Being a Peer Specialist: Chrissie Hodges

This week we’re chatting with Chrissie Hodges, who I presented with at the OCD Conference in July 2014. I “discovered” Chrissie on an OCD Awareness Facebook page during the OCD Conference in Atlanta in 2013. She was recapping her experiences, and boy was I jealous! I couldn’t believe how many wonderful connections she was making in the OCD community—and once I knew she had a radio show all about the stigma of mental illness, I wanted to connect with her. Long story short, we hit it off when I appeared on her show and we’ve been in touch ever since. She was my trusty roommate at the conference, and we learned even more about each other then. I shared things with her I’d never told anyone before, so you know she’s gotta be good at drawing people out of their shells with compassion.

You’ll learn so much more about this amazing advocate by digging right into our Q&A, so I’ll stop blathering on!

ChrissieQ: You and I met when you interviewed me on your radio show, The Stigma of Mental Illness Radio. Tell us why you started this show.

A. I began the show when I was approached by a colleague who is into podcast radio who believed that I would be a good host. I was terrified! I initially told her no and then went home and freaked out that I had missed the opportunity! Luckily, she knew I needed to freak out and helped me figure out the logistics. Originally it was supposed to be a platform for individuals to tell their success stories, but it has turned into so much more! It has helped with my personal healing process, it is an incredible source of education, and its sole focus is abolishing stigma.

As we talked that day—you in Colorado, me in Minnesota—we learned that we had a lot in common. We both have pure O, for one thing. But you don’t just interview others with OCD. Have you had any particularly eye-opening interviews?

My first mind-blowing interview was with Chris Young, who is walking across the UK raising awareness about mental health. He has borderline personality disorder. His ability to be so candid and thoughtful about things that I didn’t understand and perhaps had my own stigmas about, such as cutting, lying, and disassociating, really marked a turning point for me and how I look at mental illness in general.

How has hosting your radio show helped you through your own recovery from mental illness?

How hasn’t it helped me is a better question! Mostly, it has confirmed that I am not alone in the emotional roller coaster of living with and dealing with mental illness and stigma. There are so many areas of my recovery that were overpowered by shame and guilt, and hearing that other people experienced the same things as I did has helped me learn to love and accept myself and my diagnosis.

RadioIt took you a while to realize you had OCD. How did you finally make the connection and get the proper diagnosis?

I was not diagnosed until I survived a suicide attempt at the age of 20. I was hospitalized for injuries and then spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I was diagnosed within 48 hours of describing my symptoms. I have mental rituals and compulsions, so my illness was virtually undetectable by anyone around me for 12 years prior to the suicide attempt.

After you were diagnosed you went through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. I know how difficult that process can be, but I also know how glad you are that you did it. Why do you think ERP is so helpful in overcoming OCD?

ERP is a retraining of your brain. Before you are diagnosed and accept treatment, it is almost impossible to untangle the web that OCD has created in order to cope. ERP, although difficult, gives you a bit of a bird’s-eye view of what is really going on—even though it is hard to understand and even believe it is working in the moment.

What was the hardest part of ERP for you, and how did you get through it?

The hardest part of ERP were the secondary fears that come with OCD while in treatment. What if I really don’t have OCD? What if ERP proves I don’t have OCD and that my obsessions are real? What if my OCD is untreatable? What if I am the exception to the OCD treatment rule and cannot be helped? These were just maddening! But they are part of the process of learning to take the risk and live with the uncertainty.

You basically had long-distance ERP because your therapist was in another state. How did he help you stay accountable to the therapy when you didn’t meet in person?

My therapist was the only OCD specialist I could find on the Internet in 1998 and he specialized in my particular type of OCD. He was in New York and I was in Georgia. We did phone sessions weekly for several months. He was tough and strict on me from the very first moment we had contact. He said that if I wasn’t doing the homework, he would know immediately and he would not work with me. I was so desperate for help and he put the fear of everything holy in me so I took it very seriously! In the end, I believe that as long as a therapist is competent in how ERP works and the patient is willing to commit 100 percent, it doesn’t matter if it is in person or over the phone, it will work.

You’ve devoted your career to helping others with mental illnesses, OCD in particular. In addition to your radio show, you’re also training to be a peer specialist. What does a peer specialist do?

I am a peer specialist. I just got certified two weeks ago in Denver. [Editor’s note: Woo hoo!] A peer specialist uses their experience with a mental illness to help others navigate their way toward and through recovery. I look at it as a mentor of sorts. It is a person who lives successfully with their mental illness and can inspire encouragement and hope to those who are in the different stages of recovery.

Why did you decide to become a peer specialist? 

I had been working as a coach for Effective OCD Treatment with Matty Myles, helping clients with ERP plans, and loved the opportunity to be in the trenches with people who are fighting through their illness. It gives me the opportunity to be a cheerleader and see positive change firsthand. I wanted to take it further and work with all types of mental illnesses. I started doing some research, applied for a job, and here I am!734104_10151442647068554_1214475491_n

Tell us about Outreach Community in Denver (OCD).

Matty came up with the OCD acronym (he’s a punster!). Matty Myles and I are very passionate about connecting people who have OCD to foster community support. We wanted to nurture an environment of fun as well as education for people to have others to reach out to when they need information and support.

You’re also a public speaker—and a fantastic one, at that! Not only are you educating others about mental illness, I imagine it’s therapeutic for you as well. Has speaking so openly about your OCD symptoms served as exposure?

Yes, but it is still difficult for me. Pure O/intrusive thought obsessions bring a great deal of shame and embarrassment, which is why many of us kept them silent for so many years—we equated them as a reflection of our character sometimes even after diagnosis and treatment! I still get a twinge of fear and shame when I talk openly about some of the details of my obsessions, but it gets easier little by little. I try to remember that there could be at least one person in the room that is suffering and needs to hear my story to ask for help—that helps me to wipe out any reluctance I may have about full disclosure.

If you could give others with OCD one piece of advice, what would it be?

Just one piece! That is hard! My advice to those with OCD is that recovery is possible for anyone—you are not an exception! But recovery does not come without some really difficult work. Make the commitment to ERP and trust the process!