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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 21, 2011

Let’s not wash our hands of those who are different

Bernie Kinlan is doing something heroic, quietly.

A soft-spoken man of 62, he called our news office to find out about putting a notice in our paper for a support group he wants to form. We get dozens of similar requests each week, but this one stood out.


Both because the topic was so difficult and because Kinlan was so honest and forthcoming in answering our questions.

He suffers from what he described as “a very embarrassing disorder.” That is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. “People don’t want to come out and talk about it,” said Kinlan.

He has suffered from the disorder since he was a teenager.

Kinlan has taught himself about OCD. He has done a lot of research and regularly goes to conferences to learn about the latest advances in treatment.

“It’s an anxiety disorder that leads individuals to do repetitive rituals to relieve their anxiety,” said Kinlan.

He referred us to a groundbreaking book on the subject, written by Judith L. Rapoport, a psychiatrist, and published in 1989: The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing: The Experience & Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

“Secrecy is part of the disorder,” writes Rapoport. “We see new patients every week who have suffered in secret for years.”

At the time Rapoport, as chief of the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, was doing her research, textbooks said the disease was very rare. The institute surveyed over 5,000 students in high schools in a county school system, asking them to fill out a questionnaire about disturbing habits or thoughts. “The results were startling,” she wrote. Among these “ordinary” schoolchildren, none seeking help, there were at least 20 severe cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Today, it is widely recognized that 2 to 4 percent of the population suffer from OCD. But those who suffer often keep it secret. There may be fear of derision or being outcast because of odd behaviors.

“People hide it and suffer internally,” said Kinlan. He suffered in his youth, he said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

He gives an example of driving and fearing, for no reason, that someone has been hit. This behavior is described by a patient in Rapoport’s book. He tells of driving to take a college exam — no one else is on the highway — when he suddenly worries that he may have hit someone. He describes the compulsion as “almost magical the way it distorts my perception of reality…The pain is a terrible guilt that I have committed an unthinkable, negligent act.”

He turns around to check for a body, finds nothing on the road, and heads off again for his exam only to be struck with a worse attack. He’s convinced he needs to check for an injured body — this time, off the road. He turns around again and, while thrashing through the bushes, a policeman stops by to ask what he is doing. He can’t tell the officer he has OCD, reasoning, “The disease is so insidious and embarrassing that it cannot be admitted to anyone.” Instead, he tells the policeman he was nervous about his exam, and pulled over to throw up.

With the policeman trailing him, he finally drives to the college, still plagued with anxiety but unable now to turn around. He arrives, late for the exam, and, taking the test, has trouble concentrating because he can’t stop obsessing on the fantasy. The moment he gets out of the exam, he goes back on the road to check yet again. Finally back home, in total exhaustion, he tries to sleep, but can’t. He keeps getting up to check his car to see if it is damaged, to see if he really did hit someone.

Rapoport describes patients who are “checkers” — checking, lights, doors, locks, stoves over and over again. She describes others who spend hours producing unimportant symmetry — eyebrows identical to a hair, or shoelaces exactly even. “Washers” feel they must wash over and over again despite the fact they are not dirty.

“All of these problems have common themes: you can’t trust your ordinary good judgment, can’t trust your eyes that see no dirt, or really believe that the door is locked…,” writes Rapoport. “You can’t dismiss the idea…Everyday life becomes tyrannized by doubts, leading to senseless repetition and ritual.”

She describes these patterns of behavior as intruding from nowhere. “These are frightened, lonely people and the cruel script erupts from somewhere inside their brains,” Rapoport states. When she has introduced her patients to each other, she writes, “They are astonished that this has happened to someone else, that they are so much alike!”

Kinlan says he was able to deal with his own OCD with the help of a good therapist. He had a successful career as a social worker at Colonie High School and has recently retired after 27 years.

Now that he has more time, Kinlan would like to help others by forming a support group for adults with OCD. A Guilderland resident, he has arranged for meeting space at the Guilderland Public Library. “The library has been very open and welcoming,” he said.

The new group will meet weekly on Tuesdays, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., starting on Sept. 13. “It’s for those who want to function at the highest level they can,” said Kinlan.

The International OCD Foundation, of which he’s a member, advocates both behavioral therapy and medication to treat biochemical imbalance in the brain.

The therapy, Kinlan said, consists of exposure to “what you’re afraid of” and then learning to deal with the fear without the ritual. Traditional psychoanalysis has not been effective in treating OCD.

We urge people reading this who suffer from OCD to contact Kinlan. His e-mail address is BernieKinlan@hotmail.com. Currently, the nearest OCD support group is in Lake George, said Kinlan, and there is a charge. The Guilderland group will be free of charge.

“I want to give back,” said Kinlan. “I’ve been able to function quite well.”

 Kinlan anticipates five to 10 people to begin with but would start a second group on another night if more people were interested. He plans to use a “goal model” for the group, which was developed by Jonathan Grayson at the Anxiety & OCD Treatment Center in Philadelphia. In this model, Kinlan said, “People identify certain things they’ll do from week to week” Then, they’ll report back to the group on their progress, sharing their experiences with others who have an understanding of what they’re facing and may be able to guide them.

“If a person is willing to dig in and do behavioral treatment, they can stop the rituals,” said Kinlan.

We admire him not just for conquering his own fears but for reaching out to help others. We also believe his honesty in describing the disorder will make our community at large more aware of those suffering in our midst.

“Psychiatrists have been fascinated by this disorder for over a hundred years,” Rapoport wrote nearly a quarter-century ago. “Priests have described the very scrupulous for much longer than that.”

Yet, at the same time, she writes, “Families often don’t know that they have a sick child. Many of my obsessive-compulsive adult patients tell me that they kept their disorder a secret as children, suffering for months or years because they were too humiliated or did not want to be considered crazy.”

We don’t need medical training to at least help ease such humiliation. Each of us, by understanding the basics of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, can help ease the way for those who suffer from it by simply accepting them.

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