On the outside, I appear to be any other 18-year-old girl. Maybe on the shy side, but still normal. But on the inside, I have been battling with a demon for years. A demon that wreaked havoc on my mind. I knew the thoughts, the repetitive phrases in my head, and the unusual anxieties and worries weren’t normal, but I continued to keep them to myself out of the fear of being judged. When my mental illness got worse in high school, I stayed silent, ultimately deciding to live with the enemy disguised as my mind for the rest of my life. At the time though, living with the anxiety, the agony, the fear was more comforting than the thought of having to tell people about my fears and the way my mind works through them.
Fast forward to my freshman year of college. I’m doing well in classes, but now, I’m beginning to get thoughts and images that are appearing out of nowhere. These thoughts scared me beyond belief, causing me to ultimately isolate myself from the rest of the world so I could escape those unwelcomed thoughts. One day, the thoughts became too much. They felt so real, and I felt like my obsessions were coming true no matter how much I feared them or performed compulsions to prevent them from occurring. In my moment of desperation, I decided to search what I feared in Google. And there it was, an answer to my endless suffering over the past decade. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Reading through the symptoms, I felt like I finally found what was wrong with me. I wasn’t crazy. My fears that have been driving my actions were rooted in an illness, not my character or personality. For the first time ever, I felt like I was not alone in my mind anymore. A few months later, after finally deciding to get help, I got my official diagnosis of OCD, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
While I know it is heavily frowned upon to look up symptoms of mental health disorders on the Internet and “diagnose yourself,” finding resources like the iOCDf and OCDLA saved me. For years, the stigma of OCD misled me. I would hear about people having OCD on the television, but since I struggle with Pure-O, I always discounted the thought that I myself could suffer with OCD. After learning about OCD and getting diagnosed with it, I began to reflect on the stigma that I was going to have to live with because of my disorder, and I realized that while the stigma around OCD may be funny as a punchline for people who do not understand OCD, the stigma keeps actual sufferers of the disorder in the dark for years. The stigma around OCD made me terrified to tell anybody about the demon in my mind, and the fear of being judged for the way that my mind was kept me in the dark for four long years.
Oh, the OCD jokes. The adjective that people love to employ to describe their desk organization. The jokes that make people with actual OCD shudder. The stigma that keeps people who unknowingly suffer from OCD in the dark. It may seem funny to a non-OCD sufferer to brag about how they’re “so OCD” because they cannot stand it if something is not alphabetized or color-coded or to describe how organized they are. While everybody (even OCD sufferers) needs to have a sense of humor, a boundary is crossed when a mental disorder becomes just a “quirky” personality trait to the masses.
I wish that OCD could be more like the stigma, just some quirky trait that is just a trait, but it is not. It’s debilitating.
It’s time consuming. Not a day goes by without an intrusive thought, endlessly doing compulsions, letting my mind and the outside world be consumed by “what ifs?” and “whys?,” analyzing every thought that enters my mind in order to make sure I’m alright.
Some days are better than others, but on the bad days, the anxiety can be so intense I could feel like I’m dying. Or I feel like I’m screaming on the inside, while I’m pretending to be a happy, youthful, relaxed 18-year-old on the outside. But, the bad days have become more tolerable since I was shown the light. I realized that there is a community of people who face the same demon that I face everyday. They understand. They don’t judge you for your thoughts. They show compassion because they have fought the same battle and felt the same pain.
And the stigma around OCD keeps sufferers from the light. It keeps them in the dark place of uncontrollable anxiety and (sometimes) depression, telling them that they are the only people in the world suffering from the thoughts and symptoms plaguing them every day.
The darkness tells us that the only thing worse than suffering from the obsessions is telling people about them, because then they’ll have to come true. So, for the time being, we keep our demons hidden. We put up a facade and try to act “normal” when we’re in the outside world. But behind closed doors, the thoughts and anxiety consumes us. And in this place, we feel it’s better to suffer forever than to tell others about the demon that resides in our minds, tormenting us day and night. Looking past the stigma, learning that the demon in our minds is actually a mental disorder, finding the community of other survivors, is what helps us find the light, and more importantly, the words to ask for help.
This is why the stigma around mental illness needs to be stopped. While it may be trendy to use mental illness as an adjective for someone who is “particular” or “organized,” the stigma around mental illness and OCD only hurts the people who suffer with mental illness. Perpetuating a stigma keeps people from asking for help with their mental illness, and after asking for help keeps us from opening up to loved ones about our struggles. For many people, myself included, having to deal with comments like, “I think I have OCD too. I cannot stand when my bed isn’t made” or “You don’t have OCD. Your house is the messiest I’ve ever seen” is not worth the anxiety and the speculations about whether or not I’m actually mentally ill according to a stigma. We need to start having open conversations about mental illness. Breaking down the stigma and the judgments around mental illness will only do good things for our communities: people will learn that they’re not alone; they’ll maybe even find the bravery to ask for help, or share that they’re struggling with a loved one. So, maybe the next time you want to describe how you’re particular about something or talk about how organized you are, maybe consider using an adjective other than OCD in the future.