Kirsten Pagacz seems to lead a dream life—just browse through some of her photos and you’ll see what I mean. Is that Kirsten with Dick Van Dyke?! There she is at Comic Con, having a blast. And she owns the most charming little store! Her life is pretty good now, but it hasn’t always been that way. She suffered in silence and confusion for decades before finally being diagnosed, and that enlightenment was all thanks to chance. I’m excited to meet Kirsten later this week, when she’ll be in town to sign copies of her hot-off-the-presses book, Leaving the OCD Circus: Your Big Ticket Out of Having to Control Every Little Thing.
Like so many other people with OCD, you went undiagnosed for decades. How did you finally know where to turn for help and a diagnosis?
My husband Doug and I knew there was something terribly wrong; however, we did not know it was OCD. Actually twenty years ago, I had never even heard those letters strung together; it was not in the common vernacular as it is today. One day, Doug was listening to NPR and a PSA came on talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder. He could hardly wait to tell me about what he heard. It was kind of a “eureka moment.” The PSA closed with something like, “If you or a loved one might be suffering from OCD, there are OCD specialists in your area.” I got the name of an OCD doctor in my community and was fortunate enough to meet with him the same afternoon.
Once you were diagnosed, how did you feel, and how did you go about treating your symptoms?
I felt relief that the condition had a name, and I felt the biggest relief when my trusted OCD doctor also shared with me that OCD was not my fault and that it was a real medical condition. I was finally diagnosed at 32 years old, after suffering undiagnosed OCD for more than two decades. Part of my recovery and wellness process began with educating myself, reading everything that I could to find about OCD, my perpetrator and killer of joy. One of the first two things that I began doing with my doctor was exposure response prevention (ERP), and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). I was dedicated to stay the course and dig myself out of the confines of my OCD prison.
Did you tell friends and family about your diagnosis? If so, how did you go about it?
At first, I did not. I felt too vulnerable in the beginning of my mental health journey. I wanted to have some experience under my belt before opening up to others. My first step was expressing myself to my doctor and husband and other folks came later.
You have a brand-new book on the market! How did you decide to write Leaving the OCD Circus?
I have read a lot of books and met with a lot of doctors and I felt it was time to share what I had learned with other sufferers and their loved ones. I constructed this book—text and pictures—to help other OCD sufferers out of their own constriction. I have been writing poetry and collecting imagery, especially vintage art and ephemera, nearly all my life. Pictures and words that really spoke to me at a core level. Some seemed to capture exactly what I was feeling. Some reminded me of pain, some of hope or the freedom I longed for. I’ve sprinkled them like bread crumbs throughout the book to help guide sufferers out of their OCD prison. Sharing and showing the key that I whittled for myself is intended to inspire others on their journey of wellness.
How did it feel to put everything in writing? Did you have any moments when you second-guessed your decision to put your story out there, and if so, how did you move past them?
I never second-guessed any of it; it was time to expose the monster that I had been secretly trying to hide. In a sense I was spilling the beans on my abuser. I did it with determination to help other people get on to their big happy lives much sooner than I did.
You own a charming retro-inspired gift shop in Howell, Michigan, and the website Retro-a-go-go.com. Does running your own business work better for you and your OCD symptoms than going to an office every day?
Yes, running my own business was the way to go for me. I need a home for my creativity, and it is very important to me that I set the tone of the environment and the culture. Corporate life in general was not for me, and OCD or not, I wanted out of that environment. By no means is owning my own business easy, but it is much more preferred. Retro-a-go-go.com is coming up on 12 years and going strong.
You’re married. Do you have any relationship advice for my readers who are either in relationships or who feel that they can never be in an intimate partnership because they have OCD?
Trust, patience, and understanding are keys to a healthy relationship for me. Doug is my best friend and encourages me to be mentally healthy. The healthier I got the more I could clearly see that OCD was affecting other people in my life and I did not like or want that. When I was deep in the throes of OCD more than twenty years ago, I was on the battlefield with OCD, doing everything to be compliant so the “abuser,” OCD, would not pound on me harder for my imperfections. I sort of had no room for anything but me and my OCD. Times have changed, and I have found a way to get on to my happy life. Now it is time to share what I know with others. I feel a real sense of responsibility.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?
OCD is not your fault; it is a real medical condition. One step at a time and make your end goal mental health and wellness. Life is too rich and too wonderful to have it crushed by any illness, especially one that you can do something about. I value my time and my life so much—I cherish it and I keep doing the work that keeps me in the driver’s seat and OCD in the sidecar. OCD might pipe up with “Don’t you want to check the stove one more time?!” and I say, “Not today OCD, not today!”