ritualistic activity,” he said. “My parents quickly took notice of my behavior because my entire forearms were cracked and bleeding from how much I’d washed them.”
Vincenty, now 28, was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, a mental health condition characterized by a “cycle of obsessions and compulsions,” according to the International OCD Foundation.
“I describe OCD as a voice that constantly tells me I’m in danger or there is a threat of impending doom,” Vincenty said. “OCD tells you that the only way to relieve the terror or anxiety is to engage in a compulsive behavior. OCD is so powerful it can override rational or logical thought.”
Thanks to a supportive family and years of treatment, Vincenty said he is “now living a mostly normal life.” He is engaged and almost finished working on a master’s degree at Pepperdine University in California. He plans to become a therapist, in part to help other people with OCD.
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And he is partnering with his mother, Kim Vincenty of Jacksonville, to launch a Ponte Vedra Beach-based nonprofit — JACK Mental Health Advocacy — to help other families cope with OCD and find effective treatment.
“My mom is a rock star,” he said. “I quite simply would not be where I am today if she did not fight as hard as she did for me. She made sure I got treatment and, more importantly, she believed that I could recover.
“It’s a little scary to have your name attached to an organization, but I know she’s going to do incredible things,” he continued. “She’s already helped so many families over the last 15 years. I’m honored to be involved and excited to see how it grows this year.”
OCD is a ‘bully on the brain’
When her son’s washing obsession began, Kim Vincenty knew something was wrong. But she could not identify the problem.
As his obsession worsened, it “completely derailed him,” she said. “It was crushing. It went from being manageable to completely out of control. … He missed the majority of the sixth grade.”
A psychiatrist diagnosed him with OCD. A person who has the disorder has obsessions and compulsive behaviors that “take a lot of time and get in the way of important activities the person values, such as working, going to school or spending time with friends,” according to the OCD Foundation. Common obsessions range from contamination, which affected Jack Vincenty, to control, harm, perfectionism, unwanted sexual thoughts and religion.
The disorder can occur at any age but tends to appear from ages 8 to 12 or between the late teen years and early adulthood. It equally affects men, women and children of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds. The cause is unknown, according to the foundation, but “research suggests that differences in the brain and genes of those affected may play a role.”
The Vicenty family’s psychiatrist recommended cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes similar methods used by mental-health therapists for treating psychological disorders. The most effective method is Exposure and Response Prevention, which Jack Vincenty said “essentially involves exposing oneself to whatever triggers your anxiety or fear response.”
“Rather than engaging in a compulsive behavior, the goal is to let the anxiety subside naturally over time,” he said. “This trains your brain that ritualizing isn’t the only way to feel better. Treatment does work. It is incredibly challenging, as you’re asking people to voluntarily put themselves in terrifying situations, but it does pay off. There is an incredible amount of research into the efficacy of these OCD treatments.”
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Even so, improvement did not come easily.
“OCD was horrific,” Kim Vincenty said. “He did not get better for a long time.”
The illness was tough on his family. With her husband working, she was her son’s primary caregiver. Some sibling resentment from her daughter arose as a result.
“Jack was sucking up every bit of my time,” she said.
As part of the Exposure and Response Prevention treatment, the family had to adopt tough-love strategies. It meant sometimes his mother had to refuse his OCD demands, even though her first instinct was to do whatever she could to make him feel better.
“Everybody in the family had to be on the same page for Jack’s outcome to be good.,” she said. “As a family, that’s what we had to do.”
OCD, she said, “is a bully in the brain. You don’t tolerate the bully.”
Still, there was concern he might not finish high school. There was “no significant improvement” until Jack and his mother attended an intensive seven-week treatment program at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “That was the turning point,” she said.
Jack Vincenty said he now looks back on his youth as “a long road,” one with plenty of potholes.
“OCD is tricky … because triggers can change over time,” he said. “When I finally conquered the contamination fears that plagued me throughout my adolescence, I remember thinking that I was cured. Unfortunately, OCD often finds new fears to latch on to as soon as headway is made in one area. … I think people with OCD are typically on much more high alert than the average individual. There is a constant scan for threats and triggers.”
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For eight years she was active in OCD Jacksonville, an affiliate of the international foundation that helps families find effective treatment and support for obsessive-compulsive disorder or related anxiety issues. She served as vice president and president of the group.
“Kim has an unmatched passion for fighting the stigma of OCD,” said Mike Vatter, OCD Jacksonville’s current president. “I know that passion and the team she has assembled will have nothing but a positive impact on the lives of the millions of sufferers like myself.”
Now she and her son are launching the JACK advocacy group, hoping to use their experiences, however painful, to help others.
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“Life speaks to life, a parent trusts another parent,” she said. “We’ve been through the same thing. They need to be heard. They need somebody to tell them to keep going.”
The two primary focus areas will be family support and clinician training.
The nonprofit will help families navigate OCD and steer them toward the appropriate education and treatment. Unfortunately for some families, many mental-health professionals are not trained in Exposure and Response Prevention, Kim Vincenty said.
“Therapists don’t know what they don’t know,” she said, and as a result parents watch their children “not getting better. They’re not using the right treatment protocol.”
So JACK intends to help make treatment “more accessible in underserved areas” and sponsor Exposure Response Prevention training. That mission will begin with a Behavioral Therapy Training Institute for clinicians in Puerto Ricao, where the Vincenty family originated.
The son’s ongoing recovery is the mother’s inspiration.
“He’s proof to me that God answers a momma’s prayer,” she said. “He is so brave. What he has navigated in his life is remarkable. From trying to support him at home, to intensive programs and countless therapy sessions followed by at-home exposure exercises, I’ve seen how all-consuming and isolating this journey can be.
“It’s been my joy to walk alongside families over the last decade and I’m thrilled to continue that as well as build upon that support on a national level,” she continued. “I know a lot of great people are doing wonderful research in OCD. I’m just another player. I have a lane.”
email@example.com, (904) 359-4109
TO LEARN MORE
• JACK Mental Health Advocacy
P.O. Box 3039, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32004; jackmha.org.
• OCD Jacksonville
(904) 290-8005, firstname.lastname@example.org, ocdjacksonville.com
• International OCD Foundation
P.O. Box 961029, Boston, MA 02196; (617) 973-5801; iocdf.org.