Sitting in the waiting room at her therapist’s office, Ann Tomer came across a flyer with a message that caught her attention: “Do you want to be a part of something?”
The flyer was distributed by a man named David Hiltabidle, who was looking to create a supportive community for Pittsburghers with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Like so many others living with OCD, Tomer knew firsthand how valuable a community like that could be, and she knew nothing like it was available in Pittsburgh.
She was ready to help create it.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes OCD as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
For those coping with the disorder, anxiety and compulsive habits can make life challenging — and sometimes quite lonely.
A little more than a year ago, Tomer and Hiltabidle began meeting in Squirrel Hill with Megan Morris and others to build the group they call Pittsburgh Bridges OCD. It’s designed as a community where people can find help and encouragement as they share common experiences.
After meeting informally for several months, the group will have their official launch on Oct. 15 at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery. The name of the gathering, 1 in 40: An OCD Awareness Event, was chosen to highlight the fact that approximately one out of every 40 Americans has OCD.
Although awareness is growing about the disorder, Tomer says, “we want to educate and bring awareness to the often reductionist and misunderstood subject of OCD. One in 40 people has OCD. We need to begin the journey of helping those ‘ones.’”
The group will welcome people who want to talk about “the realities of OCD,” she says, including the inhibiting effects the disorder can have on daily life, and how the right treatment can lead to real improvement and even recovery.
The group can also connect people with therapists who are qualified to treat OCD.
OCD can be an isolating disorder. “The way to deal with shame is to start to do things differently,” Tomer says, by “accepting you have OCD and connecting with other people who have it.”
As a support group, Bridges aims to validate experiences that members share in a confidential environment that encourages respectful responses. The people at Bridges find that every voice matters, and it takes strength to speak.
Tomer’s vision for Bridges is that it’s a place where people discuss their lives and achievements and struggles — and meet up for social gatherings, whether it’s a night of bowling or a few musicians joining for a jam.
“It is seemingly so hard to do and approach, to get to a place where there’s a little bit of fun, and life is more joyful,” says Tomer. “OCD is a horrible bully. It will always find a way to throw what you say out the window.”
As they each pursue their own recovery, Tomer says the group has a strong commitment to the “disease and disorder model” of OCD, and they advocate that Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the gold standard for OCD treatment.
Tomer says scientific studies prove that ERP can be effective for reducing OCD symptoms. One of the support group’s goals is to petition insurance companies to insist that therapists get training and certifications to treat OCD with ERP through the Behavior Therapy Training Institute (BTTI) and International OCD Foundation.
But there are other forms of cognitive behavioral interventions, and the group supports wherever one may be in recovery. Foremost, Bridges is a supportive community.
“If someone is in pain, we want to meet them there,” Tomer says. “We want to celebrate the strength and resiliency in each of us.”