I remember it all too well. I was in 4th grade and started to develop this fixation with the number 8. Little by little, it crept its way into my life and began to dictate how I functioned.
It started by counting my steps in increments of 8. Then it evolved into having to take an even number of steps on different types of flooring. For example, if I was walking on a tiled floor and was about to step onto a carpeted floor, I would have to finish stepping on that tiled floor an even number of times before I could keep going. I don’t specifically remember getting odd glances from my classmates, but I’m sure the sneers were present. It didn’t phase me though because, at the time, I didn’t think there was anything strange about what I was doing. It just felt necessary to me.
Over the years my fixation with the number 8, and even numbers, in general, began to grow and evolve into different compulsions and intrusive thoughts that I couldn’t explain or understand. I developed many rituals, some that I still have to this day, and if I didn’t fulfill them I was left with a sense of anxiety or dread that something bad would happen. They silently controlled my thoughts and movements and made me feel like my mind was constantly at war with itself.
From controlling the things that I could or could not touch, the number of times I touched them with each hand, the way I ate my food, the constant counting in my head, the fear of germs, not being able to leave the house at times, the looming obsession that something bad was going to happen to myself or someone that I loved and it was going to be all my fault: it even dictated the way that I breathed. It became mentally exhausting.
I didn’t officially recognize that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) until high school, and it wasn’t long before I was accompanied by my other two unwelcomed companions: anxiety and depression. I’ve fluctuated between periods of feeling like I had no control over my compulsions to being able to manage them. I have found different therapy methods, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to help me control my thoughts and reassure myself that nothing bad will happen if I do not fulfill my compulsions.
Even though I live with and have learned to manage my OCD, I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter. But through the years I have noticed that there are a lot of misconceptions entangled with it. It’s a commonly misunderstood disorder that is often made light of and can be used so flippantly in language that it takes the gravity of the disorder away from the people that suffer from it daily.
If someone likes things to be tidy or arranged a certain way, people will tell them that they are “so OCD.” I’ve seen t-shirts being sold at major retailers making a joke that OCD stands for Obsessive Christmas Disorder. There are even playful quizzes going around online that can tell you how “OCD” you are. As if it is just a quirky trait.
I will admit that in high school I used to play off my OCD like some goofy characteristic that I had because I didn’t want people to think I was crazy. It was easier to make light of it and joke about it with my friends rather than admit what was truly going on. I realize now that it was detrimental to my wellbeing and how others treated me, but it was the only way I knew how to cope at the time.
When it comes to OCD and all mental health disorders, I believe that language matters. Education and acceptance matters. I’ve always felt “less than” because of my OCD, anxiety, and depression. I felt that they held me back, and early on a lot of that stemmed from my own lack of knowledge and support on what I was going through and the way others perceived me.
There were many jokes made at my expense. Plenty of people asked me why I just couldn’t “stop.” I don’t blame these people for not understanding, but I do feel I have a responsibility now to educate others and be mindful of the way I speak about my mental health. No longer will I put myself down for feeling the way that I feel, or doing the things that I do. No longer will I diminish what I am going through because I am concerned about how others will perceive me. It’s my story to tell, no matter how messy it may be at times.
I hope to one day witness the stigma surrounding all mental health disorders dissolve into a belief that everyone is just as capable and powerful regardless of what is going on in their mind and body. Human beings are incredibly resilient. I feel fortunate to be at a place in my life where I am able to accomplish different goals and not have my mental health disorders completely run my life anymore. I graduated from college and have been working hard over the last 8 years to advance in my career. I am a mother to a beautiful, bright, and hilarious toddler. I now have a strong support system that I am very grateful for. I find a lot of peace through art and design. And most importantly, I have finally found my voice and I don’t plan on losing it to the darkness again.
Granted, it hasn’t been an easy process and I don’t want to paint it out to be that way. Everyone’s journey looks different, and the goals they make for themselves along the way are specific to their individual situations. If all someone did was get out of bed today, or leave the house for the first time in a while, and that is a big step for them, don’t minimize that. Each step made in the direction someone wants to go deserves to be acknowledged.
For anyone out there that is currently struggling, my message to you is to be gentle with yourself on the hard days, and remain hopeful that you can and will get through this. Find someone you trust to open up to, or someone that has experienced something similar, and let yourself be truly seen and heard. And at all costs, avoid comparing your progress against anyone else but yourself. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
Also remember that there is also a wide variety of resources, support groups, and professional services available to you. You don’t have to face it alone anymore. You’re braver than you give yourself credit for.
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