Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday! It’s become one of my favorite days of the week. And this week’s guest is one of my favorite OCD awareness advocates, Jenn Coward. If I haven’t convinced you already how wonderful the annual OCD Conference is, maybe this interview will finally seal the deal. It’s a great way to make friends, learn about treatment, and feel comforted knowing you’re not alone and don’t have to explain what OCD is or clear up any misconceptions.
Jeff Bell introduced me to Jenn on the first night of the conference, and we hit it off immediately.
When we met you told me the funniest story about one of your compulsions, avoiding stepping on sidewalk cracks, which you were still struggling with at the OCD Conference in 2012. When you ran into someone at the 2014 conference, she said, in front of several other people, “I’m so glad you got over your crack problem!” Of course, the “crack problem” wasn’t a laughing matter when you were struggling with it. How did you manage to stop avoiding sidewalk cracks?
It is definitely a story I won’t forget. I was attending the 2012 International OCD Foundation Conference in Chicago and a couple of new friends I met asked me about some of my compulsions. I had rarely discussed openly avoiding sidewalk cracks because over the years I managed to become really good at avoiding sidewalk cracks and making it look like I wasn’t trying to avoid them. Since we were honestly discussing our compulsions, I decided I should talk about it. As good as I had become at making it look like I wasn’t avoiding the cracks, I would avoid places if the sidewalks or tiles inside malls had a lot of cracks. I was missing out on things because of my fear and compulsion.
The conference and friends I had made really inspired me to work hard in ERP and challenge my fears. I met so many people who had made such progress and were successfully overcoming their compulsions, I wanted to as well. When I got home from the conference I read a few books including Jeff Bell’s When in Doubt, Make Belief and Shannon Shy’s It’ll Be OK: How I Kept Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) From Ruining My Life. These books had some great strategies I wanted to try. I started slowly with every day trying to step on at least one crack. It was really difficult because I immediately wanted to go back and fix it by retracing my steps and not stepping on the crack. The first few times, the anxiety and bad thoughts were unbearable and I felt like giving up. After the first few weeks, though, the anxiety started to not be so strong. It took almost three months before I could move on and step on two cracks a day, but I was making progress that I could see and it gave me confidence to keep going. Eight months later, I was consistently stepping on cracks and the anxiety and bad thoughts were hardly there. I knew I was winning this war on OCD and it made me so happy.
Can you tell us why you wouldn’t step on cracks?
I’m not really sure how this compulsion started but I was walking to work one day when my OCD symptoms were starting to get worse and really take over my life. I remember stepping on a crack in the sidewalk and all of a sudden an image popped into my head of my mom being in a horrible car accident. It scared me so much that I just stopped walking and stood there for a minute trying to figure out why I was thinking of this. The anxiety started to build up and for some reason this thought about needing to avoid sidewalk cracks came to mind. Over the course of the next few days, I noticed if I stepped on any cracks, I would get these mental images of someone in my family being harmed and my mind kept telling me it was my fault, I was causing this to happen. The only thing that helped decrease the anxiety and keep these thoughts from overpowering me was this constant voice in my head telling me to avoid the sidewalk cracks. If I avoided the cracks, my family would be okay. Before long I was avoiding every crack, and if I accidentally stepped on a crack, I had to go back to the very beginning, meaning wherever I was walking from, I had to go back and walk the “correct” way—not on any cracks—so my family would be okay. A few times I tried to ignore the anxiety and bad thoughts, but they became so frightening it was just easier to give in to the compulsion so I could have relief from the anxiety.
You went on Dr. Jonathan Grayson’s Virtual Camping Trip. Why did you go so far out of your comfort zone?
A lot of people I met at the 2012 conference suggested it to me. I wasn’t going to go because it sounded really uncomfortable, but many of my new friends I had just met were doing it so I figured I would go and see what it was about. It was the most terrifying and exhilarating ERP experience I had ever had at that time. Here we were walking around in this big group around downtown Chicago at night, and whatever Dr. Grayson told us to do, we did. At the time it made no sense to me that I would do these things—kick car tires, yell at cars to “crash and burn,” or play in a dumpster—but here I was doing it. After the fact I think I realized I did it because we were in such a big group so it felt more comfortable and Dr. Grayson didn’t give us time to stop and think through what he was telling us to do. This virtual camping trip made me realize that ERP was really going to be what helped me get over my compulsions.
How did you realize you had OCD? For me it wasn’t at all obvious and it took several years before I was diagnosed.
For a number of years I didn’t know I had OCD either. I now realize I first had the onset of symptoms in my preteen years. It wasn’t until I was almost fourteen, though, that I really started to experience a lot of OCD thoughts that I developed compulsions to deal with. I kept it all to myself because I was scared and confused. I didn’t understand why I was having these thoughts and why I needed to perform these compulsions. I was scared to tell anyone because I couldn’t understand myself what was going on. I really tried to perform my rituals in secret so my family wouldn’t see what I was doing. I would be up really late at night performing these compulsions and I couldn’t go to bed until I had done them perfectly. Over time I was getting really stressed by the growing list of compulsions I had to perform. I finally confided in a friend at school one day when it was all becoming too much. I started to explain to her my thoughts and compulsions. I was so surprised to hear her tell me she thought she knew what I may have and told me to go home and look up obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the time I didn’t know she had been living with OCD for a number of years. I went home that night and looked it up in this big medical journal we had, and there were three pages on OCD. I remember sitting there reading it and I started to cry from relief. The obsessions and compulsions it was describing were what I was experiencing. I realized it was time to talk to my parents and look into going to see my doctor.
Can you share some of your other obsessions and compulsions? What steps did you take to get some control over them?
When I had a relapse four and a half years ago, my obsessions and compulsions were different from when I was first diagnosed as a teenager. Everything had a place and it always had to be in that place. If anyone moved something, even a tiny bit, I would know and I had to fix it. Since I had a fear of harming people, I was scared to drive and never got my license because of this.
One of the most difficult obsessions that I had besides sidewalk cracks was a fear of certain numbers: Six, twelve, any multiple of those numbers (24, 36, etc.), or any combination of numbers that added to six or twelve. I was paralyzed by this fear of numbers. Everything I did, I had to make sure it didn’t happen at one of these times or dates. For example, if I needed to wash my hands but it was 1:06 p.m., I would wait until 1:07 p.m.
ERP was how I eventually got control over these compulsions. I started small with doing things like intentionally moving something like a magazine so it wasn’t in its right place and I would try and go as long as possible before I had to fix it. At first it was only a minute, but over months of constantly working on this compulsion, I could go hours without having to move it back to its right place and eventually I could have multiple things out of place at one time and my anxiety was still decreasing. This is how I got control over all my compulsions.
Some fears and compulsions took a long time to get control over like my number phobia, but I approached them all the same way. I can honestly say my number phobia took almost two years for me to get control over.
I know you’ve made huge leaps in recovery in the past few years, and you didn’t waste any time before getting into advocacy in your community. Tell us about your awareness-spreading efforts and how you got into them.
I’m currently a guest speaker for a high school mental health awareness program that is called Talking About Mental Illness (TAMI). It’s a three-day program for grade 11 students. A mental health nurse comes in and educates students about different types of mental illnesses, the symptoms, and where they can go locally to get help. I share my personal experience with OCD. I also speak at our local college to many different programs, specifically the ones that have a mental health element (nursing, child and youth worker, personal support worker.) I’ve also done a lot of local media for OCD Awareness Week and Bell Let’s Talk Day, a mental health awareness day in Canada.
I got into awareness spreading because I wanted to make a difference and turn what I had been through into something positive and meaningful. When I had learned about Jeff Bell’s Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance and what they did, it made sense to me. So many of the people I met who were better became advocates and shared their own personal story. It seemed to be so therapeutic for them and they were helping others by sharing their story. After my relapse, I remember being in a very dark place, feeling hopeless. I was sure I would never get better. Then I read a book that changed my life. It was Jeff Bell’s memoir, Rewind, Replay, Repeat. I remember sitting there when I finished reading it and thinking there was hope. His book provided me that hope when I needed it most. I realized if his book could do this for me, sharing my experience could help someone else.
Stand Up To Stigma is a fund-raiser and mental health awareness night. I felt like our community needed an event where we could come together and have an honest, open conversation about mental health. I wanted to address the stigma that still surrounds mental illness but more importantly have people within our community share their story of living with mental illness so others could see they weren’t alone, there was hope, they could get better. Specifically youth mental youth is a big topic for our event. The statistics are frightening. Three out of four children and youth with a mental health problem in Canada will not receive treatment. Three times as many youth (15 to 24 years old) die by suicide than by all forms of cancer combined. We are failing our youth and the only way we can address it is by starting the conversation. All money raised will be going to a Canadian mental health charity called Partners for Mental Health.
We met at the OCD Conference in 2014, but it wasn’t your first time there, and it certainly won’t be the last. What keeps you coming back year after year?
It is the most fun I have all year. There is nothing quite like being with hundreds of other people who understand you. I have made great friends and every year there are workshops where I learn so much more about living with OCD. I know I would not have recovered as well from my relapse if it wasn’t for these conferences. They have provided me with so many tools and friendships to get better.
If you could offer just one piece of advice to someone with OCD, what would it be?
Don’t give up, there’s hope. When it seems that getting better is impossible, believe that it is possible, because it is.