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From Sufferer to Specialist

By February 19, 2021April 6th, 2021Andrew Cohen, M.S., Blogs

My name is Andrew Cohen. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) specializing in treating OCD and Anxiety, and Related Disorders at Renewed Freedom Center.  I also have OCD and Anxiety.  In sharing my story of living with OCD, I want to portray, through my perspective, my day-to-day life, my experience going through ERP, and what life has been like after treatment.  I hope to instill hope in those struggling with OCD and anxiety.

I distinctly remember the first time I had anxiety. I was four years old, living in New Jersey and sleeping over at my best friend, Corey’s, house.   I remember waking up in the middle of the night, screaming that I needed my mom. Corey’s mom called my mom, and as any mother would, she came and picked me up.  This incident was the first time I remember experiencing the relief – that sweet-sweet vicious, short-term relief. This event is where the anxiety cycle caught me for the first time, and definitely not the last.

When I was a young child, I definitely met the criteria for separation anxiety.  I could not stay anywhere without siblings or parents present and would regularly call my parents at all hours of the night to pick me up from friends’ houses.  I think there were sprinkles of OCD thrown in there, specifically the fear of harm coming to others and myself.  In 4th grade, I was obsessed (not in an intrusive thought kind of way) with Terminator 2, Judgment Day.  I probably watched that movie every day for three months.  I used to be able to quote the whole thing.  Then it happened, anxiety and OCD latched on to that movie.  I was yet at another sleepover, trying to get over my fear, and I had a horrible nightmare that I was the John Conner of this world, and a Terminator was sent back in time to kill me.  I don’t know if it borders on delusions of grandeur to think of myself as the savior of the human race, but hey, I was eight years old at the time.  For probably the next four years, I would actively try and avoid any situation that would trigger intrusive thoughts of a terminator killing me. I would have to have play dates at other friend’s houses because obviously, the T-1000 can find my home address.  Whenever my dogs barked at night, I had to go to my parents and seek reassurance that I was okay and that they would keep me safe.  In the back of my mind, I knew that Terminators weren’t real; however, in the heat of the moment, it felt like there was one standing right in front of me about to kill me.

Then one day around 13, I could care less about Terminators or sleeping away from home. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was Bar Mitzvahed and was officially a man! But from 13-15 years old, I felt great and could sleep out of my house, no fears or worries, just a happy kid.  But of course, Bidimin (my OCD monster) could not leave me alone forever. Uh, oh, let me introduce you to the “just right feelings.” Suddenly, things like going to the bathroom, showering, and working out had to be done until it felt okay—no specific number of times, but just a sense of completeness and satisfaction.  I would spend upwards of 45 minutes in the bathroom trying to feel “just right and done” and I thought there was something physically wrong with me. Numbers of tests later, all the doctors came back with IBS.  Bidimin gave me rules surrounding when and what I could eat or drink, how I worked out, and when I “had” to go to the bathroom.  Even when I was not engaging in physical rituals revolving around feeling just right, constant mental compulsions of replaying and rumination about the next workout, the next meal, and the next time I’ll have to use the bathroom were continuous.

Despite being in a constant state of obsessing, I was a good student, played lacrosse, was in a band, and had good relationships.  I was able to function and was in traditional talk therapy from the ages of 15-20.  Throughout this time, I was attending Moorpark College and transferred to UCLA as a junior to study psychology.  I went through the motions and was in a great relationship until Bidimin threw in morality and scrupulosity.  UH OH- “You just thought another girl was attractive, what the hell is wrong with you!?! You need to confess and get forgiveness right away.  You just had a thought of a past girlfriend while you were kissing your current girlfriend!” CONFESS, CONFESS! “Are you sure you’re in love with this girl and not your previous girlfriend? Are you more attracted to other girls or previous girlfriends?” CONFESS, CONFESS, CONFESS! This all took place in my last quarter at UCLA, and it was the most miserable I had ever been.  For days, I would be unable to get out of bed because of the overwhelming guilt and shame of these thoughts and not knowing what was going on with me.  I went back to a therapist, who thankfully was able to identify all of the above as OCD and right away referred me to Laura Yocum at OCD Center of Los Angeles.

I will never forget walking into Laura’s office for the first time. Going over all the paperwork and reading the words, “this is not traditional talk therapy.” I was quite confused. Up until this point, I would go into a therapist’s office and “explore where all my feelings came from, the possible reasons behind my thoughts and feelings, and exploring past events and how they affect my current life.  I had never heard of Exposure and Response Prevention and did not know that OCD more than just checking locks and washing hands excessively.  Getting that diagnosis made so much sense and was one of the biggest sighs of relief I have ever experienced. “I’m not going crazy” “This is a really common disorder and is absolutely treatable.” I had hope for the first time in 7 miserable months of relationship and morality OCD hell.

The initial sessions were great, just receiving education on OCD and ERP, learning about the CBT functional triangle, the vicious anxiety cycle, habituation (getting used to your anxiety), and how exposing yourself to your fears builds distress tolerance and provides long-term relief.  We started small.  I would purposefully do workouts until they didn’t feel quite right, bringing my SUDS to around a 4 or 5, slowly building distress tolerance.  I would intentionally think about other girls and write narratives about cheating, all the horrible outcomes that would happen, and how bad I would feel.  I even remember being so anxious in a session that I threw up in the office. Laura looked at me and said, “I should keep that for my patients who have vomit phobias.” Slowly but surely, I was beginning to habituate to my intrusive thoughts and starting to feel a little more in control of my life. Learning to be able to sit with whatever thoughts arose and do nothing about them was life-changing.  I was able to enjoy being in the moment, not constantly ruminating about past events or possible future outcomes.  I started to experience other emotions besides guilt, anxiety, and shame for the first time in months.

After a few months of intense treatment, I would love to say that I was all better, and I never get trapped in the vicious cycle, but that would be me lying (which may be a good exposure). In all seriousness, though, OCD is a lifelong battle and one that requires patience, tenacity, motivation, and most importantly, self-compassion.  It is so easy to beat yourself up for engaging in compulsion or noticing yourself falling back into old habits. What has helped me in my journey is remembering that I always have a choice in my behaviors, and even though I will sometimes give in to compulsion, it does not mean that I am back at square one before I received treatment.  All the knowledge and skills I have acquired through treatment will never leave me.

I am truly honored to share my story and how it is possible, even when it feels like no one understands what you are going through, getting to a place where thoughts can really just be thoughts.  Learning to be welcoming and accepting of your OCD or anxiety monster is crucial to living a happy and anxiety-filled life.  I say anxiety-filled, because in all honestly, anxiety and your worries will always be there with you. Still, it is absolutely possible to be happy AND have anxiety and OCD.

After this long journey I have been on, I completed a master’s program to become an MFT from California Lutheran University (CLU) and have received my OCD training under Dr. Jenny Yip at Renewed Freedom Center.  I am now an LMFT and provide ERP to help others the way it helped me.  I am married to a wonderful, compassionate woman, and I continuously practice leaning into my anxiety every day.  Thank you and continue facing your fears to defeat your OCD and Anxiety.