I lost 20 years of my life to a lot of pain because I was scared to talk
Sean, a 39-year-old graphic artist and illustrator recalls the night his “brain broke.”
At 13 years old, he was watching the film “Halloween” alone in his bedroom when he had an intrusive thought.
I saw my dad in my head, and as I looked through the same Michael Myers mask, I saw myself killing my dad and stabbing him. And that thought—that I wanted to hurt my dad—is what triggered a massive breakdown.
Sean has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by obsessions, fears, impulses, and sensations that tend to counter what is important in the individual’s core value system. In Sean’s head, he had made the fear of harming his father real, even though harming his father was the last thing he wanted to do.
Sean did not seek help after the incident. He didn’t believe he could find help at school. He didn’t feel he could approach his dad, who, though a loving father, was also a stoic man. Sean struggled with the content of his thoughts.
At some point the next morning, I remember saying to myself, ‘How the hell do I tell someone about this?’ At the time I didn’t know it was an OCD symptom. I thought I had a real delusion of wanting to kill my dad. So, where do you go?
Sean thought the only way to survive his pain was to compartmentalize and go numb. He did that with his OCD symptoms and with his mother’s death from cancer when he was 15.
I lost 20 years of my life to a lot of pain because I was scared to talk.
Throughout his young adulthood, Sean’s anxiety, panic, and OCD symptoms worsened. His compulsions affected his grades.
It got to the point where I couldn’t touch paper to pencil without doing it 55 times before I wrote down a number for math homework. It would take four hours, and I couldn’t turn in my homework.
In his senior year of high school, Sean was marked tardy over 100 times because it took him too long to put on his pants while dressing for school. His love of basketball had been a healthy outlet for him, but he was kicked off the team because of his poor academic performance. At 18, once Sean graduated, he discovered alcohol and partying.
For three or four nights out of the week, I felt normal. I drank to escape the mental illness I was struggling with. No one would have guessed how much I was suffering. I think most people with disorders—and I think specifically with OCD—you learn to be a great actor. It was a very silent disease.
Sean’s OCD symptoms escalated until he reached a breaking point in 2012 when he was 32. He was unemployed, still living at home with his father, and other than getting up to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom, he’d been “paralyzed to a chair” for two years.
Sean considered ending his own life, “but there was some sort of light deep down that was moving me forward.” He decided to tell his father about what he was experiencing, even though he didn’t know how his father would react.
I told him, ‘Dad, you know I’ve been struggling, but there’s more to it than you know. I need help.’
His father told Sean he loved him, and that together, they would figure it out. The two sought treatment for Sean in Ohio, where they lived. After Sean was diagnosed with severe OCD and referred to residential treatment, he admitted himself to McLean’s 90-day Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute (OCDI) twice in the next two years.
Sean and his clinicians at the OCDI focused on two forms of therapy: ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy, which allows people with OCD to gradually face obsessional cues to build confidence, and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), based on mindfulness and accepting one’s thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
With the help of therapists, and with the community of fellow patients, Sean addressed the physical compulsions he experienced when he got dressed or tried to put pen to paper, and he worked through feelings of loss and identity he associates with struggling in silence for much of his life.
After his second stay in the OCDI, Sean decided he would “embrace life and embrace uncertainty and change.” Although he had lived at home with his father up to that point, at 34, Sean rented an apartment in Boston with roommates he had never met before. He found a job, as well as an artists’ community, where he volunteered to get free membership and a studio. He continued therapy with his current doctor and met regularly with his support group.
The day that I walked out of the OCDI, I walked into my life in Boston. ACT is about psychological flexibility. And that’s what OCD hates: flexibility and being open to things. Doing this stuff brought me to another level. This time, my aftercare was ‘I’m going to be an adult now.’
Today, Sean says his friendships are deeper, and his relationship with his dad has vastly improved. He’s back to playing basketball twice a week, and he’s working on several art projects. Most of all, his mindset has changed.
Even when I’m having a rough day, I know that things are in motion in a good way. The reality of growth is that it’s ups and downs. You’re going to have some low moments, but they’re just not going to last as long—as long as you use the skills you’ve learned and reach out for help to get back on track.