By Olivia Jordan
At the age of seven, I began harboring what I thought was a deep, damaging secret; one that existed solely in my thoughts, expertly hidden from the outside world. I focused on my secret every waking hour. The guilt consumed my entire being, impeding my full-time job of scaring my classmates by telling them I was a witch.
I suffered for weeks, weighed down by my judgments and the guilt that they produced. After a while, I decided to confess to my mom the horrible things I had been thinking.
“Mom…” I began, gathering my strength, “I’m scared that I hate Jesus Christ.”
After speaking those words, I felt the weight of eternal damnation. I stood there, waiting to be snatched by the devil himself into the fiery depths of hell. Although I did not grow up in a religious environment, I believed that this notion of mine was the most brutal offense a human had ever committed. What can I say? I was the best at being bad.
I anxiously waited for mom’s response. Would she throw holy water on me? Send me to a nunnery? Sign me up for a TLC show about prepubescent Satanists? I didn’t expect her to laugh, an under-reaction that I deemed to be annoying. Now, I realize the appropriateness of that to a seven-year-old child who equates her rebellion against the teachings of Sunday School to premeditated murder.
Many intrusive thoughts consumed my being from the ages of 7 to around 17. After years of fearing that I “hated” those who could not be hated (Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi … nobody was safe from my childhood imaginary vitriol) and other all-consuming fears about myself and what I might be capable of, I finally went to therapy to talk about these “bad thoughts,” as I called them. I learned that I suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), specifically “Pure O,” a form of OCD in which one experiences obsessions without displaying observable compulsions typically associated with OCD, like hand-washing or checking.
Intrusive thoughts are defined as unwelcome mental feelings, images, or scenarios that are incredibly difficult to eliminate. For me, a disturbing intrusive thought pops into my mind and repeats, causing me distress and distracting me from all other logical thoughts until another upsetting thought replaces it. For those without OCD, imagine being forced listen to the same U2 song on shuffle for several hours and the distress that would cause you. That’s the way OCD works, though somehow less upsetting. These thoughts revolve around taboo subjects, and the scenarios conjured by the brain can be illogical and objectively ridiculous, making the distress feel completely real and legitimate to those who experience it, but amusing to observers.
I continue to struggle with manifestations of OCD, whether feeling compelled to take pictures of my stove every night repeatedly until I know that I turned it off or “remembering” that I penned a “slut list” that popped up in my city when I was in middle school—despite not knowing any of the people on the non-existent list—or crying at 3am because I convince myself that all my loved ones are dead.
It amazes me to observe how people casually drop OCD on a daily basis … like a trendy new slang describing a quirk or a habit.
“OMG, I’m being like, so OCD right now with my eyeliner.”
“LOL Stacey, are you OCD or something? Your car is so clean!”
While some might think that the common use of the term “OCD” helps to remove the stigma from the condition, it makes it harder for me to talk about my condition. While many ascribe color coding your notes or keeping your room clean (two things I never do) to OCD, I find it difficult to explain to people that I called them 14 times last night because my mind convinced me that they died in a gruesome murder. How do I describe the fact that I won’t be able to sleep if they keep a phone charging overnight because I must check to make sure that the outlet isn’t sparking? If I open up to someone about my OCD, I worry that one look at my ridiculously messy dorm room will make them think otherwise because of the common misconceptions about OCD.
The recent portrayal of OCD in the media gives me great hope for the way it will be perceived. When I first started watching Lena Dunham’s Girls, it thrilled me to see that Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, suffered from OCD, like Dunham herself. At first, the subtle fashion in which Hannah’s OCD fit into the narrative disappointed me. Her compulsions, included hand-washing and counting—common for those with OCD—exist as stereotypical markers of OCD in the media.
In subsequent episodes, Girls, differentiated itself from other media by showing another raw, disturbing side of the disorder. In season 2 of the show, Hannah’s OCD spikes as she becomes increasingly stressed, a realistic representation of OCD as the symptoms can wax and wane. As her symptoms progress, she talks to a therapist about the ways in which counting keeps her up at night, making her cry as she sees images of sex and murder on a loop. This culminates in a brutal scene in which Hannah ends up puncturing her ear drum with a Q-Tip, warranting a doctor visit. In the last scene of the episode, following the doctor’s visit, we see Hannah place a Q-Tip in her other ear, presumably fulfilling her need for left-right balance by inflicting pain unto herself once again. Here, Dunham dispels the notion of OCD as a funny quirk or a personality trait with a truly disturbing scene.
The seven-year-old girl in me, terrified of her own thoughts and convinced the looping would never end, continues to make progress in dealing with the debilitating effects of OCD. I laugh at some of my more ridiculous thoughts as I experience new manifestations of OCD and realize that the battle will continue for the rest of my life. Talking about my OCD helps me get past my shame when I confront a new obsession or compulsion. While I cannot articulate the ways in which I experience the disorder, I find it liberating to show my friends the photo album on my phone labelled “Oven Pics,” or describing some of the sillier fears that consume me.
As one who wants to create media, I hope that I can capture the complexity and nuance of mental illness in the way that Lena Dunham did on Girls. While OCD will continue to be a part of my story, Dunham taught me not to hide it or to let it define me. I write this blog for the little girl who thought she would hide her shameful thoughts forever—the same one who wondered why she could not keep her damn room clean, or speak up about what she feels, and, finally, be free.