I have obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD.
I suffer from mainly obsessive OCD, which is characterized by repetitive intrusive thoughts. The symptoms of a person with the purely obsessive form of OCD are very different from those associated with compulsive OCD, which includes visible behaviors such as organizing and hand washing. Unfortunately, the media typically portrays compulsive behaviors. And the sad truth is, this is all many people know. For them, OCD is a quaint trait that cannot cause any real harm.
What they could never know is the hell that I and everyone else with obsessive OCD live through every day. Yet when I tell people that I have OCD, they show me no sympathy, instead offering up everything from "I've seen your room, it's really dirty" to "get a grip on reality."
This lack of understanding was obvious in an open dialogue my college hosted on growing up with mental illness. The speaker began by asking, "Do you think there is still stigma attached to mental illness, or is that idea retro?" Unfortunately, it only got worse.
The lecture was confined to individuals who suffered from depression in their late teens, a small percentage of those with mental illness. Most of the presentation was based on the lecturer's personal story, in which she was diagnosed with depression, but got tired of taking the medication. She was worried that doctors had little idea what consequences could result from long-term drug use and whether her personality today would be different had she not taken anti-depressants while transitioning into adulthood.
Although she may have the luxury of deciding when she no longer needs the assistance of psychiatric medication, the vast majority of patients do not. For us, it is not some bonus that makes our lives even better, it is a necessary tool to live and function in this society.
The worst part of the evening was when members of the audience were invited to speak. Almost everyone talked about how they agreed that medication was not the answer. Even though I was free to respond publicly, fear of stigma kept me silent. But then a woman stood up and told the audience how it was disgusting that toddlers were put on psychiatric medication. To her, any parent who puts a young child on medication only does so because "they do not want to put up with a crying baby, because I can tell you there is no such thing as ADD." As she finished speaking, she proclaimed "going on medication is just turning yourself over to the devil."
I snapped. I wanted to tell her everything she had said was wrong, that she had no authority to talk. I realized that every time I had chosen to hide my OCD, I only helped the stigma become stronger.
Sobbing, I told the audience my story. "I have been on anti-depressants for around 15 years and I have never, ever, questioned my identity and how it shaped me. I was in so much pain that I did not want to live. I thought about killing myself. But anti-depressants saved my life. And you have no right to tell me that I am mistreating myself. You cannot create one approach to dealing with all forms of psychiatric illness. It will never work."
I don't remember how people reacted. I had never exposed myself, yet I felt freer than I had ever been.
OCD is a part of me, but it does not define me. I acknowledge it, but I am stronger than it. Stronger than my obsessions, stronger than the stigma that engulfs me. And every day I will fight. As long as I stay silent, the stigma grows. So I will talk. And even though it is agonizing to share my story out of fear of the consequences, if I can show one person that they are not alone, if I can change one person's mind about mental illness, then the pain will be worth it.
Meagan Allen, 20, of Madison is a senior majoring in biology and medieval history at Mount Holyoke College.
The Courant invites writers younger than 30 to write essays of 650 words or less containing strong views. Please email your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org, with your full name, hometown, daytime phone number, age and occupation (or your school's name and your level in school). You can also fax op-eds to 860-520-6941.