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February 20, 2023
Min read

“I can’t fix my OCD. My success has come from accepting that.”

Written By
Simon Dumont
Eduardo Siman | CTO at Verdi Commerce

When Eduardo was five years old, he watched The Exorcist. It’s a film that terrifies adults, let alone young kids.

But while his five-year-old friends got over it after a sleepless night or two, Eduardo's fear evolved into something else—something that wouldn’t go away.

“I started obsessing about the idea that some demonic entity was going to show up in my bathroom. Or that my speaker set would start speaking in tongues. Or that I’d be possessed by a demon—that idea was particularly scary.”

To fight this fear, he’d recite mantras like ‘I hate the devil’ or ‘God will protect me.’ In hindsight, he thinks part of this reaction was related to his Catholic upbringing. Irish people often report similar experiences.

But Eduardo's mind would soon find new fears to obsess about—ones with less obvious causes.

Like the time a few years later when his parents went on a cruise holiday. With no way of contacting them—this was back before mobile phones—he became convinced they were going to die.

“I’d go three or four days without hearing from them and I’d think, for sure, they’re dead. 100%. No doubt about it. All I could do was think about this. When they called, it would calm those thoughts. Then five minutes later I'd be like, okay now they're dead.”

Eduardo now recognises these as early experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But he wouldn’t learn this until years later. And as he got older, his obsessions matured with him.

“It had to be perfect”

When he started high school, Eduardo's obsessive thoughts began to fixate on work. As an academic kid, he never normally had a problem getting homework done. But with college looming, the larger workload and higher stakes sent his mind spinning.

“I’d obsess that I couldn't finish an assignment, or that I’d do it wrong somehow, or that it just wouldn’t be perfect. And if it wasn't perfect, something really bad was going to happen. It had to be perfect.”

The only way he could finish homework was to get up at 4am, and do it before he left for school at 6:30am. Something about the hard time limit forced him to ignore his fears.

It didn’t always work though. Eduardo remembers agonising over a science project to make a simple poster for weeks, convinced it would never be good enough. His mum ended up having to request an extension.

Then there was the checking. Checking the homework was finished. Checking again. Placing it in a folder. Checking it was really in the folder. Putting the folder in his bag. Checking the folder was really in the bag.

“Checking became the monster in my brain. Was I in the right class? Did I study for the test? What if a test was announced when I was in the bathroom? And worse—how could I be sure I hadn’t written a swear word in my paper?”

By age 16, he was in a deep depression. The constant cycle of obsessing over certain thoughts—then trying to combat them with compulsive actions—was completely exhausting.

“My life had become a series of rituals reinforcing each other, amplifying my fears, and creating constant panic. Depression meant that I didn’t have to care. If I didn’t do all my checks, that was OK because nothing really mattered anyway. It was a coping mechanism.”

He knew that his mind worked differently to his friends’. But he just thought he was an “anxious person.” Child psychologists would say the same thing.

It was only in college that Eduardo discovered what was actually going on.

Doesn’t everybody do that?

One day in a Psychology class, Eduardo was reading about the different types of anxiety. Between generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD, one stood out: OCD. Once he saw it described as the ‘doubting disease’, everything started to click.

“We all think, ‘oh my God, did I run over that cat?’. For most people, it just goes away. But for people with OCD, it doesn't go away. It just stays there and gets stronger and stronger, until it consumes your mind and becomes terrifying.”

Eduardo felt a rush of hope and excitement. It was like someone had jumped into his brain, then described his thoughts in a textbook. He immediately found a clinic specialising in OCD and booked a session. The first step was a questionnaire to see if he really had it.

“I was answering ‘yes’ to everything. ‘Are you afraid of knives?’ Yes, of course I'm afraid of knives! Who isn’t? ‘Do you wash your hands after you touch money?’ Obviously! Doesn't everybody do that?”

Needless to say, Eduardo got a high score. The psychologist couldn’t believe he hadn’t been diagnosed earlier: “she was like, ‘how are you okay?’”

He started therapy right away—for OCD instead of generalised anxiety like he’d done in the past—and read every book he could find to help him understand what he was facing.

Finally, he could start making some real progress towards feeling better. But still, the years to come would present Eduardo and his OCD with some big challenges. Especially at work.

No solution? No problem

Eduardo went straight into roles at high-pressure companies like Deloitte and Goldman Sachs. More recently he’s worked as a technology director at startups.

All these jobs have had one thing in common: a lot of emails.

At first, this stressed Eduardo out. What if he made a spelling mistake? What if he included an inappropriate word by accident? What if he sent it to the wrong person? These doubts could make him grind to a halt and prevent him from moving on to the next thing.

“The academic obsessions found their counterparts in the working world. So homework became email. Classes became meetings. And tests were like performance reviews.”

Sometimes, he’d find himself leaving important meetings and ruminating on what he might have done wrong. Or said wrong. Or how he could have upset someone. Or hurt his career.

But over time, Eduardo's commitment to learning about OCD and going to therapy started to pay off. After trying everything he could—cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance commitment therapy (ACT), positive psychology, exposure and response prevention, meditation—he had a realisation:

“No one type therapy stood out as making a huge difference. But being in therapy really did make a huge difference.”

Eduardo finds that simply having goals for improving his state of mind is very effective. He sees it as like physical exercise: there’s no end point where you stop doing it, and it’s not a disaster if you miss a few sessions. Therapy just allows him to live a much better life:

“I don't have a solution to my OCD, and I don’t intend to find one. Truly accepting and understanding this was the number one thing that’s helped me in my career.”

Separating the condition from the person

By keeping up with therapy, accepting how his mind works, and talking to others with OCD and anxiety, Eduardo's life has flourished. In the 20 years since his diagnosis, he’s started his own family and his career has gone from strength to strength.

As a Chief Technology Officer, he now makes quick decisions all the time and handles hundreds of emails per day with confidence—stuff that would have been impossible when he was younger.

“These days I can decide how I'm going to move forward, then move on to the next thing. Even with large-scale, complex life decisions or difficult work crises. That's definitely been the most long-lasting and important change from therapy.”

In fact, these things now come so naturally to Eduardo that his colleagues don’t even know about his OCD. He’s never opened up at work about it—and still feels nervous about attaching his name to this article. 

“I worry that people would be like, ‘no wonder he's always so obsessive about making sure we're on time.’ Or, ‘of course he's always so focused on details, he has OCD.’  But it’s just like if someone has panic attacks or depression—you can't use that to explain everything about their behaviour.”

Eduardo wants people to understand that while OCD might sometimes influence him, it doesn’t define him. Like everyone else, he has his own values and philosophy that guide him through life. He hopes his colleagues can separate his condition from his identity.

And for anyone struggling with OCD in the office, he has a few words of advice:

“If it makes work more difficult, that's okay. If it means you can’t do certain things you see your colleagues doing, that's okay. Don't ignore it. Accept it, tend to it—and you’ll find a way to live with it.”

Oliva therapist photograph

4 tips for managing OCD

by Oliva therapist

Heather Stewart

Break the vicious cycle

People with OCD often carry out rituals in response to disturbing compulsions or thoughts. Put yourself in a position where your obsession starts to kick in mildly (start small!), and refrain from carrying out the compulsion for as long as you can. Sit with that anxiety. With time and practice, you’ll gradually learn that your obsessions don't control you.

Stop judging yourself

When people with OCD experience dark thoughts or obsessions, they can end up believing they’re true—or that having these thoughts is as bad as carrying them out. In reality, all of us have thousands of thoughts per day, and many of them aren’t true or meaningful. Part of the human experience is to have fleeting thoughts—some of them can be really dark. This does not mean we’re bad people. We’re just people.

Accept your thoughts as part of you

You don’t need to completely erase your unwanted thoughts to function well. Instead, the aim is to be able to walk alongside these difficult thoughts and remain calm—without needing to carry out your compulsion. Accept that it’s OK to experience difficult thoughts, and allow yourself some kindness and compassion.

Seek support from friends and family

Friends and family can often unknowingly collude with your OCD. They might facilitate your compulsions in an attempt to help you cope with your obsessive thoughts, which in turn makes them worse. Recognise your obsessive-compulsive patterns, and make friends and family aware of them so they don’t feed your OCD by accident. Again, start small—and practice often.