Content Warning: This article discusses issues and experiences related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Reader discretion is advised.
I remember speaking on a panel about mental health once — specifically about my experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I don’t remember who asked me to speak or why, but I do remember feeling so nervous that I was shaking. I knew people would ask me questions about my struggles, and sharing those answers scared me. But despite all this, I told the room of strangers all there was to tell, even though my parents and therapist told me that I wasn’t ready to do so.
This experience helped me understand that stories can help others experiencing mental illness feel that they aren’t alone and destigmatize the topic. Storytelling creates empathy, understanding and compassion, which serve as key ingredients for an ideal support system. To help normalize mental health issues and having conversations about them, we should consider sharing our stories more. Even though it feels scary and uncertain, it’s also inexplicably rewarding.
I told the panel about the many ways my OCD has manifested itself throughout my life. OCD is common, normal and manageable — but it rarely feels that way.
OCD falls under the anxiety disorder category. It always starts with a thought, and eventually, that thought manifests itself into fear. That fear festers and becomes bigger and scarier until it consumes you and becomes an obsession. And once that obsession settles, the burden falls on its inhibitor to clean up the pieces.
At this point, compulsion is the only option. Compulsions soothe the victim and try to reduce the anxiety. But the compulsions win, and the inhibitor can no longer control their own actions.
As I spoke, I debunked the stereotypes surrounding this mental illness. When most people think of OCD, they think of a person that really likes to clean — a kind of “What about Bob?” character. But these stereotypes fail to capture the realities of OCD, as with so many other mental illnesses depicted in media. Because of these inaccurate representations, I never associated my behaviors with those of OCD.
With this, I went on to talk about how I didn’t properly receive an OCD diagnosis until I was institutionalized during my sophomore year of high school. When I finally was, it felt like the first time I put on a pair of glasses and could actually see the leaves on the trees and the tops of the mountains. How relieving it was to know that the hell that I’d lived in wasn’t normal at all.
With this understanding came the ability to tell my story to others, just as I’d done in that panel.
Time and again, storytelling has proven to have healing results, but not only for the listener. Psychologists commonly instruct their patients to write down daily events and interactions as a way to process difficult emotions. Research has found that doing so reduces stress, improves immune function and brightens mood. But in actually sharing those writings, the benefit is even more valuable — especially for young people.
By opening up about mental health struggles, the challenges people face serve a purpose. Many share their stories because of this purpose. The realization that your struggle could help someone else is powerful and inspiring and leads to connection and support that would otherwise be lost.
But perhaps the most beneficial effect of storytelling is its power to reduce stigma. If we talk about mental illness and our own unique struggles, we can normalize experiences and inspire others to normalize theirs.
When the panel finished, a woman came up to me and simply said, “Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed that.” I don’t know what that woman’s story was. I didn’t ask. But I saw in her eyes that she felt genuine gratitude and that, in some way, my story had brought her some solace. I never saw that woman again, but I think of that moment often.
Looking back, I realize my therapist and parents were wrong. I was ready to share my story, even though it felt scary. Vulnerability will always feel scary, but it’s rarely not rewarding. If and when you’re ready, you too should share your story. You never know who it might help — maybe even yourself.