James Avant IV of OCD Cakes Works to End Mental Health Stigma

He’s kind of everywhere at once. This particular week he’s baking a 700-cookie order for the Cincinnati Zoo, one nearly as sizable for an event at Memorial Hall, and a host of goodies for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk—and he turned down some Mother’s Day business because his production capacity has maxed out. It’s only a slightly busier week than average for James Avant IV, the 24-year-old founder of and one-man powerhouse behind OCD Cakes, the peculiarly named cake and cookie outfit popping up on a social media feed, local network news segment, and—ahem—magazine article near you. The visibility is by design. The profession was more happenstance.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Avant founded the business four years ago, naming it for Obsessive Cake Disorder. That’s not just a cheeky play on words; it represents his experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the anxiety disorder he’s contended with—to varying degrees—for a significant portion of his life. Intended to bring awareness to OCD and other mental health issues, the name elicits occasional criticism. Among a sea of encouragement and praise from fans and friends on his social media pages—awash with his vibrant, imaginative creations—the occasional troll rears its head.

“You know, the thing about mental illness stigma is that it’s pretty hard [to address] when you trivialize OCD and reword it,” said one Instagram commenter. Another, on Facebook, points out miniscule imperfections on cupcake toppers, “Some of these are not cut evenly. What is this?? You’re going against your perceived brand.” The internet is often unabashedly negative, but he says this particular feedback is off the mark.

“They think I’m making light of [the condition]—they don’t realize I have it myself,” he explains. A half-sigh later, in a flattened tone—sounding like he’s beyond the point of being hurt or annoyed by the backlash—he says it doesn’t bother him anymore. “I just want to make mental health palatable enough for people to talk about.” It’s a solemn side he doesn’t show often, conveying a serious cause without the pretty package.

Beyond the frosting, fondant, and sprinkles, his experiences with OCD over the years haven’t been so sweet. The outgoing guy sporting a positive smile and funky prints can now manage his symptoms—which are markedly less severe today—but that wasn’t always the case.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

James Avant’s passion for baking goes back to one summer afternoon when he was 7 or 8, making cornbread with his grandmother, Etta, a home cook who often baked from scratch for her husband, kids, and grandchildren. One day she pulled James and his brothers off the couch and said, “No more TV today. We’re going to go into the kitchen.”

The moment he felt the cornmeal granules sifting like sand through his fingers, it all clicked for him. He immediately discovered his interest in the ingredients and the chemistry behind how they worked together. He grins as he recalls asking why on earth she’d use “spoiled milk” (buttermilk) instead of fresh. That sparked the beginning of something special for him, though he never would have guessed it would bring him to where he is now.

A few short years later, Avant dreamed of becoming a pastry chef and set his sights high: on Paris’s esteemed Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. He admittedly knew nothing about what the career entailed—he just knew that, because of how it made him feel, it was for him. “Baking, the experience in itself, made me feel valued,” he says.

But following the onset of an episodic migraine his sophomore year at Roger Bacon High School, he would shift his focus entirely—for a while, at least. After taking an emergency dose of medication, his body was overcome with severe muscle spasms associated with a neurotoxin-activating drug allergy, a response so bad the emergency room nurses asked if he had cerebral palsy. It was another life-altering experience, this time pushing him toward the medical field.

“I kind of geeked out a little bit,” says Avant. “I was like, I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. It was super ambitious.”

The intense pressure of studying neurobiology at UC heightened his anxiety levels, pushing his obsessive-compulsive tendencies to the forefront. While he experienced subtle signs of OCD throughout his life, his fears of contamination, ruminations, obsession with symmetry, and ritualistic counting had never been this extreme.

“[As a child] he had these self-imposed standards where he was kind of a perfectionist,” says his father, James Avant III. “He had to write everything perfectly, and when it didn’t meet his standards, he would redo it until he was satisfied.” Always a high-performing student, his mother, Joann, says, “There were times when he got to the extended response part of a test where he might not have completed it all because there were some words he wrote that just didn’t meet his standards.”

During his first year of college, Avant struggled in silence while compulsive behaviors disrupted his daily life. He retreated from the extracurricular activities he’d considered a large part of his identity. He arrived to lectures an hour early in order to sanitize his desk and chair, along with those surrounding his—sometimes drawing unwanted attention from fellow students. He frequently cleaned his apartment-style dorm, specifically chosen to avoid the shared restrooms of traditional dormitories, for six to eight hours straight.

Some of the behaviors, however, were more alarming. After witnessing a car accident, which he saw occur over a manhole cover, Avant avoided driving over them or, if he couldn’t, felt compelled to perform the ritual of “scraping” his foot 10 times on his car floorboard to mitigate the anxiety of a perceived impending accident. His obsession with cleanliness went so far as to cause him to ingest small amounts of hand sanitizer or multipurpose cleaner if he felt he’d consumed unsanitary food. It became too much to manage on his own, and he knew he needed to ask for help.

“I approached my parents,” he says, “and mustered up the courage to say, ‘Hey, I think I have a problem.’ ”

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

There was no grand plan for OCD Cakes in the beginning. “[My roommate and I] were watching 2 Broke Girls—we were very much like Max and Caroline—he’s the quiet, super-business-savvy one and I’m the crude baker,” he says, sort of laughing at the irony that he’s gone this far with something that was essentially a fleeting idea. They created the concept at the end of their sophomore year. “He’s like, ‘We should try to start a business,’ jokingly. And I was like, Why not? So he came up with the name. It’s called OCD Cakes because I have OCD and we were baking.”

Although his roommate dropped out early, Avant forged ahead, falling in love with baking all over again in the process. Baking became his therapy. Therapists came and went—some just weren’t a great fit, some didn’t have experience treating OCD patients, and one quite literally disappeared in the middle of his treatment plan—but baking was always there. It made his anxiety melt away. “There’s no judgment during baking,” he says. “I get to control the experience. If I put A and B in, I’m always going to get C.”

He started small, taking orders from friends and family, spreading the word on campus, and fulfilling orders from his apartment—all the while finishing neurobiology and Spanish degrees. He was popular at UC, receiving orders from school organizations with word-of-mouth recommendations, but he hit his first big break when a woman from Lexington replied to his Craigslist ad for a custom wedding cake.

“Being a 250-person cake, it took me 11 hours to do by myself in my apartment—it’s crazy now that I think about it,” he says, chuckling. “[My roommates’] patience was tested living with me, let’s just say that.”

A year into the growing business, he knew he had to make a choice: finish his degree and return for medical school or drop everything to focus on OCD Cakes. Hesitant to break the news to his parents, he took the MCAT, collected letters of recommendation, and organized his application. But a professor who shared his story of leaving the medical field to pursue a passion for teaching helped Avant decide to make the leap. “I closed my binder, withdrew from the class, and started writing a three-page plan to tell my parents I wasn’t going to medical school,” he says. He scheduled time to speak with them and then read his plans to them aloud.

“I remember his hands and the paper were shaking,” says Joann. “I had tears streaming down my face—not because of sadness, but because I was so proud of him for taking time to share and defend [his ideas], and I respected that this is something that he wanted to share with us.” The pivot wasn’t exactly shocking, his father says. “I wasn’t surprised that baking or something in the creative arts was what he would do. The switch from science to baking—I guess baking is science, so it’s not that far from what he was intending to do in the first place.”

To get the business off the ground, Avant raised funds through savings, friends, and family, and enrolled in ArtWorks’s business startup program Co.Starters for help buttoning up his business plan and identifying his why.

“OCD Cakes would exist to take a bite out of the stigma surrounding mental health with cake,” he says he decided. “We associate cake with positivity, celebration, and camaraderie, and when you’re enjoying cake at a birthday or at a wedding or someone brings cake, all that negativity and worry is far in the distance in the moment you’re enjoying it.”

Aside from the occasional contractor lending a helping hand to churn out a large order, Avant bakes and decorates his cakes, cookies, and pastries solo. A few days a week he’s holed up at Findlay Kitchen, the commercial incubator kitchen in Over-the-Rhine where startup food vendors rent space and equipment by the hour or day.

It’s a home away from home for the city’s culinary up-and-comers, and Avant is a popular guy there. He whisks around the space, smiling as always, exchanging hellos with the folks at The Bagelry and Eli’s BBQ, among others. The rest of the facility is filled with music from Spotify playlists, but he prefers to concentrate, working in silence.

Making a Swiss buttercream cookie frosting, he separates egg whites from yolks to whip up a fluffy, marshmallow-y meringue topping, completely starting over a few times when a smidgen of yolk seeps into the whites. The occasional guest pops into his room to chat him up, and he doesn’t know a stranger—something for which he actually credits his anxiety. “If I walk into a room where I don’t know anyone, I’ll immediately go up and talk to someone, so then I always know somebody.”

It’s turned out to be a useful trait. Along with maintaining his business operations, he teaches baking courses via UC’s Communiversity adult learning program and gives seminars about anxiety and OCD, sharing his experiences and coping strategies with others who may be going through something similar. It’s not just a platform to promote his business—he considers it part of his therapy routine.

“It’s allowed me to learn more about myself, connect with people I would have never met or had the opportunity to affect otherwise, and that goes in return for me,” he says. “I’ve met people who have impacted me, and they probably don’t know they’ve done that.”

And it’s not unusual for friends and family to refer people to him to discuss what they believe might be their own symptoms of OCD. “We’re fortunate that he has the ability to share his story and to be helpful to others, and he doesn’t mind doing it,” says Joann. “He doesn’t look for a reward or payment. He does it because it’s just a part of the ministry, so to speak.”

Avant’s megaphone just keeps getting bigger, too. A year after graduating from Co.Starters, he participated in ArtWorks’s Big Pitch program, where he won $15,000 in funding, and in 2017 he was the keynote speaker at the group’s annual celebration breakfast. His success has positively impacted ArtWorks, says its CEO and artistic director, Tamara Harkavy. “Standing up in front of 1,000 people and telling his story, as he has done often, was an incredible benefit to our individual touch points,” she says, “because it allowed us to raise money, hire more kids, and to help them learn skills through workforce development and training.”

He’s also kept in touch with his Co.Starters cohorts, like Blair Fornshell of OTR’s Brown Bear Bakery. Technically she’s a competitor, but Harkavy says it’s not uncommon to see Cincinnati’s small-business entrepreneurs stick together and provide support along the way. “I think we have an unusual city for that. We want to see each other thrive.”

Right now Avant is at something of a business crossroads. He recently hired an employee to help manage day-to-day operations and is currently exploring sites for a potential brick-and-mortar bakery, which he’s aiming to open sometime next year.

While he’s managed most of his OCD symptoms on his own for several years through baking, meditative breathing exercises, and faith, he knows it’s only a matter of time before the business becomes a source of stress in itself, so he’s currently looking for a therapist as a proactive measure.

Despite the hell OCD has put him through, he’s grateful for where it’s taken him. “OCD kind of brought me back to helping people,” says Avant. “Someone recently asked me, if money was no object, would you still bake? And I was like, ‘Definitely, but probably more with charity and community work. But I’ve gotta eat.’ ”

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