As a special events professional with OCD, here is my confession.
In this new series, we present real-life confessions from people working in the event industry. These uncensored, frank insights tell it “like it really is.” Some details have been changed to respect the anonymity of the confessor and ensure maximum honesty can be upheld.
My portfolio includes the planning and management of events with tens of thousands of attendees, a great number of high-profile visitors (heads of state, A-list celebrities, ambassadors and other foreign delegates), and budgets well into the seven figures. However, I produced these events while maintaining one noteworthy secret. My confession is that is that I do these things while living with mental illness.
Mental health is a tricky game. If you have ever faced such struggles yourself, you might notice that it is often quite difficult for even highly trained professionals to “pin down” exactly what ails you. My list of diagnoses includes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Moderate Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and an uncategorized “mood disorder.” It takes a full-barrel shotgun of medications and therapy to keep the effects of these diseases in check. Every day, I am loaded with enough medication to, as one of my past therapists put it, “take down a horse.” There is no magic cure for what I have. While my dream would be to live medication-free at some point in the distant future, it is highly unlikely. Based on my personal and family history, my neurochemicals probably won’t be able to naturally find enough of a balance for me to mitigate the effects through therapy methods alone.
Dispelling the Myths About OCD
First, let me dispel your initial thoughts about what my illness means, particularly OCD, which I consider to be the engineer of this rattling train. What most people think OCD means is that I am obsessively neat, and that a detail like a pencil out of line will make my skin crawl. This is untrue; the illness of which you are thinking is called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), and it is completely different from OCD. I can see how someone with OCPD might be able to work in the events industry, but the required flexibility of the career may not jive with that condition.
Like many people with OCD, my illness is incredibly difficult to notice. This is mostly because I do not live with any strong, active compulsions such as washing my hands or counting things. Some people with OCD do, but many, like me, fall into a category called “Pure O.” In other words, we are strictly obsessive.
You also should understand that true obsessions are painfully exhausting. While one might visualize that an obsession would be like “getting stuck” thinking about a subject and unable to leave, it is more akin to being on a fast treadmill where there is something incredibly dark and dangerous behind you and something incredibly powerful and amazing in front of you – but you have no idea what either of things are. This treadmill never stops, and you never actually go anywhere, but you live in a purgatory of the fear of what happens if you stop running while always stretching for an amazing gem in front of you.
Hiding the Reality
Running on a treadmill forever is physically and mentally painful. It hurts every piece of your body. You sometimes don’t eat or sleep when necessary. You lose track of time. It is disruptive in incredible ways. This is what an actual obsession feels like. My personal fixations aren’t important for the sake of this confession, but I do think it is important to understand that even while working on any given task, I have a parallel track of thinking chugging in the background, and occasionally, that track crosses paths with my “normal” train, causing a paralyzing train wreck – but I’m very, very good at hiding that at work.
I can’t count the number of times over the years I have seen or heard people quoting the reports about working in events being one of the most stressful professions possible, usually ranking right up there with air traffic controller and enlisted military personnel. I’m not sure why this information is tossed about so easily; perhaps we wear it as a badge of honor that we (the few, the proud?) are the #eventprofs who are up to such a task. Honestly, I raise an eyebrow as to whether my job is as stressful those that require brandishing weapons, but I have certainly had instances of such intense pressure where I could feel my mind tearing itself apart. My perception, however, may be skewed.
Without getting too deep into the medical aspects, it is highly likely that I naturally have a high level of dopamine in my brain. Dopamine (along with other chemicals like serotonin) help regulate things like emotion, but if these levels are higher than normal, then things start to go a bit haywire, leading to things like OCD, depression, mood swings, and other symptoms. Very high levels of dopamine are found in people with schizophrenia. Dopamine is also thought to be linked to creative thinking. Perhaps the most famous piece of research suggesting this is called “Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box.” In short, people with elevated dopamine levels are suggested to be able to create connections and see possibilities that others might not be able to see.
Advantages of OCD
This is one of the reasons I am writing this confession. While I would never wish mental illness on anyone, I have come to recognize that, working in a creative profession like the event industry, my illness might give me a small handful of advantages that help me do my work better.
Between meetings the other day, one of my business associates told me I was interesting to watch during a meeting. He spoke about how his mind works in a linear fashion, but when he sees me working, he can tell how I have five or ten nodes of thinking running simultaneously. He is correct. I could make the argument that once I become immersed in specific types of projects, I work at a far greater speed than most other people.
But again, this all comes with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I learn and memorize new task-related things very quickly. One of my son’s favorite “games” is to spread out 50 random baseball cards on a table, give me a few minutes to study them, and then have me turn around while he flips one or two over. When I turn back around, 99% of the time I can tell him what cards he has flipped. I can finish things like word searches, mid-level Sudoku puzzles, or logic problems very quickly. I have never studied strategies for these things; I just naturally see where patterns do and do not occur. I also can “read” and understand people and clients quite quickly based on cues I notice or hear.
Events and Unlimited Possibilities
In my career as an event creative, this means I approach every event without preconceived notions as to what an event should or could be. Instead, I listen carefully to what it needs to accomplish, who the attendees will be, what the restrictions might be, and other information, and even as we’re talking, I am already making connections. With a short bit of time, I can put together a handful of suggestions I think will deliver what a client needs. Sometimes the ideas from my “less intact box” ideas are terrible (e.g., anything with live animals), but other ideas have resulted in events spotlighted as international award finalists and winners. More than once, I have gotten a “What? No…” from a client when they first hear a proposal, but then I receive a call later from them saying, “You know, that could actually work.”
The absolute worst events for me are the ones that have a predetermined formula we are obligated to follow, or ones where clients say they want something new but later balk at any suggestion that isn’t a foul regurgitation of something they’ve done before. I never think of events like pieces of classical music – made to sound the same every time you hear them (though I love classical music!). Unless it’s the premiere of a new orchestral piece, then I can just buy the song on iTunes and listen to it at home with a tiny plate of my own warmed-over Crockpot meatballs. Instead, I see events as more like (authentic) jazz, where even if the audience knows the name of the song the band will be playing, they really have no idea what it’s going to sound like. Even when that same song is played again by the same ensemble, the song will sound different.
Though I have a good persona I put on in public, my hardwiring doesn’t naturally help me to foster relationships. I don’t choose to be selfish, and I understand that building a personal network of friends would be good for me on a huge number of levels, but the fact of the matter is, I have very little interest in most people. It’s not that I don’t want to ask you how your weekend was and honestly want to care, it’s that I can’t make myself be interested. I plan events for a living, but I absolutely hate attending them as a guest and having to socialize.
Now, if you are a work-related client or partner, I can remember everything about you; that information locks in because it has a useful purpose. When I go to visit my family for Thanksgiving, however, my spouse has to remind me who is married to whom and what kids belong to them – and this is MY family. Let me clear: I don’t choose what to remember. Such decisions are made by a part of my system over which I have no control.
I also must clarify that I am not an uncaring person. In fact, I have extreme empathy for those facing difficult situations. I am the first to get choked up and misty-eyed during a “donate now” commercial or when a story’s protagonist experiences a despondent moment. While extreme emotions can play havoc with my mood, it does assist when I am producing creative event content designed to generate emotion from an audience.
The Stigma Against Mental Illness
Only a handful of people know about my condition. The government considers OCD a legitimate disability, but the stigma against mental illness means there is nil chance I would ever admit I have such a thing. As a result, asking for accommodations in the workplace are near impossible; I can only explain to people that my work arrives in large, creative chunks – results of “zone frenzies” that occur once my mind latches onto a project.
Event professionals are lauded for their abilities in multitasking; I confess I am terrible at it. Distractions of email, social media, or some other pesky squirrel will steal hours from my productivity if I’m not careful. Task lists are difficult for me to create and conquer because I am very quickly paralyzed by whether or not I have prioritized tasks in the correct order. This leads to anxiety and paralysis, which leads to guilt, which leads to greater anxiety, and so forth. As such, I work best when someone else gives me the order in which I should tackle things.
Mental illness is extremely ugly. This “paralysis by analysis” carries into my daily life as well. On a perfectly normal workday (e.g., no client meetings, no events), I have stood, frozen, at my closet for nearly an hour deciding what to wear. In my head, I know there is no real consequence behind my decision, but this is irrelevant.
In a stressful environment, my temper can snap, presenting a disgusting, hurtful person you wouldn’t recognize. I am normally able to remove myself from a situation and diffuse, but I have more than one regret as a result of these episodes.
I will spare you the worst details, but this career also has landed me in the hospital with panic attacks and migraines. If you have never experienced or seen a true nervous breakdown, I hope you never do. It is serious terror.
For me, it also is ugly because I can’t remember what it is like to be unmedicated. I have heard stories about people who were eventually able to taper off their medications, and as they did, they felt as though a fog was lifted. They didn’t realize how hazy their day-to-day lives were due to the effects of necessary mind-numbing medications. Mental health medications can also be very disturbing. I have had more than one extremely negative series of side effects after taking a single dose of a new medication.
There are also both short- and long-term effects that accompany mental health medications that can be very difficult to manage. For example, memory loss and difficulty concentrating are just two of the long-term effects of taking benzodiazepines such as Xanax. About a year ago, I began to notice that normal tasks, such as driving, would not come as easily to me as they used to. I would get to the end of my driveway and have to pause the car for a few seconds and really think about whether I needed to turn right or left to get to somewhere I go regularly – like the grocery store. My house nor the grocery store has moved anytime recently, but I can feel the distressing extra half-second it takes to process a long-term memory.
My full confession might be that I’m not sure that I ever should have gone into event management. Perhaps this isn’t the career for which I am optimally built, but like many in the industry, I fell into it and discovered that I could do it well.
This career affords me the opportunity to do what I can do best: create new things. Some of the best moments of my life have been during the pinnacle moments at events, where I know that a job was well done and that all the effort was worth it. Those moments are motivation to keep designing, keep creating – looking to produce the next tearfully outstanding experience for a client and their attendees.
Want to share your own event planning confession? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be in touch!