Each time a meme about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) pops up in my FB feed I cringe, or roll my eyes, sometimes I do both. I try to remind myself that most people haven’t the foggiest idea about what it means to have OCD, I try to remind myself how misunderstood mental illness in general is, sometimes I can shrug it off, more often I can’t. And here’s why–I have some people in my life whom I love with a fierceness who have OCD, so the misconceptions and stereotypes that surround it get under my skin in a special way. I’ve seen these people struggle with what can be such an emotionally tumultuous disorder, I’ve seen them go through painful episodes, I’ve seen them come out the other side, and I’ve been beyond proud of the strength and courage it has taken to deal with having OCD. And, yes, I’ve seen them joke about the quirks of their disorder, it’s a way to cope and to put things in perspective. I’ve also seen them cringe at the memes about OCD because, while people post them without malice, they represent how misunderstood the disorder is, and they make light of something that is a potentially very serious health condition, most of the time without understanding its severity. Think of it this way, we don’t walk around poking fun at people with asthma or brain trauma, it isn’t acceptable to post memes about how funny it is to see someone suffering from diabetes or a heart condition, and we don’t say things like “Geez, I’m feeling SO cancerous today!” So if we don’t treat other medical conditions this way, why is it okay to treat OCD this way?
OCD is a complex medical condition, and shows itself in many different ways. Briefly, think of your reaction to stress, think of how your body feels when you’re stressed, how your emotions react to stress, now think of not being able to turn that off. Think of yourself knowing it’s not rational, that the alarm going off in your head isn’t “real,” but not being able to convince yourself of that truly, so you come up with ways that are meant to soothe this stress. It works for a moment or two, then the anxiety comes back, so you have to do the soothing rituals again, which helps for a moment, and the cycle continues. A person might have ten obsessions/fears or they might have 50, each with a different soothing ritual. Can you imagine how time consuming, on top of everything else, that would be? OCD is listed by the World Health Organization as “one of the 10 most handicapping conditions by lost income and decreased quality of life.” It’s something that can cause so much grief, it can shove a life into chaos, it can push someone to the point where self-harm appears to be better than the alternative.
OCD shouldn’t be the butt of jokes made by people who have no concept of what it is they’re laughing at.. Let’s look at just two reasons why that’s true:
Suicide: People who suffer from OCD are at greater risk for suicide than the general population, between 5-25% of people who have OCD have attempted suicide. Then there is suicidal ideation, or suicidal thoughts, sometimes they show up as the “O” in OCD (I want to emphasize “sometimes,” because there are so many different aspects to OCD, not everyone has every aspect). Can you imagine the pain of your brain focusing itself on suicidal thoughts when, in actuality, you have no desire to kill yourself? Can you imagine being a child with those thoughts? How overwhelming that must be, how incomprehensible? Added to that, can you imagine having to perform a ritual each time you have a thought about suicide in order to “prevent” it happening? It’s not funny.
Self-esteem: Put yourself in the place of someone who, for example, is so fearful of something happening that they are afraid to leave the house, or can’t leave it without touching the door a certain number of times, or turning the light on and off a certain number of times. Now, think of some of the self-talk that might be attached to that–”I’m weak,” “I’m stupid,” “I can’t even leave the house without freaking out” and think of what impact that could have on someone’s self-esteem. And think of the anxiety those thoughts would cause someone with an anxiety disorder, perpetuating an ugly cycle. Think of the things you might not be able to do if you had these anxieties, think of the impact it could have on your relationships, on your job, or your school work. Day after day after day. It’s not funny.
In the case of people I know and love who have OCD, it has been overcome– with a whole lot of determination and focus. It will never go away, it’s symptoms may return now and again, sometimes they will be big and sometimes they will be tiny, but it has been conquered. And, keep this in mind, if you have OCD, it doesn’t define you, it’s just a part of you, when dealt with correctly it can be a footnote in a life full of greatness and joy, it can be something that is looked at with pride because it was beaten, because you learned that as overwhelming and strong as OCD is, YOU are stronger. And, yes, you might get to the point where you can laugh about it, about the quirky ways you have to cope with it, or the ways it pops up in your life. You get to laugh about it because you understand it, because you need to laugh about it in order to deal with it, because you know the hell it can cause and humor helps. But people who don’t understand, people who think you’re a stereotype, or a caricature, or someone who just likes things neat and tidy, they don’t get to laugh, they just don’t. And I know there will be people who think I should lighten up, that’s fine, I’ll shrug that off because I believe it’s wrong to laugh at someone with a potentially debilitating illness, and it’s wrong to belittle an illness that sometimes feels so large you’re worried it will swallow you whole. I can laugh with someone, I can glance into their life and gain empathy, I can appreciate when they try to find humor, even when it’s mixed with profound pain–case in point is this video, which is required watching, in my opinion, for anyone struggling with OCD or for anyone trying to understand it:
And to the people I love who have OCD, I will always try to give you what you need from me–unconditional love, a tireless defender, a hug, a shoulder, time, or laughter. Because I love you fiercely. Every piece of you, even the OCD, because it all makes you who you are, and you are incredible.