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Shannon Purser Knows What It's Like When Mental Illness Warps Your Self-Image

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Although Barb from “Stranger Things” disappeared in episode 2 of the very first season, the young woman who played her hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, in between roles in “Riverdale” and the new NBC show “Rise,” 20-year-old actor Shannon Purser has been using her platform to talk about mental health.

In an essay published in Teen Vogue on Friday, she detailed what her life was like growing up with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Most people have heard of OCD and even have a perception of what it looks like: someone frantically cleaning their house or adjusting anything that looks a little out of place. You may also have heard of OCD because lots of people like to casually diagnose themselves with it, saying things like, “I hate when things are messy, I’m so OCD.” The world seems to see OCD as a weird quirk to joke about.

She explained that while people think of compulsions when they think of OCD, they often don’t understand the obsessions that spark them. For example, one of Purser’s obsessions revolved around the fear she wasn’t reading “correctly.” As a response to this fear, her compulsion became reading the same sentence over and over again, to make sure she absorbed all the information.

“I love books, and I’m normally a pretty fast reader, but at that time, it took me hours to read small amounts, making schoolwork increasingly difficult,” she wrote. “My OCD turned something I loved into something tedious and frustrating.”

Purser said the worst part of OCD, though, was how intrusive thoughts warped her self-image. While everyone will sometimes have an unwanted thought — maybe imaging two cars crashing or wondering what it’s like to jump off a bridge — for people with OCD, it’s harder to let these thoughts go. Purser explained how intrusive thoughts affected her:

I grew to believe that I was evil, disgusting, and perverted. My disorder not only caused me to fixate on certain thoughts or images, but also curated ones that were specifically disturbing to me and bombarded me with them. Having a stray, weird thought or image pop into your head — maybe something super-sexual or violent — can be a perfectly normal thing for the brain to do, and most people are able to brush those thoughts off and move on. I wasn’t. Instead, they were all I could think about, and they got worse and worse until I was convinced that I was an unstable predator. It was nightmarish. I felt dangerous. I thought I deserved to die, and I felt utterly alone.

Purser said a turning point happened when, after a stressful night, she finally told her mom that her mental health has gotten so bad, she didn’t want to be alive. She went to a therapist for the first time and said having a name for what she was struggling with helped her heal.

“With a combination of therapy and medication, I got better. I learned to love life again. My problems didn’t go away, but they became much easier to face,” she wrote.

While Purser no longer takes medication, she said the knowledge she’s gained these past few years has been instrumental.

Looking back, I wish I’d been able to reach out for help sooner. I was so consumed by fear and shame that I’d convinced myself that no one in the world was going through these trials…Now, after doing research and meeting other people like me online and in person, I know that there is an amazing support system out there whenever I need it.

Head here to read Purser’s full essay.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

Originally published: May 7, 2018
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