The First Time I Told My Students About My OCD

The first time I told students in my abnormal psychology class about my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I was nervous. My hands were clammy, and my heart raced. The thoughts were almost overpowering: “They won’t understand, and they’ll discredit you as a teacher. You’re going to embarrass yourself.” Having lived with intrusive, oppositional thoughts for almost my entire life, I’ve finally gotten used to letting them come into my head without judgment most days, but my body still reacts to them as if I’m being faced with a life-or-death situation: my heart rate increases, and my stomach churns. My mind often tells me that disaster will strike if I say or do the wrong thing, and as a professor of psychology, the stakes always seem irrevocably high.

Adding to this, academics and clinicians alike often discuss the benefits and burdens of self-disclosure in the classroom or clinic: does it serve a useful purpose, or is revealing your personal story a way for you to achieve your own type of catharsis? Who is it helping? Will your audience learn from it, or will they come to view you as less qualified or weakened in some way? Furthermore, as a professor with an audience of students facing years where they, too, may be at increased risk for mental illness, how does one model the ”right” way to talk about a personal struggle with mental illness?

Unfortunately, by the time students take abnormal psychology in their second year, many of them have experienced mental illness personally or know somebody who has, and this is what draws them to my course. They are eager to share, eager to learn, but still, full of misunderstandings and assumptions. At the beginning of the term, I often caution them to keep their stories to themselves because on a campus of less than 250 students, they must ask themselves if they want their diagnoses and struggles shared in the dining hall amongst whispers and brief glances. While I wish this wasn’t the case — that we could always talk openly about our struggles with mental illness — having struggled with OCD for almost 30 years, I know the general public still has much to learn and that most of our students won’t take an abnormal psychology class. The misunderstandings regarding illnesses like mine are rampant: tests on social media encourage users to assess how “OCD” they are by rating their desire for perfectionism, for example. To those living outside of my concentric circles of identity as patient, clinician, and academic, there is much to be learned and still, so much judgment. And this is true for my students living with bipolar, depression, PTSD, and more: groupthink still runs rampant on college campuses across America, and the growing attempts to better educate the next generation on the foundations of what mental illness is and means are only producing modest effects.

I take my job seriously. My prior career in social work centered upon giving the disenfranchised and marginalized a voice, leveling the playing field and promoting better understandings of what it’s like to live with a debilitating disorder, whether it be mental or physical. And I know firsthand what it’s like to struggle.

I was 7 years old when I became acutely aware of my own mortality and terrified of death. I stayed up night after night, obsessing about my own death or the death of my loved ones. The thoughts in my head were cruel and painful, attacking me for thinking about anybody I cared about dying, and falsely rationalizing that the more I thought about it, the more likely it would be that I would inadvertently cause somebody to die. Compulsively, I created elaborate schemas to neutralize my dangerous thoughts, trying in vain to understand the afterlife and everything in between. I tried to distract myself from visceral nausea my thoughts created by singing songs and playing games in my head, but it never worked. The thoughts were too unrelenting and intrusive. Soon, I was afraid of eating at a restaurant in public for fear of choking to death or throwing up. My father would have to remove me from our table and walk me around in circles outside or play imaginary catch until I calmed down. As I got older, I became more ashamed of the thoughts that plagued me during most of my waking moments as if on an automatic reel. None of my peers seemed worried about death the way that I was, and I felt isolated and alone. By the time I was in college, my symptoms peaked to the point where I laid in bed for hours, missing classes in favor of checking and rechecking my body for tumors, fearing I had missed something on the last go-round. At the same time, I was afraid of my ceiling caving in and crumbling me, or slipping on the ice if I braved walking outside in the winter cold. My life was falling apart.       

At the age of 20 I was officially diagnosed with OCD and began many years’ worth of finding the right combination of medication and therapy that worked for me. It was the end of one journey: one in which I felt alone, freakish and embarrassed, and the beginning of another: trying to find a way to feel better battling a disease that had a name. It’s one I still travel today.

So, that first time I stood in front of the class and we began our section on OCD, I did my best to let the intrusive thoughts come and go, and avoid the compulsive desire to battle with and rationalize them. I took a deep breath and offered myself as a case study: “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and take medicine every day to manage it.”

The lecture began, and the class listened respectfully. Nobody turned to a cellphone or to whisper to a friend. They were attentive and engaged. That first time, I omitted many details about my struggle, choosing to focus on the diagnostic criteria for OCD and mostly how patients like me experience daily life. I reinforced the difference between obsessions and compulsions, and reviewed the different categories OCD thoughts can fall under. I provided many different anonymized examples from the course of my career, highlighting the many distinctions between varying types and severities of OCD. Perhaps I only spent three minutes telling my own story, and overly-reinforced that students should be careful in telling their own stories. Perhaps one or two times I fell back on some self-deprecating humor. Perhaps I took too many pauses for breaths. For two hours we discussed symptoms, treatment, and support, as we would any other mental illness. But this lecture, of course, felt different.

At the end of class, I turned my eyes downward and began collecting my computer and textbook. I was so worried all the students had heard was that their professor was mentally ill. I avoided the dining hall at lunch and waited for an email from my Dean of Faculty telling me students felt uncomfortable in my class or that I had disclosed inappropriate personal details, ruining their educational experience.

And yet — the response was overwhelmingly supportive and now, six years later, continues to be. Students told me, and continue to tell me, that I am a role model for them: proof of how to live successfully with a debilitating disease and help educate others about it. Many have revealed to me their own struggles with OCD and the desire to advocate about it, halted by the fear of judgment and misunderstanding. My office has become a safe haven for students caught in the developmental curve of individuating into adulthood and struggling with weighty, long-held illnesses and issues. I’m told I’m appreciated for being “real” and somebody who “gets it.” And I’m so grateful that while most days I resent this illness and its impact on my life, once a year, in the study of abnormal psychology, I’m able to use it to help others better understand.

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