Talking with Alison Dotson!
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where do I begin? My husband Peter and I will celebrate our 10-year anniversary in August; we have two sweet, funny dogs, both mixed breeds we adopted from shelters (Tuffy and Gracie); and we live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People always ask how I can stand the cold of Minnesota (often without ever having visited!), and I have two answers: I grew up here, so I’m used to it, even if I don’t love it. And Minnesota is a wonderful place to live, so the cold is worth it. I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for nearly 30 years but was diagnosed just 11 years ago. Since then I’ve not only gotten better and come really far, but I’ve also worked to spread awareness of the disorder and let others with OCD know they’re not alone. I love to read, so I was thrilled to be able to write my own book about my experience with OCD.
Could you tell me a little about your book. ‘Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life’? Yes! After I was diagnosed with OCD, I finally felt ready to start writing everything down. I hand wrote it all at first and eventually typed it into a Word document. It took me years to work on because I didn’t have a specific purpose in mind. When I learned that a local book publisher was considering publishing a nonfiction book about OCD, I submitted a proposal and was lucky enough to have it accepted. Being Me with OCD is for teens and young adults, a perfect age range because it’s one of the most common times for OCD symptoms to surface. I share many of my personal experiences with OCD, practical tips, and essays written by young people with OCD. I wanted to share perspectives other than my own.
Did you learn anything about yourself in writing your book? I learned I was still ashamed of my obsessions. It wasn’t until the final draft that I added certain details, and I still didn’t share everything. Since the book was published I’ve shared much more in presentations, media interviews, and blog posts. But writing the book was an exposure and helped me move farther along in my recovery process.
What has your experience with Mental Health & OCD been like? A mixed bag. Suffering for so many years with undiagnosed OCD was, not surprisingly, awful. I struggled with so-called taboo intrusive thoughts for nearly two decades, and I felt ashamed, alone, and often depressed. However, being diagnosed was a huge relief, and getting through the worst parts of the disorder has enabled me to see how beautiful life can be. Even if I have a bad day, I figure at least it’s not an “OCD” bad day! That doesn’t mean I’m able to brush everything off just because it’s not as bad as it could be, but it has given me perspective. Telling my story and meeting others with OCD has changed my life; not only have I come even farther in my recovery process, I’ve been able to help other people and I’ve formed meaningful, rewarding relationships. I was so afraid I’d be judged if anyone knew the truth about me, but people have been wonderful—open and understanding. There are still some people who don’t quite get it, but they haven’t been nasty about it.
What are the strategies that you have found most effective to help manage your symptoms? If you have OCD, you must face your fears head-on. My instinct was always to push the thoughts away because they were so unpleasant and unwanted, but that’s the exact opposite of what we should do! (Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is the gold standard in OCD treatment and is all about exposing oneself to triggers without resorting to engaging in a compulsion and instead sitting with the anxiety.) Once I understood this, I pushed myself to confront my obsessions—if my fear was that I’d harm a baby, I’d hold the baby anyway. And, more recently, I’ve worked to accept all my thoughts, good and bad and everything in between. It’s really hard to do because these thoughts are considered intrusive for a reason—they aren’t welcome and make me feel like a bad person. However, I know the thoughts don’t define me. They don’t make me a bad person, just as nice thoughts don’t make me a good person. Also, medication helped me tremendously.
Why do you think that conversations around mental health are important? No one will get the help they need if they don’t know how to get it, or don’t know what’s going on! I talk about OCD because I always thought it was just about hand-washing and germs--I had no idea it included violent, religious, and sexual obsessions, so I suffered in silence for way too long. I don’t want anyone else to go years without getting the proper diagnosis and help. Mental illness can be incredibly isolating, and feeling alone and judged is no way to live. It’s so important to get this all out in the open. I always say that mental health is no different from physical health, and we need to treat them the same way—with compassion and transparency.
What do you do to help yourself when things are getting a bit tough? I give myself a break. I give myself permission to be imperfect and to relax on the couch with my dogs. I reach out to friends who have been in the same tough spot because I can count on them to really understand. I don’t always do the “right” thing when I’m feeling low. I might lie in bed too long or binge-watch too much TV, and I know I’m better off when I walk my dogs, see a movie with a friend, or get housework done. But anxiety and depression muddy that perspective, so I try to be easy on myself if I have lazy, unproductive “me” days.
If someone else is in a position that you have been in, what do you think would be most helpful for them to know? You’re not alone! There’s help, both from professionals and peers. Tell someone what you’re going through. You may feel as though you’re the only person in the world to ever feel how you’re feeling or think what you’re thinking, but I can guarantee you’re not. Don’t let stigma keep you from getting the help you need and living the life you deserve.
Thank you Alison for answering our questions! Check out her work on alisondotson.com on facebook.com/beingmewithocd and www.freespirit.com/counseling-and-social-emotional-learning/being-me-with-ocd-alison-dotson/