Forget what Hollywood tells you about OCD. There’s more to it than lining up pencils and hoarding jars of urine. The neurotic cycle of obsession and compulsion can feed on any subject matter, with common themes including religion, violence, orderliness, sexuality and infanticide. For me it was always sexuality.
I have a rampant but little known manifestation of OCD, colloquially called ‘pure O’. People with pure O experience obsessive intrusive thoughts thousands of times a day, which they compulsively try to neutralise, justify and expunge. Mine started when I was 15-years-old with sexual mental images, and chewed up a decade of my life.
You might think, then, that I’d have qualms with the way OCD has slipped into common parlance over the last few years. You know the kind of flippant remarks I mean; “I’m well OCD about my sushi-soy ratio”, “I went OCD on the kitchen last night”, “I’ve got beard OCD”. This type of language is intolerable for many people with the condition, who frequently vent their fury on Twitter.
Stephen Fry recently got criticised in the national press for such casual remark, which many considered insensitive to the mentally ill. Fry had tweeted a photo of a row of cupcakes from which one was missing. This break in the pattern “ruined the effect in my OCD eyes”, Fry wrote.
I wasn’t remotely upset or offended by it, but I do understand why some of my fellow obsessives become frustrated. When an illness that has debilitated your life is reduced to a quip about neatness, it can sting.
When I was a student coming to terms with my mental health, I felt stigma weighing on me like G-force. One night I came across Stephen Fry’s The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive and I sobbed hard with relief. Not only had someone dared to talk about mental health, they’d dared, amid the seriousness, to be light-hearted. Fry didn’t speak like a medical journal or a shrink. He spoke like a human, with a little wit and a little softness.
I don’t believe that scolding people for being flippant about mental health does much to spread awareness. On the contrary, I think it sets up an unhelpful ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic. Us over here, enlightened, using all the right words. Them over there, ignorant, using all the wrong words. And for me this dichotomy does not ring true.
For a start, most of us, mental or otherwise, use all sorts of mental health vocabulary, every day. When my takeaway arrives sans pilau rice, I am “literally depressed”. When my dad cooks the peas for 20 minutes I ask if he’s “actually gone insane”. Do I use these words because I don’t take mental illness seriously enough? I don’t think so. Language is rich because no-one owns it. It’s full of hyperbole and re-appropriation. Context is always, always crucial. And if we can’t joke then we’re doomed.
Besides, when you fall mentally ill, or care for someone who does, you don’t suddenly start getting things right. You get things wrong all the time. You use clumsy words and say insensitive things. Mental illness is dazzlingly complex and difficult to negotiate, even for those of us closest to it. It’s big and grey and often you can’t see through it to what’s true and right. I tripped up just the other day when I was having a drink with a friend who has BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) by referring to his condition as BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder). He corrected me, and sensing my embarrassment told me not to worry. Through his tolerance he built a little bridge between us and kept our conversation flowing.
These little bridges are important because we’ve got to be pals. Together we have trill the alarm call while David Cameron’s government tries to weasel our mental health services in the dark. There are fewer and fewer beds available for the mentally ill. People are having to travel further to get emergency mental health treatment. And according to the Young Minds charity, more than half of councils have now frozen or cut budgets for child and adolescent mental health.
I saw the reality of the crisis that is this lack of funding is creating when I went to the OCD Action National Conference in May, where Dr David Veale, one of the country’s leading OCD authorities, was holding a Q&A about treatment options. “What’s the connection between autism and OCD?” one very sad-looking middle aged lady quietly asked on behalf of her son. “The truth is”, Dr Veale sighed in response, powerless, “there’s not enough research being done in that area. We simply don’t know.”
Clearly things need to change. But how can we get people caring about mental health? I mean everyone caring, not just those directly affected by it? Mental illness isn’t just happening in darkened rooms to people you don’t know. One third of all households in Britain include someone who is mentally ill. How can we break down the binary mental/not-mental dynamic and get people actively caring?
I believe the key lies in bucking the familiar “you have no idea what it’s like” narrative and speaking about mental illness in an accessible way. I spoke with Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Robert Fogg about whether or not mental illness can ever be relatable to someone who’s never experienced it. I asked him whether or not mental illness exists on a scale, and whether being ‘a little bit OCD’ is technically possible. He said these were complex questions with arguably no answer (you see – greyness, again, even at the highest level). He said we could think of OCD as being on “a spectrum ranging from relatively mild symptoms that don’t impact greatly on the person’s well being to severe emotional and behavioural impairment.”
Mild symptoms. Let’s start there. Let’s bridge the gap between “us” and “them” with commonality, rather than shutting conversations down with anger. What interesting discussions can we have about compulsive urges in general? What embarrassing intrusive thoughts do we all get sometimes? Have you ever imagined stabbing someone? Jumping of a bridge? Punching your nan? When I first started to tell my friends about my OCD, watching them bite their lips as they revealed the sordid contents of their own minds was a big comfort. They couldn’t fully empathise, but in a small way we were kindred in those moments.
This is not to dumb down or belittle the severity of mental illness. Of course, the truth is that mental illness can take a person to unfathomable depths that only that they can understand. It can make everyone in the world feel galaxies and galaxies away. But if we constantly have our hackles up, we’re not doing much to bring them closer.
Many of us are scared to talk about mental health because we don’t want to get things wrong, and I’ve watched people squirm in their seats because they don’t know which words to use. To them I say, let it out. If you get something wrong or say something insensitive, don’t worry, I’m a big girl, I can take it. Instead of chastising you, I’ll tell you lots of fascinating and heart-breaking and beautiful things about my mental health; things which might make you compassionate, not guilty.
I want us to get pissed and blather about this stuff into the small hours, using unguarded language to deepen our understanding. I want us to bumble on haphazardly using all the words we can think of, right or wrong, just as long as we’re talking. Ask me questions about mental health. Joke about if you want. Just don’t ever shut up. Because I’m tired of talking to myself about this. I’m tired of confining my conversations to a small and sympathetic community of mental health campaigners, which knows all the right words, but which is eating itself.
Scolding people for being flippant about mental illness builds barriers when we desperately need to break them down. It silences voices when we need to hear more. It leads to reticence and guilt, when we need openness and inhibition. Anger is important, of course. Be angry at our government for overlooking the vulnerable mentally ill millions. Be angry at them every day, and don’t stop being angry until the crisis of distress in this country is handled with the urgency it deserves. But between each other – please – just a little softness.
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