Living with OCD – and misinformation – during the coronavirus crisis
We’re living in increasingly strange and uncertain times. Our lives are hugely altered, we’re existing in close quarters, unsure about the future and our collective unease is skyrocketing. It’s a tough process for anyone to navigate, but even more so if you’re dealing with a serious anxiety disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Most therapists are moving sessions online but if, like me, you’re self-isolating with others in your household and the thought of speaking your innermost thoughts aloud for all to hear doesn’t appeal, it means cancelling appointments (and your regular support) for the foreseeable future. Not to mention that therapy is expensive and I’m aware of the financial pinch caused by a global pandemic.
OCD tends to conjure up images of neat freaks and compulsive hand-washing which, considering the recent focus on cleanliness and order, seems like it would be second nature to us sufferers. Hell, we might even feel like the world’s finally caught up to our way of thinking.
“I keep waking up with this heavy feeling in my chest,” my friend revealed over a WhatsApp call. “I feel absolutely fine apart from this horrible weight. What do you think it is?”
“That’s anxiety,” I replied with the awareness of the battle-weary.
We talked through some breathing techniques (and I told her to switch off the news) and she messaged me a few hours later saying the feeling had lifted.
But the stereotypes surrounding OCD make me want to scream. Recently, a well-known and prestigious American newspaper published an article titled We All Need OCD Now. But wait, it gets better. The publication went on to consult a ‘psychiatrist’ (I’ll use that term lightly because any reputable medical professional would not make such flippant comments) about the Covid-19 crisis in which he stated: “A little OCD, right now, wouldn’t be so bad.”
A little OCD, right now, wouldn’t be so bad.
I was uncharacteristically speechless. How is this considered journalism? How is this article helpful to the huge number of people currently battling an illness that has eaten away at their lives? And before you argue that I am ‘missing the point’, I am extremely aware that coronavirus is killing people by the thousands, and I am following the advice diligently, but does that mean that our empathy, understanding and common sense are thrown out of the window?
Have you ever spent two months confined to your bedroom because you were afraid of everything on the other side of the door? Has your brain tricked you into believing that you’ve done the worst possible thing you can imagine? Has spending 20 minutes checking and rechecking that all the appliances in your house are switched off become a standard part of your morning routine?
OCD is an illness with a broad spectrum of symptoms that manifest differently in each person. What impacts me will not necessarily be a concern for someone else. While I do suffer with health anxiety, I behave remarkably well in a crisis. But I compensate for all that rational thinking by fixating and ruminating on something smaller – a weird lump on my toe, the fact that I’m finding it hard to breathe, putting used (and unlit) candles in the rubbish bin, sending office-wide emails. While I’m good with existential despair, I’m bad at the everyday stuff.
With global anxiety heightened (and made worse by some rampaging media outlets), people dealing with any anxiety disorder will be deeply affected. I usually manage my own OCD by exercising regularly, eating healthily and attending regular therapy sessions, all things that have been jettisoned since the country went into lockdown. My anxiety is already elevated, so to read thoughtless, misguided and, quite frankly, dangerous comments belittling the illness that robbed me of great swathes of time, fills me with fury, sadness and fear.
In a world where we’re increasingly prompted to #BeKind, follow the science and listen to certified medical professionals, perhaps it’s time to stop making condescending statements (and worse, jokes) about a debilitating mental health issue.
OCD ruins lives. It takes away freedom, autonomy, certainty and sanity. I wouldn’t want anyone to have even “a little OCD” (not that it’s possible). I wouldn’t wish my illness on anyone.
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This striking work, which Lowry simply titled ‘The Artist aged 51’ was painted the year that his mother was dying, the evident grief and anger are a rare expression of emotion in his work. For more information, visit: @The_Lowry