with OCD,” where Leo will be answering your questions along with IOCDF Spokesperson Jeff Bell and IOCDF blogger Alison Dotson. Click here to learn more.