Collaborate to Combat Mental Health Stigma

My bedroom doorknob will always hold a special place in my heart. After all, with just the right touch — wrist angled, palm pressed upward, skin digging into the incision of the lock — I could save the lives of my family. And so, with a sort of ritualistic fervor, I would do this every night. With each touch, my family would be saved. With every twist, my fears would be quelled. And with every brush of the knob, my dignity would fade just a little more.

You see, this sort of compulsion was hardly unique for me. By that time, my life was completely governed by odd rites and rituals. The way I brushed against a wall, the manner in which I climbed the stairs — each of these things was intimately and ineffably linked to my destiny. No action could be done just once. No reasonable word could calm me down. My universe hung in a sort of perpetual instability, and I was the glue holding it together; any failure to adhere to the rules I had set down for myself, and the delicate harmony surrounding me would fall to pieces. And of course, I wish now that I could travel back in time and tell my childhood self that such actions did not matter. I wish I had learned sooner that such urges could be controlled. However, at that point, my journey was only beginning. A long, dark struggle was to follow — a struggle that carried me far from the realm of normalcy, and into the nebulous world of life with a mental illness.

My battle with obsessive- compulsive disorder began at an early age. I vividly remember sitting, watching “Toy Story” in my living room — I must have been 6 or 7 at the time — when an intrusive thought first crept into the recesses of my mind. It was an unsolicited, disconcerting, and seemingly unexplainable idea — a fear borne from some strange imbalance in my brain. And yet, there it sat: the fear that my family was destined for hell. I had no way of explaining where this worry came from, no rationale for concern. All I had was a base impulse to place my wrist on the carpet and move it up and down three times. And so I did. My heart stopped racing, and my panic subsided. The cycle had begun.

Most simply described, OCD is a condition in which a person engages in ritualistic behaviors to try to subdue or rationalize obsessive thoughts or concerns. And although this description probably seems rather bland, it provides as good a context as any for telling my story with this unique disorder. See, inherent in OCD is a sort of cruel dualism. Individuals with this condition suffer from irrational, consuming fears and thought patterns. To deal with them, they act out odd, ritualistic behaviors. These, in turn, often exacerbate the initial feelings of panic and anxiety. And so the two feed off each other, engendering a swirling dichotomy of destruction that often comes to dominate the person’s life.

For me, my fears most often centered on religious or medical concerns. Indeed, when I was not warding off malignant or sacrilegious intrusive thoughts — which I thought threatened the state of my soul — I was diagnosing myself with every disease known to man. I can still remember how real those illnesses felt; it was almost as if I could feel cancerous cells seething beneath my skin, or sense some unknown pathogen sucking the life from my body. To combat these concerns, I would turn again to my rituals. Sometimes, like my touching of the doorknob, they were very routine. Other times they were more spontaneous — actions driven by the mental barrages I would feel from my obsessions. Eventually, however, I learned to control these deleterious thoughts. Naming my disorder was a huge part of this. For me, being able to rationalize my obsessions as a product of a chemical imbalance — and not of a character defect — was enormously helpful. Similarly, I am now able to ignore my compulsions. And although it was difficult at first — indeed, ignoring these urges would, at times, make me feel physically sick — this burden has become easier and easier to bear.

However, this does not mean that living with OCD is completely devoid of challenges. Obsessive thinking, reactionary compulsions, and dynamic mood swings still plague me. Similarly, my decision to go more public with my struggle — hence, this piece — has brought a whole new slew of obstacles. For most of my life, this fight has been an intensely personal one. I largely kept my symptoms hidden from friends and family, preferring instead to unilaterally exorcise the demons of my mind. Since sharing this battle with others, though, I have found myself struggling to tread a fine line. On one hand, I sometimes feel like I pressure myself to be “crazy” enough so that when I truly need help, people will take me seriously. On the other, I fear that my disorder will someday render me a pariah — people will view me as different, or as “damaged goods.” It is a delicate balancing act, and one only made more difficult by the stigma that still surrounds mental illness for so many people.

It is for this reason that we need to break down this stigma. Because although I still struggle with my disorder, the encouraging, supportive people who surround me have helped me deal with it. However, not everyone has such an amazing support network — not everyone feels comfortable seeking the help needed. If we are to improve the mental health culture of this nation, we need to begin by fighting the stigma, ensuring that people can get the help they need, without fear of condemnation or abuse.

 

Jake Dyson is a freshman in the College.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you Jake for having the courage to write about what OCD truly is; it is such a misunderstood disorder. I think it’s especially important as mental health issues often first arise, or exacerbate, during the college years. As a college freshman, my son had OCD so severe he could not even eat, but today he is a young man living life to the fullest. That’s because OCD is absolutely treatable and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the treatment of choice as recommended by the American Psychological Association. I recount my family’s story in my critically acclaimed book, Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery (Rowman & Littlefield, January 2015) and discuss all aspects of the disorder on my blog at http://www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com. There truly is hope for all those who suffer from this insidious disorder! I wish you all the best in your college career and beyond!

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