What does it take to stand up to obsessive-compulsive disorder? For an answer to that question, look no further than the living example in Kerry Osborn. During her senior year of high school in 2008, Kerry was diagnosed with a form of OCD characterized by “magical thinking,” a type of irrationality that links intrusive thoughts with unrelated actions. In a recent interview with Rudy Caseres for The Mighty, Kerry described her disorder as “superstition on steroids.” Before and after her diagnosis, Kerry was subjected to harassment and bullying for erratic or inexplicable behavior that no one understood as compulsion performance. It wasn’t until the summer after her freshman year of college that Kerry took the first step down a path toward recovery, when she entered intensive treatment at the Gateway Institute’s campus in Costa Mesa, California. At the Gateway Institute, Kerry first encountered Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard for successful treatment of OCD. It changed and saved her life. Finally pushed to question whether her compulsions had an impact on reality, Kerry saw for the first time that recovery was possible.
Taking the skills she learned at the Gateway Institute, Kerry committed to becoming her own therapist, holding herself accountable through relapse and staying recovery’s non-linear course.
Now she wants to teach others her warrior code in a book due to be published later this year. Titled The Obsessive Outsider, Kerry’s recovery memoir is a “patient-to-patient” letter from the lion-heart of a fighter. Kerry also spearheads The Obsessive Outsiders, an online community that serves as a platform to inspire others in OCD recovery, amplify real stories from others who combat the disorder, and challenge popular misconceptions about OCD. The Obsessive Outsiders community cherishes laughter as a weapon against OCD while raising awareness that OCD no laughing matter. It’s never something to be teased for or made fun of; it’s more serious than being a perfectionist or a “neat-freak.” Its themes and manifestations are wide-ranging, but each case interferes with thoughts and behaviors to impair a functional life. The mental health world is fortunate to have Kerry and The Obsessive Outsiders forging a way to “Obsess Less--Live More.”
We had the huge pleasure of speaking with Kerry about developments in the mental health movement, her own mental health advocacy and recent move into an OCD coaching career, and most exciting of all (well, for us anyway!), how she uses Mental Health Mugs in her advocate work every day.
Mental Health Mugs: Kerry, I’m continually impressed with the way you welcome the world into your story, even when it’s difficult for you. Where does your fearlessness come from?
Kerry Osborn: In the case of OCD, I'm a little bit more rough on the edges, and I'm totally willing to be triggered because it keeps me in check.
The way that you truly get into OCD recovery is by triggering. A lot of people don't like that and disagree with me, but that’s what ERP is: Exposure and Response Prevention. It's studying those triggers and those traps, and really focusing to overcome them.
I am one of those people who's so unfiltered, and I probably should walk more on eggshells for people. But because I specialize in OCD, it's just something where, whether people like it or not, and are ready or not, those triggers actually are the road to recovery.
You're literally facing your greatest, deepest fears, and you're not performing those compulsions. Withholding those is an immensely difficult task. A lot of people avoid ERP like the plague, but once they start doing it ... when you stick with it, you start to immunize those obsessions over time. Pretty soon those thoughts will slow down; at least, that was the case for me. I was exposing left and right, and the more that I got the ghosts out of the closet and put them on the table, the healthier I became.
That's what I'm in this business doing: I'm voluntarily putting myself up as a guinea pig. The more people that come forth ... and bluntly say what no one else will--people tend to follow. That's what it's all about for me, so trigger away.
MHM: Your recovery memoir, The Obsessive Outsider, is getting ready to be published this year. How do you think people will react to your story? And what do you hope readers get out of it?
KO: I'm one of those people where you either like me or you hate me when it comes to mental health. Because I've been through what I've been through and I'm on the other side, I just want to, like, shake my old self and ask, “Why did you take so long?”
I don't want [The Obsessive Outsider] to talk about the medical jargon. I'm getting on your level and saying, “Forget the medical side of this. You are where you are.” This is a behavioral disorder, so let's focus on that. And the only way to focus on that is to put the excuses aside--even though I was full of them for years and years, so I’m totally speaking about myself as well--and really take the risk.
Being a young advocate is really important to me, so that I can help people come out of the mental health closet when they're younger, so they can lead longer, healthier lives. I missed out on some of the most important years of my life, like 18 to 23, and I'm making up for those days now. I'm totally behind the eight ball when it comes to relationships, social skills, and different things like that. The more I can help prevent people from hiding like I did for so long, I feel like that's really what my calling is to do.
MHM: You’ve been a big supporter of Mental Health Mugs for a long time--we’re so grateful to you for that. I’m curious how you put the mugs to use?
KO: I actually gifted Mental Health Mugs to some people around me for Christmas. ... I specifically chose the saying based on what these people were going through, and man--I was there when they all opened them. You could see on their faces the identification with their gift, because the saying was so in line with their life. And by the way, none of these people have mental health issues.
I think that's what gets misconstrued: Truly, mental health does not exclude anyone. People who judge the stigma, it's like, “You have mental health, too!” And so, when I gave a "Progress Not Perfection" mug to someone who had to quit school for a while ... finally she came back and is now trying again. I gave a "Self-Care Isn't Selfish" one to someone who I know struggles with self-care. I'm really a huge fan of the mugs. Those are probably the favorite gifts I’ve given in a really long time.
MHM: *Crying a little, but trying not to sniffle into the phone* I know you have a "Mental Health Advocate" mug of your own, too. Tell me how you’re using that.
KO: To be completely honest, when I first got it, I actually used it as my pen holder on my desk because I needed that inspiration. Sometimes you get really hard on yourself--at least I do, because I have this platform now, and that comes with positive and negative feedback. It can take one person's comment to make me go, “What the hell am I doing?” And the bigger your platform gets, the more you subject yourself to this criticism, so it's this conscious decision that you have to make within yourself that's like, “All right. Bring it on.” You have to have that thick skin. And that cup, as my pen holder, was a really great reminder right next to my computer. It was like, “You can't touch me”--you know what I mean?--”because I'm a mental health advocate!”
Now it's graduated from being a pen holder to what it was made for. I put peppermint tea with lemon and honey in it in the morning, and that's how I begin my day: to remind myself, “This is my job. I'm a mental health advocate, so let's do this.”
MHM: What’s grabbing your attention in the mental health world right now? Is there anything in particular that excites you to see moving in the right direction?
KO: I have noticed a specific increase in people standing up and wanting to be advocates. I get messages a lot from people saying, “How do you become an advocate?” My answer is: You just talk.
What's been really inspiring and uplifting is to have the young generation start to take over and speak up. It is true that a lot of the mental health advocates out there have lived long lives. Part of it is that, you know, people don't want to talk about it, so they wait until they're in their forties before they're really even able to talk about it. I don't blame them at all, but I'm thankful that I was able to get this out there in my twenties. ... It's so inspiring to me when young people step up and go against this critical, judgmental world, saying, “This is what's real.”
MHM: I realize this is literally the content of your book--and now that you’ve started offering OCD coaching, it’s your livelihood--but what would you say to someone who’s struggling with OCD?
KO: My first advice would obviously be to go and seek some sort of guidance or help, to get into therapy and and figure out what's going on within yourself. Because ultimately, you come first. You can't be a healthy advocate helping other people when you're not--listen, I'm not always in a good place, but I'm still advocating. I have the foundation of what I know is my therapy, and how to become my own therapist. So I would just encourage people to consider getting in touch with--and not be afraid of getting in touch with--the realest part of themselves. Most of the people that I talk with today are all very regretful that they did not come forward sooner in their life, at a younger age, with their mental health issues. I think companies like Mental Health Mugs provide a kind of comfort tool to be able to do that. That is extremely important, I believe.
I would also encourage people to look at platforms like mine and Happy Pill--which is a fantastic platform that promotes young women's mental health struggles--and see you are so not alone in this. We will all back you. We have such a supportive community. So when people come out of what we call the 'mental health closet,' it's the first freeing step that they will ever take. I cannot even explain to you the refreshing feeling, the cool wave that comes over me when I am able to really talk about this stuff. There's something about getting those ghosts out of the closet that really is part of the healing process.
MHM: What about people who are reading and want to be better allies, to support someone with OCD or an anxiety disorder?
To be completely honest, it depends. Usually it will be someone that you're pretty close to that will know about those struggles. It's someone that you spend a lot of time with; for example, someone you live with--that's your family, or a roommate, or your boyfriend. I always suggest, and what my therapists advised, is letting them come into a therapy session, whether that is virtual or in person, and let the therapist explain to the friends, or the parents, or the boyfriend, or the people who can support that person the most, what's really going on. Then it doesn't come from the person who's suffering; it comes from someone who is educated in it.
I kid you not, to this day--here I am, I've written a book, I've done all this stuff--and still, when I'm around my parents, I do a lot of compulsions that are totally unknown to me. I'll brush past a chair that's a specific color and kind of touch it. I won't even really know that I'm doing it, but I just know subconsciously that I need to do it. It's so funny, because my mom or my dad will literally--it doesn't even matter who it's in front of, it's so embarrassing--they'll call me out and ask, “Was that a compulsion?” I'm not going to lie to them, and so I'll say, “Maybe it was!” Like, I don't even know! I've realized that it's so mundane to me at times, and there'll be times where I'll go, “Oh my gosh, Mom--yes it was.” And she'll ask, “Okay, what was the thought?” She makes me expose it. Then I look down at the chair and think, “Why the hell do I think that I have an effect on reality by touching a red chair?” Having that support, and having someone who is even willing to go to a therapy session with you, or educate themselves online--it's so much better when they don't hear it just from you.
A lot of times people, with OCD especially, don't want to tell important people in their lives how to help them because then they hold them accountable--which is really hard, but it's ultimately the best thing for them.
A lot my friends ask, “Is there anything I can do?” And so, what I do now is tell them, “Yeah! If I'm completely honest with you when I'm about to perform a compulsion, help talk me out of it.” One of my friends has known me since we were nine, far before I ever had actual obsessions and compulsions. She watched me perform physical compulsions all over the place, embarrassing stuff, for years, and she stuck by me.
Recently, I had a compulsion--it was a choice between two different decisions, and something bad would happen whichever decision I made--so I told her, “You make the decision. It's a compulsion for me to make the decision that I want to make, so you make it.” ... I involve those people around me, and then that makes them feel like they're a part of it also, and they'll start calling me out. ... It's so hard, but at the end of the day, that means they care. To me that is so much more valuable. I'd rather be super annoyed at someone because they're actually taking a moment out of their day to think about me, what I'm going through, and how they can support me--instead of just being like, “I'm here for you,” even though they don't even freaking know what OCD is, really.
MHM: Any last nuggets of Obsessive Outsider wisdom you want to share?
Exposing every part of my mental health and my mental illness and disorder has gotten me to the point where I feel so free. I feel empowered. What's interesting is, OCD gives you control--that's why we continue to perform compulsions--but what really gives you control in life is empowering your mental health and turning it back on your OCD. So now, you're in control; your OCD's not in control. Letting those hidden ghosts come out, where your OCD thinks that it's controlling you--now that's actually not the case. The more that you empower and speak up, and post your Mental Health Mug and do all that, the more you're shoving your mental disorder in the face.
I can't tell you how many people I know across the globe who I am so close to now, because they are people I've met on social media through speaking up about my mental health and my situation. You start to not care about what the people around you think, because you feel like you have a global support system. The mental health community is beyond supportive. It has blown me away.
You can join The Obsessive Outsiders community by following @theobsessiveoutsiders on Instagram, "liking" The Obsessive Outsiders Facebook Page, and signing up for Kerry's weekly newsletter on The Obsessive Outsiders website.
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