By Shannon Shy
My dear friend (and the dear friend of countless others) Riley Sisson lost his physical life in September 2014 at the age of 25. I last saw him in July of that year when he, his mom Margaret (also my dear friend), and I rode in a taxi to the airport after the annual International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation (IOCDF) conference in Los Angeles. Riley suffered since childhood under the oppression of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the most debilitating mental disorders known to medical science, and, for years, addiction, the tragic result of attempting to mask the pain of OCD -- double the torture, double the pain. After a long period of sobriety, on a fateful day in September, Riley accidentally over-dosed.
If you didn’t know Riley, the following seven sentences from his obituary describe him perfectly:
Those who knew Riley understood he was exceptional. Often drawn to him first by his wit, one soon saw his heart-a big heart- one that embraced all good people. Riley was funny, smart, big and lovable. He was a talented musician and music brought him great joy. His empathy for others, particularly those with struggles and hurt, taught us all a lesson in selflessness. Indeed, he taught us many lessons in his years and his loss will be felt deeply by many. To lose a person so young and so kind and with so much to offer the world is heartbreaking.
I’ll never forget the intense grief and range of emotions I had when I received the phone call from Margaret delivering the news of Riley’s passing - - shock, sadness, dismay, anger (at life and at myself), and uncertainty. You see, although Riley was struggling mightily, he was determined to fight. At the 2014 IOCDF conference, Riley gave presentations as part of two panel discussions. He hit it out of the park. When he spoke, the audience hung on every word. He was humble, pithy, witty, articulate, knowledgeable, self-deprecating . . . well, you get the drift. At the conclusion of his first panel presentation, I approached Riley and said to him that I was really impressed. I told him that he had a gift and had met his calling. Riley knew how to relate and his story was impactful. He was quietly charismatic, charming, and personable- a natural in front of a crowd. He could connect. He was intent on battling his enemies with all his might and, unselfishly, intent on doing something to try to help others. At his young age, he had become a beacon for others who struggled as he did. On the ride to the airport, he told me he was really struggling. When we parted, he hugged me and said “I love ya’, man.” I replied “I love you too.” Less than two months later, he passed. Yet, as much as Riley’s death still stings, God’s grace asks us and allows us to look forward – Riley’s powerful spirit lives on.
In the midst of the painful aftermath of his death, many wondered, including yours truly, about what more each of us could have done to save Riley. And then four amazing people – Margaret, Riley’s sister Sarah, and fellow OCD sufferers and close friends of Riley’s, Chrissie Hodges and Tim Blue -- redirected the energy behind those natural feelings of guilt to something profound and productive. At his memorial service, they each gave beautiful tributes to Riley and reminded us that we collectively should not, could not, and, most importantly, would not let his death be in vain. He has a legacy. Our responsibility was and remains to ensure that it continues to be heard. They called us to action -- Educate ourselves. Reach out. Help those who struggle.
Margaret had already been involved in helping the IOCDF. She upped the ante. To take her son’s legacy forward, Margaret created Riley’s Wish Foundation, which seeks to encourage purposeful actions to serve those who struggle. Taking the lateral and running down the field, the IOCDF recently created the Riley Sisson Memorial Scholarship Fund to help those who want to attend the IOCDF annual conference but cannot due to financial hardships. If you want more information and/or you want to donate to either Riley’s Wish Foundation, to the IOCDF Riley Sisson Memorial Scholarship Fund, or to the IOCDF, visit the following websites: www.rileyswish.com; http://ocd2016.org/donate/; or www.iocdf.org.
So, my friends, I call you to action too. Educate yourself. Reach out. Help those who struggle. As my friend Tim Blue so aptly put it, “Do Something.” I tip my hat to you, Riley. I continue to think about you. Thanks for continuing to inspire me. Love ya’, man. And Margaret, love ya’ too. Thanks for continuing to inspire me as well.
Shannon Shy, Esq.
OCD Advocate, www.overcomingocd.net
President, Board of Directors, International OCD Foundation
Vice President, Board of Directors, OCD Mid-Atlantic Affiliate