Speaking Out to Destigmatize OCD: Shaun Flores

After Shaun Flores was diagnosed with OCD, he knew he had to share his story to help others—and he has not stopped since! He didn’t see other Black men speaking about their struggles with mental illness, but instead of giving in to stigma and the fear of being judged he has gone full steam ahead, vowing to infuse the OCD community with more diversity. Shaun explains this beautifully himself, so I’ll turn it over to him—thank you, Shaun!

Can you tell us a little of your OCD story? How long did you experience symptoms before you were diagnosed, and when were you diagnosed? 

I experienced symptoms for around three or four years—I had the idea that I had a sexually transmitted infection. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get that obsessive idea out of my head. At the worst, I paid for a same-day test to prove I had no infection. That thought migrated to the idea that I had HIV! 

The next couple of years I had a dream where I woke up believing I was gay; I threw up because of the anxiety and I couldn’t stop seeking evidence to prove I was gay. I lived with it for years. 

The moment that made me realize something was wrong, I had a thought about sexual assault that scared the life out of me. I avoided all my female friends; I didn’t want to be around any females in case I did something. I hated how my mind was. 

The final OCD breakdown was when the image of suicide popped into my head. I panicked, called all my friends and told them I wanted to die. The next couple of days I was horrifically depressed. My existence felt like a burden. 

On Saturday, June 4, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to know what was going on in my head. I sought help. I searched through the internet and found no answers. I self-diagnosed me with everything under the sun. I found a therapist online called the anxiety whisperer, Emma Garrick. I begged for a call, and she answered, and I poured out crying wanting to know I wasn’t going to hurt anyone. She immediately knew it was OCD. 

Since then, we have been doing exposures and I have got my life back. I still have rough days, but for the most part, I am far better. 

In an interview you did with Channel 4 you said there have been no Black people at OCD events you’ve attended because Black people don’t speak about OCD. This may be a bigger question than you can fully answer here, but can you say more about why that is? And how did you summon the courage to talk about your experience with OCD when you didn’t see other Black men doing the same? 

One day I woke up and said to myself, “Fuck being depressed, I am going to change the world.” I went downstairs and decided to open Google Docs, where I began writing my story. I wanted to tell my story to help others to know they weren’t alone. Writing has been a cathartic experience shedding the skin that OCD enveloped me in.  

I already felt ashamed of the thoughts I was having, what could be worse? People will have an opinion of me regardless; I might as well give them the full story so they can form a truer opinion. Either way, their opinion does not stop me from losing sleep.  

I released my first story on The Book of Man. I was so nervous, and I wanted them to take the word “rape” out in fear women would be scared. Then I stopped myself; I was avoiding it (a compulsion). I shared it via Instagram and so many people told me they had OCD, mainly Black people. I was shocked! This gave me the fuel I needed to keep burning.  

Since then, I have written over fifteen articles—The Metro, INews, Treat My OCDBlack Minds Matter UK, Anxiety UK, Disability Expo, MQ Mental Health Research, Kindred magazine, The Book of ManThe Model Cloud magazine, Beyond Equality, Models of Diversity, London NewsMade of Millions, and Orchard OCD—and I have appeared on The OCD Stories podcast, Happiful Magazine podcast, and All the Hard Things podcast

I have realized yes, the OCD community is a heavily white space, with barely any ethnic minorities, yet OCD does not discriminate. As a young Black man there is already grave shame about speaking about our mental health; it takes someone to make the change. I wanted to be the change I wanted to see. I saw no one Black speak about OCD; I want that to change for others who were previously in my position.  

We need more people to share their platforms and give space to ethnic minorities—it literally saves lives. To this day I still have so many people reaching out to me thanking me for telling my story and they felt seen and heard. I will always do my best to speak up and give a voice to the voiceless and give hope to the hopeless. I no longer want to be the only Black guy in Britain who speaks about OCD.  

Channel 4 was a watershed moment that made me realize this advocacy and activism is needed in the community and on mainstream conversations. When I spoke, the room fell deafening silent, you could feel the tension. People were being educated, but most importantly I spoke a language people understood. I did not try to overcomplicate what OCD was and my journey. I have found there is a dire need for authenticity and realness because people often won’t speak about their struggles. People keep conversations limited to their highlights, but the highest of highs sometimes do not balance out the lowest of lows.  

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is simply using fear to propel me forward toward my aims and goals. A hero uses fear to push him to save and help people whereas a villain uses fear to hurt and harm people. One is for love, and one is for hate; I learned to use fear to help me love the world better and align myself further with my purpose to leave the world in a better place than I found it.   

Growing up as a Black man has not been the easiest; however, this is never something I would change. The struggle made me stronger, and without it I would not be half of the character I am today. I enjoy my culture, my heritage, and my background; I just know there is so much to change, the community needs change, and my community has given so much to me. I must give back. I am indebted to the Black community and the wider mental health community and in particular widening discourse within the OCD community.  

What would you tell someone who wants to share their OCD story but is afraid of the possible repercussions? What if their goal is to tell their loved ones, not to spread awareness? 

First, your fears are valid and come from a sensible place. Society remains not ready to have such conversations at this time. Do not tell your story unless you are willing to face the positives and negatives that come with it. When speaking about my story my mum told me, “Shaun, be careful who sees it as they might not give you a job.” I recognized my mum’s fear comes from a place where she fears the worst; I rather hope for the best and be in spaces where I am understood, and people are willing to listen.  

This is such a valid question—the road of advocacy/activism is not for everyone. However, guess what! Telling your family is a form of advocacy and activism. Often, we have this idea hundreds of people must be changed, changing your immediate circle has ripple effects that trickle down over time.  

Informing your family, loved ones, your immediate circle is a huge achievement within itself because it takes courage to tell your story. A story shared is a burden halved. Educating your loved ones ultimately can be a huge recovery in taking back your life from OCD.  

Whatever you choose you are making change. And that is enough. You are enough.  

What do you wish people who don’t have OCD knew about the disorder? 

OCD is not a joke; OCD is not an adjective. OCD is not something to be desired. OCD is not to be sought after. You do not want OCD; it takes a lot of mental energy to live with OCD. I implore you to educate yourself as to what OCD is. Using OCD in such casual meaningless ways saying, “I am so OCD” doesn’t put into account the torture OCD can cause and does cause to many people’s lives.  

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

I can’t give one piece of advice, I want to give several pieces of advice or mere suggestions that have helped me. Never give up; the best project you will ever work on is yourself. I am currently on the NHS trial for OCD where we are testing out the power of “magic mushrooms” on OCD symptoms. It is in fact strangely a great time for us living with OCD; there are more possible treatments coming out. More alternatives and science may feel like it is moving slow, but it is moving fast.  

Being of service has helped me come out of the depression OCD left me in and I am aiming to deliver a TEDx talk on OCD; I strongly believe this could change the game for us with OCD. I have plans in abundance. My next plan is to finish my life coach qualification, then I will train to become a therapist.  

My private messages are open, I am more than happy to talk to anyone. I will always make time for us with OCD or any mental health issues. You are not defined by your OCD.  

Find your why. Your existence is needed, wanted and I love you.  

He who has a why can endure any suffering.