Do you know what it means to be healthy? I’m not talking about how much you bench at the gym. I’m not talking about how many green juices you drink in a day. I’m not even talking about your yearly physical at the doctor’s office. Put your weights down and toss those cups of grass aside because I’m talking about mental health.
It’s come to my attention that the general public is often misinformed when it comes to this subject. People not only are unsure about what certain disorders are and what it means to suffer from them, but also lack knowledge about how to spot signs of distress and go about seeking the best treatment. #THIS IS WHY I’ve decided to start this column. For help on getting accurate info I’ve partnered up with Wesleyan’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, in the hopes of learning more about both common and uncommon mental illnesses, separating myth from truth, and spreading my newfound knowledge to anyone willing to listen.
Now, you’ve probably heard of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) before, and you’ve probably even used it in casual conversation: “I am sooooo OCD about my bed! If I don’t make it every morning I totally freak out!”
If you’ve ever said something like this, good news: You most likely do not actually have OCD. This illness is a little more complicated than that. So, from what you know—or think you know—what’s fact and what’s fiction? Let’s find out.
MYTH: OCD does not mean 1) you like to wash your hands a lot because you are a germaphobe. It does not mean 2) you keep your desk neat as a pin because you are anal about tidiness. It does not mean 3) you are obsessed with “Game of Thrones,” and it does not mean 4) you compulsively buy everything on the sale rack at Urban Outfitters.
FACT: OCD is different for everyone who suffers from it. You read that right: different for Every. Single. Person. That is why it is crucial to note that while in the following text I go into the standard signs of how OCD presents itself, this does not always hold true. That’s the tricky thing about mental illness: There is no formula for diagnosis. Professionals must analyze each case individually to assure accurate diagnosis. The following is the “typical” (whatever that means) way OCD presents itself.
According to the International OCD Foundation, OCD is characterized by 1) intrusive thoughts and 2) compulsive actions.
These intrusive thoughts are the “obsessive” aspect of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and can take the form of disturbing images or scenarios that dominate your mind. Common examples include, but are not limited to, thoughts of harming others or being harmed yourself. These thoughts occur again and again and again, unrelentingly inserting themselves into your brain. You don’t want to be thinking them, but you can’t help it. They’re indestructible. They’re kind of like cockroaches. When you’re eating dinner, when you’re taking a shower, when you’re trying to concentrate in class, they’re there, scaring you, distracting you, and disrupting you from living your life. With these already frightening thoughts constantly hammering away at your head comes severe anxiety. You’re anxious that you are truly in danger because these fears might, at any moment, come true.
To combat these extreme thoughts, you respond with compulsions, or ritualistic actions that help you cope with the chaos going on in your mind. Functioning to easing the anxiety that’s created by the obsessive thoughts, this compulsive behavior presents itself in a range of actions. Common ones include, but are not limited to, washing yourself, cleaning, checking (that a door is locked, that you aren’t hurt, etc.), and repeating actions (tapping fingers, rewriting, etc.). Just like the obsessions, these compulsions often get in the way of daily activities.
This disruption of daily life is a huge struggle both for the person suffering and her loved ones. In no way am I saying that, for instance, the sibling of someone with OCD endures the same thing as the sufferer herself, but OCD certainly affects others, too. Watching someone struggle with the illness and unsuccessfully attempting to squash its intensity is a battle in itself. A friend or onlooker might not always understand why the person suffering won’t just stop their negative thoughts and harmful actions, so they often end up frustrated with the sufferer’s inability to act “reasonably.”
These thoughts and actions seem irrational not only to others, but also to those with OCD themselves. People suffering from OCD often understand their irrationality, yet have a hard time expelling these thoughts from their brains.
TREATMENT: So what can you do to help yourself or someone suffering? If you notice someone experiencing these signs of distress, the first thing to do is show that person you care and build a helpful, supportive community. However, if the case requires further assistance, recommend hir to a professional.
The best treatment, as cited by the National Institute of Mental Health, is psychotherapy, and/or antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. This treatment may differ depending on the degree of OCD, as well as the techniques professional providing care. Be sure to speak with a professional before administering any medications to yourself, prescription or otherwise.
Talk openly to your friends and family about your illness, and let them know what they can expect from you and what you’d like to expect of them. Finding others who also suffer from OCD, to whom you can relate and look to for additional support, can be helpful. Even having role models with your condition may help. For some inspiration, we look to:
LENA DUNHAM: Many of you may be familiar with Lena Dunham, who writes, produces, directs, and acts in HBO’s popular television show, “Girls.” What you may not know about her is that she suffers from OCD. Recently, Lena Dunham has gone public with her illness, and wrote about it in The New Yorker magazine, in an article titled “Difficult Girl.” She vibrantly describes her childhood experience with therapists, treatment of her OCD, and other family-related topics.
In talking about managing her illness, she explains, “My OCD isn’t completely gone, but maybe it never will be.” Having spent extensive time bouncing from one therapist to the next, she clarifies that these therapist sessions helped far more than any prescriptions she was on at the time. (She even reminisces about her childhood years, when her teacher would bark at her to wake up after having fallen asleep in class due to her medication’s sleep-inducing effects.) Although, like she says, this illness may never go away completely, Dunham lives a full and exciting life.
Have anything you’d like to add? Want to share your own experience? Have a specific disorder you’d like me to address? Email me with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.