Can you talk a bit about your experience with OCD stigma?
OCD stigma has probably been one of the most detrimental experiences with my recovery. I’m sure that those in the OCD community are familiar with the tendency to have obsessions about whether or not we actually have OCD. In addition to the perfectionism element to my obsessions, I have struggled with the urge to know everything there is to know about OCD and to be prepared to have the perfect explanation of what OCD is and what it looks like in me. The stigma around OCD has left me to feel very isolated and misunderstood.
The assumption that OCD is a cute quirk or adjective or somehow self-serving or simply wanting things in a certain way has been difficult to combat, especially when I confide in someone that I have OCD and they respond with, “Me too; I have to have everything tidy or I freak out,” or, “My friends yell at me all the time about my OCD habits.”
The best is probably a professor responding to me with, “I understand, I have a little OCD in me too. Honestly, we probably all do.”
Those times can be true punches to the stomach in response to my desire for compassion and comfort. It has also been difficult because several people have said to me, “You don’t look like someone with OCD.” It can be perplexing as I have no clue what reference they have of what someone with OCD looks like. Sometimes I reflect on all the preconceived notions that go into being a Black woman who “talks white” and the ignorant questions or statements that follow when people learn more about my background and upbringing. I thought the shock and disbelief that all Black people are not the same would have numbed me to all other stereotypes, but I come to find out it hurts all the same.
"Several people have said to me, 'You don’t look like someone with OCD.'"
OCD stigma has impacted me most when my own family and friends have outright questioned my diagnosis or basically dismissed it. Pretending I don’t have a debilitating mental illness has caused me significant pain, especially since it has come from the people I would least expect. Having had the difficult experiences of being misdiagnosed and trapped in a losing battle in my head for so long, and to finally be on the road to recovery, it hurts to have to beg for compassion and grace from the people I love, and to ask them to take time to educate themselves with open conversations with me.
After reintegrating into my life post-intensive ERP and starting to master the ritual prevention skills, the hardest part of my recovery journey became being surrounded by the stigma around OCD. I felt like a joke and that all of my extensive days in treatment were seen as a joke. As if the stigma around being a Black woman in America or trying to receive an education in a predominantly white field wasn’t enough, having one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses has made it a triple whammy. Unfortunately, the reality that I must accept is that everything about me is met with belittlement and underestimation. Most of which I believe is due to an ignorance and fear to cause more harm by asking questions or inquiring, which is why breaking the stigma around misrepresented groups is crucial.
Why is advocacy important to you?
Oh man! This question is so interesting because to me it is such a given. Everyone in this world has something they suffer or have suffered from. The world’s imperfections and cruelties have weighed on my heart for as long as I can remember. It is something I have struggled to comprehend and never seemed fair. It always reminds me of my mother telling me, “Life’s not fair” as a child. Now, being older, I see it differently: she’s not wrong, but I’ve come to realize life is more fair than you think, because technically life is unfair to everyone. Of all things to not discriminate in this world, it has to be unfairness. That isn’t to say there aren’t pains and sufferings that are of different magnitudes for different people, but it is indisputable that every single human being has endured suffering. But despite that we tend to forget this truth. We allow our own suffering to be an excuse or a reason to treat someone else badly. But why? I will never understand that part of the human experience.
What I do know is how could I suffer, get better, and then be silent? How can I continuously suffer as a Black woman in a world that is set up for me to fail, in addition to having a debilitating mental illness that also sets me up to fail, and not take what I have learned to help someone else? It feels wrong to me; it feels inhumane honestly. I wish I could cure the suffering of all people, but since that is not an option, advocacy is the next best thing.
I have found myself asking “Why me” on numerous occasions throughout my life, often at two extremes: On the one hand, I often question why I get to have a loving and supporting family, access to an amazing education, the luxury of never worrying about my basic needs being met. On the other hand, why do I have to have a chronic debilitating mental illness; why did my best friend have to die at age 20; why did my grandmother have to be diagnosed with terminal cancer? Yet, it is the moments when the “Why me” is sparked by the best parts of my life that push me into advocacy. Because that is the thing about life — I will never know the answers to the “Why me.” All I do know is that God gave me a voice and a heart filled with love for others, and to not use them to build up others and fight for what I believe is right or what could prevent someone from suffering in the ways that I have, that would be the greatest injustice and disobedience of God’s calling for my life.
Describe the importance of having women of color in the mental health profession.
Sigh! This is the ultimate goal in my opinion. Representation is a true game changer in all realms but crucial in the mental health profession. There is a disproportionate number of Black people impacted by mental illness. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this but time and time again, lack of representation is the key. I do also want to recognize an additional limitation that the Black community needs to internally work upon, and that is breaking the stigma around mental health. It has been seen as taboo for several generations, a “top secret” if someone in the family were to have a mental illness. Mental illnesses were never talked about and often seen as a weakness that prayer and “getting over it” could fix. This attitude still plagues the community today with ranging effects. The more people of color we can encourage to join the mental health profession, the greater impact breaking that stigma can have. When I think about OCD specifically, the embarrassment associated with intrusive thoughts and the meaning often assigned to them is already a common reason people don’t seek help or aren’t honest; that resistance continues to increase when you don’t see yourself in your mental health provider.
"Amplify melanated voices, because you see the struggle and exhaustion of battling OCD and then realize the privilege you have to not have to fight a world on top of that."
That is why I think conversations and platforms such as this are essential. When people see a black woman, who perceivably has it all put together, thriving in a rigorous professional program, mental illness can seem untouchable. Rather it is all a skewed reality, that yes, while those things are still very much true, it is actually in addition to overcoming a debilitating mental illness; it is in spite of the barriers set up in our country to silence voices like mine. Yes, having women of color in the mental health profession is crucial. But arguably even more crucial is having platforms for successful women of color to share their truths. Then, that platform must be amplified and praised because those outside the Black community are able to recognize that success took hard work all because of the color and gender of someone. That is something to get a standing ovation for, because just showing up places with a mental illness is hard. Imagine winning that mental battle showing up somewhere to have to fight for space, and fight for people to see your worth and the value of your life. Amplify melanated voices, because you see the struggle and exhaustion of battling OCD and then realize the privilege you have to not have to fight a world on top of that.
What is your advice for those who want to be allies to those in the Black community? (Both to the community at large and to specifically Black people with mental illnesses.)
First and foremost love, compassion and kindness are all free. Start there. Listen closely to the needs of these communities because they are mixed layers of complexity. How do you listen? Be intentional with who you surround yourself with but also who you follow on social media, the TV shows you watch, the music and types of podcasts you listen to. There is a wealth of information available. It is up to you to take the opportunities and time to use them. Always, always make space for people of color in spaces that have historically not been intended for them — higher education institutions, healthcare field professions, etc. The space then has to be accessible, which will require resources to overcome the obstacles that have structurally been in place to make getting into them near to impossible.
Offer an open invitation to people of color to reach out, but also support the choice of Black communities to unite in separate spaces. It is not personal or anything against you. It is beneficial for the spirits and minds of people of color to be around others who look like them, those who provide the same comfort that people who are not of color get in every space they enter. You should still need to keep the space open and figure out ways to grow the space for people of color to be heard and seen. Recognize and own your privilege; do not be sorry for it. We accept that the color of our skin is not something we can choose or change, and having privilege is out of your control. What matters is how can you use your privilege to help dismantle the systemic racism this country is built on; voting is a start!
"Remember that we bleed the same and we all suffer."
Vote for people of color, vote for people whose platforms uplift and support people of color, vote at all levels of the government. Vote for those who encourage increased accessibility to healthcare services for minorities. Vote for those who intend to offer the necessities for the Black community to get a fair starting place in the race of life. In other words, support equity. Mental illnesses including OCD do not discriminate. They impact Black communities just as much as any others. This is a commonality to relate to and to have empathy for, and can be a starting place for a relationship that can lead to the vulnerability of open conversations about race that are desperately needed in this country.
Being uncomfortable and afraid is no longer an acceptable reason to remain silent. When people know your heart and pure intentions, grace and patience can easily be granted in order to achieve the ultimate goal of unifying and making actual change. Lastly, remember that we bleed the same and we all suffer. Keep this at the forefront of your mind as you make choices about how to treat all people.