Conference Social and Day Four

I’m home now, and I’m still coming down from my conference high. I’m sure you are, too. It’s quite a shift from finding inspiration around every corner to having my dogs paw at me to let them outside (and back in and then back out and back in again). I’m back to work tomorrow, and I know it will be an adjustment to have a regular day again, where not everyone gets OCD or gives me a pass for being late because, hello, I have an anxiety disorder! Let me know how you’re doing back in the real world, too.

The entire experience was incredible, but for me the biggest highs took place on Saturday night, when the social was held in the hotel ballroom, and Sunday morning, when I co-facilitated a workshop for teens with my friend and amazing advocate Chrissie Hodges of Denver.

On Saturday night we got dressed up for dinner and the awards ceremony. First up the IOCDF honored advocate extraordinaire Margaret Sisson for her role in spreading awareness in Georgia. Margaret was inspired by her son, Riley, and his personal struggle with OCD to get involved on a grassroots level. Although the IOCDF presented her with a hero award, she stated in her speech that Riley is her hero. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

Next up was Minnesota native comedian Maria Bamford, who received the first annual Illumination Award. Bamford uses her comedy circuit to spread awareness about OCD, telling side-splitting–and sometimes heartbreaking–stories about her life with the disorder. She sang a hilarious little ditty she wrote about her obsessions and compulsions, which had me cracking up every time I thought of it the rest of the night.

Since I’ve loved Bamford for years, and because she’s a fellow Minnesota native, I quietly approached her. I told her I’d hoped to see her show last fall in Minneapolis but that I’d already spent money on a David Sedaris appearance. She nodded and said, “You have got to plan your comedy show budget very carefully.” When IOCDF staff converged on her to tell her it was time for the first dance of the night, Communications Director Carly Bourne said, “Alison, go dance with her!” Ack! Let me tell you–I do not dance. But I danced on Saturday! What a blast. I’m sure there’s photographic evidence that I may already be regretting…

I managed to pull myself away from the excitement early enough to get a decent night’s sleep in preparation for my Sunday morning workshop. I was excited and definitely nervous about it, but we had a great turnout and I think it went really well. The teens in the group opened up with us and shared tips about “coming out” with OCD and reacting to statements like “I’m so OCD.” One teen who’d been bullied told another that all he needs is one good friend who understands and who will listen. As much as I believe we have nothing to be ashamed about, the truth is that some people who don’t understand the disorder can be cruel–middle schoolers and high schoolers in particular. Kids are already navigating their social lives, and it can be painful to tell someone they have OCD only to be made fun of. It’s definitely a delicate balance, and it illustrates how important professional and family support is.

We think a great way to respond to “I’m so OCD” is to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they really do have OCD, and that’s how they share that information. One teen said that he often sends people to the IOCDF website so they can learn what OCD really is. If they do have the disorder, now they have a great resource to find help. And if they don’t, now they have a better understanding of how debilitating it can be and may think twice about joking in the future. Chrissie and I were so impressed with the teens who came to our workshop! If you were there, thank you! Keep up the good work, and remember you’re not alone.

Thanks to everyone who came to my book signing and to my workshop, and to everyone I met and chatted with. I made connections that will last a lifetime, and I feel humbled by so many of my fellow advocates. (Jeff Bell and Shannon Shy should be eligible for sainthood, I think.)

See you next year, right? Boston, here we come.

Day Three at the Conference

I’m in OCD celebrity heaven! Forget Ryan Gosling–I got to meet Lee Baer, author of Imp of the Mind. That book played such an important role in my triumph over intrusive taboo thoughts that I had to hold myself back from hugging the man and weeping in his arms. He was very gracious, and seemed happy to meet me as well!

I attended his session on sexual and violent intrusive thoughts, which reaffirmed how amazing he is, as well as how incredibly painful intrusive thoughts are for people with this type of OCD. He asked for volunteers to engage in an impromptu CBT session with him, and he sat at the front of the room with a young woman who fears that she’ll run someone over with her car without realizing it. So far she’s coped with her fear by avoiding it; she got an accommodation from work so she can take the bus instead of driving, and her husband drives her where she needs to go. Dr. Baer advised her to start with less intimidating exposures like writing down the worst “Stephen King” scenario that could happen and record herself reading it. He estimated that after about 10 hours of listening to the recording her anxiety will have subsided quite a bit and that by the end of the summer she’ll feel ready to drive again.

Now I’m off to an affiliate meeting, where I hope to learn a lot to apply to OCD Twin Cities, where I’m president. Tonight there’s a social, and IOCDF will present an award to comedian Maria Bamford, a fellow Minnesota native!

See you soon!

Day Two at the OCD Conference

I can’t explain how incredible it feels to be among so many people who understand me–it’s one thing to email with people who have OCD, but it’s quite another to be surrounded by them!

Last night I planned today’s schedule. I fully intended to go to a morning session, but my roommate (and fellow workshop facilitator, Chrissie Hodges) and I ended up sitting in our room, drinking coffee and talking about OCD. We’ve already talked about how similar our backgrounds are, but this morning we went more in-depth about our triggers and darkest moments. I’ve shared things with her in the last 24 hours I’ve never told anybody! And instead of saying, “Oh, Alison, that must have been so terrible,” she laughed. She laughed because she’s been there. She fully understands what it’s like to have inappropriate intrusive thoughts. (Don’t go around laughing when people divulge secrets to you in general, though.)

After we finally pulled ourselves out of our conversation, I got ready for my book signing. I met some wonderful people with OCD. I’m still amazed how many people I’ve met who have obsessions like I’ve had. For so many years all I knew of OCD was that people with it would wash their hands all the time. But I’ve also met several people whose OCD symptoms were nothing like mine! The more people I meet, the more I realize that no matter what our particular stories may be, we share a common truth: We’ve at some time or another been ruled by our obsessions.

I attended a session on how OCD is portrayed in the media, and how inaccurate news stories can be. The media’s job is to get as many views as possible, and sometimes that means sensationalizing this disorder, twisting the truth for dramatic effect and picking only the most headline-worthy quotes from lengthy interviews. But the takeaway was that we can all be advocates, and we don’t have to wait for traditional media sources to tell our stories for us. We can tell our own stories; we can share them on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and in person.

I just came out of a session for young adults; a panel discussed the possibility of relapse and how we can prevent a downward spiral. The fact is that there’s no cure for OCD, and that means we will have intrusive thoughts, and we will feel anxious and have fears. That’s life! The goal is to be armed with the right tools and not to beat ourselves up when those things do happen. An attendee made a great analogy: If you were on a weight loss plan, lost five pounds, and then gained two back, would you just give up? Or would you say, “Hey, that’s just a minor setback. I know I’m capable of losing weight because I’ve done it. Now I just need to get back on track.” Instead of giving in to OCD because it’s trying to poke its nose back into your business, recognize what’s happened and move on. Elizabeth McIngvale was on the panel and said that if you, say, wash your hands as a ritual, you can fight back right then and there and engage in an exposure. Stay mindful and you can decrease the chances that you’ll experience a full relapse.

That’s what I have for now! There’s still more to come, and even though I attended only two sessions today, there are so many more to choose from. It was hard to choose just one in each time slot. See you soon!


First Day in LA: Success!

IOCDF blogger Alison Dotson is attending the 21st Annual OCD Conference for the first time this year, and will be blogging about her experiences all weekend in Los Angeles. 

I arrived in LA early this morning for the first day of the conference, and it’s been a blast so far! I’ve already made so many connections, and I’ve finally met people I’ve only known through email and Facebook.

Tonight IOCDF held a reception for conference speakers, where I met IOCDF staff members, a few authors of books on OCD, three fathers and one mother of adult sons with OCD, a young woman who just two years ago couldn’t step on sidewalk cracks and is now an advocate–just to name a few. Everyone is so open, ready to share their own stories as well as listen to others’.

I’ve been up so long today I had to deny everyone my mad skills at pub trivia, opting to linger there a bit before heading back to my hotel room. I need to rest up now because everything will be in full swing tomorrow and the rest of the weekend. I can’t wait to see who shows up to my book signing at 12:30 tomorrow, and to attend as many sessions as possible.

See you tomorrow!

Tips from a Local: Things to Do in LA

In today’s blog, Wendy Mueller, our 2014 Patricia Perkins Service Award Winner and a Southern California resident, offers some tips and recommendations of things to see and do while you are in the Los Angeles area for the 21st Annual OCD Conference this weekend.  We also have a list of area attractions and special discounts for conference attendees on our website here.

Los Angeles has nearly endless entertainment destinations for whatever you might be looking for, from amusement parks to art museums to botanical gardens to movie studio tours to beaches, boardwalks, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

View the actual Space Shuttle Endeavor at the California Science Center. Stroll or skate along the famous Venice Beach boardwalk. Walk along the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. Explore California history at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Or visit Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth. The following is a list of some of the fun and interesting things to do in the Los Angeles and Orange County area.


*In the downtown area:

Grand Performances free events start in June:

Grand Park is fun to visit, whether there’s an event happening or not:

The entire rooftop of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a multi-level park, with trees, an amphitheater, a giant mosaic fountain, great views, and a close-up perspective on the construction of our downtown music landmark:

There’s the MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art):

LA Live, an entertainment complex of restaurants, theaters, etc., adjacent to Staples Center:


The La Brea Tar Pits:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

Hollywood Star Walk of Fame:

Hollywood/Highland complex:

The famous 3rd Street Farmers Market (and the Grove, outdoor mall) — at 3rd and Fairfax:

The Magic Castle:

California Science Center, home of the Space Shuttle Endeavor:

*On the west side:

All kinds of rides and games and places to eat at the Santa Monica Pier:

The famous Venice Beach boardwalk:

The Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is a popular pedestrian activity:

Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills is actually a city park — fun to visit the grounds. Many movies were shot there:

Will Rogers State Historic Park:

Temescal Canyon is a fun hike, not too difficult, with waterfalls:

The Getty Museum:

*On the east side:

Echo Park Lake has pedal boats, cafe, walkways and places to sit all around, many ducks and plant life:

Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park are fun to explore — be sure to check out The Trails cafe in the park:

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens:

Golden Road is one of L.A.’s bigger breweries/restaurants (with a fun outdoor space, including giant Connect 4, giant Jenga, and other games):

Explore Downtown L.A.’s fashion district — people watching, plus deals to be had:

*On the north side:

Universal City Walk

Universal Studios amusement park:

Warner Brothers Studio tour:

Huntington gardens, library, art, San Marino, CA:



Redondo Beach:

Long Beach:

*Public Transportation

Depending on where you are staying during your visit, you may want to try using the Metro light rail system to get around. Trains now reach as far west as Culver City, via the Expo Line:



Orange County (south of Los Angeles County):

Orange County is home to a number of amusement parks, including Disneyland!  These destinations are best reached via car.

North Orange County:

Disneyland and California Adventure Amusement Parks, Anaheim, CA:

Downtown Disney entertainment complex:

Knotts Berry Farm amusement park, Buena Park, CA:

Medieval Times Dinner Theatre, Buena Park, CA:

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:

Central Orange County:

Huntington Beach – expansive beaches, surfing, shops, restaurants, famous pier:

Discovery Science Center, Santa Ana, CA:

South Orange County:

Mission San Juan Capistrano:

Laguna Beach, scenic views, art galleries, beaches, quaint shops:

Newport Beach/Balboa Peninsula:

South Coast Plaza shopping mall, a shopper’s paradise:

Have fun exploring Los Angeles and Orange County! – Wendy

Meet Wendy Mueller: The Woman behind OCD-Support

Last week, we announced the 2014 IOCDF Award Winners who will be honored at the 21st Annual OCD Conference in LA next month. Among them, is Wendy Mueller, moderator of the OCD-Support group on Yahoo! and longtime member of the IOCDF.  Wendy has touched the lives of many in the OCD community, posting messages of hope, helping people find the resources they need, and just being a source of comfort. Today’s blog is a guest post from Wendy about how she became involved with the IOCDF and how she became the moderator of the world’s largest OCD support group. 

Twenty-six years ago, I gave birth to my first child. The day before she was born, I felt good. Within a few days after she was born, I knew something had gone terribly wrong inside my brain, but I didn’t know what it was. I now know that I developed OCD almost overnight when I gave birth. Within weeks, I sank into a deep depression and sought out the help of a psychiatrist, but I had no idea why I was performing strange, unwanted, repetitive rituals of checking, arranging, repeating, and counting things virtually every waking moment of my day. I had never heard of OCD. I didn’t tell my psychiatrist about the OCD symptoms, because I thought he would proclaim me “crazy” and put me into a psychiatric hospital.

One day about a year after I first developed my OCD symptoms, I picked up a copy of Newsweek magazine and read an article about what OCD is, and that’s when I realized what was wrong with me. The article was about a woman named Patricia Perkins, who was working to recover from severe OCD and was co-founder of what was then called the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation (now the IOCDF) in Connecticut. The address and phone number of the OC Foundation was given in the article, so I immediately called their office and asked if they knew of any OCD support groups in my area. Amazingly, there was a good-sized OCD support group meeting within a mile of my house in Orange County, California. I started attending the monthly group and was amazed to meet a roomful of people who experienced the same odd thoughts and performed the same odd rituals that I did. It was such an amazing relief to know that my disorder had a name and that there was an entire organization in Connecticut dedicated to helping people deal with this disabling condition. I joined the Foundation in late 1988, received their packet of introductory materials, and starting receiving the OCD Newsletter in the mail several times a year. It was amazing to read stories in the OCD Newsletter written by people who experienced the same things I did, and I looked forward to each issue that the Foundation sent out.

I got my first home computer in 1990 and signed up with the Prodigy computer network. Like most first-time computer owners, I had fun finding web sites and groups that related to my interests. One day I found the Prodigy health bulletin boards and searched to see if there was an online group for people with OCD, but there was none. There were online groups for people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many others, but I couldn’t find anything relating to OCD. So I created a new topic heading called “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” and posted a message asking if there was anyone else out there who had OCD and would like to communicate online. Bit by bit, people found my online OCD group, and we slowly grew from 5 members to 20 members and finally to about 50 members. I continued to post messages to the group each day, offering suggestions for discussions about medications and CBT and asking people to share their experiences. It felt like a safe place for all of us to go where we could talk to others who understood what we were going through with our OCD.

One day, a doctor by the name of Michael Jenike found my OCD group on Prodigy and offered to participate and answer questions. I also found an OCD therapist from Florida, Bruce Hyman, who also offered to contribute. The group continued to grow.

In October 1993, the Foundation held its first annual conference at a hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota, and I was determined to attend. It was a life-changing experience for me…a whole weekend of talking to people who were just like me. I remember sitting at the round tables in the main meeting room, exchanging email addresses with people from all over the country who were interested in joining my online OCD group. At the time of this first conference, I was still suffering from severe OCD, so I went to the conference as a sufferer seeking help. I went home with the names of about 30 different people who wanted to keep in communication either by email or letter or phone.

That first conference had such a positive impact on my life, I was determined to keep attending the annual conferences every year or at least as many as I could. Over the years, I have attended 10 of the OCD Foundation’s Annual OCD Conferences, and each one has been such a positive and inspiring experience.

Ever since my diagnosis of OCD in late 1988, I had been trying to find a medication to help me with my OCD. In early 1995, I started on liquid Prozac and, my own personal miracle started to take place. The Prozac, combined with learning exposure and response prevention (ERP), turned my life around.

I went from being disabled by constant OCD to being nearly free of it. And that’s when I started attending the Annual OCD Conferences not as a sufferer, but as someone who had recovered tremendously and wanted to spread the message that if I could overcome severe OCD, anyone could. I also spread this message on a daily basis on my online OCD group, encouraging people not to give up because there was always hope.

In 1994, a large online OCD support group called the OCD-L List was started up by Chris Vertullo, and its membership grew to hundreds of members. In 2001, Chris’ busy schedule caused her to turn over leadership of the group to me, after I had been a contributing member to that group for about 5 years. Along with my co-moderator Sheila Cavanaugh and contributing professionals Drs. Michael Jenike, James Claiborn, and Jonathan Grayson, the group was renamed the OCD-Support List, recreated under YahooGroups, and has continued to grow to its present membership of more than 4,700 people worldwide.

Every day, new people join the online group and I do my best to send as much relevant information as I can to each new member according to their particular needs. Some people join the group desperate to find others who understand their isolation and suffering. Some are distraught parents, siblings, spouses, or adult children, hoping to find some help for their loved one with OCD. I have directed thousands of people towards finding the help they need, whether it be an OCD therapist or support group in their area, information available on the IOCDF web site, or references to professional articles on various aspects of OCD. And every day I receive messages from people who are very grateful for the wealth of information provided by our online group and for finding the first glimmer of hope they have been seeking.

Not a day goes by that I don’t remember what it was like to spend every waking moment in a black hole of depression due to my inability to control my OCD. And not a day goes by that I don’t feel extremely blessed to have recovered from my OCD. I have made it a huge part of my life to do everything I can to help others who are still suffering. My main goal is to give hope to those who thought there was no possible hope for getting better by sharing my own personal story of recovery.

Wendy will be presented with the IOCDF Patricia Perkins Service Award on Saturday, July 19th at the 21st Annual OCD Conference in LA. Please join us to congratulate her in person.

The International OCD Foundation Honors Individuals for Their Outstanding Work in OCD Awareness

Dr. Steve Rasmussen, Wendy Mueller and Margaret Sisson Receive Awards for their Work in the OCD Community

BOSTON, June 27, 2014 – It can take up to 17 years from the appearance of symptoms for an individual with obsessive compulsive disorder to get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. While this statistic is improving as awareness about the disorder grows, there is still much work to be done to make sure that the two to three million adults and half a million kids in the U.S. with the disorder have access to effective, appropriate treatment.

As part of its mission to improve the lives of those affected by OCD and related disorders, each year, the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) recognizes 3 individuals who are working hard on the ground to make a difference.

The Foundation is proud to honor Dr. Steve Rasmussen with the 2014 IOCDF Career Achievement Award, Wendy Mueller with the 2014 IOCDF Patricia Perkins Service Award, and Margaret Sisson with the 2014 IOCDF Hero Award for their achievements and service to the IOCDF and the OCD community. The IOCDF will present the awards to them at the 21st Annual OCD Conference at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles on July 19.

“We are so proud of Dr. Rasmussen, Wendy and Margaret for the work they have done to affect change in OCD awareness and treatment,” said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation. “They have left an indelible mark on the OCD community and the foundation, and it is our privilege to honor them with the Career Achievement, Service and Hero awards.”

Dr. Steve Rasmussen is a highly respected and acclaimed expert in OCD treatment.  In the 1980s, he established one of the first OCD clinics is in the United States.  He later helped develop the Yale Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS), the gold standard for rating OCD symptoms that has been used for the last 25 years. Dr. Rasmussen has authored and co-authored over a 100 publications on OCD, and he is the Principal Investigator of an OCD longitudinal course of illness study. He currently chairs and serves as a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Known for her activism, Wendy Mueller has been an advocate and member of the IOCDF for over 25 years. After she was diagnosed with OCD, she started an online support group for OCD that grew to have 50 members. Mueller was later chosen to lead what is today called the OCD-Support List, an online support group hosted by Yahoo Groups with over 4,700 participants worldwide. She has spent countless hours helping people find OCD therapists, support groups and OCD literature. As Mueller has learned to conquer her OCD, she has devoted her life to helping others do the same.

Margaret Sisson is a mother from Georgia who was inspired by her son’s struggle with OCD to become an advocate for other families affected by OCD.  She has been an enthusiastic and vocal supporter for the IOCDF, having served on the Conference Task Force for the IOCDF’s 2013 Annual OCD Conference in Atlanta, and having organized a “Wine Raffle” in her community to raise money for the IOCDF, while also raising awareness about OCD. She has also worked to expand treatment options for families in Georgia by advocating for more therapists and clinics to specialize in OCD treatment. Sisson’s grassroots advocacy is a testament to how even modest, local efforts to have the power to affect real change.

About the International OCD Foundation
The International OCD Foundation is a donor-supported nonprofit organization, working to increase access to effective treatment, end the stigma associated with mental health issues, and foster a community for those affected by OCD and the professionals who treat them. Based in Boston, the IOCDF has affiliates in 25 states and territories, as well as 9 Global Partners. The IOCDF was founded as the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in 1986. Now in its 27th year, the organization has an over $1.5 million annual operating budget, has granted millions of dollars for OCD research, and is a vital resource for the estimated 1 in 100 individuals with OCD around the world. For more information, visit


Kevin Friedman
President, Maize Marketing Inc.
kevin @

Carly Bourne
Director of Communications
International OCD Foundation
cbourne @

International OCD Foundation Honors Comedian Maria Bamford With First Annual Illumination Award

Respected Comic Awarded for Bringing Awareness and Challenging Stereotypes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

mariabamford-webBOSTON, June 24, 2014 — The International OCD Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and related disorders, has named comedian Maria Bamford the inaugural recipient of the 2014 Illumination Award. The award recognizes media personalities and influencers who have accurately and respectfully represented OCD and related disorders. Bamford will accept the award in person at the Foundation’s 21st Annual OCD Conference in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 19, 2014.

“Maria is an exceptional performer who has courageously used her comedy to talk openly and frankly about mental health, a subject that is too often considered taboo,” said Dr. Jeff Szymanski, International OCD Foundation Executive Director. “Through her work, Maria has enlightened the public on the challenges of living with OCD, while also being extremely funny and entertaining, and we could not be more proud to honor her with our inaugural Illumination Award.”

“As someone who has experienced mental illness, I have been so grateful to organizations like the International OCD Foundation — as well as individuals — who provide information, new treatments and support,” said Maria Bamford. “My life has been transformed from a very limiting and frightening experience to a world beyond my expectations with the help and welcome from people in the mental health community.   I commend the International OCD Foundation’s efforts to contest the misconceptions of mental health disorders.  I am truly honored to receive the Illumination Award and am grateful — that as a result of the work, acceptance, and compassion of so many — I’ve been empowered to live a life I didn’t think was possible.” 

About the Illumination Award

In popular culture, the term OCD has become a casual term for “perfectionist” or “neat,” something very different from the stark reality of the mental health disorder that affects the lives of millions of adults, children, and teens in the U.S. alone. In an effort to counter these powerful misconceptions about OCD, the International OCD Foundation introduced the Illumination Award in 2014, to honor those in the media who portray OCD and related disorders in a respectful, accurate, and enlightening way, and who challenge stereotypes while fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness.

About the International OCD Foundation

The International OCD Foundation is a donor-supported nonprofit organization, working to increase access to effective treatment, end the stigma associated with mental health issues, and foster a community for those affected by OCD and the professionals who treat them.

Based in Boston, the IOCDF has affiliates in 25 states and territories, as well as 9 Global Partners. The IOCDF was founded as the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in 1986. Now in its 27th year, the organization has an over $1.5 million annual operating budget, has granted millions of dollars for OCD research, and is a vital resource for the estimated 1 in 100 individuals with OCD around the world. For more information, visit

Lights, Camera, Improv! The Second City’s Improv for Anxiety at the Annual OCD Conference in LA

Today’s guest post is from Jon Hershfield, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with the UCLA Pediatric OCD Intensive Outpatient Program and MFT in private practice. Jon is co-presenting Improv for Anxiety with the team from The Second City Training Center in Hollywood at this year’s Annual OCD Conference. Today’s blog offers a preview into this exciting workshop.

In show business, improvisation entails showing up on a stage without a script, in front of an audience, with a scene partner (or partners) and remaining engaged in the present moment even as it continues to evolve around you.  In other words, showing off your tolerance of uncertainty.

If you have OCD, you may often feel as if you’re trying to follow a script.  The OCD script says “that’s dirty” and that’s your cue to wash, for example.  Straying from the script comes with consequences (fear, guilt, disgust, pain, to name a few…).  But if you’re in treatment for OCD, you’re probably being asked to stray from the script a lot.  That’s what exposure with response prevention (ERP) is all about — being in front of the thing you fear and doing something different.  Resisting compulsions is difficult and requires a set of skills.  Many of these skills are utilized in theatrical improvisation.

The Second City is an organization that has been training actors and writers in the art of improvisation since 1959.  They began in Chicago and later established programs in Toronto and Los Angeles, training such comic icons and Saturday Night Live veterans as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert.  At the 2012 conference in Chicago, the IOCDF offered “Improv for Anxiety,” an improvisation workshop developed by The Second City and anxiety specialist Mark Pfeffer, MFT, where anxiety and OCD sufferers could learn the tricks of the improv trade.  The program returns this year at the 21st Annual Conference with help from The Second City Training Center in Hollywood.  I have the great privilege of working with the team from The Second City to develop this workshop for the upcoming conference — serving as a kind of bridge between the world of improv and the OCD community — and I am excited to share a preview of some of the skills we will explore in the Improv for Anxiety workshop.

When I first started working with The Second City, I attended their fantastic free introductory workshop called A Taste of Second City at their studio in Hollywood.  The program consists of a series of hilarious and challenging games and exercises, each addressing a different element of what makes a great piece of improvisational comedy click.

Long before I became an OCD therapist, I was an actor, and it was a somewhat haunting experience finding myself in Hollywood again one Saturday afternoon, in an old creaky building, a musty actor’s studio, the Hollywood sign visible on the mountain from the classroom window.  It got me thinking mindfully.  Mindfulness is the ability to observe what is going on in the present moment without judgment or analysis.  This includes simply noticing the thoughts and feelings going on inside you, as if watching them play out on some kind of stage themselves. You’re close to the thoughts, but not too close. Instead, you’re in the audience and the thoughts are on the stage.  At Taste of Second City, it became abundantly clear that the skills each exercise aimed to develop for onstage excellence were the same mindfulness skills you might want to develop for that OCD stage in your head.

For example, “DO, DO, DO, DO,” is an improv exercise in which everyone stands in a circle. One person says a word, then the person next to them says that word and another word, then the person next to them says their neighbor’s word and a new word, and so on.  The trick is to resist the urge to plan and mentally rehearse what word you’re going to say, but instead just wait for the person before you to say their word and come up with something on the spot. Don’t think!  Don’t think!  So it might sound something like dog, dog-cat, cat-fur, fur-coat, coat-weather, weather-cold, and so on.  Of course, in my OCD mind, I’m also holding back a deluge of the wrong things to say. (Good God, man, don’t say pedophile, cancer, murder, or AIDS!)

So the challenge is this: wait.  Wait your turn, listen, and then respond.  Trusting yourself comes from giving yourself responsibility.  Give yourself the responsibility of waiting, listening, then responding, and trust that whatever comes out is something you can cope with.  Consider how your ability to trust that you can cope with whatever happens next might help you stray from the OCD script and resist a compulsion.

In “YES, AND…” we broke into pairs and were given the instruction to have a discussion about a given subject (in our case, we were to talk about opening a restaurant).  The rule is that you can’t say much, and you have to start with “yes, and…” — in other words, you can’t dispute or shut down what your scene partner offers you.  You can only agree, and add or heighten. This also works in mindfulness for OCD.  By observing the intrusive thought and refusing to argue with it, you have to allow it through.  By allowing the thought to go through you instead of trying to shut it out, you can circumvent the need for compulsions.  Maybe you have a nonsensical intrusive thought about harm coming to a loved one.  You might snap and strangle your kid tonight, says the OCD.  You could respond with avoidance, reassurance seeking, or any number of mental rituals to try to get certainty that your fear won’t come true.  Or you could say, Yes, andI may finally get to sleep in for a change.  Sure, that statement may make you very uncomfortable indeed, but it may also give you the edge over your OCD to resist falling back into the same old script.

In “Different Interpretations of an Activity,” one actor starts a physical activity, then a second actor enters the scene and in one line of dialogue, they suggest a different interpretation of that activity. The actor performing the activity must immediately agree, forfeit their old idea, and commit to the new idea.  So, for example, if the first actor is doing jumping-jacks, the second actor may come in and say, “I see you are trying to get someone’s attention!”  The first actor must then immediately modify the jumping jacks to look like he is waving his arms and call out “Hey, Bob, over here!  No, waaayyyyy over here!”  Then, replacing the second actor, another may step in and say to the performer waving his hands back and forth, “You’re never going to wash all of these windows in time,” and the first actor has to immediately portray himself as washing windows.  The skill being developed here is the ability to give up your idea on the spot.  In theater and in OCD, it’s very easy to become self-absorbed — literally absorbed by yourself, consumed by the content of your thoughts.  But neither improv nor life with OCD fare well when it’s just about you.  It has to be about the scene.

When you suffer from OCD, your idea about how things are supposed to go can often be abruptly taken from you by an unwanted thought or feeling.  You may be out to dinner with your family when your OCD starts whispering that you might have left the stove on at home.  Now you have to choose whether to try to sit through dinner while having unwanted thoughts about your house burning down, or cancelling dinner, going home, and doing checking compulsions.  But what if you chose option C instead?  What if you had lots of practice noticing and accepting the thoughts as they happened?  You might instead think, I’m here having these thoughts, I planned on it being one way, but I can allow for it to be another.

Or consider if you were in the middle of performing a compulsion already.  Perhaps you were washing your hands because of some fear that something you touched was contaminated.  You are committed to completing the washing ritual, getting under the nails, getting between the fingers, counting to the right number and so on, but a little voice in your head says to stop.  It’s your healthy voice.  Stop doing this compulsion and get back to dinner with your family.  But your OCD says you have to finish washing.  What if you were adept at simply forfeiting the idea at a moment’s notice?  Instead of completing the compulsion, you quickly shut off the faucet and walk away from the sink with your hands still dripping.  You forfeit your scripted idea and go with the suggestion of your scene partner, your healthy inner-voice.

The above games are just a small sampling of skill-building exercises you are likely to encounter at Improv for Anxiety at the OCD Conference this year.  In addition to having the chance to learn about the art of comedic improvisation, I think it will also present an opportunity to sharpen your OCD-fighting skills.  Plus, we will be passing out massive doses of one of the most effective OCD drugs on the market — humor.

Improv for Anxiety starts at 6:30 on Thursday, July 17th in the Los Angeles Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.  All conference attendees, age 18 and over, are welcome to attend. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered online now at on our conference registration site, or by calling the IOCDF office at 617-973-5801. 

2nd Annual 1 Million Steps 4 OCD Walk in Boston Was a Huge Success — Thanks to You!

Thank you, Boston… and thank you, Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Connecticut and Maine and New Hampshire AND Vermont! The 1 Million Steps 4 OCD Walk in Boston was truly a New England event and was a huge success! And that was all thanks to the dedicated effort and the generosity of more than 320 Walkers who came from all over New England to raise awareness of OCD and raise over $45,000 for IOCDF programs that help all of those living with OCD and related disorders.  We would like to thank the more than 48 virtual walkers who were not able to be present in Boston, but who walked in their own communities alone or as part of a group on the days leading up to June 11, 2014.

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We are so very grateful to all who made this event a success.  We are grateful to our sponsors: Brooks Running, Rhode Island Hospital: Body Dysmorphic Disorder Program, OCD Institute at McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital OCD and Related Disorders Programs, Residence Inn Boston Back Bay – Fenway, and Whole Foods, as well as many donors to our raffle, including the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics!

Grand Marshals Dr. Mike Jenike (right) and Cameron Lucas-Pelletier

Grand Marshals Dr. Mike Jenike (right) and Cameron Lucas-Pelletier (left).

We are grateful for our Grand Marshals: Mike Jenike, MD, for his endless support of the IOCDF, and Cameron Lucas-Pelletier and his family for generously sharing their personal story and inspiring us to do more to help increase awareness and understanding.

We are especially grateful to you and all of your friends, family and colleagues, and the entire OCD and related disorder community, who enthusiastically supported this walk and made it an overwhelming success.

IOCDF executive director Dr. Jeff Szymanski presents the Top Walk Team award to Team Bradley Hospital

IOCDF executive director Dr. Jeff Szymanski presents the Top Walk Team award to Team Bradley Hospital

We are pleased to announce our Top Fundraiser and #1 Walk Team for the Boston Walk! Joann from Boston was our Top Fundraiser, raising more than $3,500!  Bradley Hospital was our #1 Walk team with more than 46 people attending the Walk. Congratulations and many thanks to both for your extraordinary efforts to make this walk a success!

We set an aggressive goal for this Walk and we are not quite there — however it is not too late to help!  We are leaving the Walk fundraising pages open until July 11th so that walker can continue to raise money, and other donors can still have the opportunity to give. Go to Firstgiving to view all of our walkers, fundraisers, and walk teams, and donate to your favorite fundraisers!

So many other causes and charities have large, visible marches and walks and rallies, but it is rare when people with mental health issues have the same opportunities, due to so much stigma and misunderstanding. We are so honored and humbled to have been part of creating this event, and giving people the opportunity to come together, and find strength in each other.

Last year, I said lets make this a tradition for New England. Well, it looks like we have accomplished that goal! Together we are #1Million4OCD!