HOUGHTON - There's a stigma towards obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses. But it's not rare, and it's not anyone's fault. Instead, said Zach Edgerton of Houghton, it's a natural condition that can be managed and brought under control.
"OCD is like diabetes, or heart disease, or whatever," said Edgerton, 34, who grew up in Hancock and was diagnosed with OCD when he was 17. "You deal with it on a regular basis. I take medication. I've been through my counseling, as far as coping mechanisms, I've learned throughout time."
About 2.2 million Americans have some form of OCD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Zach Edgerton has been living with OCD since he was diagnosed when he was 17. At first he had a hard time accepting his diagnosis, but he eventually came to terms with it and now spends his time helping others with mental illness. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Garrett Neese)
The disorder has two parts. The obsessions are the repetitive thoughts or fixations; Edgerton brought up the classic example of wondering, "Did I leave the stove on?" That obsession leads to the compulsive behavior: double-checking. Edgerton recalled being in school and repeatedly checking the area around his lab chair.
"You're never reassured enough," he said. "You always want to be checking."
Though Edgerton had shown obsessive behaviors throughout his life, he hadn't put a name to it until being hospitalized at 17. While in the hospital, he underwent sessions with a counseling team, who recognized the symptoms of OCD.
"At first, I was in denial," he said. "I didn't want to admit it, and I was fearful at first. Through counseling and time, and a lot of courage and hard work, and using my daily coping mechanisms, through time it got better. Illness recognition, knowing about the illness. Of course, I still struggle. it's a chronic daily thing. But I'm just accustomed to it. It's just part of my life journey, I guess."
There are a variety of treatments for OCD. Psychotherapy can help people react to situations without turning to harmful behaviors, the NIMH said. They may also take anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants.
Over time, Edgerton has been able to reduce his OCD from a severe case to a mild one. Exposure therapy was a huge part of Edgerton's road to recovery. In that, people would be exposed to their worst fears in a safe environment; that way, the fears could be shown as irrational, defanging them.
"If you think you left the stove on, in a therapy session, they'd have you in an area where there's a stove, leave the stove on, but you would not double-check," he said. "You'd process it in your mind, and say, 'I can deal with this.'"
When an anxiety comes up, he's learned to question the rationale behind it, and realize it's probably because of the disorder. In the case of the stove, he'd address it through logic, remembering he didn't leave the stove on. And he'd also face down the worst-case scenario of leaving the stove on, and trust he'd be strong enough to cope with it.
"Through time, you develop a lot of courage," he said. "It's made me stronger, because I'm now a counselor. I'm on teleconferences, support groups. I'm helping people."
Edgerton now works for the National Alliance for Mental Illness in a variety of roles, including counseling and writing about Medicaid and other issues affecting people with mental illness.
"My role at NAMI's probably been the most rewarding thing I've ever done," he said. "I've had the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life, and it's the best feeling I've ever had."
Edgerton said he's also had a strong support system. One of the strategies included in the blue book he uses with support groups is "surrender - I can't do it alone."
"Boy, that's been true," he said. "I had a counselor, wonderful family, friends, people who care, people who've also been there. I really don't have much to complain about."
He told people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to recognize the illness. by taking on his fears and anxieties, he's come out of it wiser, smarter and stronger.
"It gets better," he said. "Don't give up the fight. It's common. You're not a lesser person because of it. It's a condition you need to consistently manage. It's a daily thing. I've learned a lot from it. I've been able to help a lot of people because of it."