I’ve been putting off telling this story for as long as I can remember. Ironically, it’s probably due to my condition. It’s time to finally come clean and let people know that, like everyone else (to varying levels), I too have faced mental health challenges. I’ve been inspired by others’ bravery in coming forward to talk about it, and I want to do the same, in hopes that it encourages others to share their stories.
About two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, better known to many as OCD. The challenge with OCD, and many other mental health conditions, is that they are difficult to diagnose, and many have overlapping symptoms. Additionally, mental health challenges don’t ALL come in the form of a diagnosis. The truth is, all of us struggle with things to varying degrees, based on a combination of genetics and the challenges of life. Whether or not you connect with my story, my hope is that by sharing it with all of you, it may inspire you to think about the challenges you face, and how they may affect you.
I’ve battled with my OCD condition for many years. I’ve seen different therapists about my symptoms at various points in my life. Most of the time, these appointments were frustrating because I often felt as if I was educating them on OCD and the unwanted thoughts and anxiety that I was experiencing. I heard all types of feedback and tried countless techniques to overcome it on my own. I tried everything from reading books and listening to podcasts, to positive thinking. I also had one therapist say to me “just trust that those things won’t happen”, which hardly felt like advice worthy of what I was paying for it.
Then I found “The Gateway Institute” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Founded in 2008, The Gateway Institute is a treatment center specializing in OCD and other anxiety related conditions. For the first time in my life, I finally felt like someone understood what I was going through. After a consultation and free assessment, they confirmed what I already believed to be true (from my extensive knowledge – thanks Google), I did in fact have OCD.
No mental health condition is better or worse than the next. They all have their own unique challenges and treatment plans, but OCD is a tough one. The reason it’s so tough is because it robs you of your self-confidence. Over the course of time, it makes you second guess and question everything you do in your life. So much so that it becomes easier to isolate and avoid things that are stressful, so you don’t have to worry about them. But avoidance is THE WORST thing you can do, because it sends a message to your brain that you can’t be trusted to go out and live your life.
What’s also interesting about OCD is that it manifests itself differently within each person. No two cases are exactly alike. I’ll give you a few of the most common examples: excessive hand washing, a strong need to have things in exactly the right place, counting numbers, commitment to rituals and specific routines, and checking doors and locks.
Without getting too technical, and in layman’s terms, I’ll do my best to explain what happens in the brain of OCD patients. Let me be clear, I’m not a doctor, so please consult a specialist if you’re looking for specific information about OCD. Based on my knowledge of OCD, what happens is that the brain “tricks itself” into thinking something is wrong and/or more dangerous than it actually is. That process causes you to believe that an action must be taken in order to prevent a bad outcome. What the brain is doing is searching for “reassurance” or that hit of dopamine that makes you feel better. So, in a way, the brain thinks it’s helping you feel better, when in reality, it isn’t.
For example, some OCD patients feel that if they don’t wash their hands a certain way, or a certain number of times, that it’ll trigger a chain reaction of bad things to happen. They may conjure up in their mind a potential outcome such as: they’ll hug their parents goodbye, they’ll infect them, they’ll be sick, and so on. So, the brain comes up with this crazy story that is purely hypothetical, tricking you into thinking an action needs to be taken to make you “feel better”. I know, cruel, huh?!
But the more you wash your hands, or repeat the routine, the more you’re giving credence to the story that’s been manufactured in your mind. Every time you “give in” to that routine or seek out the reassurance from others, you’re sending your brain a message that you NEED to do that or be reassured by someone each time, otherwise something bad will happen. But every time you do it, those routines get more and more in depth and complex until you aren’t able to function. So, it can be very scary if the case is severe and not treated.
Like in most OCD patients, my symptoms started slowly. It was just after high school in California. I was 18 years old and had moved out on my own. I was dealing with the stresses of that, working and going to school. I found myself beginning to wonder if I locked the car door or locked the house and I began innocently going back to check. Other times, I would get sick and then convince myself it could be a serious illness, so I’d have to go to the doctor multiple times (and keep all my records) for reassurance to ensure I was ok. Then fast forward to college… I found myself double checking my schoolwork, re-reading books to ensure I had the material right, and worrying about the tests I was taking and the presentations I was giving. I HAD to do well on everything to get a good job after graduation.
After college I entered the workforce, getting a job with the Phoenix Suns. It was a sales position and it was difficult work. I was dealing with rejection on the phones all day, I was comparing myself to my peers because it was competitive, and I was trying hard to achieve positive results. Not doing well at first, being rejected, hearing tough feedback were all really difficult for me. I expected to do well, and when I didn’t, I looked inward. What was I doing wrong? Why wasn’t I successful? It must be my fault. I had high expectations for myself and I felt like if I didn’t achieve those goals then I’d be a failure to everyone who knew me.
I was a perfectionist (still am) and demanded more from myself than anyone ever could. Many people with OCD are that way, too. They live a binary world and live a very black and white life. It’s either 100% perfect, or it’s terrible and you’re a failure. It’s hard to describe the feeling, because even writing that, I know it’s irrational. But some people with OCD, including me, believe it to be true.
Those stresses began to seep into my personal life. Driving a car became more difficult because the thought of accidentally harming someone developed into a big stressor for me. I couldn’t drive unless everyone in the car was wearing their seatbelts. I had to double check every stoplight I drove through, reassuring myself that it was actually green. It was difficult and stressful to make left turns and change lanes because my mind would trick me into thinking that I had almost caused an accident. I also had to check every lock in the house multiple times before I could go to sleep, along with the stove and windows.
You see, people with OCD create “rituals” that they believe if completed, will allow them to move on without any stress. But, ironically, each ritual you do gets more and more expansive. Just checking the doors isn’t enough. It leads to checking everything else. Checking one time leads to checking 3 and 5 times, and so on.
As I grew in my role at the Suns, my anxiety and OCD tendencies grew as well. When I became a senior leader, the spotlight was brighter and as they say… the closer you get to the Sun (I guess pun intended) the hotter it burns. I was on stage just about every day. I had a team of 50+ and I was sitting in ownership meetings. I would prepare incessantly for meetings and it’d be hard to sleep before big presentations. I felt as if I needed to do it PERFECTLY, otherwise it’d be awful, and it’d set off this chain of events in my mind. My thought process would go like this: “I said this wrong, now people don’t think I’m good at this job, no one is going to follow my lead, we’re going to struggle as a team, people won’t want to work for me, I’ll be let go” and so on..
I had to re-read emails 4 and 5 times before sending, more so if it was an especially important email. Think about how many emails you send each day, and the amount of time it’d take to re-read them all. Think about how many times you deal with your bosses and customers, and what it’d be like if after every interaction if you had to replay the whole thing back, second guessing everything you said and how you said it in order to find the reassurance needed to move on. It was impossible to find, and it was never good enough. I’d be exhausted every day because my brain was working five times harder than it needed to.
These hypothetically bad outcomes that I’d conjure up in my mind, I’d obsess over them for hours and sometimes days. It would often get to the point where I couldn’t do or think about anything else. I’d spend two days thinking about the way I worded something in a meeting the week prior and worry about what everyone thought of me now.
As work and my personal life became more stressful, it began to really take a toll on me. What I began to realize was that it was harder and harder to live life in the moment. I was either obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. I was never present. From an outsider’s perspective, I had everything you could ever want. Good job, wonderful wife, money, nice house, food on the table, great friends and family, I didn’t need anything. But I couldn’t enjoy it, I was stressed and anxious ALL the time.
What finally pushed me to get treatment was the exciting news that my wife and I were pregnant. We were going to become parents, something I had always wanted. My heart was excited, but my mind wasn’t allowing me to enjoy the moment. I immediately started questioning everything… the uncertainty was killing me. How would I do it, would I be good, what if I hurt him accidentally, what if I didn’t buckle him in his car seat correctly…? Ask any parent with OCD and they’ll tell you, it’s the hardest thing to overcome because the condition goes after the things you love the most, and often times that’s our kids, our family, and our work.
I was determined not to let that happen, so I began my journey to get better. That led me to the Gateway Institute and my therapist. We met regularly and I began cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). I began journaling my treatment and sharing more with her about what caused me anxiety. I told my wife, and she supported me every step of the way. My therapist pushed me out of my comfort zone. The only way to truly beat OCD is to do the things that scare you, and then sit with the anxiety afterwards, and learn to deal with it. Doesn’t that sound like fun?!
What you eventually learn is that even though you don’t do the ritual/routine, or ask for reassurance, things will ultimately be ok. You can’t control every outcome (as hard as you try) and you need to learn to be ok with the uncertainty. That’s what life is all about. We worked tirelessly for months. We went driving together and she forced me to make left turns (super scary!). She’d give me homework assignments to go out and drive and interact with my wife and son. They were hard, but I did them, and they slowly became easier and easier. We practiced writing an email and just sending it without re-reading, which seemed CRAZY to me at the time. But each time you do the opposite of what your OCD brain tells you, it sends a message to your brain that you don’t need that routine. You start out small and then work towards bigger ticket items.
OCD can get worse and worse and by not addressing it, you start to avoid things and let your routines run your life. I was (and still am) determined to never let that happen. I knew we had a baby coming and I wanted to be present and enjoy that moment. I also didn’t want to project that stress and anxiety onto him, and I certainly didn’t want him thinking life was more stressful and dangerous than it actually is. I didn’t want to worry about the “what ifs”, I wanted to be able to walk him down the stairs at our house and not obsess about falling. I wanted to be able to drive my friends around and make left turns without being anxious. I wanted to be able to write an email and just send it or deliver a presentation and not spend days or hours worrying about whether or not it was perfect, and how others may have perceived it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy worked wonders for me. They opened my eyes and gave me a process by which to fight this thing. Working alongside my therapist, I was also referred to a psychiatrist for medication that helped give me even more strength to do my exposures. The combination of the medication and the behavioral therapy is the right mix for me, but everyone is different. I’m also doing daily meditation and practicing mindfulness which has helped too. I’m always looking for new skills and techniques that I can apply to become the best version of myself. I’m feeling better than I ever have and I’m excited about what the future holds.
I’m not all the way there, and don’t believe I ever will be, but now I understand my condition and am working hard to be ok with it. Mental Health isn’t something you just get over; you learn to manage it, and I’m on the path to managing mine.
What’s most exciting to me about the partnership we’ve forged with Eric Kussin and the #SameHere Global Mental Health Movement is that many people struggle with Mental Health conditions all over the world and in all professions, and telling these stories gives people the strength and community support that they need to persevere and thrive.
Until recently, no one except my immediate family and closest friends knew about my OCD. I only told my parents recently after living with it for more than half my life. The truth is that I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was fearful that coming forward could change the way people felt about me. But I can tell you as I write this right now… it feels great. Telling your story and talking to someone about your feelings is awesome, and I encourage everyone to give it a shot.
I hope that by Eric and I telling our stories, along with all the others who have come forward in Sports Business and shared their stories, it will give people the strength to get help, overcome their challenges and be a resource for others. We’re all in this together, and together we’ll all get through this.
It goes without saying but if I can ever be a resource, or if you ever want to talk about OCD and/or your mental health, please reach out. I’d love to help if I can.