An author, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells all about what it’s like to live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, how she copes with harming stigmas and what we can all do to improve our general awareness of what the illness entails.
“If you have any knowledge of mental illness and the way it’s portrayed in mainstream media you will have noticed that there are certain ‘trendy’ illnesses. Eating Disorders had their day, then Depression, Anxiety, and most recently Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Each is debilitating in its own way for sufferers to see them glamourised on websites like Tumblr, or in articles like 5 Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder is so profoundly painful and belittling for sufferers.
As a sufferer of OCD I am forced to justify and legitimise my illness to virtually anyone who has heard those three little letters. It has become trendy to claim to “be OCD about something”. If you keep your bedroom tidy or like your books in alphabetical order you can joke about “how OCD you are”. This trivialisation of a potentially life ruining disorder makes it all the more difficult for those who are truly suffering to seek help, or even feel like they deserve it.
Now, that’s not to say that people with OCD don’t have clean rooms or alphabetised bookshelves, but it’s a gross generalisation that can make sufferers without those symptoms feel illegitimate or like they’re being “overdramatic”. My room is by no means pristine, but I know exactly where everything is or where it should be. If something gets moved and I’m not able to fix it immediately it is likely to send me into a spiral of distress that moves me to tears; the panic resulting in cancelling any plans I had that day. If I buy a new book and there’s no room on my bookshelf (a dilemma I thankfully don’t have to face that often anymore since I was gifted a Kindle) I have to rearrange my entire room, finding somewhere to store my books that won’t make my skin feel too tight.
I try to be quite open about my OCD, despite not being the best at talking about “ooey gooey” feelings. It’s quite difficult to hide from it considering a lot of my ticks are triggered in public: if I see a lone magpie I have to cross my fingers and have someone else uncross them for me; if someone says the name of any illness whatsoever I have to tap wood twice then hit my forehead; I have to tap lightswitches, buttons, doorknobs, etc, four times before I can use them… There are many, many more, and feeling the need to list them all for you is something that comes from constantly having to prove that I really do have OCD, I’m not just saying I have it.
I remember when I was in my final year of secondary school, shortly after being diagnosed with OCD and put on medication, my English teacher always let his books and papers overflow onto my desk. This was a huge trigger for me (and still is today) but when I complained to my friends they said “Oh, but you’re not really OCD, you just like things tidy!” Thus forcing me to explain that I did, in fact, suffer from OCD and had been prescribed medication. I was met with a sea of awkward faces and aborted sentences until one friend piped up with, “Ah but you’re not bad, you’re not like those nutcases who kill their parents and stuff.”
How do you respond to that? To finding out that a friend of six years doesn’t think your illness is valid but rather a minor inconvenience unless you go on a killing spree? These horrible stigma-induced stereotypes are so harmful to anyone suffering from mental illness, be it a personality disorder, schizophrenia, agoraphobia or SAD (seasonal affective disorder). They make it unsafe to confide in people regarding mental illness, lest we be dubbed “crazy, psycho, nutters”. Some other gems I have heard people use to describe my OCD behaviours are things like “a handwasher” (like that even begins to cover it) and “a princess” (make no mistake, I am a princess, but that has no relevance whatsoever to my OCD).
I can understand that it’s difficult to comprehend what exactly OCD entails if you don’t suffer from it personally, or know someone close to you that suffers with it. I would explain it to you here but I’m still not entirely sure that I can! All I know is that I’m plagued by horrific intrusive thoughts every day, ranging from potentially harming myself or others, to “if you don’t move that mug a millimetre to the left your mother is going to die”. It’s exhausting trying to rationalise with this voice in your head, so you do the ritual just to make it stop. You wash your hands in multiples of four because “OK they’re definitely clean now”, you arrange the glasses in the kitchen cupboard by height and you tap the light switch.
Realistically all I can do is encourage you to educate yourself as best you can, especially if you know someone with OCD or thing you may suffer yourself. I would recommend watching the documentary series Extreme OCD Camp to see various different manifestations of the disorder. If you’re into reading check out Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne and Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone; a couple excellent works of fiction following protagonists with different forms of OCD.
OCD is not perfectionism or being “a bit pedantic”. It’s a debilitating mental illness that can and has ruined lives. It’s not the punchline to your joke.
I will not be the punchline to your joke.”