August 8, 2009

OCD Sufferers Seeks Support And Acceptance At National Conference

This week marks the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation's annual weekend conference, an event where speakers and seminars offer support to those living with OCD, The Associated Press reported.

Ashley Bystrom had a paralyzing fear of germs and said she always attends the conference because she enjoys meeting other kids and learning about what types of OCD they have and telling them about how she overcame hers.

When she was 6, Ashley began wearing slippers every time she stepped out of the shower and took them off only after she got into bed.

Her cleaning habits gradually became more meticulous: She wouldn't let people into her bedroom, threw clean and folded clothes into the hallway to be washed again and opened dresser drawers with her feet to keep from touching knobs with her hands.

Ashley's mother, Jacquie Bystrom, said she was getting more and more worried, because it was at that point where it was taking a really long time and it was affecting their lives.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessive-compulsive disorder affects about 2.2 million Americans, causing its sufferers to have overwhelming thoughts of uncertainty, sometimes leading to repetitive and disruptive behaviors.

Those living with OCD often behave normally in every aspect of their lives besides the obsession, but often symptoms can go ignored or undiagnosed for years, occasionally making everyday tasks difficult to perform.

Antidepressant medications can help some manage their compulsive behaviors, but there is no outright cure. Many benefit from therapy and training sessions to help them confront and learn to live with uncertainty.

OCD runs away with the people it afflicts, according to Dr. Jonathan Grayson, an expert on the disorder.

Grayson said for many of his patients, no matter what they choose, they will find a way to question it, and they'll keep pursuing uncertainty until they go crazy.

This weekend's conference will see about 1,200 people -- made up of patients and their family members -- attending seminars that will address the different forms of the disorder.

Other events will unveil important new research and seminars aimed toward helping patients cope with their condition.

"Virtual camping" is one such event. Grayson has led the camps for more than a decade, where he conducts exercises geared toward specific fears. Germophobic campers perform conditioning exercises like placing their hands on a trash bin or in garbage. After that, the campers hug each other without washing their hands or using sanitizer.

A separate exercise involves instructing OCD sufferers who fear their own thoughts to think about the worst things imaginable -- even killing people -- to see if anything happens.

Grayson said they work on doing these things on purpose in an attempt to prove that they're harmless. But he warned that some of the things they do could carry certain risks.

Younger attendees who struggle with being overly meticulous about their appearance may choose to undergo a "makeover" in a fashion show of sorts -- with participants outfitted in misbuttoned shirts, mismatched shoes and funny hairstyles.

For Ashley, who's now 13 and no longer allows her OCD to rule her life, the 2006 conference was where her family first found relief from her affliction.

It wasn't until the Bystroms attended their first foundation conference that they connected with a therapist who helped her bring her fears under control.

Although she continues to take a low dose of medication, Ashley is now living a normal teenager's life. She rides her horse almost every day, and has the typical teen's messy room.

The Bystroms are attending the conference for a third time.

Twenty-six year-old Jared Kant wrote a book on the disorder and will lead an orientation session for young adults new to the conference.

When he was only 11 years old, he feared he had to prevent his mind from being contaminated by negative thoughts. To stay clean, he washed his hands and took showers repeatedly.

He began attending the conference eight years ago looking for support, and though he leads a session now, he says three days of absolute acceptance found at the conference still helps ease his own symptoms.

"These are three days when nobody will look at you and say, 'You are weird.' That's what keeps me coming back," Kant said.


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