Why I Stopped Caring if People Know About My OCD
I can count the number of people on one hand whom I have told about my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because there is such a stigma about mental health issues. For the greater part of my 20s I felt like my mind was broken and that it was somehow my fault. We are told to “be strong” as if those with mental health issues are weak. We are told to “man up” as if our illness is a character flaw. In a world where people equate depression to sadness and anxiety to a little stress, I often felt too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what I was experiencing.
“OCD” has become a buzzword in our society, and most people think that it’s a synonym for “anal,” “clean” or “organized,” but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Some people with OCD do clean as part of their compulsions, but there are many forms of OCD. Personally, I am not a very clean or organized person, and this misinformation that exists via Buzzfeed articles had me convinced I didn’t meet the criteria for OCD. For many years I kept these thoughts to myself, in fear I would be labeled as “crazy” because I didn’t know what it all meant.
So, let me tell you what my OCD is. It’s a spinning real of “what-ifs” that rolls in my mind throughout the day, nagging for certainty at every corner. I feel the need to have control over everything in life, and doubt is what fuels it all. Thoughts will become stuck in my mind like that song that plays over and over in your head. My brain looks at everything through a magnifying glass and debates with itself whether it is harmful or not. I am constantly looking for ways to appease it, sometimes without even realizing I am doing it. I am constantly questioning whether what I am worried about is valid or my OCD. I am constantly fighting with myself in my head, as if I have a devil and angel on each shoulder, trying to bring either panic or peace.
I have what are known as “contamination fears.” I am afraid of things like household chemicals, drugs, insects, toxins like mercury, sticky substances and even people or places that seem shabby or unclean. My brain also gets stuck on issues like harm coming to my loved ones or situations that could lead to financial distress or ruin. I don’t believe my fears are rational or true, but they still rear their ugly head at the drop of a hat. Sometimes in hindsight I will even laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of a trigger.
For example, once I was reaching into a bag to pull out my burger at a restaurant and the foil wrapper ripped. Then as I was eating it I wondered if a piece of foil had broken off and fallen inside my burger. I tried to tell myself, “Even if you did eat some foil you would just pass it and be OK,” but it was too late. My fight-or-flight response had already kicked in, and my brain was sounding the alarm. The word “aluminum” crossed my mind, and I must have once read it was toxic at a certain level. Suddenly, I was sure I could taste metal and I felt nauseated. I pulled out my phone and started to search the word “aluminum toxicity” to read the symptoms and started to do a mental assessment of my body. Was my vision blurring? Do my fingertips feel numb? Every voice in that restaurant seemed to be screaming directly in my ear. I bolted to the nearest restroom. I made myself vomit and washed my hands to get rid of any residue that was now on them from touching my aluminum-filled puke. Who am I kidding? I washed my hands several times.
When I calmed down I couldn’t explain to my family what had happened because I thought it sounded ridiculous, even to me. I wish I could say this was some isolated incident, but truthfully, this is my OCD.
It’s also the hopeless feeling that sets in when things are out of control. It’s struggling to form or maintain relationships because I can’t get out of my own head. It’s isolating myself because it’s easier to stay in my routine. It’s watching my family get frustrated by my “constant negativity” and feeling like I let them down. It’s desperately trying to be a good mom, run a household, make appointments and keep my job without running into so many triggers that I stop appearing “normal.”
I used to care so much about being normal that I resisted getting help in fear people would stop seeing me and would only see my disorder. I was afraid people would treat me differently or give me worthless advice like, “When I am anxious I just drink tea.” I was afraid people would think I didn’t deserve my job or was a danger to my child. But as time went on I only became more isolated. In my lowest moments I wished I knew someone who understood what I was going through, and I realized I would never find that person until I opened up. When I began getting help for my OCD, I learned that 1 in 40 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disorder, and 1 in 4 adults in the world have a mental illness. With those statistics, the stigma that surrounds mental health issues is silly. I refuse to let someone make me feel bad about something I didn’t choose, when speaking out could mean someone else feels empowered to get help.
It’s likely someone you know has a mental health issue, maybe without you even knowing about it. I hope if we remain vigilant about speaking out we can destroy this stigma surrounding mental illness and people will see that getting help doesn’t make you weak. In fact, seeking help is exactly what makes us strong.
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Photo by Anna Demianenko, via Unsplash