Curious about what OCD symptoms really feel like? Wondering where to turn next? We’re pleased to share this exclusive AiT interview with OCD expert Shala Nicely, MS, LAPC, NCC where she tells us her riveting story with her own symptoms, challenges, and treatment of OCD to finally overcoming and becoming a clinician to help others with this frustrating and debilitating disorder. Shala is the Co-Founder, Past President, and an OCD Spokesperson for OCD Georgia, the official Georgia affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and I serve on the IOCDF National Conference Planning Committee.
AiT: Please tell us more about your personal and professional experience of OCD?
SN: The best way for me to share my experience with OCD is to tell a story.
Imagine you are sitting in your living room, surrounded by all of your loved ones. You look around the room and think how lucky you are to have so many wonderful people in your life.
Then, all of a sudden, three big men with big guns come crashing through your front door and take you all hostage. A gunman jerks your hands behind your back and gags you. They tie you all up around the dining room table, and then walk around you slowly, menacingly, talking quietly among themselves.
After a few hours, the initial shock of having been taken hostage wears off, but you are still scared. You can feel it: a hot, gut wrenching wave of lava moving through your core. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, one of the gunmen approaches the table and points a gun at one of your loved ones, and asks you to start doing things.
You do whatever he says, because maybe he has the gun pointed at your spouse, your child, your parent, or maybe the family dog. You do whatever he says, because you don’t know what will happen if you don’t.
You sit there with the hot, sinking, sick feeling in your stomach, and you feel helpless and hopeless and alone. You wonder, will this ever by over? Will I ever be free again?
I have spent a good portion of my life with the OCD gunman pointing a gun at my head. I felt paralyzed, knowing that I had to do my rituals, because if I didn’t, someone would get hurt: a family member, a friend, someone I didn’t even know, or maybe even me. Whether I was driving back to check whether I had run over someone on the highway, or replaying thoughts in my mind to “undo” horrific thoughts or images, or praying compulsively in multiples of 4 until it felt “just right,” I felt like I had absolutely no choice—I had to do these things. The rituals were exhausting and demoralizing, even more so because I kept them all secret, but I could not stop doing them, even though I desperately wanted to.
I was in and out of therapy starting at age 16, and was diagnosed with OCD in my late 20s. However, I did not learn about the evidence-based therapy for OCD, exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), until age 39, when I attended the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) conference for the first time. Doing ERP gave me my life back, and I’ve been on a mission to spread the word about OCD and its appropriate treatment ever since.
AiT: What inspired you to become a clinician to help those with OCD?
SN: According to the IOCDF, on average it takes a person suffering from OCD 14-17 years from the onset of symptoms to get the right treatment. That’s 14-17 years of needless suffering, torment, and anxiety. I was inspired to become a clinician because of this statistic, which I personally experienced—in fact, it took me twice as long as the average to find relief! We need more providers who offer exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, which is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I thought that becoming a clinician (and I’m now an Associate Professional Counselor) would be a great way to take my first-hand knowledge of OCD and put it to good use to help others.
AiT: How can a teen know if what they are experiencing is really OCD?
SN: The IOCDF has a great website where you can learn more about OCD in kids and teens at www.ocfoundation.org/ocdinkids/. If you think you have OCD, it’s really important to tell your parents what you are experiencing and then get professional help so that 1) a professional can tell you whether or not it is OCD and 2) you can get the right treatment. Your parents can help you find professional help using the IOCDF’s Find a Therapist database. This page also includes important questions to ask potential therapists to help you find someone knowledgeable in OCD and ERP.
OCD thrives on secrecy, and one of the reasons it took me so long to find the right treatment is that I did not tell anyone what I was experiencing until my late 20s, and even then, the therapist had to drag it out of me! Don’t be like I was—tell your parents what’s going on. The majority of people with OCD respond really well to medication and/or ERP, so you don’t have to suffer.
AiT: Can you tell us more about treatment options, such as Exposure and Response Prevention therapy?
SN: Treatment options for OCD include medication and/or exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). You can learn more about both on the IOCDF website.
With ERP, you learn to gradually face the things you are afraid of without doing your rituals. “Wait a minute!” you say. “That’s exactly what my OCD is telling me not to do!” Yes, that’s correct! In ERP we do the opposite of what OCD says to do. By doing so our brains learn that we can handle the things we thought we were afraid of. I know doing ERP sounds scary, but if you work with a trained professional you can put together a plan that feels manageable to you. As someone with OCD I think trying ERP with a therapist, even if it seems scary, is worth it, as it gives you a chance to take back your life from OCD.
AiT: Do you have any social media or additional contact information that our readers can reach you at?
SN: On my website www.shalanicely.com I have a blog called Aha! Moments, where I share insights sparked by great books about my own experience with OCD. You can also find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/shalanicelyatcfs and on Twitter at @ShalaNicelyCFS. You can also reach me at Cornerstone Family Services, LLC at 404-632-4804.
According to the NIMH, these are commons symptoms of OCD:
- Do you cave repeated thoughts about different ideas such as fear of dirt or germs, being overly tidy, etc? Perhaps or people who may intrude in your home? Or maybe constant thoughts of you committing acts of violence towards others, hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs?
- Do the same compulsions (or rituals) over and over such as counting things, washing your hands, locking and unlocking doors, hoarding stuff (piling up loads of old or unnecessary items), or repeating the same steps again and again?
- Can you not control these unwanted thoughts and behaviors?
- And do you not get pleasure when performing the behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause?
- Do you spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and rituals, which cause you distress and distract your daily activities?
If you answered “yes” to any of these symptoms of OCD, contact your healthcare provider for a consultation about obsessive compulsive disorder.