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Gillian Sagansky

When someone leaves their job at Condé Nast, it’s usually to go work for a different company. For Gillian Sagansky, it was to check into an OCD treatment center: the writer and DJ was diagnosed with ADD and OCD as a kid, and after years of struggling with the wrong treatments, finally reached her breaking point in 2019. But rather than do it all in the shadows, she started a podcast called Driven Minds—which has hosted everyone from Ron Howard to Lykkie Li—to tackle taboos around mental health and bring the subject where it belongs: in the light.
by Sollis Health

When and how did you first realize you were struggling with your mental health?

I started disassociating when I was eight. The first time was at my annual piano recital. I was practicing on a spare piano in the backroom before taking the stage, when out of nowhere, I separated from myself. I was completely untethered from reality, and nothing felt real. I didn’t know where I was in time and space, which in itself was traumatizing. I kept reciting my name and address in an attempt to place myself, and when that didn’t work I started scratching my arms and neck hoping I’d come back into my body. In a state of panic and tears I found my parents and told them I couldn’t perform that day. It was the first time I realized the power of my mind, and how terrifying a place it could be. A couple years after that, I was diagnosed with ADD, and then OCD soon after, and the mental health flood gates were open.

How has it affected your life, your work as an editor, podcaster, and DJ, and your relationships—and what would you say has been the hardest part?

OCD rituals and intrusive thoughts rapidly firing through my brain, were, in the past, my biggest struggle. Whenever I was prepping for a DJ gig or a recording, the rituals would intensify under the stress. I felt if I didn’t complete them, the gig wouldn’t go well, so I was beholden to these compulsions. Knowing I was living in a hell of my own creation, coupled with the time and energy I was devoting to my OCD, is what frustrated me more than anything. I didn’t think there was a way out, so I shoved it all under the carpet, resolved to live with it, and that things were okay-enough.

“Mental health does not have a face, a name, gender, or occupation. When I was at McLean Psychiatric Hospital, there was an NFL quarterback, a Harvard Ph.D. student, and a ceramicist, all trying to make sense of their pain so they could live happier lives.”

Have there ever been times you haven’t felt seen by your family, friends, or partner—or even by your own doctors?

Countless! I was diagnosed with ADD and OCD in the early aughts, which is worth noting. Thankfully, we’re in the midst of a sociocultural shift concerning the way in which we conceive of and talk about mental health, but I think my generation and those preceding us were subjected to really destructive verbiage, stereotyping, and flat-out ignorance when it came to addressing mental health issues. I was told by friends and family to “just pay attention” or “just stop obsessing,” which is akin to telling a depressed person to just think positively. If we could, we would, but mental health is more nuanced and complex and we know that. When people dole out overly simplistic solutions that are utterly out of touch with the psychic experience, it amplifies the shame and the “wtf is wrong with me?” thought cycle that we’re already in. I still feel unseen when people use OCD as an adjective (“I reorganized my closet today, I’m so OCD”). It’s reductive and insensitive. OCD is not an eccentric personality quirk. It’s a debilitating mental struggle that destroys lives, and should be treated as such.

How have you been able to advocate for yourself in a medical system that doesn’t always make it easy to be heard?

This is such a great question. I think it’s a lot harder to be heard in the psychiatric space specifically, because mental health is more subjective than having a broken arm. There’s no quantitative scale or unit of measurement to discern a patient’s pain or progress, so it’s my word against theirs. Also, throughout my youth, I blindly assumed my doctor was my advocate because the narrative we’re fed is that doctors know best. So it wasn’t until my early twenties that I learned I could, or even should, question practitioners. By the time I was 12, I was on a rotation of anti-psychotics, SSRIs, and stimulants. During my weekly visits to my psychiatrist, he’d ask how the medication felt, but never how I felt. It’s hard to advocate for yourself when you’re not being asked the right questions, and learning which questions to ask takes time. When I’d tell him the OCD symptoms were the same, he’d prescribe me something stronger. The stronger the medication or higher the dose, the more I felt like a shell of myself. I had all the side effects (dry mouth, insomnia, weight loss, rapid heartbeat, etc), without any of the purported benefits. I felt like a lab rat, but I went with it, because I didn’t think to question a doctor’s judgement. The last straw was when I was prescribed Klonopin in my early twenties. I’d heard of the drug and had an ominous feeling about it, took it anyway, and ended up in a downward spiral for three months. When I emerged, I went off everything cold turkey (do not recommend this), and finally felt like myself again for the first time in over a decade. When I checked myself in to an OCD treatment center in 2019, the first thing I told our residential psychiatrist was that I was not open to taking drugs of any kind during my stay. I firmly held my ground throughout treatment, and continue to hold it to this day.

Tell us a little about what made you decide to spend time in a psychiatric hospital. How was the experience, and what did you learn from it?

The OCD and the shame surrounding it worsened over the years until I reached a breaking point. I felt like a prisoner of my own mind and wanted to make a radical move. I left my post at Condé Nast and checked into McLean Psychiatric Hospital in 2019. The experience was amazing. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who understood my pain in a way no one else was capable of, and I understood theirs. We knew each other’s deepest darkest thoughts, we wrote our worst fears on communal whiteboards, and supported each other when someone’s weakness was another’s strength. The biggest takeaway from that time was twofold: first, I learned that I have the power to transform my mind without medication. Second was the importance of talking about mental health struggles with others. In the words of Brené Brown, shame thrives on secrecy. If you share your secrets, then shame cannot breed. The parts of ourselves we are desperate to hide are often the parts that need to see the light.

Even with more of an emphasis on the importance of mental health these days, it feels like getting help, and the idea of spending time in an institution, is still a bit stigmatized. Why do you think that is and what can we all do to help change it?

It’s completely stigmatized! I’m always surprised by how far we’ve come with so many other social issues, yet how far we still have to go with mental health. In my opinion, the majority of the stigma is perpetuated by popular culture. The media has created a caricature of the “inpatient” that not only damages and influences our perception, but discourages people from seeking treatment. Growing up, two of my favorite movies were Girl Interrupted and Requiem for a Dream, which massively warped my perception of in-patient treatment and the kinds of people who go to these facilities. Mental health does not have a face, it does not have a name, gender, or occupation. When I was at McLean, there was an NFL quarterback, a Harvard Ph.D. student, and a ceramicist, all living under the same roof, trying to make sense of their pain so they could live happier lives. In a society that rewards conformity and “fine-ness,” it takes such chutzpah to look inwards, stare your demons in the eye and resolve to work on them. Stigma is born from a lack of understanding and fear. We can change the stigma by sharing our thoughts and experiences. It really is that simple, it just takes a bit of vulnerability.

“I still feel unseen when people use OCD as an adjective (‘I reorganized my closet today, I’m so OCD’). It’s reductive and insensitive. OCD is not an eccentric personality quirk. It’s a debilitating mental struggle that destroys lives, and should be treated as such.”

What inspired you to start a podcast about mental health, and who’s your dream guest you haven’t been able to get yet?

Growing up, I felt alone in my self-constructed shame cave because I believed my brain was broken. It was only years later that I realized nothing needed to be repaired and that I held the key to ridding myself of this persistent feeling of shame, which also exacerbated my symptoms. The answer? Talking about it—which was the most radical thing I could ever imagine doing. I slowly started having conversations about mental health with friends, and we realized the power and freedom that comes with sharing the things we felt ashamed about. A year later, I threw caution to the wind and started the Driven Minds Podcast, which I do with Type 7, Porsche’s editorial platform. Now, anyone can listen in and, as terrifying as that is, the freedom outweighs the fear. My hope is that when the people we admire open up about their struggles, it will encourage listeners to embrace and face their own. The only way out is through. My dream guests include Dr. Gabor Maté, Salman Rushdie, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lena Dunham.

Have you discovered any holistic remedies along the way that help you through the tough moments, days, weeks?

Plant medicine! I take CBD to sleep and microdose psilocybin when I feel called to. I also do MDMA therapy which has helped me leaps and bounds.

What words of advice do you have for someone who might be struggling with their mental health and having trouble getting the right support?

The first thing is talk to someone you trust and who will take the time to listen to you. Humans have a hard-wired impulse for connection. When we connect with someone, it not only helps us process our emotions, but it reduces our stress levels and makes us feel less alone in our experience. I would also ask myself questions like, when did I first start feeling “bad”? What conditions were present that might have set these feelings off? These are questions I wish I was asked or had asked myself. When we believe the stories about our pain, it makes it hard to change the narrative. Understanding the origin story of my pain has healed me more than anything else has.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about mental health?

In my experience, the biggest misconception is that anxiety, OCD, and depression, are genetic, random misfirings through your brain, and that medication should be the first line of defense. While genealogical factors can set it off, it’s not always random or out of nowhere. We have a grossly oversimplified idea of mental “illness” that doesn’t account for environmental context. Research has shown that life stressors like loneliness, death, heartbreak, abuse, et al, are directly linked to symptoms of anxiety, OCD, and depression. Growing up, I was told my brain was wired differently than my peers’, and there was nothing I could do besides take medication to tweak my brain chemistry. When the meds didn’t work, I felt option-less. My baseline for suffering and anxiety was therefore a lot higher than what it could have been if I knew there were other options. The way we approach mental health treatment desperately needs to change. As author Johann Hari says, pain is not always a chemical problem with a chemical solution. We need to ask different questions and make space for deeper understanding.

How will Sollis be able to help you on your medical journey?

Sollis has a team of specialists in their network who make member referrals for physiatrists, psychologists, and anything else I’d need. I’m looking forward to tapping into their network!
The views and opinions expressed in this campaign are those of the participants, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sollis Health.
Sollis Health is a 24/7 doctor, private ER and concierge service rolled into one. Whether it’s an emergency or simply to diagnose the symptoms that you typically Google in the middle of the night, our emergency-trained doctors are ready for anything. Interested in becoming a Sollis member?

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