Group Success Story: The OCD Support Group in Fairfield, Connecticut

Good news for those dealing with OCD in Fairfield; the OCD Support Group is up and running with monthly meetings at First Church Congregational, United Church of Christ.

Those who attended the March (2005) meeting found that it lived up to its fundamental promise. I consulted my New American Oxford English Dictionary to understand the precise meaning of the word support.

Sitting at my kitchen table on a gray, snowy and blustery day with my cat Boots keeping watch over the newly arrived flock of robins scouring for food on the patches of exposed grass, I perused the definitions: Bear all or part of the weight of; hold up; give assistance; approve of and encourage; comfort and emotional help offered to someone in distress; a thing that bears the weight of something or keeps it upright.

Among the many examples used to illustrate support, I found reference to the idea of technical computer support, but somewhat surprisingly, I did not find the term support group until I went on to the next term; support system, defined as a group of people who are available to support one another emotionally, socially and sometimes financially.

Therein lies the essence of what defines the value of any support group; it is certainly and importantly the people themselves, present for one another, bearing witness to one anothers struggles. But, it is also the whole network of support to which each of them is connected. Nature is doing this for the robins in my back yard – their system of foraging for food as a group makes it a much safer venture for an individual robin to succeed in its efforts (much to the dismay of Boots). There is a parallel for people with OCD participating in a support group.

Their undertakings can benefit from active participation in a social and institutional support system that can provide assistance of all types in coping with OCD. As the dictionary says, it is a thing that helps to keep them upright. It is really a wonderful metaphor for how an OCD support group and system helps individuals with OCD, keeping them upright and staunch in their struggles. The group that meets at First Church Congregational in Fairfield provides an excellent resource for individuals and families dealing with OCD.

Among the reactions of the individuals who attended the group, they noted how useful it is to find out how other people handle their OCD on a daily basis and how comforting it is to learn about other people dealing with the same issues and problems. Hearing about other people’s successes is very encouraging. The comfort that comes from recognizing one’s self in another human being was palpable in the group.

The support group also provides an opportunity to socialize, meet new people, and make new friends. Because social anxiety is the most common anxiety issue that accompanies OCD, the support group represents a wonderful therapeutic opportunity to tackle social fears in a very affirming environment.

Speaking of environment, we have been provided a great meeting space by Reverend John Baran, the pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Fairfield, CT (Our former meeting place from 2005-2009). The meeting room in the church basement is large, comfortable and well equipped. I personally love the green checkerboard floor tiles¬†they transport me to wonderful memories of my elementary school years.

There is plenty of room to expand the number of people attending. Future events will include holding lectures and showing films and videos on all aspects of OCD.

How the group evolves will at least partly depend on who attends. As it stands, it is a professionally assisted group (Dr. Diane Sholomskas will also be helping). That is a feature that individuals said they appreciated.

The guidance of a professional can keep the group more focused and allow for constructive participation by all the members, be they individuals with OCD, families, or friends. Don’t forget it’s free! So all are invited to the next meeting scheduled on the third Friday of the month, 7:30-9:00 PM (except holidays and July & August) at First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Road in Fairfield.

Contact me at taylorc@sacredheart.edu if you would like further information.

Hope to see you at the next meeting!

For more information on the Fairfield County OCD Support Group, visit its website at http://fairfieldocdgroup.freehostia.com.

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To Tell, Or Not To Tell, About Your OCD?

Whether to tell or not to tell others about your OCD is an important question. It is not an easily answered one.

The decision to tell people about your disorder, other than your parents and therapist and psychiatrist, is in your hands because the symptoms of OCD may not be at all apparent to others. Unlike physical disabilities that are visible, such as blindness or paralysis, you are able to live your whole life without people knowing that you have OCD. That can be very satisfactory to some individuals who want to keep their experience with OCD private. Some people with OCD feel that telling others about their experience with OCD may be helpful.

It can be a relief to know that just one other person knows what you are going through. The refrain of the old Beatles song says, we get by with a little help from our friends (Lennon/McCartney, 1967). Among the adolescents I worked with, most of them do choose to disclose information about their OCD to at least one or two friends. When, how and why they decide to do so involves some thoughtful decision making. This is because of the way many people stereotype individuals with psychological problems.

Social scientists call mental illness a stigmatizing condition — “a deeply discrediting” characteristic that marks an individual abnormal. Stigmatizing conditions in our society include those based on physical, psychological, and sociological characteristics. They are people with physical disabilities or illnesses such as HIV and AIDS; people belonging to racial or ethnic minorities; and people who deviate behaviorally or socially such as gays and lesbians.

Mental illness falls under the category of a behavioral stigma because it involves deviation from normal behavior. It falls within the same category of stigma as homosexuality. The experiences of gay people deciding to stay in or come out of the closet is relevant to persons with mental illness. It is hard to decide whether or not to disclose their illness to others.

The experience of gay and lesbian individuals coming out of the closet about their sexual preference demonstrates how important it is to consider the costs and benefits of self-disclosure. Actress/comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out to the world on her television show in the 90’s.¬†She told the world about her relationship with Anne Heche. The cost of this disclosure was enormous. Her career took a nose dive. Only now, with the start of her new daytime television show, is her career starting to recover. Ellen DeGeneres’ experiences are unusual because she is a celebrity. It proves that talking about her sexual preference and what happened to her makes a compelling case for being cautious. It is important to weigh disclosure of any personal information that puts you down in the eyes of the world.

On the flip side, plenty of people disclose information about their mental illness without severe consequences. This includes many celebrities who have talked about their psychological problems.

There are many examples of celebrities with known mental illness:

  • OCD: Marc Summers, Howie Mandel, and Howard Stern.
  • Clinical Depression: Drew Carey, Jim Carrey, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Harrison Ford, Peter Gabriel, Billy Joel, Joey Kramer, Tipper Gore, and Paul Simon.
  • Panic Disorder: Kim Basinger, Earl Campbell, and Shayne Corson.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Donny Osmond, Steve Sax, and Carly Simon.
  • Bipolar Disorder: John Gibson, Linda Hamilton, Jack Irons, and Kristy McNichol.

(Check out the web site from which this list was drawn: “Public Figures And Mental Illness: http://www3.telus.net/eddyelmer/eemedia.htm).

These celebrities and others who have been candid about their struggle with a mental disorder show that social attitudes toward mental illness are growing more favorable and accepting as we edge into the 21st Century.

So what should you do about telling others about your OCD?

First, it is most important to realize that this is your personal decision. And it is not a one time decision. You will be faced with making the decision to tell again and again throughout your life. Telling is not an all-or-none matter. You can be selective about whom you tell and what you tell. Take your time if you want, your experience with OCD is yours. It is information that belongs to you and can be kept private if you so choose. You can get advice and guidance about disclosure from the trusted people who already know about your OCD.

Disclosing ourselves to others, revealing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities often involves risk. The risk of rejection and other negative reactions. That is why we reveal our deeper selves to others with caution. We must feel that we can really trust them. Even when we do act with caution, we can still sometimes be disappointed. People may break a confidence by telling others things about us that we asked them not to tell. The reality is that it is hard to keep things secret. People love to talk and gossip about others. There are never guarantees that a promise made by a friend to keep your secret may not be broken. A friend that cares about you may confide your secret to another friend. They innocently believe that their friend would not tell anyone else. The friend may tell, and the secret you confided to one friend may end up being told to people who hardly know you — not a pleasant thought.

While caution is important, there are many benefits to be gained from confiding in others.

Holding in secrets that make us different from others is a worrisome burden. When we talk about problems such as OCD, others are inclined to share their own difficulties. Sometimes they may even share information about their experience with OCD. Knowing that another person has to struggle and cope with problems helps us to cope. It is good to know that we are not alone. That we are not really so different from other people. By telling another person about your OCD, you can support them as well. You give yourself the freedom to be more authentic and to be accepted by others for who you are, OCD and all.

Disclosure provides opportunities both to ask for help and to give help to others. All of this can go a long way toward relieving any shame you might experience because of keeping one’s OCD secret from others.

Deciding to tell people about your OCD requires careful thought. You need to think through the costs and benefits. You must take into account all aspects of the situation. You must consider the person, the setting, other people, and the other people’s relationships with one another. Be deliberative and patient in weighing all these factors. Remember there are other people who have been where you are now. You are not alone. Eventually you find trusted others with whom to share your authentic and lovable self. People today have a better understanding of OCD because others before you were willing to take the risks associated with revealing their OCD to others. It’s a better world today because of these people. It will be even better in the future because of people like you.

As another Beatles’ song says, it’s getting better all the time.

References:

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes of the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lennon, J. & McCartney, P. (1967). “With A Little Help From My Friends.” The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

McCartney, P. (1967). “Getting Better.” The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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Tackling OCD: Talk Is Not Cheap!

While E&RP is the main behavioral tool to take apart OCD, there are cognitive skills to assist in your efforts to fight OCD. Cognitive Therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts — what we say to ourselves — determine our feelings and our actions. It is the essence of the biblical statement, “As you think, so shall you be.” It’s a simple idea with profound implications for what guides all behavior — we are like puppets on the strings of our own thoughts. Even the act of reading these words was based on a simple thought such as, “I’ll take a look at the Webzine to see what they have to say about OCD.” And there may have been further thoughts such as, “I’ll read this article and learn something that will help my OCD.”

Simple statements, what amounts to talking to ourselves, guide our actions, effort, and feelings.

The person who says “I will read this and learn something that will help my OCD” has clearly a different mindset than someone who says “I’ll read the article, but it probably won’t help much.” How we talk to ourselves can certainly affect our motivation and effort, and in this case the willingness to engage in finding help for OCD.

Cognitive Therapy offers techniques to help identify ways and patterns of thinking that produce distress, negative behavior, and poor motivation. Cognitive techniques can help improve an individual’s motivation to tackle their OCD, help change their reaction to and interpretation of their obsessions, and help them to cope with the anxiety they experience when they carry out an exposure and response prevention regimen. It can do helpful things and be a useful tool in the treatment of OCD.

Freedom

I have been a college teacher for thirty years. I have seen students with the exact same ability excel while others fail precisely because of how they spoke to themselves about their ability to succeed — which in turn determined their motivation. I learned this lesson very clearly when I returned exams to students in an introductory psychology course. It was the first test the students took in the course. The students were very keen on reviewing their exam. When the class finished going over the questions, a student who had done poorly complained to me about the difficulty of the test questions (The implication being, of course, that the test was unfair). Another student who had also done very poorly, looked at me with steel in her eyes and resolve in her heart as she exclaimed, “Now I know what it is that you want.” Interestingly, at the end of the course, the student who complained that the questions were unfair ended up with a “C” average on the exams, while the student with resolve and determination achieved an “A” average.

Why should students of similar capabilities perform so differently?

It really is a matter of self-talk.

If you say that your poor performance is due to the impossibility of a task, it is a very unmotivating situation. Why would you even try to succeed? Where is the motivation to try if you perceive the questions, job, therapy, or life problem as too hard? On the other hand, if you say to yourself that the questions are hard, “I can redouble my effort, regroup, and try harder,” then you will be motivated to put in the effort to succeed. This seems to be what my steely eyed and determined student did.

This is called self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is the expectation, knowledge, or confidence that we can do what is necessary to achieve a goal. The student who asserted that she knew what the teacher expected demonstrated strong self-efficacy — confidence in her ability to do what was necessary to succeed. In contrast, the student whose self-talk said “the teacher was too tough and the questions too hard,” appeared to be low in self-efficacy. If you think you have a shot at succeeding, that you can figure it out, then you will try, doing whatever it takes to succeed.

How you talk to yourself about your own ability to tackle OCD reflects your self-efficacy. It is a key ingredient to your motivation. If you think you can do it, then you greatly increase your chances of trying. In challenging your OCD, you will be determined to learn what you need and get the tools and resources to do it. If you don’t think you can, or if you are unsure, then you will need to build your self-efficacy and motivation.

Resistance to change or ambivalence about making change are common reactions among people confronting changes of all types. Change is a difficult undertaking even when the behavior we want to eliminate is hurting us and preventing us from living life more fully and happily. There can be very strong resistance and ambivalence about change because the obsessions seem so real and the compulsions appear to offer protection from some very awful consequences. It appears almost impossible to stop the compulsions.

How do you build motivation and self-efficacy to take on such a challenge? Remember that self-efficacy is at least partly a reflection of self-talk. Cognitive techniques are a means of overcoming this obstacle. Changing irrational and self-defeating self-talk sets the stage for embarking on the journey of gaining control over the OCD.

To help you with this, check out the self-help books on OCD. Look over the discussion and exercises on how to change distorted and irrational thinking, especially statements that interfere with trying to work on your OCD. Someone who has been working on their OCD for some time and who has become discouraged, can benefit as well as someone who does not recognize that she has a problem. Finally, someone else who does not think that there is any particular hope for his problem, may benefit from using Cognitive Therapy techniques to build self-efficacy and hope.

The most important point is that you can learn the tools needed to control OCD. Remember the “Little Engine that Could!”. You can too!

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