Raymond Braun

Year of Graduation: 

"I discovered that I liked the physical activity and movement. It calmed down my mind. It was a way of building confidence, getting out of the house."

The thoughts were intrusive and often disturbing. They focused on contamination, sickness and freakish accidents. Then came COVID-19, followed by six-month stay-at-home orders in some states. For Raymond Braun ’08, who has spent his life coping with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, the pandemic represented “all of my nightmares coming true.”

“Things that I had previously been doing that I was told were irrational, such as sanitizing groceries, thinking about airflow in rooms and wearing a mask had been normalized,” Braun says. “My world had been turned upside down. During the first week of quarantine, people lightheartedly texted me and said: ‘You’ve been preparing your whole life for this moment. You’re more ready for this than anyone.’”

For years, Braun did his best to hide his OCD behind a smile, humor and an unremitting perfectionist streak, a “classic misdirect,” Braun says. But the strong veneer he projected had already begun to fracture in the months leading up to the pandemic when Braun’s best friend and primary support system, Maya Amoils, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. The two met the first day of freshman year at Stanford University and quickly became “platonic soul mates.”

“People called us Will and Grace, or Oprah and Gayle,” he says. Braun and Amoils studied abroad together, started their careers at Google together, moved to London and eventually settled in Los Angeles together. Braun was Amoils’ first call when her doctor scheduled an emergency biopsy. He was with her when she got the diagnosis.

After years of grappling with a particularly insidious variant of OCD that made Braun terrified something catastrophic could happen to the people he loved most at any moment, Amoils’ diagnosis was a horror come to life. And the subsequent months he spent accompanying her to chemo visits and overnight hospital stays only heightened his fears and compulsions around mortality. “I spiraled and went into a really dark place,” he says.

Braun’s lowest moment came, he says, at the start of 2021, when he spilled a pot of boiling water onto his right leg. He refused to seek medical treatment for the resulting burn because he didn’t want to leave quarantine. He was using the boiled water to sterilize his pillowcase. His toothbrush. Blueberries. The battle against COVID was an hours long process every day.

Raymond Braun               

Braun is not alone. About 2.5 million people, or 1.2 % of American adults, have OCD in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Symptoms occur on a spectrum, from inconvenient to debilitating. When Braun didn’t leave his West Hollywood apartment for six months (despite the lifting of social distance guidelines), family and friends persuaded him to join an OCD recovery program. Amoils led the charge.

“I felt a lot of shame that my best friend, who was quite literally fighting for her life, was spending time strategizing my OCD care,” he says. Amoils was a passionate advocate for mental health, leading mental health partnerships at YouTube and working throughout the pandemic to help those in crisis.

Braun’s OCD recovery program began with cognitive behavioral therapy and the development of an “exposure therapy pyramid,” or a list of fears and intrusive thoughts, stacked in a pyramid according to “subjective units of
distress.” Behaviors and fears with the highest “SUD” position help dictate a treatment course of action. “My therapist and I came up with the idea of doing a triathlon,” Braun says, “because on my pyramid it encapsulated a lot: large groups of people, sweat and grime, riding on roads, or swimming in bodies of water that don’t have chlorine.”

Amoils also committed to doing a triathlon. The quest became a shared goal and guiding light for their respective healing journeys.

For Braun, therapy included working with a personal trainer, an endurance coach, a physical therapist and a primary care physician to ensure that he was approaching training in noncompulsive ways. His daily regimen
consisted of two workouts, for one to three hours at a time, and weekend runs and bike rides that could stretch to six hours. “I wanted to honor the health and vitality of my body,” he says, “and celebrate what it’s capable of versus fixating on everything that could go wrong.”

Initially, this treatment course was tough for Braun to fathom. Growing up in Holland, Ohio, he says, “I was an awkward, gangly kid, and I got cut from every team that I joined.” He preferred intellectual discourse and the
performing arts to athletic glory, adding: “Whenever I did anything sporty, I’d get bullied for my mannerisms. Sports never felt like a safe and welcoming space for me.”

In the end, athletics would be his deliverance.

“I discovered that I liked the physical activity and movement,” he says. “It calmed down my mind. It was a way of building confidence, getting out of the house, and having something to look forward to and take pride in.”

After six months of therapy and training, Braun was ready to compete in the Santa Barbara Triathlon sprint, an event suited to first-timers. He completed the course — a 500-meter swim, a six-mile bike ride and a two-mile run — in an exhausting 47 minutes. “I was in bed the rest of the day thinking, ‘How can I do three times this distance?’ The idea of doing an Olympic distance didn’t feel possible.”

Braun soon discovered that endurance events draw numerous people recovering from mental or physical health challenges. Many are driven to conquer self-limiting perceptions of their abilities. He found solidarity and new training partners in the ranks. It was this community that rallied around him when, in November 2021, Amoils began end-of-life, palliative care. She passed away on January 18, 2022. During the last conversation Braun had with Amoils, she expressed worry about how he would cope with the grief of his loss. He promised to do an Ironman “for both of us.”

Training and competing in triathlons morphed from being the North Star of Braun’s OCD treatment to his primary tool for coping with grief. “I felt her with me during those long training sessions,” he says.

In November 2022, less than a year after his last conversation with Amoils, Braun competed in the pinnacle of the sport of triathlon, an Ironman in Arizona. Ironman races cover withering distances: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Braun finished in 16 hours, 32 minutes, just eight minutes before the cutoff. Amoils’ photo was tucked into his triathlon kit.

All of this led to the World Triathlon Challenge. 

Raymond Braun trains underwater

Braun had heard about the World Marathon Challenge,
in which runners complete seven marathons on seven
continents in seven days. But no one had ever completed seven triathlons on seven continents in seven days. Braun
wanted to be the first. He contacted the race organizer and local triathlon governing bodies to organize a certified world record attempt. “Being an Exonian, I’m a little bit of an overachiever,” he says.

His goal was twofold: to honor Amoils and to destigmatize conversations about mental health. “Three years
ago, I had never run more than three miles,” Braun says. “I loved the idea of doing something so seemingly impossible and being able to say it was all made possible by therapy. This was more of a mental than physical challenge.”

After starting in Antarctica, Braun made stops in Cape Town, South Africa; Perth, Australia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Madrid; and Miami. He slept only two to three hours between races, fueled by adrenaline, energy bars and airport fast food.

The intercontinental event wasn’t lacking for drama. In Antarctica, a blizzard and a minus-20-degree wind chill
prevented Braun from swimming; instead, he substituted cross-country skiing. Forgetting to don a helmet, he fell in the first two minutes and smacked his head on the ice. Battling a throbbing headache, he also battled intrusive thoughts reminiscent of an earlier time. Braun recalls, “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, do I have a concussion? What if I’m bleeding? I’m not going to be able to do this.’” He persevered and biked across the barren ice sheet, averaging 6 mph across the treacherous conditions.

On February 7, 2023, Braun became the first person to complete the World Triathlon Challenge. The feat is, in an important way, a rebuttal to years of struggle with OCD. It’s also a platform for positive change.

Raymond Braun bikes in Antarctica

To date, Braun has completed more than 16 triathlons. In each endeavor, he draws strength and purpose in service to others. He utilized the publicity from his world record achievement and subsequent endurance races, for
example, to raise funds and awareness for mental health causes. Modeled after his own seven-day adventure, he collaborated with the nonprofit Project Healthy Minds to create the “777 pledge,” which asks people to take seven actions to improve their mental and physical health and have seven conversations with people over seven days to support and hold them accountable.

Of course, OCD is a formidable foe. Braun remembers what was: “If I thought about something that I was happy about or looking forward to, my mind would subconsciously make a list of the 100 ways that it could be sabotaged or hurt someone. I would fixate on those. I could never just be present in a moment and truly experience happiness or joy.”

His sister, Hillary Braun ’05, who played varsity field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse at Exeter and is now a transplant surgeon resident at the University of California at San Francisco, applauds how far he has come. “I
think about what he overcame in just a year or two, it’s incredible.” When classmate and friend Emily Katz ’08 first heard about Braun’s plans to compete in triathlons, she had a visceral reaction. “Full-body chills,” she says. “If anyone
can pull off an ambitious goal in this life, it’s Raymond.
Anything he puts his mind and heart to, it turns to gold.”

Braun says he will always be in recovery and is aware the intrusive thoughts could resurface anytime, but he’s confident that he has developed the tools and the skills to keep them at bay. Rather than bow to compulsive behavior, Braun is focusing his energy on helping others through their own mental health journeys. It’s a mindset taught by his parents, both of whom work for nonprofit organizations. His father helps to make senior housing more accessible while his mother works for a group that teaches financial literacy to help reduce the debt burden of student loans.

Shaping Braun just as significantly were his days at
the Academy and Exeter’s
non sibi ethos, which he calls “foundational” to his life. At Exeter, Braun was president of both the Exeter Student Service Organization and Best
Buddies, a nonprofit organization that creates social and community opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. His OCD wasn’t formally diagnosed until his mid-20s, but through therapy — and with the support of
friends and teachers — he says, he came out as gay his
senior year at Exeter. Only then was he finally able to
dispel years of internalized shame about his sexuality.

Today Braun works as a TV correspondent and runs RWB Media, a GLAAD Award-winning creative services and consulting agency he formed after a decade working at Google, ViacomCBS and producing documentaries. The
firm works with various corporations, nonprofits and advocacy groups to develop multimedia content that embodies Braun’s mission of “storytelling for social impact.” He graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in science, technology and society and an M.A. in media studies. In his work and in his personal life, Braun is embracing vulnerability. He’s even describing his journey with a verbal twist. “I’ve learned the best way for me to combat all of this shame and internalized fear is to name it,
address it and put a spotlight on it,” he says. “As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

— Andrew Faught

This profile was first published in the summer 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.