Stop Pussyfooting Around My OCD

It's better to talk about mental illness and fuck-up than stay silent.

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Jul 21 2014, 2:40pm

Photo of the author

When you think of OCD, you might think of people freaking out when you mess up their colour-coded shoe collections. But a neurotic cycle of obsession and compulsion can feed on any subject matter. For me, it was always sexuality.

I have a rampant but little known manifestation of OCD, colloquially called “pure O”. It meant that, before I had therapy, I used to experience obsessive and intrusive thoughts thousands of times a day, which I would then compulsively try to neutralise, justify and expunge. The images started when I was 15 years old, and they chewed up a decade of my life.

You might think, then, that I’d have serious beef 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” – that kind of thing. This type of language is intolerable for many people with the condition, who frequently dispense their angry messages on Twitter.

Stephen Fry recently got publicly thrashed for using one such casual remark. Yep, mental health campaigner Stephen Fry got criticised in the national press for apparently being 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, inciting harsh criticism from many people with OCD.

I wasn’t remotely upset or offended by Fry’s tweet, but I do understand why some of my fellow obsessives can become frustrated. When an illness that has debilitated your life is reduced to a quip about neatness, it can sting. Sometimes, when it happens, I rehearse retorts in my mind, “I see your joke about a perfect row of paper clips and raise you a decade of insurgent, swirling mega-minges.” But I never say them.   

When I was a student coming to terms with my OCD, I was also coming to terms with my mother’s bipolar disorder. And I felt the stigma weighing upon our family like G-force. People didn’t talk and the silence was terrifying. Then 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 about it. Fry didn’t speak like a medical journal or a shrink. He spoke like a human, with wit and tenderness.

Illustration by James Burgess

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 vs them" dynamic. Us over here, enlightened, using all the right words. Them over there, ignorant, using all the wrong ones. And for me this dichotomy does not ring true.

For a start, most of us, mentally ill or otherwise, use all sorts of mental health vocabulary, every day. When my takeaway arrives without 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? Of course not. 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 stay friends. Together we have to sound the alarms when the government tries to weasel our mental health services out of much needed funds. 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 care.

This lack of funding is leaving us in search of answers. In May I went to the OCD Action National Conference, 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?” asked one very sad-looking middle-aged lady, quietly, on behalf of her son. “The truth is,” Dr Veale sighed in response, “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 can happen to any of us, after all. Like a cold or a cancer it can strike the healthy, the unlikely. It’s not just happening in darkened rooms to people you don’t know. In fact, one third of all households in Britain include someone who is mentally ill. How can we break down the mental/not-mental, cray/not-cray binary and get people giving a shit?

I think we need to buck that “you have no idea what it’s like” narrative and speak about mental illness in an accessible way. Can mental illness be relatable to someone who’s never experienced it? I asked accredited cognitive behavioural therapist Robert Fogg whether or not mental illness exists on a scale, and whether being “a little bit OCD” is technically possible. He says it’s a complex issue with arguably no answer (you see – greyness, again, even at the highest level), but that 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 off 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, for sure.

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 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.

Illustration by James Burgess

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, undo your top button and belt 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 bollocking you, I’ll tell you lots of fascinating and heart-breaking and beautiful things about mental illness; things that will make you re-evaluate your language because your care and because you’re interested, not because you've been shamed into feeling 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 it if you want. Just don’t shut up. 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, full of people who know all the right words but is so insular it's slowly eating itself.

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 untreated disease in this country is handled with the urgency it deserves. But between each other – please – just a little softness.

@rosebretecher

Rose has written a memoir about her life with OCD, which she currently crowd funding through Unbound. Watch her campaign video and pledge here.

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