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Hope for the future

Matthew Ho knew he was on the road to recovery when he could go a movie theatre and not get stuck at the concession stand.

“Stuck” is the word the 23-year-old uses to describe how obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) consumed his life. As early as age 11, he remembers counting footsteps. “I could only go to 22 and then I’d get stuck and have to start over,” he says.

The counting soon gave way to other rituals: pacing, going up and down the stairs, turning his phone on and off and eventually, hitting himself in the head, vomiting and holding his breath to cope with unwanted and intrusive thoughts. Underlying it all was an extreme fear that his mother would die if he didn’t complete his rituals.

Matthew was diagnosed with OCD when he was 16. But finding the right treatment took another four years.

By the time Matthew was referred to Canada’s first OCD residential program at Sunnybrook’s Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre in 2017, he was barely eating or taking care of his personal needs. The team at Sunnybrook soon recommended a non-invasive intervention reserved for only the most severe cases.

Traditionally for patients with cancer, the Gamma Knife Icon uses highly targeted, high-dose radiation to disrupt the misbehaving cells associated with OCD deep in the brain, while sparing other healthy tissue. Sunnybrook was the first in Canada to use the technique for severe OCD.

With treatment, Matthew was able to “talk more fluidly and had motivation to do things again,” he says. His improvements were enough for doctors to recommend that he resume treatment at the Thompson Centre.

That was nearly two years ago and Matthew smiles when he says his caregivers can’t believe he’s the same person. He has trouble believing it too. “I never thought I’d be able to enjoy life and fully commit to giving something my all.”

Matthew is now working part-time and volunteering with the Thompson Centre’s peer support program. He reaches out by telephone and videoconferencing to the centre’s newest clients, offering support and answering questions as someone who’s been there. “I share things that work for me,” he says. Matthew likes hearing how his words give hope and inspiration to people embarking on the journey that he describes as “some of the hardest work I’ve done in my life.”

Matthew’s message? “Don’t ever stop fighting your OCD. Even if you lose the fight, it’s good to resist.”

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