THE BLOG

My Mental Illness Is Not A Joke

20/10/2016 13:24
RuslanDashinsky via Getty Images

Last November, the American discount store Target sold a Christmas jumper with the following written in big, capital letters: 'OCD: OBSESSIVE CHRISTMAS DISORDER'. Whilst some may have found this funny, and even bought the item, others like myself most certainly did not. Target received complaints by angry and upset consumers. Despite the complaints, Target decided not to remove the jumper from their shops.

But would anyone make jumpers mocking, as one consumer pointed out, physical illnesses such as cancer? Or would anyone make jumpers mocking other, 'more serious' mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia or anorexia?

The fact is, no one illness is more serious than another in itself, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be just as deadly as any other mental or physical illness. Let me tell you why.

Last year, I was at a conference for young people with cancer, called Find Your Sense of Tumour. At the age of 21, just before my graduation day and 22nd birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Needless to say, it turned my world upside down. Plans such as becoming a teacher and pursuing a Master's degree (which I later went on to do, and now have a second Master's under my belt, too, and am looking for my first graduate job at the age of 25) were put on hold for more urgent life-and-death matters such as, well, not dying. But that's a story for another article.

At the Find Your Sense of Tumour conference, all of us young people with cancer (whether cured, in remission, or still suffering and receiving treatment) had a very raw, emotional weekend. Meeting other people of the same age who had been through the same things that we had been through, hearing inspirational talks from other young people with cancer and survivors, made for an emotional rollercoaster of a long weekend. But one incident upset me in particular.

One of the Teenage Cancer Trust officials, a very kind Scottish lady, was talking to a former pop star and cancer survivor, when one of the young people in the audience said something about having been to the toilet. I don't know what it was, since I had sort of tuned out at this moment in time, having suffered from migraines at the time. Anyway, I tuned in just as the young lad in the audience said: 'Yes I went to the toilet' and the TCT lady joked, 'But did you wash your hands?' and he replied, 'Yeah, I washed them twice'. To this, the lady replied: 'Twice? Ooh, that's a bit OCD'. A few people laughed, and nobody made anything of it, but I became so upset that I had to walk out, tears in my eyes. I'm not normally an extremely emotional person, but the weekend itself was very emotional and all I wanted to tell the TCT official was: 'Do you know that I, as both a cancer survivor and OCD sufferer, have suffered more from OCD in my life than I ever did from stage 4 cancer?' I couldn't believe that such a high-ranking official in a young persons' charity could make such a comment. I resolved to e-mail her when I got home, but alas, I never did.

The truth is, I'm sick of people trivialising, joking about or mocking my illness. I'm sick of it not being taken seriously. I'm sick of people using the acronym 'OCD' to describe certain preferences like 'Oh, I'm so OCD, I always have to put my shoes in a straight line.' No. You're. Not. Try being in and out of hospitals since the age of 15. Try being on medication for nine years. Try washing your hands so much they're red raw and bleeding and look like those of an eighty-year-old woman. Try having such a comprehensive hand-washing routine that you lose hours every day just at the sink (I can't do it in two seconds like a 'normal' person. I have to open and close taps with my elbow, to avoid picking up other people's germs. I have to use so much foam, all over my hands and past my wrists, sometimes even all along my forearms up to my elbows, and wash underneath each nail six times, making sixty nail-washes in a single hand-washing. I have to rinse in very hot water until not a single bubble remains, and then shake them dry because I won't touch paper towels or communal towels. Getting out of toilets is a nightmare in itself since I absolutely cannot touch doors, so if it's a Push door I'll kick it open, and if it's Pull, I either wait for someone else to come along and sneak out behind them, or use a clean wipe which I then throw away. It's exhausting). Try not being able to go to certain places, like even visiting your own family, because of OCD. Try missing half of class because you have to get up and go wash your hands if you've touched something as innocent as a piece of paper which has thousands of germs because someone sneezed into their hand without a tissue or picked their nose before handing it to you and you don't want to pick up that bacteria. Try going through a pack of wipes every single day, a bar of soap every day. Try spending so long in the shower that your shower has had to be replaced twice in one year and the fuse has blown and the house nearly burnt down (the firefighters had to be called, and they told my mum and me to leave the house until they arrived, but I couldn't go out of the house since I'd had my shower for the night and would get contaminated with outdoor germs if I stepped outside. I said I'd rather risk a fire than have to have a forty-five minute shower again, and so I stayed in my room). Try arguing with your mother every single day, not because you don't love each other or have similar interests, but because OCD is tearing you apart. Try crying multiple times a day in particularly stressful periods and at worst, longing for death, just to be released from this monster in your mind, this curse that has taken over your life in every possible way. Try being ignored by your own family who were there for you every day when you had cancer because physical illness is 'legitimate' but when you're suffering with your mental health, ignore you as if not talking about it will make it go away, and don't even call to ask how you are or why you aren't visiting them, because they've given up on you faster than the NHS did and don't care that you're dying inside, that you're crying all the time because you miss them and worry you'll be alone forever. Try being so afraid of public bathrooms that using one saps you of your energy and takes five times longer than it does for an ordinary person. Try having stage 4 cancer and being on the brink of death but not caring about that, only caring that you're filthy because you don't have the strength to shower daily, you can't wash after a biopsy, you keep throwing up and can't shower after every time and you feel disgusting. Try having a bladder ruined for life and potentially damaged kidneys because the school toilets were so disgusting when you were younger (I'm talking about toilets flooded intentionally, filled with urine and faeces and blood, no soap, taps with layers of filth, even faeces on the walls because someone thought it would be hilarious to be a disgusting human being) that you would hold it in all day and not drink intentionally, and now you suffer from incontinence as a result of this damaged bladder and sometimes wet yourself and then feel even more disgusting. Try having a meltdown every time someone goes to shake your hand and you don't have the balls to say 'I'm sorry, I can't' and later you see that person not wash their hands after the toilet and be filthy generally and know that you have been infected because you accidentally touched your mouth before washing your hands after the handshake, so those germs are now inside you and the damage is done. Try not being able to borrow books from a library. Try having to always wash your hands after touching money, even a single coin. Try not being able to sit on the floor or the grass like every other human ever, or even put your belongings on the floor. Try being so paranoid that you smell of sweat that you use deodorant multiple times a day and damage the Ozone layer even though you care for the environment but could never be an environmentalist if that involves fewer showers and not using wipes or deodorant. Try lying in bed at night wondering how you'll get through the next day, or crying because nothing will be clean no matter how hard you try. (And I could go on.) Try all that, and then tell me you have 'Obsessive Christmas Disorder' or some other terrible joke or trivialisation of my illness.

And that's just my story. No doubt some fellow sufferers have it worse. No doubt some can't even leave the house (as I couldn't, some years ago, at one point.) No doubt some have ended it all because of the constant stress and suffering. And no, we can't just 'snap out of it'. If we could then of course we would. Nobody enjoys the suffering. I would love to have CBT but the NHS dumped me a long time ago.

Don't trivialise mental illnesses full stop. Or physical illnesses, for that matter. Think before you speak.

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