I love to laugh, even about the hard stuff in life. And my guest today, Peter Scobas, loves to joke and make people laugh—even about the hard stuff in life! Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can wreak so much havoc, make us question who we are and where we’re going, but it can help if we’re able to make light of it now and then. Read on to see how Peter takes OCD down a peg. Thank you, Peter!
You’ve described your newsletter Psychology Onions as “If The Onion and Psychology Today had a baby.” What inspired you to start it?
I suppose I started Psychology Onions because I didn’t feel like I could relate to the OCD/mental health content out there. I’m kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to the positive, sincere, good-hearted “you got this!” approach to mental health. I’m a bit of a grump with most things and I have a tough time being serious, especially when I’m feeling emotionally cornered. So Psychology Onions is a newsletter for me—for current me, but also for 13-year-old me and 18-year-old me and 25-year-old me.
It wasn’t until several years after diagnosis that I was able to laugh about my OCD, and I still remember how freeing it was. Somehow I didn’t know I could laugh about something that had nearly ended my life. When did you realize you could joke about OCD? How does joking about it help you?
I think that joking about my OCD is kind of like the cherry on top with respect to my ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy. It’s like—you don’t need the cherry, but if you like cherries and you feel like cherries help you treat your mental illness, maybe start eating your sundaes with cherries. My psychologist has really hammered home the idea that OCD is this absurd bully who needs to be confronted and called out. He’s taught me that when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my embarrassing, disgusting thoughts and irrational, shameful compulsions, I need to try and scoff at my OCD and have this “is that all you got?” reaction, this “are you kidding me, that’s rich!” response—and I think joking about it is kind of an extension of that.
What advice do you have for folks with OCD who just can’t bring themselves to laugh about it—yet?
You’re doomed. No, I’m kidding. It’s a journey. But also I don’t think you necessarily need to laugh about your OCD. It kinda goes back to my cherries point from before. For me personally, I don’t like actual cherries, only metaphorical ones.
I’d love to hear about your experience with OCD. When were you diagnosed, and how did you realize what you’d been going through might be OCD?
I struggled with obsessive thoughts/irrational compulsions since I was about 13, I first met with a psychologist when I was 18, and I finally got adequate OCD treatment when I was 26. I’m probably about 29 now, depending on when you’re reading this. OCD is this weirdly misunderstood disorder, even among doctors, so I struggled for years with misdiagnoses and ineffective treatments and medications. I think what really slipped me up was the “Pure-O” stuff—the mental obsessions and the mental compulsions. My OCD’s “content areas” have changed from time to time, but some of the bigger ones have been things like needing to drive around to check that I didn’t kill someone or run someone over, obsessing that I’m a pervert/pedophile, washing my mouth/lips/face/body with bleach or rubbing alcohol if I have a “wrong” or “sinful” thought, being paranoid I’m going to prison, cleaning my body until I bleed type of stuff. When I was 26, my wife just happened to read some article about real-event OCD and was like “ohhhhhhhh, mannnnnnn that’s what you have.”
Once you did know it was OCD, how did you go about treating it?
Drinking alcohol and taking sleeping pills at first, then generalized despair, before finally settling on a combination of ERP, a few medications, and a very loving/patient wife. But kidding aside, my wife was a real trouper for sticking with me and fighting for me and refusing to let me fail. I’ll never tell her this to her face but she’s the nicest, funniest, most beautiful woman I ever met. Finding the right psychologist took time, finding the right medication took time, and I think I’m in a really good spot at the moment, but I also acknowledge that OCD is a constant, chronic battle and life isn’t always linear.
Did you tell loved ones about your diagnosis? Do you think opening up then made it easier to advocate for OCD awareness now?
My best friends know, my mom and sister know, my dad kinda knows. Being more open about OCD to some of my family and my friends has definitely helped take a bit of the sting away. OCD thrives in secrecy.
What do you wish people knew about OCD?
I suppose I don’t have many qualms about the average person’s knowledge of OCD. I think it may be a bit ungracious of me to expect my neighbor or my friend or anyone with no OCD experience to understand OCD. I don’t know anything about Lyme disease, or Crohn’s disease, or rickets, or like…99.99 percent of anything medical. I think we should allow people to not have extensive medical or psychiatric knowledge and be okay about it. I dunno. While I do wish everyone had a psychiatrist’s understanding of OCD, I’m not super bummed out that they don’t.
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone with OCD, what would it be?
There’s a quote hanging in the locker room of my favorite NBA basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs. The quote is from a Danish-American journalist and social reformer named Jacob Riis and, pound for pound, it’s my favorite quote of all time. I have part of it tattooed in a regrettable orange, blue, and lime green script on my right forearm. The quote goes, “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” That’s my advice. Be a stonecutter. Keep going. Keep hammering. Persist.