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When discussing stigma surrounding mental illnesses such as OCD, it’s critical to focus on our opportunity to educate.
Mental health has recently seemed to gain sudden attention in the public’s eye–and while this is an awesome chance for those suffering from mental health issues to find our voice and share our struggles–it’s imperative those on the outside looking in truly understand these illnesses that affect so many, and see all the different faces a disorder can present.
I’ve never been a very tidy person. I’m prone to clutter, and left to my own devices, I will let every single article of clothing I wear fall off of my body and onto the floor of my bedroom, where they will pile up until you can’t see the carpet underneath and I’m out of clean anything. I hate most forms of housework and have only recently embraced any sort of organization when it comes to my own belongings (with much prodding from my husband).
So you can imagine how poorly I fit into the “box” typically seen as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
For those of us living with OCD, perhaps the greatest stigma we face is a lack of understanding of what our disorder truly is.
Yes, there are most definitely some of us who are crazily neat and tidy; those of us that wash our hands too much or repeat words over and over again. But, this is only one snapshot of an illness that can be overwhelming on a good day, and debilitating at its worst.
OCD in the media and in public culture is often portrayed as a slightly annoying but quirky personality trait. Internet memes often reference OCD when something strays from its perceived orderly perfection, and people often joke about what they might be “so OCD” over.
While I don’t believe anyone means to be hurtful with this kind of humor, it does rub me the wrong way, and sometimes belittles everything I’m working so hard to overcome, every second of every day.
While there is some truth in the stereotypes surrounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it is an illness intricate beyond the façade of mismatched colors and a phobia of germs.
My own OCD is constantly changing the ways it presents itself.
While some symptoms remain forever the same, my obsessions are always adapting to my fears and insecurities.
Up until a few months ago, all of my anxiety for quite a while was centered around my imaginary health issues. I’m almost always convinced I have some sort of terminal illness hiding inside my body just waiting to be discovered. I know entirely too much about all of the ways different diseases can kill you or make you miserable, and I’m certain (or rather, my OCD is) it’s only a matter of time before I kick the bucket from breast cancer or a fast-growing brain tumor. Don’t even get me started on Wegener’s granulomatosis.
What most people don’t understand is how these fears manifest with OCD.
For me, these illnesses and my obsession with them (or whatever might be my latest preoccupation) become the center of my entire life.
I can’t think about anything else for more than a few moments, other than how I’m sure I must be sick and am terrified to die. I will miss work, break down, and spend money I don’t have at my doctor’s office paying for tests I don’t actually need, trying to prove what’s never been there. I’ll lose sleep, and make myself physically ill seeing symptoms where they aren’t–and most people won’t have any idea of the war I’m fighting in my mind.
Presently, I happen to be over my cancer bit–I’m sure it will come back around within time, but I’ve got other things to worry about. You see, my latest obsessions are home invasion and murder. Have you ever looked up the statistics on home invasions? You probably haven’t, but I can assure you, they’re quite terrifying and not reassuring in the least.
I’m not so afraid during the day, but I hate being alone, and nighttime is the worst. I literally hate bedtime, because I’m sure someone will break in and murder us in our sleep. We live in a nice apartment with people all around and secure entrances. But, none of these rational things make my OCD feel any better.
Now, as a person living without OCD and having these fears, you’d likely just push them to the back of your mind and go to sleep anyway, right?
That’s the thing with OCD though, you can’t just “get over it,” as much as you’d like to.
No, instead (like a totally normal person) I’ve installed locks on my bedroom door and have to sleep with my headphones in and music blaring, because if it isn’t, I lay awake for hours listening to every teeny tiny noise I might hear, convinced it’s a violent burglar coming to get me.
No matter what I do to alleviate my irrational fears, any relief I gain will only be temporary. Putting locks on my bedroom door temporarily soothed me–but now it’s not enough, and I’ve begun thinking maybe I should install motion alarms, too. My husband has lovingly, but firmly, assured me we won’t be doing this. He’s clearly not afraid of home invasion.
While I do hope you can see some of the humor in this (I think I have to, or I wouldn’t survive, otherwise), you might also be starting to understand why the stigma around OCD, and specifically what it is/isn’t, can be very harmful to those of us facing its reality every day.
When I’m curled up on the bathroom floor, hyperventilating into a bag while my husband watches helplessly, I can promise you, it’s not just because someone didn’t color-coordinate my pencils properly or parked their car crooked next to my own.
Stigma does not have to darken the conversation around mental health and illness.
We must treat each other with care, patience, and honesty. Those around us must be open to learning about the demons we face, and we, in turn, should embrace the chance to better bring them into the light.
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