I don’t ever want anyone to view me as weak. Mostly because I know I am the opposite of weak. I have endured what many would consider a hefty load in my life, and I have been forged in the fire more often than not. That being said, I still have many defense mechanisms in place when it comes to my mental health diagnosis. Even now, I will start a sentence regarding my OCD with, “I know this is stupid, but…” and then proceed to explain a very not stupid thought or feeling that I am experiencing. I make my relentless, irrational thoughts sound like a joke. I downplay the fact that I have been through a five-year-mental-ass-kicking that has done some serious damage. I dismiss the very idea that my time in a mental facility or OCD intensive treatment had any traumatic impact on me.
What I’m describing is my story, but you could easily insert your own. We all have that thing we don’t talk about. You are reeling from your parents (or your own) divorce. You still have not processed a past trauma or hurt. You have an illness, a history of abuse or addiction, a financial hardship, or some other “dirty laundry” that you have learned is better left swept under the rug. Why do we believe that? I’ve been studying a lot of mental health resources recently, and I consistently see this: society or family dynamics impressed upon you that emotions are synonymous with weakness. That to acknowledge struggle is to accept the label of fragility. And the most devastating belief: that a disorder of the mind is neither legitimate nor acceptable. I truly believe it is these lies that have been breeding shame and cultivating anxiety since the beginning of time.
It’s no secret that I hated school. All school. Not the actual concept of learning (which I lived for), but the social aspects. Friends, parties, relationships, cafeteria lunch tables… I had a rough go at them all. I know now that anxiety and panic disorder robbed me of the joys many people remember from school; But back then, I fully believed that there was just something fundamentally wrong with me. I worked so hard over those years, trying desperately to adopt the condition of cold indifference. I thought we were meant to withstand all hardships with no evidence of damage; That the most successful among us were the ones entirely unchanged and unscathed by life. I failed, by the way. And so started my struggle with shame. It’s interesting, because even now, those suppressed emotions usually come bubbling to the surface right along with the intrusive thoughts of OCD- almost as if they are tied together. Ding Ding Ding.
I may have learned to cope with and manage my mental health diagnoses over the years, but until recently, I refused to acknowledge the toll they had taken on every single aspect of my life. I could not accept that I had experienced trauma in one of its many forms. I refused to consider that perhaps the emotions I was internalizing from my experience with OCD were doing some serious collateral damage. And unfortunately, this seems to be the norm. Not only does mental health remain largely taboo , but the run off of emotions that spring from this struggle also remain unacknowledged. Part of the mental health journey is overcoming the condition; But, the second, and equally as important, part is allowing yourself space to process. Room to mourn the loss of the life you envisioned for yourself, to acknowledge the strength you possess that brought you this far, and to feel the true weight of the load that you have been carrying. The hang up comes when others try to define what your emotional processing should look like. As if there is a step-by-step guide to how everyone should move through emotions. We are able to group mental health diagnoses by a few characteristic similarities or chemical imbalances; but that is where the commonalities stop. We are all so incredibly unique, so we would be amiss to assume any two people would process a condition, or even a single event, the same way. That’s where shame manifests- trying to squeeze yourself into a mold that was not meant for you.
One phrase consistently comes to mind when I think of my struggle with OCD, and it came from many well-meaning friends and family members:
At least it’s not cancer.
I understand the sentiment and implications of perspective here, but I hate these words. This sentence embodies the very idea that we are not allowed to feel hardship because someone, somewhere has experienced worse. It creates the ultimate pissing match. Rather than conjuring feelings of empathy and unity, this way of thinking leaves virtually no room for emotional processing. Things like grief and rage are suppressed- creating a beast that will be far more challenging to tame later on. Do I believe I have had it harder than people with cancer? No. But the comparison should never be made. Let’s say you get a promotion, and rather than congratulating you, my response is “well I had a baby, which is way more exciting than that.” Yikes. That sentence is extremely off-putting, so why is it acceptable to compare tragedies? This is not a competition. I was dealt a very shitty hand and I suffered because of it. I have overcome trauma, and I consider myself a warrior. There is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking those truths out loud. It does not make me weak to acknowledge my own hardship. Rather, it gives me the opportunity to process the pain and the ability to move forward. How incredibly freeing is that?
While I’m on a roll here, let me also throw this at you- all feelings are valid. You don’t get to dictate what is and is not allowed to be felt by another person. This is how we work to destigmatize mental health diagnoses. You don’t understand it? Cool, I don’t understand taxes… but if I just ignored them I’d end up in a jail cell. It is natural to shy away from the unfamiliar or uncomfortable, but to discredit someone’s pain because you don’t understand it is the equivalent of putting THEM in a jail cell. Please don’t be another prison guard in someone’s story.
When I walked into treatment for OCD for the first time, I was absolutely floored by the number of people who had the exact same intrusive thoughts as me. I genuinely believed that I was the only one. And that’s exactly how the enemy likes it, you know. If you’re isolated, you are far more likely to succumb to the darkness of fear and to accept the idea that you might just be damaged goods. But friends, that is such a lie. The truth is that you were made by Hand- to try to fit yourself into any mold at all is an incredible disservice to you and to the world. Each emotion, every feeling, gives us a glimpse into the soul- and that’s worth spending time on. Investing in mental health is a little about learning the science and “treatments”, and a lot about creating a safe place for the soul to unload. So, let’s talk about these things. Let’s rip the bandaid off. Let’s go ahead and dive in- we’re wasting time wading. The silent struggle is futile. And if no one has reminded you lately- you are alive today. You have endured your human condition, and you are still standing. That, my friend, is a warrior.