Two UNW Alums Discuss OCD
by Megan Liesmaki (Theatre & Psychology ‘20) & Jackie Sommers (English—Writing ‘03)
Media has reinforced stereotypes that OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is all about being clean. But we need the Northwestern community to know OCD is actually all about uncertainty—and the inability to tolerate it. It’s often called the “doubting disease.”
OCD starts with an intrusive thought which causes tremendous, often unbearable anxiety. The sufferer then performs some sort of ritual or action to alleviate the anxiety. For example, the person with intrusive thoughts of harming someone confesses his fears to a friend who reassures him he’s no killer. The one who fears contamination washes her hands for relief. The sufferer with blasphemous intrusive thoughts prays for forgiveness.
The disorder part comes in where this is happening so often that it negatively impacts daily life (this is part of the OCD diagnosis), and the compulsion which once brought relief becomes out of control.
Ironically, the best treatment for OCD is letting the thoughts exist and sitting with the anxiety. Picture a swimming pool. The OCD sufferer dips in a toe and, finding the water too cold, never gets in. The OCD sufferer doing exposure therapy goes all the way into the pool, lets the cold water engulf him, and later finds he has adjusted to the water temperature.
Jackie: I remember calling you to ask about your UNW application. What was going through your head in that first phone call?
Megan: I was so nervous. Fearful, even. The odds of speaking with someone about my doubt-ridden college application essay, someone who knew the specifics of a disorder that I hadn’t even really come to grips with, seemed impossible. I’m still dumbfounded and overwhelmed that when we were virtual strangers, you saw me— not the over-communicative, fearful, doubtful exterior, but the person behind the disorder.
How has knowing someone on campus with OCD helped or changed things for you?
Jackie: This may sound strange, but it felt like a second chance to relive college with more grace, nuance, and freedom— even though it was you I was hoping would experience those things. From the moment I read your UNW application— and even moreso when I first spoke to you on the phone— I felt like I was talking to a younger version of myself. I desperately wanted you to experience freedom from this monstrous disorder earlier than I had.
How about for you?
Megan: For me, it felt like knowing that there was a breath of fresh air if I ever felt like I was starting to drown. OCD is a master manipulator and a genius in terms of isolating people. Knowing that I could text you, pop by your office, or just run into you on campus gave me so much life— I knew that you were experiencing healing from OCD and were further down the road of healing than I was, that you understood me and my disorder and could talk me down when it was really bad. You started giving me tools that felt like oxygen and hope.
Jackie: When was the first time you realized you had OCD? How does it show itself?
Megan: In hindsight, I can identify OCD in my younger self; I remember the uncertainty, shame, and doubt that OCD traced into parts of my childhood and adolescence; this materialized in confessing “bad thoughts” to my mom, panicking over thoughts or feelings I had, spiritual doubt, and more. Coming to recognize that I had OCD and understanding what that practically meant took time for me. Your understanding of the disorder shed light onto my experience and was incredibly validating. If I could go back in time, I would tell younger Megan that OCD and the thoughts and doubts it fills her mind with are separate from her identity. OCD always comes back to uncertainty— specifically, uncertainty in the areas that you care most deeply about.
And you— what advice would you give your former self?
Jackie: My OCD also attacked the things most important to me: my faith, my salvation, my writing. I will always wish I had done exposure therapy— the gold standard treatment for OCD— earlier than later. I wish too that I’d sought out a diagnosis sooner. For me, it was a total of 20 years from onset to proper treatment; the average is 14-17 years, still far too long. I would tell young Jackie that there’s a name for those “bad thoughts,” that they are not her fault, that there is help, that even a brain disorder can’t separate her from the love of God.
What do you wish others knew about OCD?
Megan: I wish people knew that OCD isn’t about being a neat freak or a perfectionist. It is about uncertainty. It is also a mental disorder— not a personality trait. OCD is torture, it isn’t cute, and it is the least funny thing I have experienced. I also wish people who have OCD or suspect that they have the disorder would not be afraid to talk about it with people who understand. There are tools and help and freedom and hope through the door of understanding.
What is life like now after exposure therapy?
Jackie: Everything is different now. I walk in the lightness of freedom and not with the yoke of legalism. I can picture Christ delighting in me and my work. My new normal is feeling loved and accepted, redeemed and rescued. Amen.
For more information about OCD and ERP therapy, we recommend books by Jonathan Grayson, Lee Baer, Fred Penzel, Edna Foa, and Jon Hershfield. Megan and Jackie both write about life, faith, and OCD on Instagram (@megan_liesmaki and @jackieleasommers).