Tag Archives: harm obsessions

Tuesday Q&A: Kat Hashway

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tuesday Q&A: Aaron Harvey

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AaronHeadShotOn March 21, I shared a link to IntrusiveThoughts.org on my author Facebook page and said, “I am so excited about this new website!” And I really was. Not only was it all about the intrusive thoughts that plague those of us with OCD, it mentioned all the secret shameful ones like pedophilia and harm, and—and!—it’s gorgeous. Looks shouldn’t matter, but let’s face it: Important, life-saving information served up in an attractive package certainly doesn’t hurt.

Aaron Harvey is the man behind the site, and I’m honored to host him today. We met in person at the OCD Conference in July (haven’t I told you like a million times that you need to go to the conference?), and he was warm, smart, funny, and open. He’s been talking about things many of us are still keeping to ourselves. But Aaron doesn’t want anyone else to hurt the way he hurt for so long, and that’s what keeps him talking and what inspired him to start IntrusiveThoughts.org. Thank you, Aaron, for being here today and for everything you’ve done to help people with OCD.

After suffering in silence and confusion for decades, you finally realized that your disturbing intrusive thoughts were symptoms of OCD, a treatable disorder. Unfortunately, you’re not alone in this—too many people go undiagnosed and untreated for too long. What sets you apart, though, is that you almost immediately undertook an ambitious project to spread awareness so no one else would have to suffer as long as you had. Where did your idea for IntrusiveThoughts.org come from?

I lived silently in fear for two decades unaware that I had a mental disorder. In March 2014, my mental health had really deteriorated. So I finally got the strength to search “violent thoughts” online. Within seconds, I read a list of symptoms for Pure O. My heart was on the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Every symptom. Check. Check. Check. In that brief moment, I was relieved and terrified at the same time. What did this mean? The symptom list confirmed to me that I was an animal. As I continued my search, I found an article on the Guardian. The author, Rose Bretecher, humanized the suffering of OCD in an absolutely humble, honest, and beautiful way.

For the next six months, I would only share my disorder with a few close friends and family. And I could only do it by sending them the link and saying, this is what I’ve been dealing with since a child. I had to read it verbatim to my parents because I was too emotional to use my own words.

That’s when I knew I needed to build something that helped to humanize the experience. And two years to the day following my Google search, I launched IntrusiveThoughts.org. I wanted to find people who might be suffering from OCD, but are unaware, just like me. I wanted to build a site that brought comfort to people seeking their symptoms, and push them on a path to treatment, offsite.

My goal was simple. Save one life. Prevent one person from self-medicating. Reach a younger audience to help them live a normal life—one that, sadly and admittedly, I did not have.

If you could pinpoint one thing you want IntrusiveThoughts.org visitors to walk away with, what would that be—and does it depend on who the visitor is?

I want sufferers to realize they have a chance at happiness. I want sufferers and their friends and families to be able to relate to the disorder, understand its brevity, and utilize it as a jumping off point for treatment. You are not alone. And you are no more likely than anyone else to act on your thoughts.

You and I both struggled with taboo obsessions, those sticky intrusive thoughts that are really embarrassing and difficult to talk about. But you were candid and brave much sooner after diagnosis than I was. How did you find the courage to tell wide-reaching outlets such as Self, Cosmopolitanand Fast Company about your violent and sexual thoughts? And what kind of response have you gotten from readers, friends, and family?

I remember the night before the site launched, my tell-all article was queued up to launch in FastCompany.com and soon my family, friends, clients and employees would know what’s in my head. That night, I really started to question what I was doing. And if it was worth it or not. But ultimately, I laddered back up to my mission to build awareness and advocacy. With my role in the advertising industry, I have a unique opportunity to use my skills to spread that message. So I basically said, fuck it. And let Fast Co know to run the article.

As I started to receive more inquiries about more taboo topics like sex, it certainly was getting even more personal and invasive. But ultimately, I have to ladder back up to my mission—build awareness and advocacy. Sex is a huge part of life. And sex can be an extreme challenge for people with OCD. It’s an imperative that we discuss these taboo topics to help those suffering know that they are not alone, there are tips and tricks to improve your sexual experiences, and you can have an open dialogue with your partner.

I mentioned that you were diagnosed decades into your struggle with OCD. What’s your first memory of an obsession or a compulsion, and what finally tipped you off to the idea that what you had been going through was OCD?

In hindsight, I see there were so many now! But, the first intrusive thought I really struggled with was when I would pray. I grew up in a Christian household, and at night, at 12 or 13, I would say the Lord’s Prayer as I went to sleep. As I reached the end of the prayer, I would have an intrusive thought of my cumming on Jesus’ face. Shocked and horrified, I would beg for forgiveness and repeat the prayer until I could make it all the way through. I remember each time I would get close to the end of the prayer I would be like “OK, almost there,” and then sure enough, I would cum on Jesus’ face.

From there, the sexually related OCD thoughts really took off. I thought I was a pedophile at 13.

A question I often get is “How did you tell your family about your diagnosis?” So I’ll pose this to you as well. Do you have any tips to share with my readers?

I flew to Florida to see my family. We sat on the back porch—Mom, Dad, and I. I pulled up my phone and said, hey, I’ve been dealing with something for a long time. I could see the mood got serious. I was choking up a bit trying to tell them. So I pulled up Rose’s article in the Guardian, and I started to read it line by line. As I hit a particular tough spot, I started to lose it a bit. It wasn’t until I read the entire article that I could start to tell them about how my experiences are different than Rose’s experiences. I told them not to mention it to me or ask me how I’m doing because it’ll just make it worse. In hindsight, I really needed to be more educated.

The home page of IntrusiveThoughts.org is supposed to do one thing: sum up the most important notes of the disorder in a way that is serious but digestible. I hope people who are nervous to tell their loved ones can say, hey, check out this link, this is what I think I’m going through.

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In your interview with Cosmopolitan, you said, “My experience with OCD is that your intrusive thoughts will try to disrupt the most beautiful moments in your life.” I always say OCD is tricky, and it’s a bastard, too: You had upsetting, graphic sexual and violent thoughts while you had sex with your ex-wife, and this took a toll on your relationship. What advice do you have for someone with similar obsessions who may be avoiding intimacy because of them? 

Transparency. That’s the most important thing. Because of my distance due to fears of intrusive thoughts, my ex thought there was something wrong with her. It led her down a depressive cycle. It’s really important to share these thoughts with your partner. Beyond that, there are tips and tricks that I’ve learned that might help people. Mindfulness. Focus on the breath. When thoughts get disruptive and start to avalanche, pull your partner closer, go slow, engage in foreplay, live in the moment, don’t worry about the end result. Mindfulness is really key to being able to enjoy a sexual experience. To let the thoughts pass and stay in the present.

So many people with OCD unknowingly undergo the wrong treatment for OCD, usually “talk” therapy where they’re asked to delve into their childhood to determine where this mess all came from. You’re currently practicing exposure and response prevention (ERP) with a therapist. How did you find someone qualified to help you tackle your OCD symptoms, and how did you determine that they were indeed qualified? 

The sad part is, you really don’t know. Sure, you can read someone’s credentials on a website where they state “OCD” as part of their specialty, but you really don’t know. You must be educated first. You are the CEO of your recovery. Not some doctor or therapist.

All that said, you do have a few starting points as Dr. Phillipson points out in the OCD3 video series. (1) Work with a behavioral psychologist. (2) Work with someone who specializes in OCD, someone with many cases under their belt, a track record, not a generalist. (3) Interview them to make sure they speak intelligently about OCD, OCD treatment, and ERP. Again, this step requires you to be educated first.

IOCDF has a directory of OCD specialists in the US.

Also, it’s important to note that many people suffering from OCD may also be suffering from depression, generalized anxiety disorder, addiction, body dysmorphia, etc. It’s critical that your behavioral psychologist actually understands these elements and how to build a treatment plan for you.

How are you doing now, a few years after you were diagnosed? I often tell people that the goal of treatment shouldn’t be to never, ever have a bad thought again, because it’s simply not realistic. Do you still experience intrusive thoughts?

I struggle every day. Some days worse than others. No day is easy. I have pretty severe depression as a result of two decades of self-hatred. I have very little self-worth. There are no accomplishments that help to prove me wrong—whether it’s owning an agency, starting a non-profit, etc. So my treatment is very challenging, because when you have harm OCD where you’re plagued with constant thoughts of self-harm, and you also have depression, the combination can be very dangerous.

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

Let people in on your secret.

It’s Not You, It’s Your OCD

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Have you ever tried to spare someone’s feelings during a breakup by saying, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, when you dump OCD for good, go ahead and tell the truth: It’s you, OCD, not me.

Dr. Lee Baer, OCD specialist, Harvard professor, and author, titled his book about intrusive thoughts The Imp of the Mind. That’s what OCD is–an unwelcome little devil that needs to be cast out with no pity. You don’t need to be polite to this rude guest. While I’m not one for making excuses, I definitely blame OCD for every terrible obsession that’s plagued me.

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But I haven’t always had this clarity: Before I was diagnosed with OCD I blamed myself, even though I didn’t understand what, if anything, I had done to deserve the intrusion. I felt helpless and scared. Then I met a psychiatrist who looked at me with compassion and told me I would be all right. Since I had taboo obsessions (Baer uses the categories of violent, sexual, and blasphemous, but I suffered  from the latter two), my doctor recommended that I read The Imp of the Mind. It was the best prescription ever. For the first time in my harrowing journey with OCD, I felt less alone. Here was a man who had heard everything from his patients with OCD and didn’t seem to bat an eye. Worried you might want to have sex with your dog? We can work on that. You’re a priest who can’t stop staring at women’s breasts? Don’t feel bad.

Dr. Baer knew how tortured his patients felt, and he helped ease their pain. He did the same for me when he documented many of their stories in The Imp of the Mind, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank him enough. So when he contacted me and asked me to share my story on his new website, I jumped at the chance. His contributions to the OCD community helped save me and made my life feel worth living again. Now I had the opportunity to help him.

OCD doesn’t define me, and it shouldn’t define you, either. You can take it down to size.

A Must-Read for School Counselors and Teachers

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It’s no wonder people with OCD are so afraid to tell people what’s going on. In “Obsessive Thoughts: A Darker Side of OCD,” the young author says she was suspended from school after she wrote an anonymous article about her harm OCD symptoms in the high school newspaper. School officials thought she was a threat to others.

This has got to stop. I do understand the confusion and I do understand the need to keep all kids safe. But the more we know about OCD and what makes a person with OCD different from someone who will actually hurt someone, the better off our young people will be. I feel pained that this young woman had to go through this, especially after suffering in silence for so long before she took the courageous step to share her story.

Let me know what you think.