Every now and again an issue or condition is thrust into the limelight and it seems that everyone is talking about it. At the moment that’s happening for OCD. Daily in the mainstream media there are now news stories that are about more than lining up items in straight lines or flicking light switches on and off. De-stigmatising mental health and increasing public understanding is always fantastic - but this time it’s personal.
I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 17 and had never talked about it outside of my immediate family. Mostly because I didn’t want to accept it was such a central part of my life but also because of the shame involved. The truth is, as wonderful as charities such as Time to Change, who work tirelessly to reduce the idea of stigma around mental illness are it’s still up to the individual to really feel ready to ‘come out’ as mentally ill. It’s become a cliche but a more tangible illness tends to evoke compassion in the average person whereas mental illness is such a slippery animal that responses can go from acceptance to the suggestion that it’s being ‘put on’ or ‘milked’. For me, the issues were shame and fear. I was ashamed that I didn’t have more control over my brain and I was terrified that I’d be considered defective, unloveable or unemployable. I didn’t want to put the information out there for future potential employers, partners or even friends to see. In the end it was unavoidable. The pressure I put on my partner and family by demanding they were the only people that could know was substantial and unfair. At the same time, the opportunities I missed out on because I ran away rather than ask for help were building up and life really was starting to pass me by.
So I wrote down how I was feeling, turned it into a play and headed up to the Edinburgh Fringe. On the first day I was uncomfortable trying to ‘sell’ the show to people. I felt the embarrassment creep back up on me. Then I did a podcast about OCD for the BBC. Then another podcast. Then another one. And suddenly I was almost a pro, talking confidently about OCD as though I’d be doing so for years. I found myself lending an ear to others who wanted to talk privately about their personal shame and encouraging them to speak out and accept themselves. Over those four weeks there were of course little stumbles, but it felt like I’d shrugged off something that had been weighing me down for years. I was surprised by how terrified the people I met were about admitting their own conditions. I couldn’t remember ever feeling like that. Nowadays it trips off the tongue.
And then today, a couple of weeks after returning from the Fringe, I found some rough notes from something I’d tried to write back in 2014 and I was instantly transported back to how fearful and apologetic I was:
The truth is I don’t talk about my OCD. I read books others have written on mental health problems. I have volunteered at a mental health charity. But I’ve never once broken my silence to talk about myself. Although it is an integral part of myself and my personality it is also the thing I hate most about myself. I used to separate my OCD from myself but this year heralds a full decade from the day that this illness first took me strongly in its grasp and now I realise it’s not something I can separate from who I am or who I’ll become. So I’m filled daily with a deep shame about the core of who I am and this is a terrible way to feel about yourself.
The piece goes on in this vein and frankly is pretty depressing.
It seems a bit flippant to say that if you’re open and speak out then you’ll feel so much better. Of course there’s more to it than that and I still have OCD. I still have my struggles. But actually the step from then to now really wasn’t that massive though it’s made a world of difference.