My dad had Complex PTSD by the time he was nine years old. At that point, he had already escaped from a cult with his mom and survived torturous abuse. As he got a little older, he began to excel in athletics by channeling what he’d been through. He told me that he ran like somebody was chasing him with a knife at his back because he knew what that was like. Shortly after meeting my mom, he joined the military where, once again, he excelled and was constantly promoted into leadership positions. He came back with PTSD on top of what he was already carrying from his childhood.
Consequently, I grew up in an intense environment, where there was a lot of arguing and fighting. It was confusing for me to know if I was allowed to feel hurt or angry for my family dynamic, because I also understood what factors led to those arguments and fights. Despite the chaos, it always felt reasonable in some strange way. This confusion led to me distancing myself from feeling any negative feelings, which eventually resulted in me experiencing anxiety and depression.
People wouldn’t have recognized what was going on with me at school. I appeared to be a very happy, very active dude. But I was numb inside. I remember thinking that I was strong and tough for being able to go through what we went through in our house and not cry. This ability to endure and carry on fed my ego in some strange way.
I Wanted to Be Part of the Solution
At this point, my mom started going to therapy. She tried to get me to go since I was 15, but I wasn’t interested. I was still clinging to this self-image of being able to endure the intense environment, seemingly unscathed. I was about 18 when I finally relented, but only under the auspices of me coming in to support her.
Then the therapist started asking me questions, inquiring about my perspective on things. It felt really good to be able to talk about it, which I really hadn’t expected. Even though I’d resisted for so long, I immediately felt comfortable focusing on myself. This experience really got me thinking about therapy and how so many people who need help with their mental health can’t access help. I wanted to be part of the solution.
At the same time that I had this realization, I was following in my dad’s footsteps and was on a path to becoming a professional soccer player. Then I got hit with anxiety around playing for the university team I’d moved from Washington state to British Columbia to play for. I suddenly felt unable to play the way I knew I could play. Despite playing for the Seattle Sounders’ under 23s team and being offered opportunities to play professionally, I wasn’t even a starter for my university team.
I ended up saying no to those offers because, at that point, I’d sort of learned more about who I really was. Through developing a greater understanding of my anxiety about playing soccer, I realized that I merely liked the sport, whereas, with counseling, there was something deeper. Something more meaningful. I decided that counseling was the thing I had to pursue.
The problem was, my anxiety impacted other areas of my life and by the time I finished my first year of school, I only had a 1.2 GPA. It took a lot of work and a lot of soul searching to get my GPA to a place at which I could even be considered for a master’s program. Luckily, I managed it. As soon as the program got underway, I had no doubt that it was what I wanted and needed to be doing.
Never Wanting to Feel Helpless Again
I graduated in November 2020 and started my own private practice. After several months, I happened upon a job listing from NOCD. I was super interested because the position involved getting specialized training in OCD. In the practical section of my master’s course, I’d had a client who had OCD. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to help him.
Up until that point, I felt really confident in my abilities as a therapist. This one experience had me wondering, “What do I do here?” Nothing was working. At the time, I was completely unaware that exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) was the gold standard treatment for OCD.
During my master’s program, I’d learned about exposure therapy, but not in the context of OCD where that response prevention piece is so important. I was familiar with the hierarchy, with SUDs (subjective units of distress), and the idea of building tolerance. However, that response prevention part was what was missing, and, for people with OCD, it’s the key to recovery.
The experience of feeling helpless at that moment really stuck with me. When I saw the NOCD job listing, I saw an opportunity to be able to have a solution for this surprisingly common disorder.
Getting to Grips With ERP
When I joined NOCD, I was a bit nervous because, theoretically speaking, I find myself on the opposite side of the spectrum. But the reason why ERP is so effective is that we’re not trying to engage with why you have these obsessions and do these compulsions; we are learning to sit with uncertainty and not take the bait. I had some really illuminating conversations with my supervisors and clinical advisors at NOCD. Those conversations gave me a fresh perspective on why this treatment can change lives and, in many cases, save them.
ERP is really about asking a question. That question is, “How do I handle uncertainty?” ERP is the most useful tool we have for handling uncertainty. With ERP, we can help people turn towards uncertainty and say yes to it. Paradoxically, as they embrace more uncertainty, they gain more control in their life.
Once I internalized what ERP is and how it works, I was able to integrate it pretty easily with my theoretical orientation. I saw rapid results with all of my clients, which was incredibly gratifying. Now I have confidence in this area where I was once sorely lacking.
I’ve also learned about OCD from members. I’ve learned that cultural stigma around OCD makes OCD worse. Feeling ashamed about something causes you to withdraw from people. It prevents you from living your life on your own terms. Ultimately, it can stand in the way of being treated and managing your OCD.
That same stigma also prevents people from accurately identifying OCD within themselves and thinking, “maybe I have this thing called OCD.” I have many clients who felt so much shame that they couldn’t give themselves the space to examine what was going on.
I think that NOCD is doing an amazing job of removing that stigma and putting people at ease by saying, “Hey, this is a part of your experience, and this is okay. There’s actually a whole community of people who experience something like this, and together, we’re working towards a world where shame and stigma don’t get in the way of people getting their lives back from this condition.”