Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the Stress of Creativity

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change for the better.

On this show we talk a lot about very common, very normal ways of feeling, and ways your mental health can go astray. Depression and anxiety, they’re super-prevalent. Especially right now. And we also talk a lot about the connection between mental health and achievement, and that many of the most successful people we know, including us, deal with these issues and managed to achieve incredible things. Today, we’re going to look at mental health from the lens of a creative industry. An industry that might feel some ways more open and less formal. I’m thinking about the way that advertising has morphed into social media and films online and a very experiential, cool thing. But this also comes with a whole kind of creative pressure that many industries don’t necessarily carry, because the pace is so fast and it’s adopted the sort of addicted gamified cadence of our modern social media age. Selling to clients and the thrill of the chase – I feel this myself.

These habits that are permeating, I think, a lot of different jobs can exacerbate mental health challenges. But they can also make you forget about your depression or your anxiety for a bit, and our guest today and I are going to reflect on how to let go of some of the small wins and get back to your bigger picture. And we’ll also talk about a severe and relatively rare mental health issue. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and a specific kind of OCD, pure OCD.

Now there’s a natural connection between the hyper-vigilant obsessive type and the kind of person who succeeds at running a company or winning other professional accolades. This isn’t really that kind of OCD. In fact, we have so many misperceptions about OCD. Our guest today is Aaron Harvey. He’s a principal at Ready Set Rocket, and a founder of the Made of Millions foundation, and he’s become someone outspoken in the advertising space. At times brutally, painfully honest, because he wants creative industries and the workplace in general to better adapt to workers who deal with serious mental health issues. I want to tell you that there are some graphic descriptions in this episode about the intense nature of pure OCD, and you may not want to listen to this if you have young children around. Here’s my conversation with Aaron Harvey.

Okay. So, Aaron, you have something called pure OCD. And what exactly does that mean? Explain that to the audience.

AARON HARVEY: Pure OCD is the idea that you have obsessions and compulsions that really exist purely in your mind. A lot of people think of obsessive-compulsive disorder as being a disorder that affects someone’s ability to deal with germs or have extreme obsessions over cleanliness or order. But really in fact, it’s quite different. Most people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have a lot of unwanted thoughts, we call them intrusive thoughts, and they can span everything from violence against your loved ones, violence against yourself, suicidal type of graphic flashes. It can be harm towards children. A lot of sexual impropriety. Basically, what happens is your brain just starts alerting you to all the things that could possibly happen to you, or you could possibly do to someone else, and it can be really, really, really overwhelming. So, what happens for people is they end up trying to get rid of the thoughts and it makes them worse. And that’s what we call compulsions. Compulsively ruminating, trying to do things to get rid of it. But a person with this condition you may never know, because they’re just sitting there suffering in their head.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How did you know?

AARON HARVEY: Well, that was quite a journey. When I was eight, I started to have really intense panic attacks, thoughts that I was going to harm another child. But these things become obsessive, and they morph and then they turn into violence and harm and all kinds of horrible things, to the point where when I was 33, this long held life secret that I was trying to cope with just all came crashing down. And I finally put the phrase, “Violent thoughts,” into the internet. And that was what sort of started my recovery.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because you weren’t a compulsive hand washer, or you didn’t have to take a certain amount of steps or any of the stereotypes that we think of when with OCD.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. I think when you put media in context of mental health, a lot of times you need to get the shot. So, with OCD, if it’s all happening in your head, there’s really not much of a shot there to get. So, you see it portrayed consistently as someone who’s hand-washing until their hands bleed or can’t leave their apartment, or this or that. But really at the end of the day, it’s just all anxiety. You have a tremendous amount of anxiety from thoughts that you don’t want, that creates more thoughts and then creates debilitating sort of behavioral patterns that prevent you from living the life that you want to live.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s horrible. It sounds like literally wanting to get out of your own head.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. There’s something very, very dark about the idea that you do everything you can to escape yourself all the time. And these things come in cycles. I think that’s a big misconception about mental health treatment, is just because you get some treatment doesn’t mean that these don’t have very big swings, where I could have hundreds or thousands of thoughts a day that are very apparent. If I was sitting down and we were doing this interview in person, it would be blocking my view of you. There would be all kinds of horrific things happening. But then I could go months where they’re very muted and they’re sort of in the background. And so it’s just about managing those symptoms and figuring out how to kind of just ignore what’s happening and focus on what you value.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, what’s your relationship with anxiety now that you’ve got a plan and a program around your OCD?

AARON HARVEY: Man, it’s an evolving art form. I think the most important thing for me is that I’m able to take mindfulness type practice but use it in real time. So, if I’m presenting to a C-suite on a campaign or something, I might be having flashes that are showing me horrific things that I’m going to do to these people in the room and everything else. I have to be able to in real time transition past that so that I don’t feel the anxiety, lose my place, not know what’s going on, totally white out. So for me, anxiety management is a daily practice of letting these types of thoughts pass. And then obviously trying to do exposures, which is a whole different thing, but force myself to expose myself to these anxieties so that I habituate on an ongoing basis.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What kind of therapy do you do?

AARON HARVEY: So that is… there’s a particular type of therapy called “exposure response prevention.” The idea is really simple, and maybe in a way barbaric, but if you have a tremendous fear that you are going to stab your partner in the kitchen, or while they’re sleeping, and you keep seeing these flashes, you have no desire to do it, why is this happening? Why are you such a bad person? And you’re spiraling and spiraling. You may avoid the kitchen. You may avoid knives. You may leave the relationship. There are major consequences. So what ERP does is it says, “Hey, if you’re having anxiety about a particular trigger, let’s go ahead and spend time to force you to be exposed to that trigger over and over and over again, so that the weight of it and the anxiety of it can lessen itself.” So, it’s a practice, and honestly, I think it applies to any type of uncertainty, which is the baseline of all anxiety.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. Because exposure therapy is sort of a trope. If you’re scared of flying, you take a test flight and the pilot talks through it. It’s an extension of that.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. Right. In a way it’s as crude as like, little Johnny is afraid to go swimming, so daddy throws him in the deep end of the pool. It’s just instead of going right into the deep end, you sit on the side of the pool and you let your feet dangle for a week, and you deal with it until you feel okay standing in the shallow end. It’s just a procedural way of overcoming it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s talk about work. Tell the audience what you do for work and why you might be up in front of a C-suite.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. So, I started an agency in New York called Ready Set Rocket about 11 years ago now. And we do a lot of digital work, design, and campaigns, and all that jazz. And that has given me an incredible opportunity to use what I do every day and bring that into the mental health landscape. So, I’ve also started a mental health advocacy charity called Made of Millions Foundation, and our real focus is advocating for democratizing mental health education. How do we make sure that everyone knows what they need to know to navigate their care? And so that, bringing those two worlds together, has been beautiful because I’ve kind of found if you combine your passion with your skillset, I think that’s probably the definition of your purpose. So that’s where–

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s the ticket, man. And it’s funny, because you do… one of the things that impresses me is that you have managed to create something that usually feels quite heavy and HR-y, and make it cool and social media friendly. And that is a true skill set. I think it’s why your stuff at Made of Millions really stands out.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. Thanks. I think so much… it’s just doing things a little bit differently, and I think one of the main insights is if you’re in the consumer marketing space, you know that the consumer has the power and that as a brand you need to be continually increasing that feedback loop and finding ways to better service that customer experience. And this… I think the same thing now goes with mental health with respect to the workplace, which is: this isn’t a top-down HR-driven mandate. This actually is coming from the bottom up, where employees are needing that additional support, both through policy reform, benefit management, as well as general education. So that’s… our play has been a little bit more of that kind of like bottom-up approach, which is, can we seed out really great guides and campaigns and information that can support, or at least give the everyday worker a call to action and to get their employers to do more?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. To show up. So is this a way that perhaps your OCD has helped you professionally?

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. I think OCD is an interesting condition, because I think a lot of times people tend to be workaholics. Sometimes you’re disabled from work, but a lot of times people tend to be workaholics and use it as an escape. And that’s certainly something that I’ve done. For four years now grinding on both an ad agency with clients and team and all that jazz, plus being around the clock on this charity and trying to get it going, in a way is an unhealthy escape because I’m doing everything I can to escape my mind and focus on other things. But on the positive side, we can get a tremendous amount of work done.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh man. I think for me, there’s one theme that has emerged for me with this season of interviews on my show, it’s how we use work as a way to displace our anxieties, our uncomfortable feelings, our depression, et cetera. And when you’re a person who does that, it’s such a complicated thing to wrestle with.

AARON HARVEY: It really is. And I think the same way that all of our technology friends at Google and Facebook and everything are basically programming us like we’re on slot machines to get these little rewards and keep opening apps and all this, the same way that me as a marketer is contributing to this, I think, negatively to society by constantly obsessing over micro KPIs and engagements where consumers do X, Y, and Z. We’re all part of this problem, and I think in the workplace, we also look for all those little micro moments. Did you win the pitch? Did you get an award? Did you get a pat on the back? There’s so many different little things, and in a way it can all take you so far away from being in your own mind and learning to accept and love your brain and how it works, and accept your situation that you’re in. These are… it’s like classic escapism through all these different mechanisms that we’re surrounded by 24/7.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think it’s interesting. And you and I both have people who work in client services and creative services, trying to build content and creative that keeps people hooked, I’m realizing as you’re talking that I have begun in the past few years to orient my own personal days and my motivation around those dopamine rushes. I think if you’re in sales in particular, or you get that client services win, or you see that engagement rate and you feel like ding, ding, ding, and your brain feeds off of it, it becomes a habit. It’s very habitual. And it is cultural for some of us who work in fields where our sense of success is driven by… micro KPIs you call them?

AARON HARVEY: Yes, unfortunately. But yeah, totally. And I think there’s one end of the spectrum where I’ve certainly had more of a depressive stance, which is I don’t want to ride these ups and downs all the time, so I’m not going to get excited about anything until it’s signed and done, but then it’s not exciting anymore. And that’s no way to live. Then there’s the other extreme, which is I’m going to have all of these self reassuring little wins and dings that are happening that are making me feel better. But I think in the end, it all has to just be based on values. Because if it’s just alerts going off for new sales or new money… If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that slowing down and looking at our lives and realizing what we do for a living and how we value what that is, and what value it’s bringing to the world and everything else, is so important. And trying to get off of these little micro wins and stuff, and what bigger picture values are we driving towards for ourselves personally? And then obviously the world around us.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think it’s so important. And I hear Julie Lithcott-Haimes, who I spoke with who said, “What you accomplished is not who you are.”

AARON HARVEY: That’s a difficult thing, because so much of that profile and persona that you’re seemingly building can become intertwined with that. I have the same sort of thought right now with the agency. I don’t want to be defined. I’m 11 years in, I’m about to turn 40 next year. And I think about it and I’m like, “I don’t want to be defined by my agency.” I need to reinvent and recreate and face new challenges and not get comfortable in that type of role that I’m in.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why? What’s wrong with being comfortable?

AARON HARVEY: It might just be antithetical to having OCD. I don’t know. I think it’s really easy. I’ve seen others… and not passing judgment here. I think everyone’s values are different. But I’ve people, 20-plus years in the agency game. There’s a certain… you walk into a room as a founder or as a CEO, there’s a certain way that people treat you. There’s a team who’s showing up every day who might be relying on you pitching and winning stuff and bringing money into the business, and I don’t know that I want to continue that type of power dynamic, if you will. That’s why I really like the nonprofit work, because it gives me an opportunity to be on the ground floor and be scrappy and work towards something that’s very passionate and purpose-driven, and get myself out of that environment and not be identified as the agency owner.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I find this sometimes too, that as a small business owner it can feel, once you get into a certain rhythm, that it is almost a familial relationship and either you’re patriarch or matriarch. So I get that. I totally do.

I want to talk a little bit about… I want to go back to the OCD in the common parlance. Because it’s funny, I want to talk about language. I’ve been thinking recently about how we use throw away language around mental health at work, and OCD is one that people just throw away. They’ll say, “Oh God, I’m so OCD. Look at my desk.” Or, “I’m so OCD, I have to make a spreadsheet.” Implying that their need for control is really that they have OCD. How does that make you feel? And what should people know about when they throw around the term OCD?

AARON HARVEY: It’s a big question. So I probably made fun of OCD when I misunderstood what it was, in my 20s. So on one hand, the lack of education of how serious some of these conditions are, how they affect people, then number two, the way the media portrays it and reinforces it, that creates a certain public perception. And it totally devalues the experience that someone has with a very serious condition. People will literally have their heads on repeat and not eat and not sleep and not be able to leave their bed, and that’s really what this condition is. And it’s totally misappropriated.

So my thing is I don’t judge anyone who uses it flippantly, but I have a role in helping educate them on what it is. And not in a way that’s confrontational, but, “Hey, this is what it actually is.” And hoping that at that point that they actually use it properly. Everyone’s been trying to educate Chloe Kardashian forever because she has Chloe-CD, and it’s just about her liking things neat and tidy. And it kills this community. It’s so bad. And then she did some influencer thing with some detergent brand and the whole OCD community went bananas. I was reaching out to the brands on LinkedIn. I’m like, “Yo, you guys have a chance to get this right.” But they’re not getting it right. I think that’s unacceptable if you have the information.

So a big part of what we’re doing at Made of Millions is a component of workplace education, is the de-stigmatization of language. And you don’t obviously just see it with OCD. You see it with, “I’m so ADHD because I happen to be overwhelmed or spacing out one day.” That’s not a medical condition. Or, “I’m so manic or bipolar.” Or, “This is schizo,” or, “This is crazy.” All of this does play a part in increasing the stigma and decreasing people’s willingness to seek care.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want you to talk about your experience with an intern at your company who had a manic episode, because I think also, even those of us who have mental illness are not immune from judging or feeling deeply uncomfortable when we see it in front of us.

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. 100%. Yeah, we had a situation where an intern who had never previously been diagnosed with any mental health condition did have a manic episode where they were essentially delusional, and had sort of lost that baseline reality. And it resulted with this person being taken away by police force in handcuffs. And it created a tremendously negative situation for the individual, who was mortified and embarrassed, and didn’t remember the incident, but knew there was cell phone footage or this or that. It created a cultural challenge in the company itself. People were scared or didn’t know what happened. Was this person drinking? Are they violent? All of these things.

And the answer actually was quite simple, in hindsight. And this is a huge motivating factor for why we’re doing what we’re doing. The answer was simple. Earlier that day, this person was demonstrating telltale warning signs, walking into meetings, disorganized speech, going into random meetings and saying things that didn’t quite make sense. There were a lot of warning signs, but because our team had no education in this at all, I had no education in this particular situation at all, we didn’t know how to handle it. And what we could have done is call in a mental health professional and a family member earlier in the day, before it got to a point where this individual needed to be restrained.

And so that’s motivating. That’s a sad situation. It happens every day around the US and around the world, and if we just had the education and the procedures in place, we can not stop it from happening, but we can actually make it a positive cultural response to someone having a mental health crisis situation.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What do you, as a leader, wish you had done? What would you do differently?

AARON HARVEY: I wish that the team was educated in mental health symptoms and conditions, I wish that they were educated in early warning signs, I wish that we had a policy or procedure for what happens if someone starts to demonstrate signs of a mental health crisis where they are delusional or losing the sight of sense of reality around them. And I wish that we had called a mental health professional versus more of a traditional emergency responder to try to figure out how to best tackle the situation. And I think that would have had a very different outcome for this person on the team.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you believe in… there’s an organization called Mental Health First Aid. You’re doing a lot of education. Where should people start, in terms of educating themselves?

AARON HARVEY: I am a huge fan of Mental Health First Aid, and there’s some great organizations out there. Mindshare’s a nonprofit that we love that’s doing good work on educating executive staff and doing first aid training and things like that. Where we see the opportunity is the corporation is battleground number one for educating society on what are mental health conditions, treatments, and interventions, and how do we navigate this? And the reason is because we grew up our entire lives with no education in this regard or this topic. If someone told me when I was 13, “Hey, it’s totally common to have intrusive thoughts about things that feel crazy and uncomfortable. And if it bothers you, here’s how you solve it.” But no one says that. So you rot in your brain for an average of 10-plus years with a psychiatric disorder before you seek help.

So the workplace is critical. We have a captive audience. Imagine if you’re Unilever with 150,000 people and you roll out one education program that can train everybody on those basics, and give them the information they need to navigate their care, but also bring it back out into their community and help their family and friends and other loved ones. That’s what’s needed on top of those mental health first aid training and what else. So we just announced Made Academy, which is our charity’s education platform where we’ve brought together psychologists, psychiatrists, HR folks, diversity, equity, inclusion, specialists, advocates, people with lived experience to tackle a curriculum that hits on core things, and then can be deployed across an organization in a one hour training, alongside open enrollment and your sexual harassment and diversity training. And so that is what we see as an opportunity to truly educate at scale.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you don’t have to be the boss to start this. That’s what I also… Do you have any examples of people who are lower down the totem pole than you as an agency founder who have taken positive steps, or can use your materials?

AARON HARVEY: Well, I think it’s such a good question, because right now in corporate America, especially in small business, we don’t have a role for this. We’ve dumped it under HR, and HR works so hard, especially in this environment that we’re in right now. It’s just one more gigantic thing on their plate. And it’s getting rolled up under diversity, equity, inclusion. So what it really takes is not finding the person with the role, because in most companies that doesn’t exist. That’s not on their job description. It requires finding a champion and someone who really, really gets it.

So for example, we’ve been working with an HR Director at Verizon Media who really championed this Dear Manager campaign we did, got the CEO involved, and then now we’ve evolved that storyline from being a campaign we did together and a guide to now actually being Made Academy, where they actually sponsored the development of our curriculum materials, which are totally owned by the non-profit. So that’s an example, I think, of someone who in a big corp found that opportunity. But there’s things you can do every day, looking at the Beautiful Brains Guide or other things like that, and just start implementing in your own company. It doesn’t need to be part of a formal process.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I have to share something, which is that I’m going through my own… I’m 44. I met you last year at a conference. I heard you, I read all your stuff. And I realized that I have OCD, and I have been through a million different diagnoses. And I wasn’t ready to realize that I did because it’s uncomfortable. It’s threatening. It was threatening to my identity, especially as a suburban mom, which is a big piece of my identity is being this very nice, motherly person.

AARON HARVEY: It’s very… that’s amazing that you’ve come to that realization and that acceptance. And it’s just so sad that it has taken that long, because we just don’t get the information we need or it’s so highly stigmatized that it’s not something that we even feel comfortable saying out loud. It is so common for new mothers to experience what’s essentially anxiety, but postpartum OCD, postpartum anxiety. Where you’ve got your beautiful newborn in their little bun, and your brain starts flashing red lights at you. And when that game in your brain starts, it’s an avalanche, and it only goes faster until you learn how to deal with it. And so yeah, getting a proper diagnosis and accepting it is the first thing. And then doing the work.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So how has the pandemic impacted you with your OCD, with depression, and also people in the community that you’re seeing? And what are signs that we need to be, as employers, as friends looking out for?

AARON HARVEY: Yeah. So one big insight for me that I really hope that, as a broader society, we can lean into. A lot of people who have had exposure and response prevention to cognitive behavioral therapy have actually fared very well mentally in the pandemic from the perspective of they understand how to deal with uncertainty. So the pandemic is just grinding out more uncertainty about our economic stability, our political stability, our safety. So many things that are now just more boxes that we can’t check or control. So anyone who’s had that, I like to say more like skills building, versus therapy, if you know how to better manage uncertainty because you can manage your OCD and all these uncertainties that you might be a threat to yourself or someone else, then you actually fare really well in a pandemic or this type of situation. Because you’re applying the same skills.

I think a lot of people who have suffered tremendously, beyond life events, sickness, losing loved ones to this horrific disease, and losing jobs and losing work and losing a sense of self and autonomy, if they’re really experiencing this stuff for the first time in a really profound way and they don’t have any of those skills, it’s a compounding effect. It’s just even that much worse.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Aaron Harvey, I want to thank you so much for your time and your work.

AARON HARVEY: Thank you. I really, really appreciate chatting about this. It’s super important.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thanks to my producer Mary Dooe, and thanks to Liz Sanchez for her help producing. Thanks to the team at HBR and the studio team who make the audio happen. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and their truths, for you, our listeners, and for our advertisers. Please send me feedback. You can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam. And if you love the show, tell your friends or subscribe and leave a review.

From HBR presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.

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