I first met Carol three years ago. We were both at the annual conference of the International OCD Foundation in Minneapolis, she as a local, first-time attendee, and I as a presenter and spokesperson for the organization. I spotted her all but glued to a wall, head down, and arms wrapped tightly around her upper body, almost as if to shield herself from all the conference activity around her. I walked over and asked if perhaps she wanted to talk. She said "No", and dashed away. I understood. Trust me. I'd been in her shoes at an IOCDF conference not that many years before, and had someone walked up to me at that time, I'd have bolted even faster than she had.
The next day I was standing outside a presentation room when I heard a voice from behind: "I'm ready to talk now." I turned around to find Carol, tears streaming down her face.
We tucked away in a quiet corner, and I learned all about Carol's almost unfathomable battles with OCD: a childhood plagued by endless obsessions and compulsions (and their devastating social consequences); dashed dreams of becoming a teacher and working with children; lost jobs and countless other opportunities; dozens (literally) of hospitalizations; months of intensive inpatient treatment. You get the picture.
As an active OCD advocate, I'd met a lot of people with the disorder over the years, but I can honestly say I'd never met anyone as seemingly consumed by her OCD as Carol. And yet, there was something about this quiet, troubled woman that gave me hope—some spark of uncommon determination. Maybe it was the bracelet she wore that read IMAGINE.
We couldn't have talked for more than 15 minutes that day, but somehow I knew our conversation was just beginning. Our brief encounter had touched something deep inside of me. I gave Carol my email address and asked her to let me know how she was doing.
Just two days later, an email turned up in my inbox from Carol. It began: "I don't know if you remember me...."
Remember her?? I couldn't get her off of my mind.
In her note, Carol went on to share how lost she felt, explaining that she just wanted to "throw this (IMAGINE) bracelet in the trash," but also assuring me that she would continue to work with her OCD therapist as best she could.
I returned her message right away, and we began an email exchange that would fill both of our inboxes for years to come. Somewhere along the way we began chatting on the phone, as well. The more I got to know Carol, the more I grew to admire her tenacity, even in the face of incredible adversity.
Fast forward to several months ago, when Carol surprised the heck out of me by announcing in an email that she wanted to attend this year's IOCDF national conference in Chicago. My surprise was not that she wanted to put herself back in an environment that had proved so challenging for her, but rather that she was willing to consider doing what it would take to make that happen.
Carol had not left Minneapolis/St. Paul (except for a residential hospitalization) since 1983—nearly three decades! She was deathly afraid of public transit (and the contamination issues it raised). And yet, here she was contemplating a 400-mile road trip to The Windy City. The ultimate OCD exposure therapy!
Now, I'm a big believer in tackling OCD step by step, working one's way up an exposure hierarchy under the watchful eye of a trained expert. So my first question for Carol was whether her therapist had signed off on this idea. She assured me he had, even offering to put me in touch with him, so we could all come up with a plan.
As readers of this blog know, I’m also a big believer in the power of what I call Greater Good motivation, encouraging OCD sufferers to identify and pursue specific goals with the potential to empower themselves and/or others. So when Carol mentioned that she wanted to experience Chicago’s deep dish pizza and bring back a meaningful souvenir, I jumped on both goals.
Carol and I talked frequently in the weeks that followed—about pizza, about possible Chicago mementos, and about her ultimate desire to step into advocacy. We also talked about the challenges she’d have to tackle before she could reap any of those rewards--namely, an 8-hour overnight bus trip and a taxi trip to the conference hotel. I lost track of how many times she wondered out loud whether she could actually do this.
On Friday, July 27th, Carol proved that she COULD.
I was finishing up a talk at the IOCDF conference that morning when I looked out and saw my courageous friend, sitting in a back row of the room, looking more than a bit tired, but sporting a big smile on her face. Almost three years to the day after meeting in Minneapolis, here were Carol and I reuniting in Chicago.
For the next two and a half days, Carol and I methodically tackled her Chicago “bucket list.” We scouted out and ate some of the city's finest deep dish pizza--unbelievably delicious. We searched far and wide for the perfect souvenirs—a sweatshirt and a Matchbox-car-sized yellow Chicago taxi cab. We found ways for Carol to be of service to others at the conference—helping me staff the table for my nonprofit Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance. We shared a lot of laughs—and a few tears— along the way, and Carol presented me with one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever received: a handmade clay depiction of me battling my "Octopus Chewing Doubtnuts" (a reference that will mean something to those of you who have read When in Doubt, Make Belief).
At one point during the weekend, I looked over and saw Carol crying. I asked if she was okay, and she tearfully whispered that she couldn't remember the last time she felt so alive. She pointed out the bracelet she was wearing—the same one that had adorned her wrist the day I'd met her. Staring at the word IMAGINE, I realized that she had managed to do just that. I realized too that, in picturing the possibility of her making this heroic trek to Chicago, she had started a much longer and more important journey that will undoubtedly transform the rest of her life.
With this blog posting, Carol begins her new life as an OCD advocate, and I am certain her story will inspire countless others. I know it has done just that—in a huge way—for me.