Nobody with OCD really wants to talk about it…
I’m Kate Brett. I receive treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, and I remain involved as an advocate.
My story starts in February 2018. My father was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. It took a while for it to get diagnosed, and as a family we've been dealing with that for a little over a year when everything turned upside down.
It was the first week of March and it was the last memory I have where I remember being happy. That Wednesday my 42-year-old healthy, exercising, beautiful brother passed away of a stroke.
My brother passed away on March 10th. And as we were planning his funeral, things were closing. When we started planning his funeral, we were having a 400 person Mass. By the time we actually had his funeral on March 17th, the world was closed.
My father slowly but surely continued to deteriorate, and by July he had also passed. So I lost my brother and my father within four months of one another. I almost didn't notice Covid because I was so very deep in my own grief and my own depression. Grief entered my body and it took up permanent residence.
I had suffered OCD pretty significantly in my mid 20s. Having been treated at Penn Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety gave me the tools to maintain the upper hand in a way that was truly life changing.
My OCD manifestations, my fears, are that I’m going to somehow be responsible for harming others, animals, other people. When the messaging from the government became “If you go to Thanksgiving and see your grandmother, you could kill her,” my OCD woke up with a vengeance, and so I had to really try and figure out how to manage my grief, my depression, and now my OCD.
It became a really difficult and confusing time. I had to revisit all the tools I had learned. From there it became about how do I focus on my healing? And how do I focus on what serves me?
I talked to a lot of people who have OCD in our monthly support group, and I try to be a peer support. I try to reach out to people. Living with uncertainty is kind of our superpower, because what once you go through the treatment, that's what it is. The treatment for OCD is leaning into doubt, leaning into uncertainty, and bearing it. Identifying the worse-case scenario and walking yourself through it. Those of us who had been through the treatment, who thought to apply our OCD tools to this new world of “We have no idea what's going to happen,” we learned to apply the tools to those uncertainties as well.
I think that those of us who suffer from mental illnesses or anxiety disorders, we perceive ourselves as broken, as somehow weaker. A lot of the things that are manifestations of my mental illness, the things that make me susceptible to it, empathy, a strong imagination, a really deep ability to put myself into another situation mentally, those things helped me survive a period I never thought I would have to experience.
I started by focusing only on the next breath. And then it became, “Okay I survived that, now maybe I can survive an hour.” Feelings would come and they wouldn't kill me.
I was in my healing cocoon and Thea was one of many people who reached out and said, “How are you doing? How can I be a resource to you?" And I said, “I just wish there was something I could do that would that would allow me to use my story to help people.” A couple weeks later, we got some fancy microphones and started a podcast.
Nobody with OCD really wants to talk about their OCD because it stigmatized. If me talking about it opens the door for one person to say, “I think I might have that," and they can get the treatment they need, then my four years spent having OCD and being paralyzed by it before I knew what I had, will have been worth it.
And I think showing up for people has been something that has been a big benefit to me. I've seen a lot of hearts open to me because I've been vulnerable out in the open, and I think that that's really the superpower.
The Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. While the stories featured here aspire to uplift and empower, they may also describe experiences of trauma and suffering. We recognize that listening can be a vulnerable experience and offer resources at Penn Medicine and beyond through our website for those in need of support.
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