I think dance has saved my life. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh it must have been extra hard to have OCD and dance,’ when for me, dance was an escape.
Steven Loch, a soloist with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He bravely decided to open up publicly about the condition and shared his experiences with reporter Brendan Kiley in an informative article for The Seattle Times.
In 2014, after performing in a piece at the beginning of a quadruple bill, he rushed to hide in a bathroom during the second and third pieces until he was due to be onstage again.
I was huddled, so I wasn’t open to an attack.
However, that night after the performance, he had a breakdown which led to the first of many nights in a psychiatric hospital.
Kiley lists the obsessions that he’s had over the years:
…the colour of his teeth; fixating so much on “s” or “t” sounds when people spoke that he couldn’t focus on what they were saying; running his hand around the back of his neck to push imaginary people off his shoulders; having to pick up things like pieces of candy in specific numbers, then changing the numbers because five pieces was “good” for a moment, but a second later five became “bad,” so he’d have to pick up seven…
and so on.
Something happens and it’s like, ‘No, sorry, you can’t do this to me now.’ I don’t know why. It’s less in the front of my brain then. When I step onto the stage and start dancing, my body says: ‘It’s performance time.’ Something deep inside of me flips the switch. I was always scared of going onstage because I was afraid of being tainted by intrusive thoughts.
Loch’s “intrusive thoughts” sound bizarre:
I felt like if I faced in one direction, I’d die or be tortured. North, south, east, west… All of them had something.
Some of the most disturbing of these thoughts were sexual in nature. Kiley summarises:
…taboo sex acts with taboo partners: God, Jesus, family members, ballet instructors… the thoughts weren’t things he wanted to do, but things that horrified him. At times, he said, the thoughts were so vivid, he could feel the acts physically, like Jesus sitting in a menacing way on his shoulders.
His parents were in the audience that day in 2014, realised what was happening, and drove him to the hospital.
When I was admitted, I told the doctors about my thing with directions. They’d ask, ‘Oh, is that some kind of feng shui thing?’
OCD affects people of all ages and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings, and compulsions are behaviours an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and decrease distress.
This cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes so extreme that it consumes a lot of time. People with OCD realize that these thoughts don’t make any sense and obsessions are typically accompanied by intense and uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is “just right”.
There is hope. Sometimes it feels like you’re walking down a path so long, there’s only one way to go, and trees everywhere else. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
After weeks of treatment in a psychiatric hospital he left to dance in the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. He performed a solo he had choreographed on himself about OCD.
I started in the dark, at the back of the stage, then I walked into a spotlight. As they announced my name, I thought: ‘All the hard work is done.’ I felt so free that I could honestly do whatever I wanted on that stage, could dance any way I wanted.
He didn’t win, but he danced. OCD wasn’t going to stop his dream of dancing onstage.
That moment was one of the best things I’ve ever felt in my life.
He was promoted to soloist with the company this year.