In 2011, Jon Teller was admitted to Penn State University. It was one of the happiest moments of his life.
In his senior year of high school, Teller had struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder, but now he was preparing to head to college, pushing forward to overcome the OCD.
But things were about to get much worse. He dealt with his OCD in his first year, but it became destabilizing by the summer. For Teller, who struggled with a form of the disorder called intrusive thoughts, the world was uncertain, and it wasn’t okay.
“It was really just like everything about my future,” Teller said. “How many kids did I want to have? What did I want to be doing? Why did I do certain things in the past? Why did my mom let me do this? Things that people without OCD aren't bothered by, I needed to have an answer.”
Teller is now a junior at the University of Richmond, planning on majoring in psychology with honors. This summer, he will speak at an international OCD conference in Chicago. He chose to fight a battle that many others lose, and right now, he’s winning. But it didn’t come easily.
The problem becomes real
The summer after his freshman year at Penn State, Teller tried to convince his parents that he needed help. But his family didn’t understand the severity of the problem.
“We didn't originally think it to be as complete and as severe as it eventually turned out to be,” his older brother Matthew Teller said.
His mother, Jane Teller, said the family hadn’t listened to Teller’s cries for help until one night during a major snowstorm.
“When I finally believed him was when there was a horrible snowstorm, and he literally walked himself to the hospital, 5 or 6 miles, in a terrible blizzard, and he checked himself in,” she said.
At that point, Teller’s parents understood the severity of his disorder, and they began to seek treatment. They went through six doctors before learning about McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School and has what Teller and his family described as one of the best OCD treatment facilities in the world.
Learning to fight
In February 2014, Teller was placed in residential treatment at McLean. Though he went in confident and ready for an easy path to recovery, he realized the truth was less romantic. For six hours a day — three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon — Teller went through a therapy technique called exposure and response prevention.
“You get exposed to your fear, and if you just sit with the anxiety, the thoughts become less powerful,” Teller said.
He learned that it was okay to be uncertain. If he asked himself a question he couldn’t answer, he learned to tell himself to wait five minutes. Five minutes later, he told himself to wait an hour for an answer. And before he knew it, he had gone through an entire day without becoming anxious about the uncertainty.
In May 2014, the doctors and staff at McLean decided that Teller had the tools he needed to leave residential treatment. Though Teller was as scared as anyone who is thrust back into the “real world” after being in a controlled environment, he began seeing a new psychologist, Dr. Fred Penzel.
“If you love your therapist, they're not doing a good job,” Teller said. “I didn't love going to see him, but I knew he was doing a good job. He's the best of the best.”
Penzel would trigger Teller intentionally, forcing him to combat his fears.
“One day,” Penzel told him, “you won’t be able to believe you spent so much time crying about these things.”
In fall 2014, Teller started taking classes at Suffolk County Community College back home in Long Island, New York. He excelled, earning a 4.0 GPA, and decided he was ready to leave home.
“I kept telling my parents there would be a time when I feel better, and I wasn't just going to go anywhere,” he said.
Finding his place
Teller had heard about Richmond from some of his brother’s friends. He applied, but assumed that he would be rejected. When he received a letter of acceptance in December 2014, he was shocked. He called the admissions office to ask why Richmond had accepted him. His story, an admissions employee explained, was incredible, and the university felt that he deserved admittance.
Teller was excited, but nervous. He remembers how uncertain he felt when his parents dropped him off on campus in January 2015, but he was determined that this college experience would go better than his time at Penn State.
“I came here not knowing anyone, and I was taking a big risk, and I was coming off this treatment and I was weak,” he said. “But I said, ‘I have to do it now. If I don't do it now, I won't do it.’ So right when I came here, I was nervous, and my parents dropped me off, and I stopped and I said, 'This is my time.’”
He didn’t look back. His first Monday at Richmond, he began searching for research opportunities, eventually finding Dr. Laura Knouse, a psychology professor who studies attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with whom he conducted summer research. He tutored for a psychology course called "Methods and Analysis" and he earned a spot on the student conduct council. In fall 2015, he served as an orientation adviser for transfer students, meeting some of his best friends, and academically, he continued to excel, with a cumulative GPA that now stands at 3.96.
Penzel said he was proud to see Teller doing so well.
“It is largely why I do what I do, and why I really enjoy treating people with OCD as I have for the past 34 years,” Penzel said. “Because so many people with OCD give up on their dreams and live limited lives.”
Making a difference
But Teller did not give up, and Penzel wanted to give him a chance to tell his story at this summer’s annual OCD conference in Chicago, which takes place from July 29-31.
Teller’s family was ecstatic about the news.
“I couldn't be more proud of him,” Matthew Teller said. “It's absolutely incredible. It's not as if he's just doing all right. He's kicking ass.”
His mother said that the family would be spending that weekend in Chicago, celebrating her son’s triumphs. She said she was proud to know he would be telling his story at an international conference, but she wasn’t surprised that he was working to give back.
“I have three children,” she said. “I will tell you, of my three children, he has a heart of gold.”
Teller will also be researching at Yale University this summer. His research will help determine whether the club drug ketamine alleviates symptoms in OCD sufferers.
Teller said he was trying to decide whether he wanted to get a doctorate in clinical psychology or go to medical school. Either way, his end goal is the same.
“I want to inspire people,” he said. “I want people to look up to me and say, 'Because of you, I never gave up.’”
He might not know what his future has in store, how many children he’ll have or why events have transpired as they have, but he’s come to peace with that uncertainty.
“If I could go back and change anything, I would change nothing,” he said. “It’s made me the person I am today. I don't know everything, and life's uncertain. But that's okay.”
Contact features editor Damian Hondares at email@example.com