Funny story: Erin Venker lives right here in the Twin Cities and she’s good friends with one of my coworkers, but we didn’t meet until we both attended the 2015 OCD conference in Boston. I knew right away I wanted to connect with her back home, and I ended up asking her to be the vice president of OCD Twin Cities, the local International OCD Foundation affiliate of which I’m president. (Okay, yes, I’ve said this about a hundred times before, but the conference is an incredible way to connect with like-minded people.) Not only does Erin have OCD, she went to graduate school to treat it and is ready to take clients. Call me biased (I’m not, though), but Erin is funny and compassionate and really knows her stuff.
How long have you had OCD? And when did you first realize what you’d been going through might be OCD?
I first had symptoms in 5th grade but I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 7th grade. I was too embarrassed to talk about my intrusive thoughts, so I didn’t realize that was a part of my OCD until years later.
What were your symptoms?
In the beginning, my OCD was mostly rituals of “breathing in” and “swallowing on” the letter A so I would get A’s in my classes. I also did a lot of magical thinking, for example, having lucky and unlucky colors. It soon evolved to include repetitive praying and confessing to my mom thoughts, worries, and “bad” things I did, or else I believed something bad would happen. I frequently had horrible intrusive thoughts, both sexual and violent. That period of my life is fuzzy; I just remember it was extremely painful. Daily life was exhausting. I thought I was a horrible person and was in constant fear that something bad was going to happen to my family.
What do you think about the phrase “pure O”? Some therapists and people with OCD think it’s misleading because people with pure O do have compulsions—it’s just that they’re usually mental, not physical. Is there any benefit to the label anyway?
I’m still on the fence with this. In college and post-college, my OCD evolved into primarily mental symptoms with rumination, trying to“figure things out” by replaying scenarios over and over in my head, a constant fear of offending people, and reassurance seeking.
Even though I do believe there are compulsions with pure O, I think many people relate more to the term pure O. I’ve talked to several individuals who have obvious obsessional symptoms of OCD, but they do not recognize their compulsive behaviors. They do not believe they have OCD without the compulsive aspect and therefore do not seek treatment. This can be extremely distressing for individuals, especially those with pedophilic, gay, sexual, and violent intrusive thoughts. They feel there is no explanation for what they are going through. They may fear they are actually a “pervert” or want to kill someone, etc. The general population also still sees OCD as an anxiety disorder that just consists of handwashing and being ultra-organized (which I am not…). Hopefully the term pure O will lead to more awareness of the other aspects of OCD.
Once you knew you had OCD, how did you go about treating it? How long did it take before you began to feel some relief?
I did not receive the proper treatment for OCD until 14 years after I was first diagnosed. Before exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, I saw several talk therapists, but found little relief. When I was 28, I saw Dr. Chris Donahue in Saint Paul. He made exposure scripts during each session, and I would listen to them as much as possible. It was about two months into treatment when I really began to notice a difference in my thought process and feel a huge weight lift.
You’ve used mindfulness to deal with some of your intrusive thoughts. How does it work? Does it work best in conjunction with therapeutic techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication?
The first thing I want to do when I have an intrusive thought is to judge the thought and judge myself. Why am I thinking this? This is so perverted. Why is this happening to me? Just stop thinking. I can’t stop thinking about this thought. I cannot stop ruminating about what happened. This leads down a rabbit hole of shame and negative self-talk. I use mindfulness to separate myself from my thoughts. I imagine thoughts as orbs floating and I observe them. I notice my anxiety and accept that it’s there. Sometimes I imagine myself on a diving board looking into a pool. I see my thoughts, and accept that they are there, without diving into the swamp. Imagery and acceptance has been a crucial component of my treatment.
Mindfulness is definitely best used with cognitive-behavorial therapy (CBT) as you begin to recognize the cognitive distortions in your thoughts. Am I catastrophizing this scenario that I have repeating in my head for the past three hours? Is this black and white thinking? Where can I see the gray in this situation?
I have a complicated relationship with medication. I do believe it can be essential in helping people with OCD, but I believe ERP is the silver bullet. Like ERP, it took years before I found a medication combination that worked for me. My hope is that medication will be prescribed more slowly and methodically while encouraging it to be taken in conjunction to therapy. Like with ERP and finding a therapist, do your research on medication and finding a physician’s assistant or psychiatrist who is thorough and understands OCD.
What has been the most difficult part of having OCD?
It’s exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally. In the heat of the battle, it feels as if you never get a break.
You’ve recently graduated with your master’s in counseling—congratulations! You plan on specializing in OCD, using both ERP and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is a more recent mode of treatment for individuals with OCD. Can you explain what it entails?
Thank you! I was very fortunate to work at the Minnesota Center for Psychology in Saint Paul for over two years as a receptionist. They run excellent DBT programs, and I learned a great deal about DBT while working there. DBT has four modules: emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and distress tolerance.
The primary concept I use in OCD treatment is being in the present moment, noticing your thoughts and feelings without reacting or judging. ERP therapy is all about feeling and accepting your anxiety until the distress naturally decreases without distracting yourself or resorting to a safety behavior.
I encourage clients to “urge surf” when they are tempted to perform a compulsion or ritual. This is a mindfulness technique used in DBT. I tell clients when they have an urge to ritualize, ride out that urge, notice where the anxiety goes, and imagine surfing to the shore as the urge decreases. We want clients to break the cycle of using compulsions and rituals to lower their distress, and instead ride through the discomfort. OCD is also accompanied by general anxiety, so I utilize the self-care aspects of DBT, but not for during exposures.
You’ve also decided not to require that your clients have insurance, and you’re going to charge on a sliding fee scale. Why?
Due to the rising costs of health care, insurance benefits have increasingly become more complex. Self-pay ensures that the client’s records and diagnoses are entirely confidential documents, as I will not have to submit them to insurance or a third-party payer. The content of sessions stays between myself, the client, and my supervisor, Dr. Vernon Devine, who has more than 46 years experience treating individuals with anxiety disorders.
Due to the nature of exposure therapy, treatment often involves appointments that need to be longer than an hour, multiple sessions a week, at-home sessions, and public exposures. Self-pay allows for treatment freedom as well as the time to get to the root of the problems the client is facing. It makes treatment much more effective. Typically treatment lasts no longer than three months before going to an as-needed appointment basis.
For individuals who are adamant about using insurance, I am happy to refer them to other therapists and give some general guidance for seeking treatment.
If you could offer just one piece of advice to others with OCD, what would it be?
Be sure you get a therapist who is well versed in ERP. A therapist should help you create a hierarchy to confront your fears and anxiety and not be afraid to challenge you. A therapist does not need to have a PhD or PsyD to be qualified. Several therapists who are MA, LPCC, or LICSW are excellent at treating OCD.
Also, find a support network. If you’re here in the Twin Cities area, join the OCD Twin Cities book club or a support group, and if you’re not, look into support groups and International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) affiliates in your area. I am working on starting an OCD therapy group. Look at the IOCDF website. Read books about OCD and educate yourself. Talking to people who understand and realizing how closely your symptoms relate to others can be a huge step in recovery.
OCD is a misunderstood and extremely painful disorder. However, I have found people with OCD are some of the strongest, most intelligent, and creative individuals. We feel emotions deeply and are highly sensitive. There is a way to harness strength in your OCD and embrace the uncertainty of life.