Shit Happens When Two OCD Cases Work Together

by Bill Brenner on June 17, 2011

Let me take you back about 13 years, when two guys with clinical OCD worked together in the same office. I was one of ’em. The other was an old friend named Steve Repsys.

Mood music:

Neither of us knew at the time that we had OCD. It would be many years before we were diagnosed. In the meantime, we worked together for a small weekly newspaper in an office in Chelmsford, Mass. I was the boss and I acted like it.

I was always stressed about just getting the paper done on deadline. Quality didn’t really matter to me. OCD will do that to you: Getting the task done always takes priority over doing it right. Steve was the whipping boy, the sole reporter. I pushed him hard, nearly to the breaking point. He never let me down. But along the way, he would work so hard that his mind would go into loops. One loop involved a worry about finding an apartment. Another was about whether he would get a promotion. All normal things to worry about, except that he was clinically unable to shut up about it.

I carried on the same way about other things. Whenever the going got tough, we would both bitch about everyone who made it possible.

During the small windows of downtime, we would convene in my apartment a few steps away from the office and play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. Star Wars was very important to us back then.

He eventually went on to another role in the company, and I went to The Eagle-Tribune.

We both got married and had kids. And in recent years, from different states, we’ve come to grips with our mental disease.

Steve and I have been going back and forth sharing our struggles of late, and he recently embarked on a hard-core program to understand his quirks and develop the necessary coping tools. And he was kind enough to write down his experiences to share with you.

So allow me to step back and let Steve take over for the rest of this post:

If you broke your leg, wouldn’t you want to get it treated? Chances are you would get help immediately. Why is it that when it comes to mental illness we let ourselves suffer?

Maybe it’s because in many cases a mental illness isn’t as “obvious” as a broken leg. Maybe it’s embarrassment to admit there might be something not quite right about ourselves. Maybe it’s because the term mental illness conjures up someone in a straightjacket. Whatever the case, mental illness is nothing to fool around with.

I should know. I suffer from OCD.

Most of my life I’ve considered dwelling on things and keeping myself up at night worrying about the future as part of my being. However, after nearly four decades on this earth, I realize I don’t have to live like that anymore. How do I know this? Thanks to strong persuasion from my wife Kara, I recently enrolled in a partial hospitalization program (PHP) to treat mental illness.

All along, the warning signs were there for my OCD. The trouble breathing, difficulty keeping focused, and even chest pains should have alerted me that something was not quite right. When a perceived or a real crisis occurred, I would go into “shut down” mode. Most often I would deal with my problems by trying to sleep hoping they would magically disappear when I woke up.

My obsessive worrying about my family’s finances was gradually driving a wedge between me and my wife. Instead of coming home from work wanting to be a husband to Kara and a dad to my two little girls, I would dwell on the negative. Looking back, I can see why my wife wanted me to get help. At the time, it was hard to see and I thought worrying was something I was supposed to do. I even saw worrying as a badge of honor. The more I worried, the more I thought it proved how much I loved my family.

When my wife first told me about PHP, I thought I didn’t need any help. However, the more I thought about and looked at myself honestly, I realized that maybe I did need help. Worrying was truly running my life.

To no great surprise, an evaluation confirmed that I had OCD. I started PHP immediately. PHP met 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week for three weeks and covered a wide range of topics including medication, support systems, spirituality, music therapy, and cognitive distortions in a small-group setting.

One of the most important realizations about myself came on my third day at PHP. Looking at the sheet for the day, I remember seeing there was a discussion entitled “Victim/Survivor.” I wasn’t looking forward to it, thinking that it dealt with someone who was sexually or physically abused. The discussion did pertain to victims and survivors, but not in the way I thought.

To my surprise, I felt like this talk was made especially for me. We talked about how survivors are proactive and victims are reactive. Survivors display an “I-can-handle this” mentality while victims cop an “it’s-not-fair-and-this-isn’t-shouldn’t be- happening-to me” attitude. I realized that almost all my life I walked around thinking of myself as a victim. “It’s not fair that we pay more in day care than our mortgage,” and “I can’t handle things” were just some of my more constantly consuming thoughts.

This was probably one of the biggest “a-ha” moments in my life. It dawned on me like a ton of bricks that my way of thinking was not productive for me or my family. I don’t know why it took at that particularly moment to come to the conclusion that instead of being an ostrich that puts his head in the sand, I needed to be a problem solver. I’m just glad it did.

Even while I was at PHP my thinking was put to the test. I noticed that I began thinking more in “survivor” terms. During my stint at PHP, my cell phone was going to be shut off for nonpayment. Instead of getting upset about it and thinking how “unfair” it was, I got into problem solver mode. I called up the cell phone company and told them I got paid in a few days and I would be happy to settle the bill when my check went into the bank. Lo and behold, my carrier agreed and the problem was solved.

While that may seem like a small thing, it’s a big deal to me. Prior to PHP, I would have avoided dealing with the situation or even would have asked my wife to take care of it for me. I can’t guarantee that I won’t fall apart in the future if something doesn’t go as planned, but at least I have new found coping skills at my disposal.

The three-week program greatly helped me in other ways as well. During my time at PHP I learned how important goals are (in fact we started the day off by making daily goals) and that I benefit when I have structure in my life.

In addition, I realize that it’s important to know what triggers my OCD. Now that I know what sets me off (my finances), I can pull out some of the tricks I learned at PHP to extinguish my OCD thinking.

After attending PHP, I realize that I’m not miraculously “cured” from my OCD thinking. I realize that OCD will always be with me, but I don’t need to be a slave to it. I now have a toolbox that’s filled with many instruments to keep my OCD at bay.

PHP showed me that life is always going to be filled with obstacles and problems but I hold the keys to controlling my life.

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