This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 196.
Welcome to Your Anxiety Toolkit. I’m your host, Kimberley Quinlan. This podcast is fueled by three main goals. The first goal is to provide you with some extra tools to help you manage your anxiety. Second goal, to inspire you. Anxiety doesn’t get to decide how you live your life. And number three, and I leave the best for last, is to provide you with one big, fat virtual hug, because experiencing anxiety ain’t easy. If that sounds good to you, let’s go.
Welcome back, you guys. We have had a break. We are back. I’m actually recording this before I was back, so I don’t even really know how I feel once this episode will be out, but nonetheless, I have been holding off and wanting to do this episode as the welcome back episode for the new season of Your Anxiety Toolkit.
Today we have with us, my Assistant, my Executive Assistant, one of the most important people behind the scenes at CBT School and in my private practice. She is my intake coordinator. She is the doer of all things. She was originally hired as my Chief Copywriter. She does a lot of work behind the scenes for me. Her name is Elle Warren. Her and I have been working together for some time now. It has been such a pleasure to get to know her.
She today is going to share with you, just so you know, who it is behind the scenes if you’re ever in contact with us or you’re reading out Instagram posts or a newsletter or emails. She’s doing a lot of this stuff for me and we’re working together very closely. I wanted you to feel like you knew her, just like you know me. She also comes with a beautiful recovery story where she shares her experience with mental health and OCD and health anxiety, and grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder and experiencing, and really coming to find a place of peace with her sexual orientation. It is a beautiful, beautiful episode. I’m so, so excited to share it with you.
Again, I want you to feel like you know us. I want you to feel like you trust us and you know who’s behind the scenes, and that’s why this was so important to me. So, I hope you do enjoy the show. Elle really does share her story so vulnerably. If you do notice some background noises, Elle was in a really rural location, a lot of background noise. So, bear with us there. We were doing the best we can. I wanted to make sure we had this episode recorded before we left, so please bear with me. The content is still fabulous. I hope that isn’t too difficult on your listening.
In addition, welcome back. So thrilled to be back. I’ve been trying to do episodes through the school year and then take some time off for the summer. This season, we have some big plans, some amazing guests. I am really dialed in with specifically what I want to address this season. So, get excited about that.
I hope you’re well. I hope you’re being kind to yourself and you had a lovely summer and you had some time to rest and recover. I will share here very soon about our trip and what happened and what I learnt and what I experienced. I always like to refer to a couple of reflections later on, but first, I hope you enjoy this episode with Elle.
Kimberley: All right. Welcome, everybody. This is a really wonderful start to another season of the podcast because I have here with me one of my core team members, Elle Warren. Thanks so much for coming on, Elle.
Elle: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Kimberley: All right. Let me share. I know everyone’s listened to the intro, but let’s just talk about how important you are as a part of helping me. I’m so grateful for all the work that you do to help me, so thank you.
Elle: Yes. I love it.
Kimberley: Yeah. The reason that you’re so special is because you’re so special. But in addition to being so special, you’re so wonderful as a part of this team because you get it. You get what we’re talking about, and that’s why I’m so grateful to have you on our team. I’d love to spend some time you sharing that story if you’re comfortable and telling us a little bit about your background. Do you want to give us an intro to your story?
Elle: Sure. Yeah. It is a long and winding journey, but I will try my best. I have had OCD for as long as I can remember, but I did not know that it was OCD until about two years ago. I was only actually diagnosed in February of 2020, so right before the pandemic, but I had been learning a lot on my own before that and came to that conclusion. Big themes for me growing up were sexual orientation, health anxiety, safety things. I remember I would always ask my mom for reassurance all the time. And then my mom passed away a little over three years ago now when I was 20, and that was the catalyst for my mental health feeling more unmanageable. I started having panic attacks. I was later much more recently diagnosed with PTSD from her illness and death and all of that as well. At the time, I just thought that my brain was broken, that I was broken. I can see now that it was just the intersections of OCD and PTSD and grief that is a pretty nodded up ball of things. So, that’s an overview.
Kimberley: When did you notice these symptoms first start? Was it in childhood, you said?
Elle: Yeah. I can definitely look back and see it in childhood. I remember one time when I was little, I don’t know, I was probably five or six, and there was a storm going on outside and I was so convinced that a tree was going to fall on our house. I remember I just kept asking my mom, “The tree was going to fall on our house.” That’s one example.
Kimberley: Did your mom suspect anything? I mean, was that something that was in your family, or was that just like Elle being Elle?
Elle: I think no one really talked about mental health in my family. I know now that there is a history of mental illness, at least on one side, maybe on both, but it wasn’t talked about at the time.
Kimberley: Isn’t it crazy when you find out, after the fact that you have this whole long line of genetics? It’s like, “Why didn’t I get told this information?”
Elle: Yeah, exactly. Right. It’s like, okay, there were definitely some signs that could have been. I mean, I don’t blame my parents. They were only doing what they knew and what they were taught, but it would have been nice if those things were acknowledged and then noticed earlier on and if treatment was offered earlier on.
Kimberley: Right. Sometimes it’s that our parents didn’t even know they had stuff. Often not even a parenting blunder. It’s like they had no idea the words to use to describe things either, right?
Elle: Right. Exactly.
Kimberley: Yeah. Do you want to share that about your themes? For those who are listening, we will share at the end that you’ve written some amazing blogs for us and we will make sure we have those in the show notes, but do you want to share about the specific themes that you’ve struggled with?
Elle: Yeah. I think the most significant one, like I said, was the sexual orientation one. That was definitely the one that I can remember taking up the most time and causing me the most distress. One day when I was probably 12 or 13, I was in middle school and I remember I was sitting on the sidelines at cheerleading practice and I had this memory come back to me of this girl in my neighborhood that when we were little, we used to kiss sometimes, which is a very innocent thing. We were four years old. But I agonized over that and wanted to know what it meant and be certain of what it meant. I grew up Catholic and I grew up in a relatively more conservative area, so to me, the idea that I could be anything besides straight was just unthinkable. I think I said this in my blog post about it, but almost equivalent to remembering I had killed someone or something super dramatic like that.
Kimberley: And that was because of what you’d been taught?
Elle: Yes. Really from the ages of 13 to 20, 21, that was a really big thing. It would come in and out, like I’d let it go for a little while, and then it would come back in full force. I would be imagining scenarios in my head all the time and trying to predict how I would feel in them. I would look at people when I was out and ask myself if I was attracted to them and all of that. Now, I identify as bisexual. I think that adds to it as well because bisexuality is often invalidated and there’s the pressure to pick a side and all of that. I didn’t really know. I didn’t know much about my bisexuality. I didn’t know anyone that was openly bisexual. I didn’t see people on TV that were bisexual. I think it was not only hard for me to accept that I could not be straight, but it also didn’t really feel like a possibility that I could be open to more than one gender.
Kimberley: What was that transition like? It sounds like from what you’ve told us, there’s this absolute struggle with this idea at the start and it being a lot of uncertainty. I think you’re mentioning you have a lot of rumination around that. How did you get to the place where you are now?
Elle: After my mom died, about a year after, I ended up moving from Michigan to Denver. Denver is what I would call a fairly liberal city. I knew a lot of people that were open with their sexuality and I wasn’t around the people that have known me my whole life, because it’s a lot harder to go against the expectations of people who have known your whole life. It’s different when you can create the self that you feel like you are when you can start with that.
I think I felt like I had the freedom to explore who I really was. I knew I had people that I could identify with. Also, I think the experience of losing my mother, who was the absolute, closest person in my life, I think it just made me less afraid, in general, because, it sounds cliché, but it was like, you’re hit with the fact that time is limited, and you don’t want to waste it. You don’t want to waste it by being unhappy or hiding parts of yourself. I think in general, it just made me a lot less afraid and less timid because I realized that if there’s so much out of my control, I’m definitely not going to waste time not being who I am.
Kimberley: You move from a place of being uncertain to just fully accepting radically who you were and just waited to land wherever you landed. Is that how the shift was?
Elle: Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know. I remember I was laying in bed one day trying to go to sleep and it just went off like a light bulb in my head. I was like, “Oh, I’m--” other times, pansexual has felt more, right? Truthfully, I don’t get too caught up in a specific label, but at the time I was like, “Yeah, I’m not straight.” It just went off like a light bulb. I think maybe the groundwork for that was laid by the radical acceptance that I had cultivated for my mental health, because like I said, after losing my mom, my brain and my nervous system really went into overdrive and my mental health was really, really, really a struggle. But at that point, I had cultivated a lot of acceptance and self-love for that. And so, I think maybe that foundation was laid there and then paved the way for me to also accept my sexuality.
I think I just realized that it actually doesn’t matter that much. These days, I embrace the uncertainty. Like I said, I don’t care that much about the label. If bisexual feels right now, cool. If lesbian feels right one day, cool. I more so just have the attitude of like, I’m going to date who I want to date and listen to my heart. The certainty doesn’t actually matter.
Kimberley: Yeah. It’s such a cool concept too. I think a lot of the interviews I’ve heard around sexual orientation is like, “Oh, I had all this uncertainty and I did the treatment and none of my fears came true or whatever.” You know what I mean?
Kimberley: I love that you’re really walking the walk because you had fear and uncertainty and you just continued to be uncertain. It’s not like you have some resolution at the enemy. There was. But I love that you’re just in a place of just being at it. It is what it is. I feel like that’s a story that’s missing when it comes to sexual orientation OCD.
Elle: Right. I think that’s a really good point because it’s true. The uncertainty didn’t go away. My attitude on the uncertainty just changed. I think you’re getting over the hump of shame that comes along with non-heterosexuality is a big part of that too, because I’ve seen on social media, I feel like a lot of people, it really scares them that someone else who had sexual orientation OCD actually turned out to be not straight. I think that that’s scary for a lot of people. That’s a whole other thing. That’s not just OCD, that’s the shame that many of us have grown up associating with non-heterosexuality.
Kimberley: Right. That internalized stigma that is placed on us.
Kimberley: I really love when you wrote that article and we will share it again, and you share a lot of this story. I really do love it because I really worry sometimes when I see Instagram posts and things of like, “Everything I’ve ever worried about never came true.” You know what I mean? I see that’s true for a lot of people, but it is a form of reassurance almost of like, “Don’t worry, your fear is just a thought.” I think this is an opportunity to fully embrace these concepts. The thing I love about what you’re talking about the most, and I don’t hear enough people talking about it, is it’s coming from a place of just genuine love. Not from a place of like, “Well, my therapist told I have to radically accept it.” You know what I mean?
Elle: Yeah. Right.
Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I’ve just loved that story so much, even though I hate that you have gone through a difficult time. You talked about your moms and the grief around that, you talked about how her loss helped you move into radical acceptance, but how else did that impact you and your recovery or your struggles?
Elle: In so many ways. The person that I was before and the person that I am now are two very, very different people. I think the biggest thing is like, my mom and I were very close. I’m the youngest of four kids and I’m the youngest by a lot. So, I definitely got my parents, especially my mom, all to myself a lot. I was very emotionally dependent on her. She was a huge source of love and the most loving mom that I could have asked for. That said, I hadn’t really learned how to mother myself, how to be my own source of love and affirmation, and all of that. That’s terrifying to just be dropped into.
I think the ideal situation, if we all got to have ideal situations, would be that we gradually get to that point. We grow into adulthood while we still have that support, which is the same, my dad is supportive but in a very different way. I felt like there was no one there to hold me up or to witness me. I just felt very alone. She was, I think, the person that I was the most vulnerable with. So, not having that just was really scary. I didn’t know how to cultivate that in myself for a long time. I do now, which is a really good thing.
Kimberley: How did you learn that? I feel like I don’t know how to do that really, really perfectly. You know what I’m saying? I think there should be a course in middle school that teaches you how to do that.
Elle: Yeah. There should be. I think part of it is like, what I learned from her in terms of how she cared for me, I think that I tried to replicate that for myself. There’s a lot of trial and error and it was a lot of not wanting to do it, but I’m making myself do it just in terms of making myself meals, getting out, and going for a walk. Very basic things. Because when you’re in the thick of something like that, the basic things are still hard things. I think it came from this almost outside source of love that I have for myself and the life that I know that I want for myself. It was like, I knew that I deserved that and I knew that I could get there someday again. This is a cliché metaphor, but I felt like I just needed to climb this mountain. I felt like I just needed to keep taking steps. And then maybe eventually, I would be able to see out over the top.
I do have other familial support as well. I have siblings and my father. In terms of some other ways, it’s affected me. It definitely did not help my health anxiety because throughout the time that she was sick, there just were a lot of fluke things that happened, a lot of things where doctors would be like, “Huh, we’ve never seen that before,” things like that. So, that has been an increased challenge.
Kimberley: Are you still working through that? I mean, that has to be really scary because that’s what the voice of OCD says, right? Like, “This one symptom is one of the symptoms that’s going to kill you,” kind of thing. Given that that was your experience, how are you managing that?
Elle: It’s definitely gotten better over the years. Something that I still struggle with, it’s-- I dunno. I’m a lot better at recognizing when I’m in an OCD spiral. I can usually, most of the time, be an observer of it and notice what’s happening. I also did choose to go on medication just earlier this year. For me, that has been really helpful.
Kimberley: And that helps with the health anxiety or for the grief or for a combo of all?
Elle: It’s helped in a lot of different ways. Honestly, it’s helped with the PTSD symptoms a lot and it’s helped with OCD symptoms. It’s helped with depression symptoms. I mean, it can be hard to pick out which is which because they all feed off of each other. I feel like even if it’s really just helping with one of those things, it helps all the other areas too. But just in general, it’s been a game-changer.
Kimberley: What degree did you have to practice exposure and response prevention for all of these symptoms? Was that a part of your work? How did you navigate all of that? Did you do it on your own? Did you have a therapist?
Elle: I have only practiced ERP on my own. I have a therapist that I was working with for quite a while. I think I was seeing her regularly for probably two years. I found out, this was only maybe six months ago, just through us talking, I learned that she didn’t understand OCD really at all. So, I don’t see her anymore. I just try to do ERP on my own every day, and that has worked for me so far, honestly. I would like to work with an ERP-trained therapist at some point, but right now, that still has made a huge difference.
Kimberley: Right. How was it to do it on your own? I mean, a lot of people, this is a common question I get – “Do I need to have an ERP therapist?” Of course, with CBT School, we have the course. We have ERP School. “Is that enough? Or could I do a workbook or could I just go off of what I’ve seen people do on social media?” How did you bring yourself to do that? Is it just by your own education? How did you learn?
Elle: I feel like I started doing it really before I even knew what it was called, before I even knew that it was like a thing because again, I just kept going back to the vision that I had of myself and who I wanted to be, who I knew I could be, my love for myself. But I think that that can sound really romanticized like, “Oh yeah, I just did it on my own, and I’m pulling myself up by my bootstraps.” But it was hard.
In retrospect, I probably should’ve asked for more help than I did. I mean, I don’t fault myself for any of this because you can’t know what you don’t know, right? But I wish I would have been more honest with the people in my life about how poorly I was really feeling. I’m proud of all of those exposures that I did every day. Sometimes it feels and felt literally like you’re walking into the jaws of a shark and you don’t know whether or not you’re going to come out. It really does feel like that. That’s not easy. I think having someone to support you through that and walk you through that is probably really helpful.
Kimberley: Right. It sounds to me like you use naturally a lot of, and I could be wrong here, tell me if I’m wrong, but a lot of what we would call acceptance and commitment therapy tools, like your values really left you, led you down the road you wanted to be at like, “What do I want with my life?” Sometimes that voice and that question, remember, we talked about asking good questions. That’s a really good question like, “What do I want for my life?” I think that can sometimes lead us in that direction. Would you agree with that?
Elle: Yeah, I would. I think that that is what was carrying me through a lot of the time.
Kimberley: Right. I have one more question if you’re willing to share. What was it like for you to have PTSD? A lot of people I know have either been misdiagnosed with PTSD and then find out they have OCD or they find out they have both. What did that look like for you?
Elle: For me, it was a lot of not being able to focus, not being able to be present. I felt really depersonalized and/or derealized much of the time. The panic attacks again, like I said, and the memories always felt very close. They didn’t feel like things that happened a while ago. They felt like things that just happened. Honestly, that’s been a big difference that I’ve noticed with the medication is that I can say they feel they were things that happened a long time ago. It’s still painful, yes, blah, blah, blah. But it happened a long time ago. The way that I would describe it at the time, I remember thinking about this metaphor, it felt like my brain was just this mass of cross wires that were sparking, and again, it felt broken.
Kimberley: Yeah. That’s a really interesting metaphor. I think a lot of people would really resonate with that. Memories, cross wire, everything’s misconnected, and so forth.
Elle: Right. Because it changes the chemistry of your brain.
Kimberley: Right. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. It’s something we don’t talk about a lot. It's something that I’m actually in the process of being trained on more extensively because I think a lot of people do have PTSD and it has been misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed. I’m so grateful that you’re sharing about that. Thank you. I know it’s not easy to share that stuff.
Elle: No. I’m honestly really grateful to be able to because I think younger me would have appreciated hearing something like this a lot.
Kimberley: Well, before we finish up, I have a couple of questions, not related to your mental health, but just more related to you and I because I love what you’re sharing here. I’m so grateful you shared this information because I think there’s a story here that I think a lot of people may resonate with or be appreciative of to see that you’re on the side where you’re at right now. It’s very cool. What is it like to work for a CBT School? Go ahead. I didn’t tell you I was going to ask you this question. You can be as honest as you want. What is it like for you to work in the work that we do? And again, you don’t have to make it sound good.
Elle: I’ll tell the truth. I appreciate being able to share information that, again, I would have needed or has been helpful for me along this journey. Also, they’re good reminders for me. If I’m writing something about self-care or whatever, then I’m like, “Okay, it’s a good reminder. Okay, I need to practice what I preach.” They’re good check-ins. Also, doing it on social media platforms is just a really powerful reminder that, “Oh yeah, it wasn’t just me. This isn’t just me. Lots of people feel this way, and they also have worried that it was just them.” That’s really connective. Obviously, you relate to this – I need to be fulfilled by my work and I need to feel like it’s purposeful and I need to feel like it’s connective, and it is those things.
Kimberley: Am I just the biggest pain in the butt boss you’ve ever had? You can be totally honest. I am totally a pain in the butt boss. I know I am.
Elle: No. I do tell people how much I like working for you. You have been definitely, I would say, the most understanding and flexible boss that I’ve had.
Kimberley: I think that’s because I was going to say, nearly every staff meeting, we made it almost this time. I think every single time I go, “You’re going to have to bear with me. I’m all over the place today,” I have to apologize for how messed up everything is. I’m like, “You’re going to have to forgive me. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Elle: Right. It’s like we’ve said in posts before, like being imperfect, it gives other people permission to be imperfect.
Kimberley: Right. I agree. Thank you. When I asked this, I was like, I wouldn’t doubt if she was like, “Oh boy, I feel uncomfortable, I don’t want to tell you the truth.” For those who don’t know, Elle and I meet, and we go through probably 40 things we have to get through. We have this whole list of social media or newsletters and podcasts and SEO and websites and all these things. I think every time I started going, “I really have no idea--” I will add, which I think is hilarious, is that Elle went on a vacation recently and asked me to do some of her jobs. I actually had no idea how to do that. I literally had no idea how to do the jobs that you do for me. Thank you so much for being my friend and helping me in those moments.
Elle: Yes, absolutely.
Kimberley: Right. I’m like, “I have no idea how to call my own clients,” or “I have no idea how to write my own email here, help me.” I’m so grateful for the work that you do. I think that you have a voice. Again, you actually came on to CBT School as the copywriter, as our Chief Copywriter, and your voice is so exactly the voice we need. Your compassion and your experience and your kindness – it’s wonderful.
Elle: That’s awesome. I’m so grateful that we have found each other.
Kimberley: Yeah, me too. I’m so, so grateful. Before we finish up, tell us where people can find out about you or get your information. Besides the work we do here, where can they get your personal stuff?
Elle: Yes. You can find me @griefgurlwithocd on Instagram. I spelled girl G-U-R-L, and everything else is spelled normal. I’m not super active on it, but I do love getting messages from people. Feel free to reach out there.
Kimberley: Thank you. All right. Everyone, I’ll link the blog that you wrote about sexual orientation OCD. They can read that too. Thank you so much for coming on.
Elle: All right. Thank you.
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