Many of the clients I work with report similar experiences of social isolation regardless of what their specific OCD subtype is. While concerning, this is actually unsurprising as the field of OCD research is more recently coming to appreciate the myriad emotions OCD drums up, including shame and revulsion — feelings that contribute to one’s sense of being a pariah and then that person’s subsequent social withdrawal. Whether it is caused by pedophilia OCD, postpartum OCD, scrupulosity, or emotional contamination, the end result is the same: persons living with OCD often feel like an outcast, suffering in their own, private hell with thoughts they believe no one else experiences or would ever understand. To further complicate the issue, many people with OCD have comorbid psychiatric conditions such as social anxiety, depression, and phobias.
While OCD was once categorized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as an anxiety disorder, it has now been moved to its own category of “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” joining a host of other conditions such trichotillomania and excoriation disorder. The reason for this is that OCD does not only cause feelings of anxiety — we now understand that it causes extreme feelings of shame, guilt, horror, aversion, grossness, a vague ‘just not right’ feeling, as well as strong urges. When a person is experiencing strong emotions such as shame, guilt, and confusion — and especially when those feelings are caused by intrusive mental thoughts and images of an especially repugnant nature — they are less likely to reach out for help and to share their private pain with others.
This is where the International OCD Foundation’s (IOCDF) annual conference becomes literally a life-saver for some. This year’s 25th annual conference is being held in Washington, D.C., spanning across 4 days with everything from talks on the latest research updates and treatment interventions to support groups and art therapy experientials. For many of my clients who will be attending, one of the most important moments that will happen at the conference is when they see they are not alone. There are support groups specifically-tailored to different OCD subtypes such as one group for people struggling with violent and sexual intrusive thoughts or another group that focuses solely on health anxiety. There will also be many peer support specialists and advocates on hand, ready to share their stories of recovery and resources for living with OCD. To boot, the world’s top leaders, researchers, doctors, and providers in OCD treatment will be present not only for formal lectures but for informal schmoozing in the hallway between sessions.
This year’s conference looks particularly geared toward inclusive and overlapping recovery models, incorporating discourse on substance use, eating disorders, suicidality, anger, autism, and multiculturalism into the discussions around OCD recovery. Lori and I are particularly excited about our scheduled talk “Ask Anything: Understanding Substance Use and OCD. No More Fear, Stigma, or Shame.” We will be joined on our panel by peer support specialist Chrissie Hodges, OCD advocate Margaret Sisson, and author Dr. Patrick McGrath. As the title implies, we are committed to increasing access to inclusive treatment for ALL persons living with OCD, regardless of co-occuring disorders. We hope that by reducing stigma and shame — two factors that keep many people with OCD living in the closet — we can reach more people and offer help.
By bringing shameful topics into the light, we increase the chances that what has long been a misunderstood and stigmatizing disorder will now be transformed into opportunities for others to connect in OCD recovery and find solace in community.