Free at last: Opening up about his OCD diagnosis helps KARE 11 anchor Bryan Piatt help others

From the outside, it looked like Bryan Piatt had everything going for him. An anchor at KARE 11 news, he fit the job description with his carefully coiffed hair, smooth voice and Midwestern good looks. But on the inside, Piatt, 33, felt he was the opposite of his pulled-together image.

“I’d hit a pretty big low point,” he said. “I remember crying on the floor in my condo with a friend. I was still working on air at KARE then, but I was a mess on the inside. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

For most of his life, Piatt has struggled with mental illness. Diagnosed with anxiety disorder while in middle school, he tried for years to understand the troubling, repetitive thoughts that tumbled through his head. When he was diagnosed with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) during college, Piatt felt a measure of relief, but he didn’t fit the classic OCD stereotype of a hand-washing germaphobe. Instead, he often felt crippled by repetitive, anxiety-producing thoughts that felt impossible to set aside.

While Piatt did his best to put up a good public front, on the inside it had gotten to the point where he felt he was falling apart.

“Having to get up and be in front of the camera every day and struggling with panic attacks around that got to be way too much for me,” he said. “I finally realized I had to make a shift.”

For Piatt, making a shift involved making major changes in his life. First, he realized that he had to let his colleagues know about his mental illness, and then he had to ask for time away from the camera. While Piatt’s family and closest friends knew about his mental health struggles, he had otherwise kept them to himself.

“I always felt like stepping in front of the camera was me having to be a character, to be ‘News Bryan,’” Piatt said. In order to succeed in the image-focused world of TV news, he needed to project an aura of cool control. But that image was slipping. “I feel like somewhere along the line, I’d lost the ability to do that. I had outgrown that version of me,” he said. “Maybe that’s where the anxiety came from.”

Wherever it originated, Piatt’s anxiety was crippling and serious.

In the studio, “It got to the point where my heart would be beating out of my chest and I would be really short of breath,” he said. “When it would be my turn to talk into the camera. I would usually play it off, as if I had something in my throat. But there were a couple of times where I would literally have to cough and have somebody else finish reading for me.”

Piatt eventually gathered his courage and talked his boss about what was going on.

“I’ve been lucky to have a good relationship with her,” he said. “I told her, ‘I’m struggling a lot with anxiety and I’m wondering if there is any way I can step into a position that is not in front of the camera, at least for the time being.’”

Piatt’s supervisor helped him shift into a new, off-camera role, as a producer for KARE’s morning show. The change has reduced his anxiety and given him space to focus on his recovery. It’s a good move for now, but Piatt said he’s not planning on staying out of the spotlight for good.

“I think we need more people out there who are being really real about whatever it is that they’re going through,” he said. “I feel like I want to be part of creating things that are authentic and genuine and not super sugar-coated. I feel like that’s going to be my next step.”

High anxiety

Piatt can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t worried about something. He was in sixth grade when he had his first serious anxiety attack, in the noisy lunchroom of his Fargo middle school.

“Out of nowhere I felt this huge wave of what I now know to be the experience of depersonalization, this feeling of being detached from your body, almost like you are in a dream,” Piatt recalled. “I remember it shook me to my core. From that day forward, my mental health has not been the same.”

Though the experience was scarring, the young Piatt somehow managed to keep his emotions under wraps. “Honestly nobody watching me would have any idea that any of that happened,” he said.

Later, he told his parents about the experience. “They were wonderfully supportive,” he said, “but I didn’t start going to therapy just then.”

By the time Piatt was in college, at St. Cloud State University, studying broadcast journalism, his feelings of anxiety were building. He’d suspected for some time that he might be gay, but he tried to suppress those feelings.

“I was one of these people who was in an incredible amount of denial,” he said. “I knew I was attracted to other guys but I didn’t really say it to myself until a number of months before I actually told someone for the first time. There was anxiety that definitely built around that. It was building, building, building and then I just kind of felt like I couldn’t keep it inside anymore. I finally came out when I was 22.”

By that time Piatt had worked with therapists and tried traditional “talk therapy.” While he appreciated his therapists’ efforts, he often felt he wasn’t making much progress with his OCD.

“Things weren’t really changing for me,” he said. “I just kept up the same cycle of thoughts over and over again.”

While Piatt wasn’t seeing the progress he wanted with his mental health, he was making progress in his career. His first jobs were at smaller-market stations, in Mankato and Austin, but just three years out of college he’d landed his dream job in the Twin Cities at KARE. While he knew that he should have felt he’d hit the big time, Piatt often felt too overwhelmed by his mental health to really appreciate just how far he’d come.

Alison Dotson

He was reporting a story about local OCD activists who had had taken issue with a Target Christmas sweater that made light of the disorder when he met Alison Dotson, president of OCD Twin Cities, a local affiliate of the International OCD Foundation.

Piatt told Dotson about his diagnosis, and she encouraged him to come to some of her organization’s events. Piatt joined an OCD book club, where he learned that he has purely obsessional, or pure OCD, a type of OCD in which a person engages in hidden compulsions and mental rituals. The realization felt miraculous, he said.

Dotson, who also lives with pure OCD, said that it is common for people with this form of the disorder to go decades before finally getting a diagnosis that fits them.

“It took almost 20 years for me to figure out what I had because what I knew about OCD is the hand-washing, scared-of-germs or symmetry stuff,” Dotson explained. “I didn’t have any of that stuff. It was more intrusive thoughts.”

In Pure OCD, Piatt explained, random, sometimes disturbing thoughts somehow become a bigger obsession. “A lot of OCD is these outward compulsions like washing your hands,” Piatt said. “In pure OCD, a lot of the rituals and compulsions are mental, or inner, so I do a lot of mental checking, like ruminating and things like that. It’s not visible on the outside.”

Everyone has disturbing thoughts pop into their heads, but most people can dismiss them and go on with their lives. “For the person with OCD,” Piatt said, “that thought can get really stuck in our thinking and ruminating and examining it from every angle, ‘What does that mean about me?’”

One of Piatt’s first vivid, intrusive thought happened when he was in middle school.

“I was in the kitchen with my mom,” he said. “I remember seeing a knife on the table. I had the thought, ‘What if I grabbed that knife and stabbed my mom?’ It’s just a weird thing that our minds can do to us. I remember thinking, ‘I must be a really bad person because I had that thought. What does that say about me if I’m having those thoughts?’”

Dr. Kaz Nelson

This rumination cycle is how pure OCD manifests itself. “This type doesn’t get talked about as much,” Piatt said. “It is painful. It can really go down this huge direction of questioning your own worthiness.”

Kaz Nelson M.D., vice chair for education in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry, compares OCD’s intrusive thoughts to “earworms.”

“It’s like when someone hears a song that plays in their head over and over. Sometimes people have a similar experience with thoughts. People can be so disturbed by their thoughts that they assume they are a serial killer, for instance. They mistake intrusive thoughts as an urge. But that urge actually is the body scanning for danger. In an anxious person, the brain says, ‘Don’t do that.’ It intrudes on the brain to warn you to stay safe.”

Through Dotson and OCD Twin Cities, Piatt eventually found a therapist in New York who specializes in the treatment of OCD. During weekly Skype sessions with this therapist, Piatt learned that traditional talk therapy isn’t always helpful for people with the disorder.

“There’s a gold-standard treatment for OCD which is called ‘exposure and response prevention,’” Piatt said. In this approach, clients expose themselves to their anxiety-causing issues and then work to learn to live with the anxiety.

This approach has helped him, he said: “Once I started working with an OCD-trained therapist, it was a big shift for me.”

But recovery from mental illness doesn’t always follow a straight line, and Piatt is no exception. Though he felt that he was making great progress with his therapist, he eventually decided to step away and find his own form of treatment.

Piatt had been on Lexapro, a psychiatric medication commonly used to treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety, since college. A serious devotee of yoga, he decided to stop taking his medication and try to treat his symptoms naturally. “I always felt like the medication would change who I was, or that I would be cheating on life if I stayed on a medication,” he said. He’d had a positive experience with yoga, and he thought it might be all he needed to stay mentally healthy: “A holistic approach really speaks to me, so I felt I was robbing myself of that because I was on medication.”

When Piatt reached his low point, the one where he found himself crying on his condo floor, he had been off Lexapro and away from his therapist for several months. “I think that low point for me was a big eye-opening experience of how I need to figure out how to put my mental health at the forefront, how I need to see a therapist regularly and home in on things like my diet and my medication,” Piatt said. He went back to a therapist and back on medication.

Nelson supports Piatt’s approach to treatment.

“The best recovery rates come from certain types of therapy in conjunction with a medication,” she said. “It’s like if someone had a back injury and you just gave them Advil. That might help with the pain, but they need physical therapy along with the Advil to get completely better.”

Piatt said that this combination approach has been working for him. He’s been able to strike a balance — still practicing yoga and focusing on a natural approach to healing while at the same time taking the psychiatric medication he needs to keep his ruminations in check.

“For me I’ve discovered that the balance is finding a middle ground between holistic, yoga and Western approaches, going to therapy and taking meds. I’ve been back on medication for three months now. It’s been super-helpful. I feel so much better, so much more grounded. It turns out that it’s what I needed to do to get back on track.”

Open book

Piatt spent decades keeping his OCD under wraps, but these days he’s taking the opposite approach.

Since opening up in the workplace about his mental health, he’s decided to open up to the rest of world. He’s learning that telling others about his struggles has actually helped to take some of the heavy burden off of his shoulders.

“I think that has been a huge help, not feeling like I have to go it alone,” Piatt said. “Being human and vulnerable is powerful.” He’s now committed to telling his story, making it part of the way he sees himself in the world. It’s been tough, but with each day it’s getting easier.

One of the main reasons Piatt wants to tell his story is so that he can help other people get help sooner and not have to spend years struggling with OCD symptoms. “I want to help so the kid in middle school who feels like I did can say, ‘I think this might be that anxiety thing that I’ve heard about. I need to go talk to a therapist.’ That would’ve been such a game-changer for me. If I could’ve talked that out with somebody instead of letting it build up and internalize it, I wouldn’t have lost so much time to my OCD.”

Dotson understands where Piatt is coming from. Her decision to step into a leadership role at OCD Twin Cities came from the same place.

“Once I was diagnosed I wanted to help other people,” she said. “I had gone so long without a diagnosis: It was really scary. Now that I know what’s going on I feel a responsibility to spread the world so other people will get help.”

Dotson treats her OCD with a generic form of Paxil and occasional meetings with a specialist. “Medication worked really well for me,” she said, “maybe because I was so far gone when I went on it. It provided me with a little bit of relief. It slowed the obsessions for me. They were coming at such a rapid pace. It helped me calm down and reduce the anxiety.”

She strongly believes that education and open communication is key to getting the right treatment for OCD. Too many people suffer for too long. She wants that to change.

“The average number of years from onset of symptoms to diagnosis of OCD is 14 to 17 years,” Dotson said. “Awareness is growing, but there’s still not enough actual information out there about what it is.”

Piatt is hoping that he can use his position as a local TV personality as a way to get his story of struggle and recovery out to more people. “I’ve been blessed to have this platform at KARE 11,” he said. “I want to try to use that to help as many people as I can.”

While recovery from OCD takes time and patience, it is possible, Piatt said. He’s living proof.

“So much of this stuff is manageable at face-value,” he said. But keeping it bottled up inside only makes things worse. “When there is so much shame and secrecy around your diagnosis, you start feeling that there is something deeply wrong with you as a human being. That’s when this stuff can take you down. That’s why we need more people talking about their experience. This is what I hope to do.”

Road to recovery

Recovery from OCD is achievable, said Alik Widge M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and director of the Translational Neuroengineering Lab. A nationally respected expert on OCD, he agrees that exposure therapy is often the most beneficial approach to treatment of the disorder.

By learning how to identify and respond to OCD’s persistent impulses, patients learn how they can claim power over the disorder. After exposure therapy, Widge said, “You will still have the thoughts, but you are going to be able to say, ‘Hello, OCD. That’s an interesting thought. You are not in charge of me today. That’s not what I am going to do,’ and move on.”

Exposure and response prevention therapy, Widge said, helps individuals with OCD “find ways to not respond to disruptive feelings and break the cycle of having the thoughts and having the urge and doing the ritual. We have to break the chain.”

Medications can help to reduce a person’s anxiety and free the mind to respond to therapy, Widge said: “For some individuals, medication brings them down to the level that they are doing self-exposure patterns.”

Dr. Alik Widge

Other treatment approaches for OCD that involve physical contact with the brain have shown some success, Widge said, including transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive procedure that can be done in a doctor’s office, or deep-brain stimulation, a surgical procedure that involves implanting a device in the brain similar to the one used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Piatt is happy to hear that so many options exist for treating OCD.

These days, he’s feeling healthier than ever before. He’s supporting his continued recovery with his work, relishing the opportunity to be a producer at KARE. “It turns out I like being behind the scenes,” he said. “I get to really focus on other people’s stories.”

He’s also excited about a side project called Refresh Network, a YouTube channel where he and his videographer, Bruce Meyers, produce stories and interviews about living with mental illness. Piatt launched Refresh Network back in 2016 as a way to expand on stories of interesting people he’d met; recently he relaunched the network with a focus on mental health.

“Now our intention is to go around and have conversations with people about their mental health,” he said. “I want it to be a safe space for people to have open, real and vulnerable conversations about mental illness.”

There is certainly no shortage of interview subjects. “I have a lot of people in my mind that I would like to talk to,” Piatt said. “I am letting this project unfold as organically as I can. We’re on pace to put a new one out every three weeks.”

He’d like to see Refresh Network grow, maybe even into a broadcast show. “My ultimate dream behind this project is to one day have a morning show that helps people get their day started with mental health top of mind,” he said. “It makes so much sense, it feels right. It’s almost like my whole life has been leading up to this moment.”

On Aug. 15 at 6:30 p.m., Bryan Piatt will be a guest at “The Courage to Be Real,” a special event hosted by grief therapist and author Kelly Grosklags at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, 10500 Hillside Ave. W., Minnetonka. More information and tickets are available online.