When I attended my first International OCD Foundation conference in 2010, the whole thing was one huge Aha! Moment from beginning to end. As I share in Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, I went through the entire conference picking my chin up off the floor in amazement. In session after session I learned one mind-blowing thing after another about OCD and its treatment, and the fact that as a person with OCD, I did NOT have to suffer.
I just left the 2014 IOCDF conference in Los Angeles, the fifth one I have attended. This year I spent the entire conference with a slightly different expression on my face: a huge smile. In this Aha! Moment, I’d like to share why.
Bring It On, Baby!
Even though I have been to four previous IOCDF conferences, I have never been on the “virtual camping” trip. This year, I made it a priority to join the 200 other conference attendees walking around Los Angeles on Friday night to do some “OCD camping.”
So just what is OCD camping? Imagine walking around a city at night confronting all the triggers that your OCD doesn’t want you to go near, mentally or physically. I thought this would be more of an intellectual exercise for me…after all, I’ve been in recovery from OCD for 4 years, and I’m an OCD therapist who does exposure with clients every day! What could possibly frighten me?
A dumpster, that’s what.
As the line of my 200 fellow campers snaked up to the dumpster as part of our camping trip that night, I felt no fear. I thought, “This is easy! After all, I eat off the floor every day as contamination ERP practice! How hard could this be?” When it was my turn, I proudly slapped the inside of the dumpster with my hand multiple times. Take that, OCD! But then one of the camping trip facilitators I know, who was at that moment standing by the dumpster, looked me directly in the eye and said, “Now lick your hand.”
My OCD had been asleep until that moment, because I do enough ERP on a regular basis to keep it slumbering away most of the time. But upon hearing “Now lick your hand” it went from unaware to complete panic in a nanosecond:
“NO!!!! Don’t even think about it! We don’t do that! That’s like licking the inside of the dumpster! You could get AIDS! You could die! That is going TOO FAR!”
In an instant I felt pure terror. A 10/10 on the anxiety scale. Of course, no one was going to make me lick my hand. But no one needed to…why would I miss such a great opportunity to poke my OCD?
I licked my hand, palm to fingertips.
Bring it on, baby.
I trash talk my OCD frequently, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t still beyond anxious at that moment. I turned around to my friends and said, “I cannot believe this, but I’m at a 10!” As anxiety-induced sweat was beading up on my forehead (I am not kidding….), I continued, “But this is awesome because I want this anxiety. I want this, I want this, I want this. I may or may not get AIDS. I may or may not die. But I’m going to win this battle.”
I continued chanting my little script while we all put our arms around each others’ shoulders, creating a little ERP huddle. They joined me in calling my OCD choice names. They added to my script, suggesting diseases I hadn’t thought of that I just might now get. As my anxiety came down, they helped me make fun of my OCD: since it’s not satisfied with my eating off the floor, I was going to need to start dumpster diving on a regular basis!
Where else but at this conference can you meet people who totally get what it’s like to have OCD? Who support you unconditionally when your OCD jumps out of nowhere and ambushes you? Who help you amp up your anxiety by making your exposure even more terrifying? Who laugh with you when it’s all over?
I left the camping trip not sweating and terrified, but smiling. What an amazing experience. What uplifting support. What incredible friends.
Laughter, Song, and Dance
If you have OCD, it does not want you to be happy. It doesn’t want you to think happy thoughts, do happy things, or feel happiness in any way.
Because in OCD’s twisted logic, feeling happy is dangerous. It’s safer to be watchful. Cautious. Vigilant. And feeling a little low. Because in OCD’s world, if you’re those things….you can keep bad things from happening. OCD whispers in your ear, “If you let down your guard and be happy, well then, we just don’t know what’s going to happen, do we?” Feeling unhappy, acting unhappy, and thinking unhappy thoughts can all become OCD rituals.
So what can I say about the Saturday night social? There were absolutely no unhappiness rituals to be found the entire night.
Instead, there were tons of people dancing their hearts out. Across the dance floor people were singing at full volume choruses from The Proclaimers…. “I would walk 500 miles…” and Pharrell Williams “Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth….” All around me were friends new and old smiling and laughing and having the best time ever.
The social is always my favorite part of the conference. As someone who suffered with OCD for years in silence, it is hard to convey how amazing it is to be able to dance and laugh with abandon—and how even more meaningful it is to share that experience with others who all get it. Because everyone on that dance floor knew what going to hell and back with OCD was like. But you’d never know it with the amount of fun we were all having. We were the very definition of happy.
I think Brene’ Brown sums it all up perfectly (no pun intended) in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, and healing: We are not alone.”
One of my other favorite parts of the IOCDF conference is catching up with old friends. After one session on Saturday, I was chatting with friend and fellow storyteller, Allen Weg, Ed.D., whom I hadn’t seen since last year’s conference. We were saying how much we both loved the conference and wished it happened more frequently than once a year. He then said, “When I’m here at the conference, I feel like this is home.”
Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Over the past five years I have learned first hand what a unique and special community the IOCDF has created. I went from not knowing one soul at my first conference to five years later having a community of real friends: other people who have OCD, family members of people with OCD, therapists and researchers as well as the wonderful IOCDF staff.
One of these friends, Shannon Shy, just released his new book, Hope Is on Your Side: A Motivational Journal for Those Affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In it he quotes Shakespeare from Othello: “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief.” Since I spent the entire conference with a huge smile on my face, I think I stole a lot from OCD this weekend.
And I’ll keep doing so until I can come home to Boston for next year’s conference to do all it again.
In the meantime, everyone get out those dancin’ shoes…..take it, Pharrell…….