I recently watched the docuseries Afflicted on Netflix. The story followed a handful of people who believed they were, well, afflicted by physical illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, and the like. Generally difficult-to-impossible to medically diagnose illnesses. This is not a review of this series, though I suppose with the quality of offerings out there I’d recommend watching it above-I don’t know-Teen Mom 2.
The series left a lot up to the viewer in terms of the reality of what these people really had. That is to say, they certainly hinted at these people as faking it to some degree. And I felt some of them were, each to a different extent. Now, by “faking it” I don’t mean to dismiss anything these people were suffering. What “faking” a physical illness comes down to, really, is not actually “faking” anything.
In the series, there was one key point that was brought up by a non-woo-woo psychologist. That was the abstraction that if having these illnesses, which no doctor could find conclusive evidence of physically, benefitted these people in some way-say the attention they received because of it-that most likely the diseases were in their heads. This psychologist said a lot without saying (doctors are good at that!)
Now, that is… loaded.
On the surface, this is actually what I thought as well. I felt a lot of these people had mental disorders and the only way they could present these disorders was to self-diagnose themselves with conveniently impossible-to-prove physical ailments. What I had a problem with was the notion of conflating benefit to a person with a mental disorder.
While this is true sometimes, it is not characteristic of mental disorders in general. And the generalization here hurts people like me quite a bit. Let’s get it out of the way: yes, some people use their mental disorders for attention and other such benefits. But not all.
I’ll move the focus from people I don’t know much about in this docuseries to someone I do know quite a bit about-me.
There is a notion in the world that I am faced with constantly that somehow my diagnosis of OCD is something I use to present myself as more special and more in need than others around me. That I am using some form of agency that comes with having an illness with admitted needs that differ from others’ needs to, well, benefit myself.
My OCD does not benefit me. More importantly: my diagnosis of OCD does not benefit me. Or, if I do somehow get fair treatment for what I have-which is a simple understanding that I have things going on in my brain that others don’t, and that is ok-I am somehow gaining from the world unjustly.
It is a rather bothersome notion, and a lot of people have this notion about those who are functioning but with the weight of a mental illness like OCD.
I mention OCD not only because I have it, but because it-even with my type of OCD, Primarily Obsessional OCD (Pure-O) which has less compulsion and more inward obsession-manifests itself as a tangible and often tactile reaction to the real physical world that those around me have to at least pay attention to.
My OCD affects others because it affects how I need to have our shared universe work. Yeah, that seems selfish at the single-sentence level. But the whole of my OCD is more complex than a single sentence.
The term “need” is something that is baked from my own head. And I realize this. I still must use the term “need” over “want” because my OCD forces me to be wholly uncomfortable-if not non-functional-if things are not “right” by my brain’s warped standards.
Now we get to the crux of what is going on with me and my interaction with others. My brain. My brain works on its own. If we’re talking agency here, the primary actor is something I have very little control over. My brain does what it does without me having power over it.
Thus, it is rather offensive to consider myself the agent here. I don’t want to need the world to be right in the way my brain needs the world to be right! If you listen to those with mental illness closely enough, with a mind that is open to empathy-you will find that we are truly not in control of a lot of how we present to the world.
The situation that causes others to take pause in this whole state of affairs is that what makes me different, and where my different needs come from, are wholly in my head. I have a mental disorder, not a physical one. The way society views physical disorders versus mental disorders is part of the human condition: for those outside of the brains of the afflicted, the mental disorders require a leap of faith into the conceptual, as compared to the physical, which can be sensed all the same by everyone. I sense my OCD differently than those around me, because I am sensing it happening inside my own brain, and others can only see its manifestation-edited-outside my own brain.
This leaves open a gap for others to fill in, in terms of the genesis of the disorder. It seems to me that when it comes to mental disorders, there is more of a call for the reason for the said disorder from others. No one really asks the reasoning behind a broken leg. But indeed, people-empathetic or not-do have a gap they feel the need to fill with the reasoning behind my OCD. What is it I need? From there it is dangerously easy to jump to: what is it I feel I need? And then jump to: what is it I would benefit from if I fulfilled my needs?
These are jumps. They are not fully logical, though they make sense in terms of the way people think about the conceptual. Which my OCD partially is.
I will leave with this. Do you know what I would truly benefit from? Do you know what need I would love to have fulfilled? Do you know what I really want out of this? Would you like to know?
To not have OCD.