by Thomas Smalley
This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
If you told me seven years ago that one day I’d be standing at a podium in front of over two thousand people I wouldn’t have believed you. As I walked up to the stage to accept the 2019 International OCD Foundation Hero Award, I struggled to comprehend how I got from that point in my journey to a place where I could help others start their own journey towards healing. However, I found my answer only a few feet away staring back up at me: my family and wonderful girlfriend. They had seen me at rock bottom and refused to let me sink; they pushed me when I did not want to be pushed and believed in me when I did not even believe in myself.
My battle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) became debilitating at age 15; I would count to 25 to rid my mind of the intense intrusive thoughts of my family dying. However, at the time, I had no label for the excruciating feelings that plagued me. Every minute I was fighting a new obsession which resulted in 12 to 14 hours of compulsions a day. My parents desperately tried to find somebody who specialized in OCD, but it wasn’t until I met my therapist — Amy — a year later that I received a definitive diagnosis. I visited two therapists before Amy, but had not received the right treatment.
When I sat in my therapist’s office for the first time, I had no expectations. I just knew I needed help. At the time, I was in my sophomore year of high school. I had to fight to get out of bed every morning and many days I questioned if it was worth it. I had never felt more hopeless in my life. Even as I began treatment, I battled suicidal ideation and was still searching for my will to live. Stepping into Amy’s office for exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy was no easy task, but it felt like a step in the right direction. I quickly realized taking part in ERP meant purposefully triggering my intrusive thoughts and subsequent anxiety. My elevated anxiety levels made my OCD worse before it got better; however, slowly but surely, the combination of ERP and medication helped me to begin to cope with my OCD.
During treatment, sacrifices had to be made. I had to give up the sports I loved and grappled with feeling like a burden to my family while they supported me through my OCD journey. There was nothing I could do to repay them for all the time and effort they had given me, but I was determined to try. The support of my family and my faith in God continued to motivate me.
My dreams and aspirations became motivators to keep fighting. When clinicians and other professionals told me that going away to college was not an option, I took it as a challenge. I worked tirelessly with Amy to learn ways to cope with my OCD. She instilled a belief in myself that I could pursue my goals and overcome my doubts.
I started sharing my story first at an awareness event at Yale a year after my diagnosis, then at the amazing IOCDF conferences. For some time, I felt sorry for myself that I had to deal with OCD daily. When I became an advocate for OCD and for reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, I stopped asking “Why me?” and started asking “Why not me?” I felt empowered knowing that even if it was one person at a time, I was educating people about mental health and OCD. I realized I was put into this position for a reason.
Determined to reach my goals, I made it to college. However, during my second year, I relapsed to the point of nearly being back to where I started. It was a discouraging feeling. While battling OCD, I also had to face the negative stigma around mental illness. Unfortunately, as I spoke more about my struggles, I didn’t always receive the best feedback and I had to learn to grow thick skin. I was called names, bullied, and shamed for my struggles with mental illness by people who I thought I could trust. While I was dealing with that negative feedback, I found one of my greatest mentors: strength and conditioning coach Ian Farrell. Ian took me under his wing and I discovered a new passion for exercise science.
Two years later, I am pursuing my dreams of following in his footsteps and becoming a strength and conditioning coach. Our bond went beyond training and exercise science. He was somebody that understood me, and always made me feel like I could do anything that I put my mind to. Having him as a mentor throughout the dark days of my relapse helped me to stay motivated and focused on practicing ERP.
During the 2019 Annual OCD Conference, I was still dealing with troubling intrusive thoughts and resisting all the compulsions the OCD monster inside my brain was trying to convince me to do. I think that is something that sticks out most in my journey: it is far from over. Today, I choose to get out of bed and keep fighting my OCD, refusing to let it win. It won’t ever be easy, but nothing worth having ever comes easily.
If you are struggling with OCD, know that you are not alone. Do not give up. Keep battling. Keep educating others about OCD. Together as a community we will break the stigma of mental illness and continue to overcome the challenges of OCD.
Thomas Smalley is a Senior Psychology Major and a Student Intern Strength and Conditioning Coach at Siena College in Albany, NY. He has spoken at more than five Annual OCD Conferences and was the recipient of the 2019 IOCDF Hero Award.