by IOCDF Lead Advocate Valerie Andrews
Being a woman of color, living with a mental illness such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has been challenging over the years. Being thrown into a world that I had absolutely no idea existed, it became apparent that we (POC) were lacking in both numbers and commitment. I found myself struggling, longing to share, to vent, to simply physically feel the presence of someone who looked like me; in this new frightening world I was now unwillingly a part of.
Anger quickly became my companion, and disappointment my best friend. I found myself searching for so many unanswered questions. I was so sure there had to be a good reason why communities of color were under-represented, and missing in action. Why were we excluded from this club? There had to be a reasonable explanation, and I was definitely going to find it!
Along with that anger and disappointment came a heavy sadness and a longing to take some type of self accountability. I sat with those feelings for several years. I didn’t know what to do, how do I help? How do I get from point A to point B? By now bitterness had settled in and left a sour taste in my mouth! By now my consciousness needed answers and someone or something to blame. It demanded that I do something. My hands were neither clean nor tied. My longing for inclusion into this new world remained fresh and at attention. I knew that I could no longer remain faceless, let alone voiceless.
In 2017, following some research, I attended my very first Annual OCD Conference. By now, I was really ticked off, but the Conference was amazing. The resources, the sessions, the abundance of people living with this OCD thang was absolutely beautiful. Nevertheless, where were the black and brown people who looked like me? Besides a few handfuls they were either hiding or not there. And if anyone wasn’t going to say something about it ... I would!
How Ethan Smith found me that day, had to be heaven sent. After sitting, talking, and listening to me, he encouraged — okay, “challenged” might be a better word — me to take that energy and passion and direct it into something positive. Along with his patience, direction, compassion, and charming personality, I found my own confidence growing.
There’s this old classic children’s book from the 1950s, written by Marian Potter, called The Little Red Caboose. The message of the story was no matter how big you are or what your job might be, everyone is important. The little red caboose’s job was to push the locomotive and the rest of the trains over the mountain in order to deliver supplies to the city. But no one believed in her because they thought she was too small to accomplish the job.
But that did not discourage the little red caboose. Each time it got hard trying to push the train up the mountain, she would say to herself … I think I can … I think I can … I think I can. Until she reached the top.
I learned a lot about advocacy reading that story. Advocating, whether big or small, helps move us (IOCDF) up the mountain; and eventually over it!
My very first conscious act of advocating was to polish my toenails teal. It was my way of silently advocating for change. Teal is the universal color used and recognized to bring awareness to OCD. It was my reminder not to remain faceless and voiceless. Every time I looked at my feet, I reminded myself “I think I can, I think I can.” Every time I look at my feet I’m encouraged (thanks, Ethan) to keep my feet moving towards changing the number of people who look like me to get involved and to commit in hope of growing our numbers. I’m reminded that our faces, our voices must secure our seat at the table … our place within the community.
The message that I want to leave you with is one of encouragement, empathy, and action. I found that advocating can begin with a simple thought, a simple deed … a simple desire, just like mine did. Today, as a Lead Advocate, I continue to advocate for change within communities of color and faith, to name a few.
My simple act of defiance, polishing my toenails in 2017, continues today. However, it has expanded to include family, friends, and strangers. During OCD Awareness Week, I ask my inner circle, as well as strangers, to join me in polishing their hands, feet, or both. Becoming an advocate for ending stigma for the day, week, or month helps move the mountain of stigma.
I continue to wear teal nail polish throughout the year. I have grown to absolutely love the color because even as an advocate living with OCD, I still have to remember on those challenging and roller coaster ride days that I am not alone, nor immune … and un-teal there is no stigma, I will continue asking everyone to show me their hands or feet ... hugs