While we typically do not publish anonymous submissions, due to the nature of this article, we have allowed the writer to stay anonymous. The writer decided to disclose, however, her attendance of Barnard College. The text below is the submission from the writer:
“I’m always hesitant to tell people about my mental illness. Not because I’m particularly ashamed of it or because I don’t know how to explain it, but because the blatant ignorance and stereotypes surrounding it make it virtually impossible to have a real conversation about. No matter how I bring it up, the first thing I’m asked is almost always “so do you have to wash your hands like a hundred times a day?” Or something like “wait then why is your room so messy?” What am I supposed to say? Society has come to accept the shiny, romanticized portrait of OCD that is promoted in the media today; that OCD is a life full of color-organized drawers and turning the lights on and off three times before you leave. But in reality that is a broad generalization, and everyone experiences OCD differently. There are approximately 3.3 million people in the US who have been diagnosed with OCD, so I’m not going to try to speak for everyone, but I can speak for me.
I was diagnosed with OCD/anxiety my sophomore year of high school. At the time I had virtually no idea what OCD was, only what I’d heard, and what I’d seen from a character with OCD on “Glee.” But my anxiety throughout adolescence had grown from manageable, to severe, and later to crippling. I was experiencing the first signs of OCD without even knowing it, which are looping thoughts. Every worried or anxious thought that popped into my head throughout the day would pile up, and there was nothing I could do to rationalize my way through them. I was resistant to trying medication because I didn’t like the thought of being “sick,” so I attempted to self medicate with exercise and ended up developing an eating disorder. Because I couldn’t control my thoughts, I became obsessed with controlling what I ate and what I looked like. I would obsessively count calories, write and rewrite lists of what kinds of foods I was allowed to eat, and weigh myself once or twice a day.
But as the stress of junior year grew, so did my OCD. I was so overwhelmed by the inescapable negative thoughts that there were days when I couldn’t even leave my room. And that’s when I developed Trichotillomania. Trich is a common anxiety disorder related to OCD that causes one to compulsively pick one’s hair or skin. It started with my eyebrows in a fairly innocent cosmetic manner- every hair would have to be exactly in line. But all those hours in front of the mirror obsessing over my body and my eyebrows caused me to become acutely aware of every abnormality of my eyelashes. Though it started as just plucking the few that were out of line, I began to unconsciously touch and tug on my eyelashes as a source of relief or distraction. By February of junior year, I had about 20 eyelashes on each eye (whereas the average person has about 100-150.) In my OCD driven quest for perfection, I had disfigured myself. I had to wear false eyelashes every single day, which greatly limited types of activities I could do. It also made me subject to constant scrutiny and questioning, inviting even more judgement and inspiring questions like “why are you wearing fake eyelashes? This isn’t prom…” But I was so ashamed of my OCD, I refused to tell anyone. My OCD had me trapped in a very small life- unable to move forward, and unable to go back.
So I made a change. I started seeing behavioral therapists and psychiatrists, and I decided to pursue medication for my illness as well. Now, two years later, I can honestly say that I am more open about my OCD, not only with the world, but also with myself. I am not to blame for my OCD. It is not a product of a weak mind or a deficit of willpower. I am not broken, and it does not control or define me. My OCD is just one facet of who I am, it is not just who I am. I’m a psychology major and a philosophy minor. I love to draw and read and party and shop, and I love classical music and frozen yogurt. I am not cured, and I never will be. My OCD and my Trich will be a lifelong battle. There are ups and downs, relapses and great triumphs. I now let myself celebrate when I reach 1200 calories, and I don’t cry if I miss a trip to the gym.
Although I have severe OCD, if you saw me at Hewitt, our dining facility, I bet you a million dollars you wouldn’t be able to tell. Although I do have some of the more “typical” ticks such as following certain rhythms, pulse counting and obsessive nail biting, you won’t find me scrubbing down my chair or rotating my plate three times. But that doesn’t make my mental illness any less or more legitimate than anyone else who is struggling with OCD.
And that’s the really vital point. People know what to do when a confronted with a disorder they are informed about or comfortable with, but when faced with something that is less familiar or more disturbing, people are often times shut down. Even when I finally was able to tell my best friends, their initial reactions were more or less “ew” or “why don’t you just stop?” But that’s not a fair question. You’d never tell someone to “just stop” having diabetes, or tell someone with depression to “cheer up.” The same applies to any mental illness. They come in a thousand shades of grey, and they don’t often look like cookie-cutter hollywood stereotypes.
The most important thing that someone with a mental illness can receive is support. So next time you think about buying the Forever 21 shirt that reads “Obsessive Cat Disorder,” or saying that you’re just “really OCD about keeping your dorm room clean,” think twice. Ignorance feeds stigma, so don’t perpetuate the romanization of mental illness. Whether it’s you thats struggling with a mental illness or someone you care about, it takes everyone to make the change.”