This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
When I was 16, my mom took me to a counselor to address some “issues” I had been dealing with such as obsessive hand washing and eating my food in a particular order. It was the first time that my insurance covered mental health visits, and by this time, I had begun to avoid certain social situations for fear that my “weird” behavior might become a significant source of embarrassment.
When a doctor diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) shortly after, it was somewhat of a relief. At least I knew what was wrong and a plan (including support group therapy) was put in place to manage it.
However, I was less enthusiastic about my diagnosis after my friends found out. When the kids at school learned of my diagnosis, I felt like I was the butt of every joke. Suddenly, everyone’s habits, like washing their hands twice in one hour, became a sign that they “had OCD”. Most of them didn’t mean any harm, but it made me feel small nonetheless.
The stigma behind OCD stems from ignorance. Some people don’t fully understand the depth of this disorder, and some may even assume the symptoms are made up. However, if they were to spend time with someone who has OCD, they may see things differently. They may understand that these behaviors interfere with living a healthy life.
Over time, I learned to deal with the stigma. If you’re experiencing similar issues with the people in your life, I have found these tips to be useful.
Talk about mental health
Fortunately, the tides seem to be turning on the stigma of mental health. Studies suggest that millennials are more likely than other generations to discuss their mental health problems. This helps lift the stigma and teach us how common many of these issues are. Whether you’re a millennial or not, you can start these conversations within your circles. You may find that some of your friends are silently dealing with similar issues.
Educate whenever possible
You don’t want to be the know-it-all friend (at least, I didn’t), but you can take a few minutes to educate your friends about what OCD looks like. When my friends said things that made me feel small, I’d offer a quick and polite rebuttal to help educate them. For example, when one of my friends stated she had OCD as she washed her hands often, I responded: “I have a friend with that compulsion who has to wear gloves because her hands are so dry and chapped from washing.”
It may or may not make them think twice about saying it again, but at least they would learn that washing your hands a few times a day doesn’t necessarily equate to OCD.
Be careful what you say
My friends often used language that was insensitive to many groups of people, including those with mental health disorders. I’d correct each friend when I heard them say something inappropriate, but I’d only do it once. I learned that it’s not my job to police this, and everyone will make their own choices.
I did find, though, that most people changed their language after they fully understood why it was offensive. Most of us grow up learning by repetition, so if our parents or siblings said something, we did too. I have found that once people learn why something is wrong, most of them will gladly stop.
This stretches far beyond the realm of OCD, and even beyond mental illness, but I felt it was an important crusade. As I got older, some of my friends struggled with addiction, and I saw how they dealt with the stigma. Coming from a place of experience, I decided to educate myself on the addiction and learned that it’s not a choice but a mental health disorder. I was then able to use that information to help educate my friends.
We have a long way to go in dealing with the stigma of mental illness, but we have also come a long way since my difficult days in high school. If we all educate ourselves and others, the next generation will find it much easier to talk about these things.
Trevor is a freelance content writer and a recovering addict & alcoholic who’s been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.