My eyes scan the bookcase for something to read, but nothing stands out. Of course, most of the books here in my childhood bedroom are meant for an audience younger than my college-aged self, but I wouldn’t mind reading one for nostalgia’s sake.
I gloss over familiar titles and reminisce about my joyful days as a kid, when my eyes catch on a spiral-bound journal with red and white stripes. I remember this one – it always looked like a candy cane to me. I take it from the shelf and begin to thumb through its pages.
Inside, written in blue pen, are excessively detailed notes on my ninth grade summer reading book, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. I should be impressed by the effort put into these notes; their content is impressive, filling pages upon pages with plot points from the book, each meticulously labeled with its corresponding page number. But I’m distracted by something else: the handwriting. I see words that have been traced over numerous times so that the letters are thick with blue ink. I see parentheses that have been carved so forcefully that they’ve left an impression on the following page. I see, as the notes progress, an increasing messiness to the words, as if they were scrawled with growing frustration, as if I wanted to stop this excruciatingly detailed writing but couldn’t.
And now I realize: I had OCD.
At least, I think I did. I might have. I was never diagnosed. I’ll admit I know little about OCD, but I know that it exists on a spectrum, and I might have had a relatively mild form of it. It didn’t drastically hinder my day-to-day operations, and I didn’t usually exhibit compulsive behavior around other people. But it did make some tasks incredibly difficult, overwhelming, and anger-inducing.
My magic number was four; things had to be done four times for my compulsions to be satisfied. For example, when turning off the lights, I had to touch both sides of the switch four times. And if, on the fourth time, I accidentally rubbed the switch “the wrong way”, I had to “smooth it out” by touching both sides of the switch four times again. It was the same for writing; if I wrote a certain letter in pen and the ink came out choppy or the letter shape felt “wrong”, I had to trace over the letter four times. Sometimes, I’d trace the whole word four times so the other letters wouldn’t feel “left out”. Parentheses were the worst; if two parentheses weren’t symmetrical, I’d trace them as well. But I could almost never get them to be satisfactorily even, making them a consistent source of anguish. I had several other compulsions, and giving in to them was extremely aggravating. But the alternative, to not give in, would have been worse.
My younger sister became aware of these “strange habits” of mine, and one evening (I must’ve been in tenth grade at the time), she issued me a challenge: to press every digit on our home telephone except the zero. It was a test to see if I was capable of leaving something out. As I positioned my finger over the first digit on the phone, I wanted simply for my compulsions to remain secret. I was self-conscious. I feared shame. Not from my sister, who, at worst, would throw me a casual “I told ya so” and move on. No, I feared shame from myself. So somehow, I did it. I didn’t press the zero. I didn’t even sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to press it, though I do remember trying to telepathically explain to the zero why it had been left out. I can’t be sure, but I think that event marked the fading of my compulsions. Eventually, I outgrew them. They still affect me in ways, at some times more than others, but not nearly as much as back then. Heck, I had virtually forgotten all about them until I pulled that candy cane journal off the shelf.
Flash forward to where I now sit typing this story and I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been different if I had been diagnosed with OCD (assuming I fit the criteria, which I might not have). Would a diagnosis have connected me to resources and helped me confront my compulsions? Or would it have made me feel as if I were “mentally ill”, “abnormal”, “dysfunctional”? And how would people have treated me? I was known as “the smart kid”, “the quiet kid”, “the nice kid” throughout middle and high school. Would I have instead been known exclusively as “the OCD kid”?
In ninth grade, the same year that I wrote in the candy cane journal, I took my public high school’s required health class, which included a unit on mental health. What’s funny is that when we learned about OCD, I remember thinking that I couldn’t have the condition because I wasn’t “crazy”. No, I was “normal”. I couldn’t possibly be one of those people. This misguided thought process underscored a fundamental assumption underlying our study of mental health: that people living with mental health conditions existed solely outside the classroom, that they were an “other”. That’s why we focused on the symptoms of mental health conditions rather than the experiences of people living with those conditions, as if “mentally ill” people were just check-lists of “abnormal” traits instead of complex people. And that’s why we framed “mental illness” as its own isolated phenomenon, when it’s really just one facet of the broader phenomenon of “mental health”, which applies to all people. Because of all this, I came to understand mental health as a binary: either you had xyz symptoms and were “mentally ill”, or you were “normal”. We students had to be the normal ones, since we could sit in a classroom and study the “mentally ill” ones who existed somewhere outside. With this “othering” logic, it’s understandable (though still inexcusable) that my health group’s video project caricaturized the experience of having a panic attack. Perhaps if we had been exposed to the voices of people living with mental health conditions and engaged in critical discussion about how mainstream American society perceives “mental illness”, we would have come to a more humanizing understanding of mental health. Perhaps then I would’ve entertained the idea that I had some level of OCD. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have been ashamed to press the zero and ask for help.
I write this not because I want to be a voice for people with mental health conditions. I’m not sure that I had OCD by American medical standards (not that we have to abide by those standards), and I don’t mean to pretend that I did. Rather, I write this because I might have had OCD but never felt it was an option to discuss it with anyone. Of course, I acknowledge that my reluctance to talk about my compulsions was partly a function of personality; I was, and continue to be, guarded in many ways, something I’m trying to work on by being vulnerable and open now. But it was also a function of cultural stigma and of an education system that continues to perpetuate the dehumanization and marginalization of the “mentally ill”. That’s something we can work on fixing.
So how do we fix it? I’m not sure I should be the one answering that question. But I think a good place to start is to break down the binary of “mentally ill” vs. “normal” and to acknowledge that every person, whether living with a mental health “disorder” or not, experiences mental health stressors and strives for mental wellbeing. This acknowledgment is not intended to erase the struggles of those living with mental health conditions, just to destigmatize those struggles. In the same vein, it is imperative that we center the voices of people living with mental health conditions in this conversation and trust what they have to say.
There’s a lot more to discuss here: how systemic oppression and mental health intersect, the ways in which my privilege enabled me to cope with my compulsions, the history of mental health education, etc. I invite you to leave a comment. Please critique my arguments, call out generalizations I made, and share experiences that complement or contradict my own. This has been my story. Now I’d love to hear yours.
My name is Brian McGahie. I’m from Massachusetts and recently graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor’s degree in Geography. I’m interested in social justice and the arts (especially creative writing, theater, and film), and I’m at a point in my life that is equally confusing and exhilarating as I try to figure out who I am, what I’m good at, how I can help bring about social change, and if there exists any kind of universal truth. Maybe my questions will be answered in time, or maybe not – for now, I’m just enjoying learning new things and following my instinct. I love swimming, bookstores, puns, YouTube, and dogs, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to contribute to Pasand’s blog!