The movie What About Bob? became available on Netflix awhile back, and naturally I turned it on. You remember this movie, right? Bill Murray following his new therapist on vacation, bringing along his charming and hilarious mental ailments, with his therapist just trying to get a break from work.
I watched that movie when I was in junior high, and I thought it was hilarious. But now, after being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I found it a bit offensive because the reality is, OCD doesn’t look like that at all. At least not in my case.
In fact, there really isn’t anything funny about OCD. And yet I see it come up in movies all the time. I can still recall watching Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and laughing at how neurotic he was. Now, living with OCD, I realize that not only did that movie make me look crazy, it also made a joke of something I’ve struggled with for years.
OCD has become the butt of the joke, something that comes up in regular conversation. But it doesn’t always look like needing to keep your house organized, or all your pencils facing the same direction, or your minivan free of kid junk, or any other stupid joke people make about managing OCD.
In fact, my house is a mess.
Anyone who ever says, “such-and-such is setting off my OCD” with a snicker knows nothing about the real condition. OCD isn’t a simple irritation; it’s actual fear. It’s a deep, anxious pain in your gut that you can’t explain, because honestly it doesn’t really have an explanation, so you search for one. You search for something to pin your fear on. But the fear doesn’t make logical sense, so you end up attaching it to something nonsensical.
For a long time, I attached it to sleep. I’d wake moments after falling asleep in a deep, fearful sweat. I don’t know why, but somehow that made me think that if I didn’t get enough sleep, I’d be anxious. Any time I suffered from an anxiety attack, I made the connection that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I exercised everyday to make sure I was tired. This lead to a strict routine of going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning, sometimes exercising vigorously for up to 8 hours a day. I was 18. I went three years never missing a day of this routine. I started to have trouble with my kidneys because I was exerting myself too much, but I couldn’t stop. I was too scared to.
With the help of a therapist, combined with medication, I was able to get back to living a normal life. I got married and finished college. But my anxiety and OCD still pop up in strange places. I obsess over my kids and their routines. I get anxious over my writing, checking the shares on a post, or the reviews and Amazon seller rank on my book regularly, and I can feel my mood change.
OCD feels like someone is pushing you. It feels like something deep inside of you is forcing you to do something necessary, even though it honestly isn’t. It can become all-consuming, and it can look like a simple tick, something you must do every day or risk a panic attack. It doesn’t make sense to anyone not struggling with it, because it defies logic. And yet, when you are living with it, OCD feels very real and very terrifying, and it can consume your life.
But here’s where, for some people, OCD can take a turn from the way society paints it. You will never hear me openly discuss my OCD (this article aside, of course). You will never hear me say that I need to do something to stop a tick because, frankly, I’m embarrassed. If anyone is good at hiding something, it’s a person struggling with a mental disorder.
For the most part, I live a normal life. I go to work. I take care of my three children. I love my wife. I never ask someone to change what they are doing to accommodate my panic attacks. I suffer alone because I’m ashamed of something I struggle every day to control, something that makes no sense to anyone but me. When people make OCD jokes at the office, I laugh with them because I don’t want them to know my true, deeper secret.
I think this is the hardest part of depression, anxiety, OCD, or any other life disruptive mental ailment. Regardless of how much they are discussed, there is still a stigma around them, when the fact is, they should be seen the same as any other life-long physical ailment. We aren’t there yet, so I keep my OCD to myself. I find creative ways to live my life while also managing my panic attacks. I keep to a schedule, and I take my medications. Some days, months, years are better than others. But I will live with it for the rest of my life. I know that.
If we could change the way it is perceived, living with OCD and other mental ailments would be much easier. I say this for myself, and for others. So if you are reading this and you live with a mental illness, know that you are not alone. And if you are reading this and you think that people who struggle with mental ailments need to get over it, or you often use the term OCD to describe the state of your desk, realize that the person laughing with you just might be suffering in secret.