Welcome to Tuesday Q&A! Last week I began this new series with Jessica Bishop, a young woman with OCD who’s working to create awareness of OCD and reduce stigma. This week we’re hearing from Shannon Shy, author, attorney, former marine, obsession slayer, and all-around awesome guy.
I met Shannon in July 2014 at the OCD Conference in LA. I recognized him from his professional Facebook photo, and luckily I was presenting and rooming with a woman who knew him, and she introduced us. I liked him immediately because he was funny, and because I had already been following his Facebook page and often thought, “He took the words right out of my mouth—but made them more inspirational!”
As the weekend continued on, I liked Shannon more and more. He was kind to everyone, without exception, and he contributed insight to several sessions. I was blogging for the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) over the course of the conference, and I noted in one post that he and Jeff Bell should be eligible for sainthood. They’re that good.
Let’s hear more directly from Shannon.
You’re in a good place in your life now, but you struggled with OCD for a long time. What made you finally seek professional help?
Hi, Alison. Thanks for inviting me to your blog and congrats on publishing your book! You are helping many people.
What made me finally seek professional help? OCD started to really affect me after my first son was born in 1992. I was 29 years old and a captain on active duty with the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, CA. For the next five years I progressively got worse. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew something was wrong. The intrusive thoughts and the compulsions to ease the anxiety became more intense and more frequent. I was afraid to seek professional help because I didn’t know what the Marines would do with me if I had some kind of mental health issue. Looking back on it now, I know that it was OCD that pretty much assured that I wouldn’t seek help by telling me that I would get kicked out of the Marines, lose my career as a lawyer, and ultimately lose my family.
By October 1997, the thoughts and compulsions dominated my every waking moment. I was now a Marine Corps Major at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to leave my house or interact with anyone. I was trying to hide my quirky behaviors and I was embarrassed every time I approached someone “in charge” to let them know of the problem or impending disaster that OCD presented to me. My wife and a colleague had separately approached me a few times to politely nudge me into to seeking help. I responded repeatedly that it was just stress.
Finally, one morning in October 1997, I was driving to work and got into an endless loop where OCD had convinced me that I had heard a gunshot and that someone was probably dead or dying. OCD even gave me a possible assailant. After I drove in circles for about 45 minutes or so banging my fist on the dashboard and screaming “What’s wrong with me?!!,” I found two police cars and let them know what I had heard. They stared blankly at me and assured me it was okay. It was at that point that I knew I was done. I sat in my car and cried. With OCD’s help, I had boiled my options down to three: 1. Live like this forever; 2. Commit suicide; or 3. Seek help and lose my career and family. In reality, options 1 and 2 were non-options for me. I wanted to be my old self and I loved life and my family too much to end it. I chose the best bad option. It was the smartest decision I have ever made.
My readers will want to know what type of obsessions and compulsions you had. Did you have a “worst” obsession you really struggled with?
The basic themes of my obsessions were a fear of harming others and being responsible for the safety of others (including animals). In my first book, “It’ll be Okay”: How I Kept Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from Ruining My Life, I catalogued the obsessions and related compulsions into 16 different categories. As I said earlier, by the time I was diagnosed in 1997, the thoughts and compulsions consumed my every waking moment. I didn’t have a worst obsession. They all haunted me. After I started treatment, OCD gave me a few other despicable and disgusting thoughts dealing with religion, violence, and sex. I got worse before I got better. But eventually I got better. Way better.
How did you “come out” with OCD?
Initially, after I was diagnosed, I only told a few people that I had OCD—my wife, my sisters, my boss, and a few officers at work. I wanted to tell others just to let them know that there was a medical reason as to why I had been acting the way I was acting, but a good friend of mine (another Major) told me it was no one else’s business. (He used more colorful language in getting his point across.) So I decided to tell no one else unless I had a legal or medical reason to do so. I went on with my life and I kept getting well.
Fast-forward to 2006—I was having dinner with a colleague while on travel and she confided in me that she had OCD really bad and didn’t know what to do. I said to her, “There is something that you don’t know about me” and I told her my story about how I was able to overcome OCD. She wrote me months later and told me that I had changed her life. She told me I really needed to tell my story publicly. I had always had a goal of writing a book, so I decided to tell my story about OCD by writing a book. In 2009, I published “It’ll be Okay”: How I Kept Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from Ruining My Life (Authorhouse, 2009). My objective with the book was quite simple. I told myself that if I helped at least one person I would consider it a success.
How did you get involved with the IOCDF?
I had not heard of the IOCDF until after my book came out. When the book was published, I was searching the Internet trying to find someone to review it for me and I stumbled across Jeff Bell, one of the spokespersons for the IOCDF. I sent Jeff a note and he agreed to take a look at the book. He contacted me shortly thereafter and told me about the IOCDF. Jeff said the 2010 IOCDF annual conference was going to be held in Washington, DC. He thought that because of my military background (at this point I had retired as a Lieutenant Colonel) and I lived in northern Virginia, he would recommend to the IOCDF Board of Directors that I be the Keynote Speaker at the conference. The Board extended me an invitation and I accepted. I was overwhelmed by how powerful the conference itself was and the tremendous impact it had on all who attended. After that, the IOCDF asked me to be on their Speakers Bureau and in 2011 the Board asked me to become a Board member. It really is an awesome organization. (So I blame this all on Jeff Bell.)
You have a popular Facebook page, Shannon Shy—OCD Can Be Defeated. I’m Living Proof. You offer inspirational advice to hundreds (if not thousands) of people with OCD. What gave you the idea to start this page?
After the book came out, I made a few appearances here and there and spoke at the subsequent IOCDF conferences, but I didn’t feel like I was sufficiently continuing the conversation with the people that may need help. In November 2012, I finally figured out that I wasn’t taking full advantage of social media with regard to my OCD outreach. I had a personal Facebook page and a Twitter account, so I took the next step of creating a page about defeating OCD. The idea is relatively simple. I go on just about every day and post something that is hopefully insightful about OCD or motivational and inspirational to those who struggle and their friends and family members. The idea took off. I believe it is followed in close to 50 countries now. I get lots of comments on the posts and I get lots of private messages from folks looking for help. I feel very honored and humbled that people find my words helpful. I try to answer everyone who takes the time to write.
And what was the impetus for your second book on OCD, Hope Is on Your Side: A Daily Motivational Journal for Those Affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Tate Publishing, 2014)?
Knowing there is a much larger audience outside of Facebook, I decided to continue my outreach by writing a book based on the concept of my Facebook page. The book is a yearlong compilation of daily messages, which gives the reader the opportunity to record his or her thoughts about what the message means personally. The book also challenges the readers to set a goal (about anything) every seven days and to write down two meaningful steps the reader will take to accomplish the goal. I hope folks find this one helpful as well.
You often say that you were able to overcome OCD because you learned how to separate yourself from the disorder: “I am not OCD. OCD is not me.” How did you realize how important this mindset was? And why do you think it is so helpful?
My psychologist, a Navy Lieutenant, had given me a basic strategy: 1. Identify the OCD thoughts; 2. Don’t resist the thoughts; 3. Resist the compulsions. Separating myself from OCD was a natural evolution as I went through treatment in trying to identify the thoughts. I kept thinking of OCD as this other entity that was trying to destroy me and my family. OCD became my enemy. I did not give it human status; it was just something other than me. I would tell myself “I am not OCD. OCD is not me.” (I’m honored that you use that line as the beginning of the first chapter in your book, by the way.)
I realized that separating myself from OCD was particularly effective and helpful because after I would identify a thought as an OCD thought, I would attribute it to its rightful owner, OCD. I told myself that I did not have to take responsibility for OCD’s thoughts. They were not my thoughts. It became one of my five Ground Rules in my strategy for defeating OCD.
Do you apply the same strategies to every obsession, regardless of its nature?
I called my strategy “Ground Rules and Checkpoints.” I integrated the Ground Rules into my daily life. The Checkpoints and questions I would ask along with them helped me implement the Ground Rules. The Ground Rules are:
GROUND RULE #1: Remind yourself in implementing all Ground Rules that you don’t have to be perfect. The objective is to manage OCD to the best of your ability.
GROUND RULE #2: Think of OCD as an entity separate from you. Think of OCD as your enemy and that you are in a battle to protect yourself and your family.
GROUND RULE #3: Identify the thought as an intrusive, irrational thought and attribute the thought to its rightful owner, OCD.
GROUND RULE #4: Allow the intrusive, irrational thought. Do not resist the thought.
GROUND RULE #5: RESIST the compulsion, no matter the pain! RESIST, RESIST, RESIST!
In answer to your question, yes, I applied the strategy the same way to all thoughts and compulsions. I tried to stay consistent and I tried to be persistent. I tried to stay consistent and I tried to be persistent. It took the guess work out of it for me and really frustrated OCD. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. But I stayed in the fight. Eventually, OCD loosened its grip on me. In 2003, my doctor and I weaned me off of my medication (Luvox) because I realized it was my cognitive behavioral strategy that was the key to my ability to manage OCD and the key to my long-term sustainment. I haven’t taken medication for OCD or been treated by any mental health professional for OCD since 2003. The thoughts and compulsions became relatively non-existent. In fact, I’m proud to say that I haven’t had an intrusive repetitive OCD thought since 2010. People often ask if I’m worried about a relapse. The answer is “no.” If it happens, it happens. I know what to do.
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone struggling with OCD, what would it be?
My doctor told me that it was possible to get better. I believed him. I saw this as hope. It became my beacon and lifted me when I was struggling mightily, particularly when I was at my lowest. So believe with all your heart that it is possible to get better. Let hope be your beacon. Stay in the fight.