Tuesday Q&A: Kat Hashway

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KatProfile

Welcome to Tuesday Q&A, dear readers!

Last month at the OCD Conference in Chicago, I ran into a family from my home state, a mother and her daughter who has OCD. As her mom and I chatted, this 9-year-old girl grew antsy — her mom gave me a look and said, “She saw a YouTube vlogger earlier, and we’re trying to track her down.”

That celebrity vlogger was Kat! She’s spreading awareness on her channel, ShalomAleichem {Mental Health Vlogs}, and gaining fans as she does it. It’s so important for kids and teens to see people their age have OCD, too, and are okay talking about it.

You’re 19 years old, and although I hesitate to say you’re lucky to already know you have OCD, it’s really common for people to go years, even decades, before they’re diagnosed. When did you first start experiencing OCD symptoms?

So, I was an anxious child for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t experience severe OCD symptoms until I was 15. Before then, my anxiety symptoms were more like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although, after being diagnosed with OCD, I can look back and see many symptoms that were classic OCD symptoms. I understand why you wouldn’t want to say I’m “lucky to know” I have OCD, but I do feel incredibly lucky that I found out I had OCD and got treatment so fast. At the time, I had no idea how long it took most people to get a diagnosis and treatment. To me, one month for a diagnosis and six months for treatment was way too long. It was long enough to make a significant impact on my life, so I guess that’s why.

How long after the onset of symptoms were you diagnosed? Was it fairly obvious to your parents that something was going on?

I started experiencing severe harm OCD around August 2012. I knew something was wrong because I never experienced anything like those thoughts before! However, my parents didn’t know anything was wrong at first. Eventually my distress became known to them because I would get so upset every time I got an intrusive thought. I used to cry and tell my mom I didn’t want to live if it meant having these thoughts. They knew something was seriously wrong, but they didn’t know what. There was no way I would have told them the content of the thoughts either.

When I first started experiencing severe OCD symptoms, I had a therapist for depression and anxiety, but I was terrified to tell her about these thoughts. I really thought I was crazy, or schizophrenic. I never once thought it could have been OCD. After a month of severe symptoms, I realized I couldn’t go on like this and decided to tell my therapist about what I was experiencing. She didn’t know what it was either. Long story short, I ended up inpatient in a mental hospital and that’s where I was diagnosed with OCD (and I’m so thankful for that!). After discharge from the hospital, I saw someone who claimed to be a CBT therapist, who turned out to not be a CBT therapist and didn’t know how to treat OCD. It took six months for me to get into proper CBT with exposure and response prevention, in the form of an OCD intensive outpatient program at the hospital I had been inpatient at. That’s when things started turning around.

HARM VIOLENT INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS THUMBNAIL

You’re already so active in spreading awareness about OCD, with your own YouTube channel, ShalomAleichem {Mental Health Vlogs}. How did you decide you wanted to help others in this way?

Having to wait six months for treatment and experiencing the lack of knowledge on OCD by professionals was what first made me want to raise awareness. When I learned it can often take decades to find treatment, I wanted to help even more. No one deserves to have decades of hiding with this illness! I also recalled going online to see if anyone else had symptoms like I did and hardly finding anything. (Although, that’s probably when I found you! Yay!) Much of what I did find gave bad advice on how to treat the thoughts. After the end of my stay in the intensive outpatient program, I was very comfortable with practicing ERP. I knew the key to getting rid of the thoughts. So when I went online for support a year later, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a video blogger who made ‘classic vlogging style’ videos, with content that supported recovery from OCD? Something that would appeal to people like the kids and adolescents who I met in the program?” Then I realized, hey, I could do that! By that point I did find a few vloggers and bloggers who spoke about lesser-known types of OCD, but it seemed most didn’t appeal to young people, and many of those that did appeal to young people were still giving bad advice (by “bad advice” I mean using avoidance, distraction, and accommodating compulsions).

But that’s not all. You also have a blog called Do An Exposure! As someone who’s shared personal details of my own journey with OCD — and usually tearfully — I imagine that just doing your vlog and blog feel like exposures sometime. Has sharing your story helped you on your path to recovery?

Short answer, yes. It totally has. When I couldn’t tell my intrusive thoughts to my therapists, I was able to say them to strangers online. It served as a great exposure opportunity. There were times where I was very uncomfortable, but I did it anyway because I knew that others who had those symptoms needed to hear it. I wanted to be what I was looking for when I was first diagnosed. Maybe I would have been diagnosed and got treatment sooner if I had known I was dealing with a treatable illness, I wasn’t just going “crazy.” Now I feel so much more comfortable talking about my thoughts in all situations — depending on the circumstances, of course.

Any advice for someone who wants to share their story, whether through YouTube videos, a blog, or another medium?

I’m having trouble thinking of anything besides just do it. The more we talk about the taboo topics, not just of taboo obsessions but OCD in general, the more we break the stigma around mental illness. The more we break stigma, the more people who need help get help. The more people who need support get support. And the more people who don’t understand, get a chance to understand what life is really like for people who have mental illness and OCD. It’s honestly life changing to hear people tell you because of you, they have hope or feel less alone. Advocating has probably had more of an impact on me than it’s had on other people. If you’re scared to do it for someone else, do it for you. As a chance to expose or track your recovery progress. I’m convinced that when anyone shares their story, it helps people.

KatGrad

So you’ve put yourself out there and have lots of adoring fans. Have you sat down in more intimate settings with friends and family to talk about your OCD? How did you tell loved ones about what was going on?

It’s funny because I don’t see myself as having adoring fans. But at OCD events, I usually have a few people who come up to me and say hi. The little girl was probably the cutest experience I’ve had yet!

I’m very guilty of avoiding vulnerability, which is shocking, I know. But because of that, I usually don’t talk about the specifics of my OCD in person unless someone is curious. The moment I sort of “came out” to my real life friends and family about having OCD happened on Facebook. It was after I went to my OCD program’s reunion and felt inspired by the recovery of my fellow patients. So I posted my story, disguised as an inspirational message to cover the vulnerability, and I got only positive responses. That’s the thing about confiding in people, we usually anticipate it to be worse than it actually is.

Let’s face it, all OCD symptoms are pretty terrible. But are there any in particular that you’ve had an especially hard time with?

The symptoms I had the hardest time with were the ones that brought my faith and morals into the mix. I don’t count harm thoughts because they morphed into Scrupulosity shortly after my diagnosis. However, the Scrupulosity was a huge issue and barrier to treatment. OCD was so intertwined in my faith that I couldn’t tell the voice of God from the voice of OCD, and that was terrifying. It also led to me doing every compulsion because how could I say no to “God”? It really debilitated me to the point where I was essentially homebound before I went to the the OCD program. Eventually though, once I was able to separate my OCD from my God and treat OCD as an illness and not a spiritual problem, I was able to get better.

The second one that has given me a very hard time is the sexual obsessions. They have mostly mental compulsions and are almost a spin-off of the harm obsessions. They both have the same pattern of focusing on a few people and avoidance being the main ritual. With sexual obsessions, it’s taken a lot of exposure and response prevention to get to this point. Before I couldn’t talk about them and every trigger caused extreme anxiety. Now, most days the thoughts come in as just an annoyance. However, I’m still doing exposures for this and have some cognitive distortions to work through. Just ask my therapist! The amount of times she’s had to tell me “thoughts are just thoughts” is ridiculous.

KatOCDWalk

You’re pretty open about how important your faith is to you. How does it factor into your journey with OCD?

My faith has been something solid in my life since I first struggled with depression at age 12. OCD was definitely a challenge to it since OCD got so intertwined into my faith. However, I can’t help but see it as proof everything happens for a reason. Going through OCD feels like going through Hell, but it’s brought me to a time in my life where I’m truly happy. I believe God wants us to be brave. And through therapy I learned how to be brave in the midst of fear, when anxiety has inhibited me most of my life before now. Because of my struggle, I learned a lot about my faith and about myself. Before OCD, I would have been content with faulty theology that helped my OCD grow, now I know better. It may sound really silly and that’s okay, but I think God was guiding me through it all.

Your Weird Thoughts Thursday on Twitter is such a great idea — any weird thoughts that have really stood out to you?

I think my favorite thought I’ve heard was from last Thursday, “If I post my #WeirdThoughtsThursday, it will come true!” Seeing that people are using Weird Thoughts Thursday as an exposure as well as support makes me so happy! On the support side, I think my favorite part of Weird Thoughts Thursday is when someone says a “weird” OCD thought and everyone replies saying, “I’ve had that too!”

If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?

My biggest advice to someone who has OCD would be, don’t wait to get help because you’re afraid. Generally speaking, the sooner you get help, the easier it is to recover. I know it’s hard, but it’s so worth it! Don’t let anxiety tell you what to do, anxiety is just a big bully. And how do you get rid of bullies? Ignore them! Don’t play into their game. And, you know, get help from authorities or therapists.

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