Today our hosts, Lauren Rosen, LMFT, and Kelley Franke, LMFT, are joined by special guest, Shaun Flores.
Shaun is a lifelong OCD sufferer and OCD advocate.
After years of torment, Shaun received effective treatment, and coupled with his sheer determination to regain control of his life, he is now finding joy in life once again. He is now committed to redirecting the conversation surrounding OCD, raising greater awareness, and helping those who feel like they’re alone on this journey.
Today, Shaun offers honest insights from his own story of living with OCD.
We hope you enjoy this episode.
Welcome, Shaun Flores
Kelley: … Today we have a special guest, Shaun Flores. He’s here to talk about his story and the advocacy work he’s doing in OCD.
Shaun: Thank you so much. It’s great to be able to have conversations with leading figures such as yourselves and to be part of this community. It has been a very interesting journey so far.
If it wasn’t actually for having OCD, I probably wouldn’t have been able to meet the friends and make the connections that I’ve made. So one thing I always say is, in spite of everything that’s happened as a result of OCD, I’m grateful for the opportunities, the connections, and the friendships I’ve been able to cultivate. And it’s another chapter in the story of my life.
It started with health anxiety
Kelley: What would you want to tell our viewers and our listeners about your story?
Shaun: … So when I look back at my life, it’s a cathartic experience in the sense that I’m no longer a prisoner to my past. I’m no longer a prisoner to OCD as I once was. But the more I speak about this, the more I realize that OCD has probably been an even more present figure in my life than I actually ever anticipated.
I think it started as health anxiety. I was obsessed with the idea that I always had a sexually transmitted infection from previous encounters, where individuals had lied to me about certain things. I had to go to the clinic, I had to rush off. I canceled all my plans on the day… I had to make sure I had an answer that proved I didn’t have anything.
So what happened as a result of that was at my worst I paid 300 pounds for a same-day test just to see if I didn’t have anything because when the report results would come back, I wouldn’t believe them. So that kind of fear migrated but it moved on to HIV.
…a couple of years later, when I was working in an addiction clinic. Someone had taken their life and I just remember having these obsessive intrusive thoughts about suicide that I couldn’t get rid of. I swore to myself, I’d never ever go back to that clinic because I was so triggered.
Then what happened after that was, I woke up one morning 100% convinced I was gay. I believed that to have these thoughts, or to have a dream like that, this must be 100% my newfound sexuality. That same morning, I threw up in my bathroom, I went around looking for evidence of my sexuality. At the time, I was doing fashion modeling, so I was considerably slimmer than I am now. I was getting a lot of male attention. And I thought that I was getting male attention, which meant that I must have been gay because they must notice something about me that I wasn’t noticing about myself.
…when I actually got really high on cannabis, I actually spoke to my friends. And I said to them, I think I’m gay, you know? And they said, it’s okay if you are but then something snapped. I know I’m not. But I can’t get rid of the idea.
But then what happened after this led to my breakdown. I was with one of my female friends and the word rape popped into my head – I just had a huge panic attack. I became massively terrified. I screamed to leave, I was convinced I must have been hearing voices. So I tried to sleep it off. And when I tried to sleep it off, suicide and killing images all popped into my head.
…I called my friend and I looked him dead in the eyes, and I told him, I’m depressed. I’m suicidal. I knew that I wanted to be alive. And it was for that next for the next couple of days. It was a real struggle to do anything. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to sleep. My existence was just tiring. I wanted the time to swallow me up. I didn’t want to do anything. And it was on Saturday, the fourth of June last year – I don’t know how I found the therapist – but I found this woman called Emma Garrett, the Anxiety Whisperer, and messaged her for a phone call. And when she picked up the phone, I just started crying. I just absolutely cried my eyes out. I said What’s wrong with me? Why am I having the thoughts that I’m having? Am I gay? Am I a rapist or am I suicidal? She said, no, you have OCD and we’re going to get better.
Then it was one of the toughest years of my life last year, recovering from OCD. But I’m very grateful to be where I am. I’m able to tell my story now and I still live with the thoughts. I still have the thoughts. Even yesterday, I had a massive anxiety attack out of nowhere. I was sweating, I was lightheaded. I felt I was gonna pass out. But I remembered, I’ve been here before. We’re not going anywhere. We keep doing what we’re going to do and eventually leave. So yeah, that’s a little bit about my story with OCD.
Living with OCD as a black male
Kelley: …would you be willing to tell us a little bit about this journey of not only being a male but a black male? Was it hard for you to reach out?
Shaun: ..so what happened for me was, prior to seeing the therapist, I saw I had this belief that only a black therapist can help me which is understandable based on the culture. And sometimes I think we need to have people that look like us so we can relate and have understanding. But when you’re in dire straits, you’re willing to take help from anyone who sees you as a human being.
So I was really lucky that Emma was able to help me because the NHS or the National Health Service over here in the UK, they weren’t able to help me at the time due to the waiting list. And they recommended to me a book called Break Free From OCD. But when you’re in an OCD episode, you have no capacity to read or absorb any sort of information.
What happened when I wrote my story was that I was still during my recovery with my therapist, I was still in a really bad place. I was suffering really badly from anxiety. And one day I woke up and I was like, I’m schizophrenic. I was always new. I thought I had borderline personality disorder, bipolar, I was self-diagnosing myself (typically how you deal with anxiety).
And then I literally said to myself, f*ck this, I’m not going to do this anymore.
I went downstairs and opened up my Google document and wrote my story. I wrote it…And when I released my story, I had so many people I knew personally that I’ve met tell me they also had OCD. I thought I was the only individual in the world. I thought I was the only black man with OCD. But also I just didn’t realize there was such a community.
Typically, black people don’t really speak about OCD because of our relationship with mental health institutions and how we hide our symptoms, and how a lot of the cultural barriers and financial barriers change the way we access treatment. So when I had all these people reaching out to me, I just decided to make a WhatsApp group. We just use it as a recovery space. Now when we’re all going through something, we message for space, and we tell each other – stop ruminating, drop the rumination, or that’s just an OCD theme.
…I realized just how hard it was for my community to speak up about OCD and just mental health in general.
OCD theme hopping
Shaun: I wrote when I wrote an article for Happy Magazine called Finding Happiness and OCD Suffering. And I’ll speak about how I beat sexual orientation, I did my exposure work for it, and then I faced harm OCD. Harm OCD and then POCD came. POCD came and it was something else. It was like whack a mole.
…I often say to people that I know probably I make it look easy, but I still have my internal struggle. It’s just I know how to now react to it. But I’ve had whack a mole, it’s gone all over the place. When one can’t get my attention, a new one will try and get my attention and it keeps trying to reinvent the wheel. But I do think my brain is at a point now where it’s a bit like God, we really can’t get his attention.
…I’ve had the themes change all the time. But at the moment, my current two main themes are harm OCD and sexual orientation.
Lauren: … I loved that my own therapist years ago told me, that’s your OCD getting desperate. We can’t get her this way. But she’s got the anxiety. It must mean something. What about this? Or what about this? It’s like grasping at straws. And the beauty of it, when it’s hopping around like that it’s so clear, this isn’t about the content. This is about fear. And this is about uncertainty.
Shaun: I remember when I was obsessed with depression, depression was my new theme. I got diagnosed with OCD then I tore the ligaments in my right leg, and ended up in the hospital for three days on antidepressants. The thoughts were getting worse. I couldn’t sleep for a very long time properly because of the thoughts. And because the anxiety was so high. For months, I was anxious about sleeping, I was anxious about not sleeping, I was anxious about waking up in between my sleep, I was anxious about everything you could possibly find.
I had made my existence an anxious existence. And then my cousin got murdered and my auntie died. All these things were adding up and adding up. So OCD was one of my biggest worries, but it was one thing of many things that mounted on top of me.
I had a depression obsession, I remember I had this sinking feeling, this anxious feeling. And I was trying to find the answers. And then I came to this conclusion, I’m depressed. So I decided, I need to be at home. I need to be in my bed. I need to be doing this. And I listened to a podcast by Kimberly Quinlan, and it was talking about depression. Sometimes when you’re in obsessive depression, you end up acting like you are so depressed, which makes you depressed. So when I listened to that, I was like, we’re obsessing. And I typed into my little Whatsapp group – guys, I’m depressed and people said, Shaun, drop rumination like it’s hot.
I’m determined to be the worst thing that’s happened to OCD
Shaun: I don’t do it for myself. I do it to help other people. I know the darkness. I wanted to take my life, I was completely how to do it. I wrote suicide notes and I’m still thankful to be alive to this very day. Doing those very small practices such as journaling in the morning and spending the evening back in the gym – working out has given me my life back.
I’m determined to be the worst thing to ever happen to OCD.
I’ve been doing a lot of activism advocacy for mental health in general with the niche obviously being OCD. I’m I was recently on a trial looking into the therapeutic capabilities of psilocybin for OCD as well. So that’s also really exciting. I’m working with UCL at the moment to develop a toolkit, looking at the neuroimaging of the brain with OCD, and delivering another TEDx talk on psychedelics and the potential mental health revolution they could bring about for people because psychedelics have been massively helpful for me.
I’m really grateful to the community and the therapists who essentially saved my life and gave me back hope when I had none. So the least I can do is give hope to other people who are listening to this and who feel as if they cannot get their life back. You can, I promise. You can. It takes hard work, but you can recover.
And I remember when I was at my worst, I said to my friends, I want the thoughts to go away. I want them to go away. And what I realized was when I wanted them to go away, they wouldn’t leave because I was giving them the space and the urgency in my head without realizing the issue ultimately, was my response to them.
What inspires and informs our hosts?
Shaun: …there’s a whole host of therapists out there, but what inspires you, and what informs your work?
Kelley: For me, it’s just been a really long road of depression, anxiety, and OCD. And, at one point, a very serious suicide attempt that kind of rocked my world. I woke up out of that and was very determined to get my life back. I had gone through so many therapists, I mean, I probably had 15 therapists, honestly. So I went back to school because I thought, I’ve got to figure out what’s going on with my mind and heal myself if I want to be a better person.
And number two, I want to be able to be the therapist that can really understand what it’s like to have pain. Because the therapists I was seeing – there was nothing personal about it. You know, f*ck analyzing my dreams, like, relate to me. Be a human. Show me your suffering so I know, I’m not the weirdo in the room. So a lot of my work is, we’re gonna get through this. And we’re going to do it together. I’m going to be in the trenches with you.
Lauren: Well, I appreciate what Kelly had to say. And I think probably what I have to say about what inspires me in this work is probably going to sound very similar in many respects, although, of course, our stories are different. I think I went for so many years not knowing how to navigate my brain. I didn’t know I had OCD until I was 24. I started having symptoms in retrospect, much like you, Shawn, at about the age of seven. And it was such a painful and isolating experience. There was so much helplessness in it.
One of the things that I’m so passionate about the podcast, about work on Instagram, and other social media platforms is that the fact that we’re not talking about this, as a society, makes me batty. We could very easily institute a course in childhood that shows, here’s what’s happening in your mind. Because it’s not about just OCD, everybody has thoughts, everyone has feelings. And everyone responds to them from time to time in ways that are more or less helpful.
And so I think providing education about that is something that is deeply meaningful and personal to me because I don’t want other people to feel alone like I did. And that isolation that both of you spoke to where, you know, you are stuck in this loop and all you want to do desperately is to try to figure it out so you can get back to living your life and you don’t know any other way.
…I went to therapy for OCD and it changed my freakin’ life and I was like, you know what, this is what I want to do.
Shaun: Absolutely, I agree to repurpose your pain and turn it into something to help other people. And that is what I’m trying to do. I’d like to go on to train as a therapist. At some point, I was actually even talking to my friends about a plan to move to America because I feel America is having more progressive conversations than the UK.
But then someone made a point to me that we need more progressive conversations in the UK about OCD. So that’s something else that I’m really considering. And you’re right that we need education from a younger age. I was reading a research paper that was talking about the dire need for early intervention of OCD because on average, it takes 10 to 15 years for people to be diagnosed with OCD. And that can be misdiagnosed as all other illnesses under the sun. If we can catch people earlier, we can prevent it from being a disorder that incapacitates and debilitates people’s lives.
And it’s shown that it’s a progressive illness, the symptoms crop up and if you don’t deal with them, they get worse. I believe ultimately that people deserve to live a good happy life in spite of OCD. So this is why I’m just hoping that with the collaboration we’re doing and the work that we’re all doing individually, we will ultimately change the direction and the conversation that we’re having.
Shaun: First thing I’d say to people is you’re not mad. You’re not crazy. There’s nothing in your brain that I haven’t seen. I still have my sexual orientation OCD dreams. I had one the other day. And I just woke up and I laughed because it’s like, oh, here comes OCD, again, trying to capture my attention. So if you ever feel like there’s something in your brain that you just can’t speak about, just believe I’ve probably seen it all myself. And you guys probably have seen it all yourself. So don’t feel ashamed to speak up.
When I again was going through the worst of it, I thought there was no one else that had thoughts like this. It must just be me. And I think sometimes living with OCD and any sort of anxiety or compulsive disorder, we believe we’re the only ones but it’s way more common than we could ever think. There are millions of us out there in the world in general that have it diagnosed and also undiagnosed.
My DMs are open, I often say to people, feel free to message me, I’m gonna always reply and try as best as I can to have a conversation to let you know that you can recover. It does take hard work, but hard work is hard, not impossible.