Editor’s Note: It’s Day Two of International OCD Awareness Week, and we want to continue our discuss about the significance of opening up to friends, family members, and even coworkers about OCD. This week is all about spreading education and awareness about OCD outside of the OCD community, as a way of increasing understanding, and hopefully bringing an end to stigma around mental health issues. Read Alison’s post, and then join the conversation in the comments section below. And learn how else you can get involved in OCD Awareness Week at iocdf.org/ocdweek.
A few weeks ago on Twitter, someone asked her followers with OCD whether their coworkers knew about their diagnosis and circumstances and, if so, how they reacted to the information.
I said that, yes, most of my coworkers know, and it was especially helpful that my boss knew the day I was going through withdrawal symptoms because I hadn’t been keeping up with my medication. I also noted that since I’ve written a book about OCD it’s kind of hard to hide.
Health issues are a tricky topic—who really wants to hear the dramatic tale of your ingrown toenail? And it’s not easy to tell someone you barely know that you’re going through chemotherapy. This uncomfortable, hush-hush atmosphere seems to be doubly encouraged when it comes to mental health issues. And the thing about mental disorders is that they’re often chronic and can be a pretty big part of a person’s life, and therefore something hard to continually sweep under the rug.
When I was in the throes of terrible obsessions, before I actually knew I had OCD, going to work was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Getting out of bed felt like an impossible chore, and on top of that I had to put on a relatively happy face and get through each day, being productive and trying to excel at my job. As a proofreader, this felt particularly difficult because the job requires so much concentration and attention to the tiniest details. When it comes to errors in a publication, the buck stops with the proofreader. So I had to be on when I really wanted to shut myself off—from the world, from my own head, from everything.
One day I was having such a hard time getting through the day without crying that I considered going to my boss and telling her, “I need to leave. I need to check into a psychiatric hospital.” I wanted to rest for weeks, or months. But since I knew I couldn’t say those words without crying—and that somehow seemed worse than going on as I was—I didn’t.
I couldn’t let her see me as weak. I had to pretend to be strong, but I was betraying myself. As much as I tried to hide my pain, others caught on. One coworker told me it seemed that I’d lost my spirit, and I ended up confiding a little in another who had seen the changes in my demeanor. I still have the little pinata she gave me one day to keep me company in my office; it’s a nice reminder of how far I’ve come, and to keep on keepin’ on.
Over the years I’ve become more open about my experience with OCD. From time to time I’ve taken a mental health day, and a couple times I’ve even referred to it as such when I’ve called in sick. Supervisors have been understanding, but sometimes I wonder what they really think. We’ve all heard the “rules” for taking a sick day: Are you contagious? Have you thrown up or had diarrhea? If not, go to work. These obvious physical symptoms are considered the only legitimate reasons to miss work.
And, of course, it is important to carry through our normal day-to-day activities. It’s good for our mental health to get out of bed, to get to work, to be productive, to not wallow. But we’re human beings, just like everyone else, and sometimes we need to rest, see our doctor, or replenish in other ways.
Nowadays I’m pretty transparent about my OCD so I can spread awareness and not hide in shame. I am not OCD, OCD is not me, but it has been a big part of my life—and I want to continue building awareness as long as people will listen. I want everyone to know a person can have a mental disorder and still lead a normal life. That having a disorder doesn’t mean people should shy away from you, or tiptoe around you. I can handle a robust workload. What I can’t handle is disrespect or rude comments.
But at times I feel too timid to say anything—when someone says in jest, “Don’t be so OCD about it!” I know they’re not doing it to be cruel. I just hope that once they know someone who actually has OCD they’ll think twice. My presence can serve as a little reminder, a pebble in their shoe (but hopefully not as annoying). When people know someone with a mental illness, or even just knowing something about mental illness in general, it can help reduce stigma in the workplace. Maybe you’re not yet ready to share your own experiences, so in the meantime I’ll wave my little “I have OCD, and that’s OK!” flag for all of us.
Readers: Are you open about your OCD at work? Join the discussion below.