This year’s keynote at the Annual OCD Conference will be delivered with some international flair provided by this year’s speaker, David Adam. An editor for the science journal Nature and author of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, Adam was honored as the 2015 recipient of the IOCDF Illumination Award at last year’s Conference and will be returning again this year to deliver the Keynote Address. Sydney Nolan, our former Communications Assistant, recently interviewed Adam to hear about his experiences last year and to get a sneak peek of his Keynote.
IOCDF: Last year was your first time attending the Annual OCD Conference. What were some of the highlights for you, and what made you interested in coming back?
David Adam (DA): I was really taken by the positive atmosphere and by the number of families who attended. I would see a group of attendees, in the elevator, perhaps, and I couldn’t tell who — the mum, dad, or one of the kids — was affected by OCD, if any. At events in the UK, people tend to come alone, and children are very rare. I think that shows how far behind we are in Britain in terms of social acceptance of mental disorders.
So, I’m looking forward to more of the same, and as the keynote speaker, to speaking to most of them in one go!
IOCDF: Do you have any advice for first-time attendees based on what you experienced last year?
DA: Go see the keynote speaker, I hear he’s really good! Seriously, I’m not one to usually offer advice, mainly because I am rubbish at taking it. I guess I would say that in deciding to attend and then doing so, they have done most of the hard work. They are then free to put as much or as little into the events and sessions as they wish. It’s ok just to listen and take it all in. It can be quite overwhelming to see something that might be very personal to someone, and perhaps a long-standing secret, discussed so openly. And that’s OK.
IOCDF: Is there anything uniquely American (a food, restaurant, shop, attraction, etc.) you’re especially looking forward to, since you’re coming from “across the pond” for this year’s Conference?
DA: So much. I’ve never been to Chicago and can’t quite believe there are lakes that someone can’t see across to the other side. (In Britain you can walk around most lakes in a morning). Breakfasts. You guys really do breakfasts well. And baseball on TV. I’ve been all over the world but never feel quite so foreign as when I was sat in a bar with someone watching baseball on TV.
IOCDF: Your book, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, covers everything from historical examples of OCD to some of the genetic and evolutionary research on OCD to what you call the “just plain unfortunate pressures that might contribute” to the disorder — what facts or pieces of information surprised you the most or stood out as the most intriguing for you when conducting research for the book?
DA: Most surprising was the fact that the intrusive thoughts of OCD are very common and have been reported throughout history. Almost everyone will recognize them, yet they are rarely associated with OCD. Most intriguing? Well there’s this astonishing story of… wait, no, I’m afraid you’ll just have to buy it and see.
IOCDF: A lot of your book and personal experiences related to OCD are connected to HIV/AIDS, a topic that, similar to many mental health issues, obviously requires a lot of sensitivity when discussing. What has writing the book and speaking more openly about how OCD has affected your life shown you about how we can have productive or meaningful conversations about subjects like those you cover that are no doubt important, but can still be difficult to discuss?
DA: Honestly, I think it has shown to me just how difficult they can be. In every conversation or audience there is always someone who is hearing and talking about this stuff for the first time. And, while in the book, I can explore and explain stuff at length, that’s much harder to do in person. So I think the tone is important, as well as the content. That’s why I think it probably is slightly easier for people who have been affected to discuss, because our experience gives us a connection and helps us prioritize what matters when time/words are short.
IOCDF: What will your next project be? Any plans for a sequel or similar book in the works?
DA: Yes! I am finishing a book about an experimental treatment for OCD and other mental disorders that involves passing mild electrical currents into the brain, looking at how else these techniques might be used, if and how they could alter cognitive abilities and even intelligence, and what that might mean for society.
IOCDF: Has your role as a journalist and editor influenced the way you view mental illness and/or the way it’s discussed in society and by the media?
DA: Not really. I think my experience as a patient has done that. There isn’t really a homogenous “society” or “media.” There are just bunches of individuals, all of whom can react differently, for good and bad. Many groups feel they get a raw deal from society and the media, but their targets should be the individuals, which is why a conversation with even a single person can be influential.
IOCDF: Are there others in the OCD and related disorders community or general mental health field whose work or advice you admire or have learned from?
DA: There is a psychologist, a giant of the field, called Jack Rachman who everyone with OCD, me included, owes a huge thank you to for his work over the decades. I met him a few times when I was writing the book and he is an inspiration.
IOCDF: What do you hope people will be able to take away from your keynote address?
DA: A book. I will even sign it.
If not, then I hope they will take two messages. That even severe OCD (and mine was) can be treated and, if not cured, then beaten down to manageable levels. And that OCD is very much on a spectrum of conditions, including “normality,” which most people have some experience of. People with OCD are not somehow separate or cut off from the rest of the population.
IOCDF: What advice would you give to others wishing to share their story about how OCD has affected them?
DA: Advice again! People ask me if writing the book has helped, and I always say the same thing. OCD, and other medical problems, have two impacts. There is the direct impact of the symptoms. And there is often an indirect impact, caused by keeping the problem to ourselves or feeling like we need to. That indirect impact no longer bothers me. And that helps. But did writing the book help with the direct impact, the symptoms? No, no more than writing a book about an experience with cancer would shrink a tumor. OCD is a medical problem that needs medical help. Sharing a story, ultimately, might seem a good thing to do, but make sure you share it with a medical professional as well.
Don’t miss David Adam’s keynote address beginning at 4pm Saturday, July 30th at the Annual OCD Conference. He will also be signing copies of his book in the Conference bookstore on Saturday, July 30.