#OCDWeek kicks off today so I'm kicking my blog off with a mini series about OCD and disclosure.
It was once suggested to me not to refer to stigma as stigma. Stigma is more than stigma. So let’s call it what it is: discrimination. Discrimination hits home. Stigma sounds like it can be tied into a neat bow, but discrimination, discrimination is when it gets serious.
When you have a mental illness whether it be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) like myself, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, a personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, (insert ailment here), discrimination and disclosure might feel as though they go hand in hand. For this reason, telling someone about your illness might be the last thing on your mind.
No one wants to say, “Hi, I’m Melanie, and I have OCD. Bring on the discrimination!”
We do enough self-discrimination as it is. Self-directed shame is our speciality. We’re already worried about what you’re going to think of us if we tell you we have a mental illness. We already wonder whether we should be telling our boss, whether it will impact our employment. We already wonder whether our family will be embarrassed, whether our friends will snub their noses at us. We hear the comments “that’s crazy” said in passing. We see the news: “Shooting committed by person with mental illness.” We witness the discrimination brewing around us and within ourselves. Why would we willingly out ourselves?
But all the brewing is making a concoction. The fear is part of the process. And once you drink the concoction, some of that shame lessens. The horror of what others might think starts to dissipate. You learn the power of self-disclosure: consciously choosing to tell someone something that is not easy to share. I’ve had quite a few shots of the concoction over the years and I’m proud to say that I’m drunk on disclosure. Care for a sip?
But first you need to know what you're experiencing. So let's rewind to 10 years ago when I didn't have a clue:
I was sitting in my Abnormal Psychology class. Abnormal Psychology. It was listed in the course program, neatly beside other classes: Motivation; Learning; Personality, all of which sounded innocent. But throw in the word abnormal and you can see how society plays a role in feeding discrimination. This was where we were going to learn about the good stuff. Everyone wanted to take Abnormal Psych. Little did I know I was about to be living it.
The professor shared The Tale of the Student who was Late for an Exam. The story goes that the student was driving on the highway heading towards his exam while rehearsing mnemonic devices under his breath.
Until he heard the bump.
No, not a pothole, which our city is famous for. No, not the cliché deer blinded by headlights. He feared he hit someone.
Slamming on his breaks, he pulled over from the highway, got out of his car and searched the pavement for signs of a body. With his high beams acting as the search and rescue team, he didn’t see any obvious signs of human flesh. He rummaged through his dashboard and pulled out the emergency flashlight his mom insisted he have. Shining the light towards the nearby bushes, he saw just that, bushes. No blood. No body.
There was nothing to be found, the prof explained.
We already knew the basics of OCD: obsessions lead to compulsions to try to get relief. But we’d never heard of this version. This is why we were taking the class. We wanted the inside scoop.
The professor showed us how the basics applied to this dreary tale. The obsession was Exam Boy thinking he hit someone. The compulsion was Exam Boy checking for a body. The temporary relief was brought on by his checking.
So while he was searching for the body he would never find, he should have been searching for the correct answers on his exam.
“Did he make it to the exam?” someone asked.
I don't remember. What I do remember was walking towards my car in a parking lot a few weeks later. I noticed someone walking by, towards their car, presumably. People do walk in parking lots. I was, after all.
I got into my car, put it into reverse and started to back out.
Did I just hit that person?
Rearview mirrors are supposed to resolve such doubts. I looked. Didn't see anyone. Driving away seemed like the reasonable thing to do. So I did. But after driving for a few minutes, I wondered if I had just committed a felony. A hit and run. Better return, survey the parking lot and be sure.
Who was I? Why was I acting like the student from the case study?
At least I didn’t have an exam to get to.
I told my boyfriend that I had returned to an empty parking lot. No pool of blood. No ambulances or police cars. Just pavement under the fluorescent lighting. My headlights and me alone in the parking lot.
I didn't realize the recap was my first disclosure of having OCD.
But it’s one thing to have suspected I had OCD. Innocent until proven guilty, right? Thinking I might have OCD was more of a theory, a hypothesis yet to be proven. But years later when it was confirmed, I cried. Until I heard it from a professional, the stages of grief were stifled.
As a teenager, I took online quizzes that claimed to tell you all the mental illnesses you had. I'd post my results in an online forum I frequented, hoping for the craziest, showing off my badges of peculiarity. Maybe I needed a label to give myself some sort of identity.
But it wasn't like a badge at all. The psychologist's words were like a hot iron scalding my skin with a label, a very misunderstood label.