OCD Support in a Small Town: Kevin Putman

Kevin and his wife, Tana

Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday! Welcome Kevin Putman, one of last year’s recipients of the IOCDF Hero Award—and with good reason. He’s done a tremendous amount of awareness building in his small community in Michigan and has shared his unique idea for OCD advocacy with the larger community as well: Ping Pong 4 OCD. Maybe you’ve played ping pong at one of the OCD Conferences and met Kevin yourself. He’s funny, approachable, and tireless in his efforts to get people to the right treatment sooner.

Last summer at the International OCD Conference you were presented with the IOCDF Hero Award—and you were very deserving! Tell us what you’d been doing in advocacy to get you on the hero radar.

It was unexpected. I see so many people doing so many big things and I always feel like I’m not big time, or doing big things. It just doesn’t seem like it to me, but I guess it seems like it to someone. There are three main things that I do. One is an OCD support group here in Petoskey, Michigan, where I live, and that’s top on the list for sure. That’s really giving back and helping out. We do that once a month. I really enjoy doing that. The other thing that I have going on — I like to say “we” because it’s the community here — is RUN OCD, which is the nonprofit organization, and the big event is Ping Pong 4 OCD. We do those events here in Michigan and we do them in conjunction with the International OCD Foundation. We’ve kind of branched out and some other people have taken that torch and run with it in their community. I also work with Christian Benway. He’s brought in the disc golf for OCD side of RUN OCD.

You have OCD yourself. Can you share some of your OCD story with us? When were you diagnosed, and how did you realize something was wrong—and that it could be OCD?

My formal diagnosis didn’t come until I was married with kids. Actually, my wife was the one who diagnosed me. I self-diagnosed, but I probably didn’t get an official diagnosis until I was almost 30. Looking back on it, I know that I have had OCD since forever. I can’t think of a time that I didn’t. But in college I was taking a psychology class, Psych 101. We were talking about anxiety disorders, and one day the topic happened to be OCD. I’m just some college kid taking notes, but some things my professor was saying were relating so much to me it was crazy. It was like someone was punching me in the stomach every time he said, “Someone with OCD does this, and they do this.” It was real stuff. At that point I still wasn’t convinced; I thought, “Oh, this is just a coincidence.” But from there I started to pay attention more, and once I got married and started living with my wife she started noticing a lot of stuff—the checking, the rechecking, and a lot of other things I was doing that revolved around OCD.

Once you knew it was OCD how did you go about treating it?

Well, at first, I went to a counselor locally. I went to a handful of counselors here in this town, and the unfortunate part was that there wasn’t really anyone who knew what to do, so I wasn’t treated how I needed to be treated for a long time. I had a handful of counselors where I would go in and they would just accommodate me and reassure me— it was almost like my weekly reassurance session. I’d save up all this stuff I was anxious about and I would say, “Here’s what’s going on” and we’d talk about how things are going to be all right, it’s gonna be okay, the total opposite of what we needed to be doing, which was to build that anxiety up. So it wasn’t really until I got into the Houston OCD program that I started hitting hard and started working on ERP. My wife is a counselor, and she had read Loving Someone With OCD, and that book talks a lot about the family accommodation piece. She had already started doing that before I went to Houston; she was not accommodating at all at home because she’d read that for her to be checking locks and checking the stove for me was not the right thing to do. That was a huge, huge benefit to have her. To have your wife be a counselor is a lucky thing.

So do you live in a relatively small town? Is that why there weren’t that many people who knew about it?

Right, exactly. I live in Petoskey, Michigan, which is a super small resort community, and anyone who really specializes in OCD would be in the Detroit or Lansing area, which is like three hours away from here. Our counselors up here have to be so broad; they can’t just focus on OCD because they wouldn’t have enough clientele. They have to do the full gamut, and that means they may or may not be up on what the correct practices are. Now that I have gone to the conferences and gone to the Houston OCD program and I’m running this OCD support group I’ve made myself available in the community as an OCD resource. So whenever I talk to anybody, whenever anyone calls me, and they tell me that they’re in counseling, I always ask, “Have you ever heard of ERP?” I would say 99.99 percent of the time they say no, and they’ve been treated by a counselor for a while. It’s a little bit scary to me, still, but not everybody knows it. I’ve been trying to bring that in, too, when I talk to people. I just met with someone the other day, and they were sharing with me, and they had never heard of ERP. They’re a big research type of person, so I said, “Google it, and if you’re not doing that with your counselor, you need to find someone else.”

How did you go from that to the Houston program? Did you find out about it on your own, like doing Internet research?

My wife found it. I have “just right” OCD; my OCD revolves around checking, and I do a lot of symmetry and over-responsibility. All of my symptoms crashed down on me all at once. I didn’t want to move one way because it didn’t feel right, or I’d have to move back the other way. I didn’t want to turn anything on because I’d have to turn it off. I was sinking into this deep, deep depression, and I was suicidal. I was not functioning. I was on the couch, burying myself underneath a sleeping bag, and I was making a plan to kill myself. My wife was like, “Okay, we’ve got to do something.” She called Community Mental Health here in town and they said, “O-C-what?” It was like, “Are you kidding me?” At first I was going to go out to McLean in Boston. That was the original plan, but they were full and couldn’t take me. This was on a Thursday or Friday, and my wife said, “No, he’s got to get in now.” She called the Houston program and they said, “All right, we’ll see you Monday morning,” and we went.

Did you have kids at this point?

I did. My kids at the time were three and six.

You started a nonprofit called RUN OCD. First of all, explain the name for some of my younger readers. 

[Laughs.] Isn’t that funny? We were looking for a cool T-shirt to make, so it wasn’t supposed to be what it happened to be. I’m a big hip-hop guy from back in the day, so we looked at the logo for RUN DMC, the rap group from the 1980s, early ’90s. Their logo looks exactly the same except it says RUN DMC and ours is RUN OCD. So at first it was just a play on words and a T-shirt, and then when Ping Pong for OCD started happening and Christian and I were both speaking and we were doing support groups and events, we realized maybe this is bigger than we thought it was going to be. People will always ask, “What does it mean?” I wish there was a straight answer but there’s not. It’s kind of what you want it to be. A lot of the time we say it’s to run your own OCD or to take charge, don’t let OCD run you, run your own OCD. It’s neat to see who gets the RUN DMC reference and who doesn’t. I like that it’s ambiguous because it makes people ask questions. You walk down the street with a RUN OCD T-shirt on and someone’s like, “What do you got going on there?” And it opens the door for conversation and for sharing. It’s inevitable—if you talk with someone they’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, my cousin, my brother, myself” has OCD, and it opens that door. I have met so many people and built so many relationships just because I was walking down the street wearing the shirt or the hat. I’ve considered changing the name, I’ve considered adding a tag line, I’ve considered all these things, but I really like that people have to ask because then the conversation can start.KevinPingPong

Let’s talk about ping pong. I love it, but what I like most about it is seeing how many times my partner and I can go back and forth, so I wouldn’t win any tournaments. What gave you the idea to introduce ping pong to the OCD conference? 

We’d done a couple of ping pong for OCD events in Michigan, and they were fun. And I’d been going to the conferences and it seemed like you’d get into the evenings of the conferences and there was not a ton to do. They had some evening activities, but a lot of times the conferences are in these gigantic towns and you don’t necessarily want to venture out into San Diego or Chicago—of course there’s cool stuff to do, but you’re meeting people and you just end up staying right in the conference hotel and want to spend time with these folks. So I thought, “Man, we have all these big conference rooms that we use during the day but we don’t use in the evenings, so wouldn’t it be neat to just clear them out and put in some ping pong tables?” Then people can come in and they can hang out and it’s a nice networking time, a nice ice-breaking time. The kids really like it too because the conference has a bunch of kids and they can’t go out to the bars or the restaurants, really, and they’re looking for something to do in the evening. It’s something that people of all ages and all skill levels can participate in. We tried it once and people liked it and we kept doing it.

I think most of us with OCD have pet peeves about how misunderstood the disorder is and how the misconceptions are perpetuated. How do you feel about things like someone saying, “I’m so OCD about how I organize my clothes”? 

Some people get all fired up about that kind of stuff. I know there’s a huge side of the OCD community who thinks that’s blasphemy and thinks it’s disrespectful. That bothers me none. What bothers me is people in the OCD community who are bothered by it because I think it’s silly. I think there’s so many more places that we can put time and energy into than chasing down someone who says, “Oh, I’m so OCD about organizing my groceries.” I just think it’s a null point and I don’t care one bit. I really don’t.

What would you say is your biggest OCD awareness accomplishment?

The first ever Ping Pong 4 OCD tournament we did in my hometown in 2011. It just came out of nowhere. The response from the community was super cool. Every person I talked to said yes, everywhere I went somebody donated something, gave me something. It was just really cool and the neat part about it was that the whole idea behind Ping Pong 4 OCD stemmed from starting a support group. When I was in the Houston OCD program I had found huge value in the Houston-area OCD support groups, which weren’t affiliated with the program. It was people coming from the community and all walks of life, different shapes and colors and sizes, and I thought that was so cool. My therapist talked to me at discharge about how I needed to find an OCD support group when I went home, and I said, “We don’t have one.” She said, “Well, you’re going to have to start one.” I was trying to figure out how you start an OCD support group. What, you put a sign in the door and say, “All right, OCD support group tomorrow night!” You’d be sitting in a room all by yourself. We needed an event or a gimmick, basically, to get people together to get this support group started, so we organized a ping pong tournament. We just had this small little table in the corner that had some books and some pamphlets about OCD awareness and a sign-up sheet that said, “I’m interested in attending an OCD support group.” We never announced that we were doing that; it was just ping pong all day long, but the people who needed to find that table, and the people who needed to put their names on that list, did. From that list we got the OCD support group started and we’re still doing it five years later.

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

Laugh. Because it’s really funny when you think about it, the things we do. It’s just funny. And if you can use humor as your friend I think that’s a huge piece of recovery.