It started when I was 13 years old. My mom was throwing a party and called us inside from playing basketball to join the fun. As I entered my bedroom to put away the ball, I saw a young child sleeping in my bed. Careful not to wake him, I tiptoed toward the bathroom. And that’s when it happened: I had a violent thought about harming the child, too terrible for me to share here. It felt like a thousand razor blades took flight in my stomach.
I did my best to shake hands with guests, entertaining small talk about report cards, grades, and girls. But the images just kept flashing. And it’s been happening for years—in college, at work, and in my relationships. Despite having had been in a relationship for 13 years, I never shared anything about my worsening condition with my ex-wife. I remember her standing in the kitchen when I saw a butcher knife on the counter. Suddenly, I saw myself mutilating her face and body with the knife. Killing her. Horrified, I quickly walked to the knife and put it in the drawer to eliminate the threat. I found myself living in a horror film where graphic, violent, sexual, and blasphemous thoughts overlay reality.
Two years ago at SXSW I finally figured out what was happening. Late at night in my hotel room in a pool of tears I Googled “violent thoughts.” The website was bad—it looked like a medical text from 1982. But it showed me that I had a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as Pure O.
I’m a college graduate, an entrepreneur, and a partner at a successful digital agency, working with leading brands in fashion, finance, and entertainment. I’m also one of 40 million U.S. Americans suffering from anxiety disorders, of which 7.7 million suffer from PTSD, 6.8 million from generalized anxiety disorder, and 2.2 million from OCD. And it is widely believed that the number of people suffering from OCD is substantially underreported due to misconceptions perpetuated by the media, as well as the shame and stigma associated with the disorder.
This year, on the anniversary of the Google search that changed my life, I decided to use my professional skills to make a change. I launched intrusivethoughts.org, an educational website that humanizes the condition of OCD and helps place sufferers on the path to treatment.
I was able to use everything I’ve learned from building digital experiences for brands to create a resource that is hopefully relatable, authentic, and credible, helping the next 13-year-old version of me to save his marriage and maybe his life. It also might help make a small dent in the $40 billion cost of anxiety disorders in the U.S., nearly one-third of this country’s annual $148 billion mental health bill.
The OCD stereotype is well established: obsessive germaphobes with observable rituals like excessive hand washing. Think Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets or Lena Dunham cleaning her ear in Girls. In reality, the disorder is much more complex. Obsessions are repetitive thoughts that cause debilitating anxiety. Compulsions are attempts to escape the anxiety. Sufferers of OCD often engage in hidden rituals as a result.
A mother who has intrusive thoughts about suffocating her newborn, for example, may repeatedly assure herself that she does in fact love her child. A man with an intrusive thought to murder his wife may avoid knives or cooking altogether. This subset of OCD is commonly referred to as Pure O. And while Pure O is not a scientifically derived name, it creates a commonality among sufferers that is critical to better understanding and properly treating the condition.
Sadly, the often graphic and horrific nature of these thoughts leads sufferers to question their character, obsessively wondering if they are capable of acting out. It’s no wonder that 50% of people suffering from anxiety disorders like OCD and PTSD also suffer from diagnosed depression.
To truly understand the horror of the disorder, you should hear it from the mouths of the brave kids on YouTube that are paving the way for a shift in America’s mindset on mental health.
I lived with undiagnosed OCD for more than 20 years. I spent that time constantly questioning my character, stuck in an endless loop of fear and self-doubt. If I had been diagnosed, I would have known that I had no more likelihood of acting out than any other member of the population. I would have known that these thoughts were the result of a misfiring amygdala. But I didn’t. So I had to create my own rules. I made a pact with myself that if my thoughts worsened, I would kill myself before I hurt someone.
The constant doubt took its toll. I sunk deep into despair, leading to dangerous behavior including self-medicating and self-harm. In spite of this, I continued working and saw my business thrive. And it turns out I’m not alone: Sir Richard Branson, Fiona Apple, and David Beckham are among the successful entrepreneurs who have admitted to suffering from some kind of mental disorder. A recent study by Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF, found that 49% of entrepreneurs reported having experienced a personal mental health condition of some kind, and that children with ADHD are four times more likely to own their own business than the general public.
Looking back, I believe my professional success has been the result of making positive associations from my condition. Despite the horrors, my mental disorders have become the very building blocks of my character. My depression creates a deep sense of self-awareness and an empathy for others that helps build culture in our company.
ADHD affords me the ability to look beyond endless distractions and hyper-focus on priorities that truly matter. Generalized anxiety disorder creates an acute awareness of business risk that helps me to accept the possibility of negative outcomes and plan accordingly. And OCD teaches me the importance of being mindful, reminding me every day that there is no limit to the imagination of the human mind. Moreover, it’s the combination of these conditions that has made me intolerant of the status quo and more willing to take risks.
Now, I am fully immersed in Exposure Response Prevention (ERP), a therapy that forces me to expose myself to my fears, and gives me the tools to prevent myself from reacting with anxiety. With successful treatment, ERP patients report a 40% to 60% reduction in the intensity of their intrusive thoughts, similar to how you might become desensitized to traffic noise outside your apartment. I promote ERP therapy as the only appropriate form of therapy for Pure O, because, sadly, it is not uncommon for therapists to force patients to try to understand the meaning of their thoughts, which only exacerbates the problem since the thoughts are completely meaningless.
It’s easy to say that we should end the stigma of mental health. No one will disagree with you. But to actually do it, we must develop a social conscious that empowers sufferers to share their stories. If you or someone you love suffers from a mental condition, I implore you to start talking about it openly. One in four kids will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in the U.S. And they should not have to suffer alone. We have the opportunity to help them become the next wave of leading entrepreneurs, artists, and politicians.
Intrusivethoughts.org is my first, self-funded, creative expression in the mental health space, which would not have been possible without the contribution of the amazing people in my life. Now, through my 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Intrusive Thoughts, I am embarking on a journey to rethink mental health resources online. Our mission is to humanize the experience of mental disorders and set sufferers on the proper path to treatment. With your support, we can make a major impact. Please consider contributing to our effort at My OCD Story.
Aaron Harvey is a partner at Ready Set Rocket, a digital marketing agency that has worked with Fast Company in the past.