“OCD is when your brain can’t handle how much overwhelming anxiety you’re experiencing,” Emily Rose Mason, a spirited twenty-four-year-old YouTuber based in Edinburgh, Scotland told me over Zoom. She calmly delved into a dark time in her life. “I got OCD when I was really unwell with anxiety and it was my brain’s way of saying ‘I can’t cope with this anymore, and I’m going to give you these rituals so that you have something else to think about, or so that you can control your anxiety’.” OCD has been meddling with her day-to-day life for six years. After suffering from heightened anxiety, she escaped into a life full of rituals and compulsions to deter panic and anxiety attacks.
“Everything in my life had rules, absolutely everything, whether it was drinking coffee, making dinner, watching TV, every single thing I did or thought about had a rule to it.” Across the pond, Mason was relaxed on a sofa, donning a wide, bright smile as her new kitten lay asleep by her shoulder.
OCD preys on the vulnerabilities of the mind, injecting it with distressing thoughts and images that are uncontrollable and persistent. “We call these obsessions,” said Andrea June, a professor of psychology at Central Connecticut State University. “In reaction to these obsessions and unwanted thoughts, sufferers are compelled to behave or act in these very ritualized specific ways. We call these compulsions.” These compulsions can vary and be extremely disruptive, and when they become consistent, a diagnosis can be given.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is commonly associated with cleanliness, order, and perfection; however, this disorder continues to be overlooked and simplified into a single image, when the realities of it are vast and multifaceted. OCD can manifest itself in a multitude of ways, and it tends to prey on a person’s insecurities and deepest fears. There are five types of OCD: checking, contamination, symmetry/ordering, intrusive thoughts, and hoarding, which serve as a baseline for detecting the specific type someone may suffer from. While these allow for some understanding, OCD affects each person differently and requires an individualized approach when treating it.
Lily, a bright, quick-witted seventeen-year-old high schooler, spreads out the timeline of her life through the scope of her mental health. At the age of fifteen, she was diagnosed with a specific variation of OCD, known as Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. “Everything kind of has to be perfect, or else it gives me really bad anxiety and it just feels wrong, and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it.” Lily’s experience with OCPD is defined by a constant sensation of needing to be perfect and needing the world around her to soothe the chaos of her anxious mind. OCPD puts every microscopic detail under scrutiny; a slight wrinkle in a bedsheet, a grade less than perfection, or an unclosed drawer, all build up into hyper-fixation and anxiety attacks.
“OCD preys on the vulnerabilities of the mind, injecting it with distressing thoughts and images that are uncontrollable and persistent.
This disorder disrupts the simplest of actions and causes daily routines to be halted by a thread of sometimes irrational impulses. When asked about a difficult incident in her life when OCD took over, Mason mentioned a moment when it took her nearly forty-five minutes to walk up a single street, which was littered with cracks trailing the length of the concrete. These fractures in the road kept her in the clutches of her OCD, obstructing her ability to accomplish a simple task. “A day in my life with OCD, when it was bad, there wasn’t anything that wasn’t OCD. It was always all-consuming.” Mason’s world has been dominated by her OCD and it continues to shroud her life in a blanket of unavoidable anxieties, impulses, and obsessions.
Mason’s particular form of OCD has the oh-so attractive name of Magical Thinking. This variation, unlike Lily’s OCPD, comes out in the form of irrational truths that cause a shift in focus towards a specific compulsion that would erase those negative realities. “My OCD says if you water your plant five times a day, you’re not going to get sick, and I’m going to follow that and I’m going to feel like I have some control.” When illogical thoughts drill into her mind they feel so much like reality that her world revolves around them.
“Every time a person [with OCD] has these intrusive thoughts and images, they feel compelled to behave in a certain way,” said Professor June. “When they do feel that relief, it’s called negative reinforcement, and they’re more likely to engage in that ritual again, next time they have those intrusive thoughts and urges.” The obsessions that come from OCD are so close to reality that someone suffering from this anxiety will do anything to alleviate it. The length of time it took Mason to walk up the road was a result of her intrusive anxieties, which forced her into a cycle of obsessions and impulses. “[Giving in to these impulses] is actually strengthening the need to engage in specific ritualized behaviors because within the moment it is providing them some relief.”
Mason has spent the last six years sharing her story about battling this mental illness with her viewers on her YouTube channel, which has amassed about fifty-seven hundred subscribers. Since the beginning, her goal has been to be open and honest with those who click through to her many videos. “I think the biggest thing people want is somebody that’s going about their regular life with mental health issues, they want to see that you can still live a normal life.” Her YouTube channel has been more than just a means to share, but also a way to make those who struggle, feel seen.
“When you have a really big passion for something you can get through the scariness of it,” Mason mentioned how being vulnerable to the eyes of strangers on the internet has always been something she was comfortable with. OCD is not only something that Mason continues to battle in her daily life but, as described through her many videos on OCD, she is wholeheartedly passionate about expelling myths, bringing awareness, and being candid with her audience about the realities of OCD. Her friendly and delightful demeanor shines through every video posted, even in the middle of sharing personal struggles her smile never seems to waver. “The more open and honest and real you are, the more people are gonna want to watch because people can really see through fakeness; it’s all over the place online.”
Within social media, people like to commonly throw around the phrase “I’m so OCD”, which is usually followed by an image of a pristine home, perfectly aligned pencils, and bottles of Purell. When OCD is presented as a quirky personality trait, it diminishes the reality of this disorder. A person diagnosed with OCD may wash their hands ten times because one less lather would mean they get sick, or avoid certain places due to inescapable anxieties about germs, or even dismantle relationships because of debilitating impulses and anxieties.
Bringing awareness to mental health disorders, like OCD, allows those like Mason to feel more accepted and welcomed into society, especially within the scope of the internet where much of our time is spent. OCD isn’t usually taken seriously; it can be hard to be open and honest on the internet when your disorder is being downplayed in popular culture. “When you live with OCD, and it’s your whole entire life,” Mason said, furrowing her eyebrows. “And you can’t have a job, you can’t have friendships and stuff, seeing something like that is really offensive.”
The International OCD Foundation is working to increase awareness of a disorder that continues to be misunderstood and wrongly portrayed in the media. Stephanie Cogen, the program director for the IOCDF, details how the foundation has helped push forth a movement of awareness and accessibility for OCD education, research, and support. “The ultimate goal is to have a world in which [the foundation] didn’t need to be here. But we do. it’s important that we are here because there are needs that aren’t being met, and there are misconceptions and a lack of awareness and a stigma that is contributing to that.”
The IOCDF continues, even in the midst of a worldwide health crisis, to bring to the forefront their message on OCD awareness. The foundation has adapted to the new virtual landscape, with walks moved online, annual conventions switched over to live streams, and weekly live town halls devoted to different topics surrounding OCD. Regardless of this new shift to a virtual space, “the theme is always the same in raising awareness about OCD and related disorders worldwide,” Cogen said over a Zoom call.
The future of OCD and mental health awareness as a whole is unknown, but it’s the small steps forward that make the biggest differences. The IOCDF is doing its part to bring to the forefront a disorder that is so much more than a simple acronym, or witty phrase to throw around on a sitcom. OCD can be an invisible illness, much like most mental disorders, and it’s crucial to open the world’s eyes to the severity of this illness.
Despite the uncertainty of the future, Cogen is determined to develop and strengthen the world’s understanding of mental health. “I think the attitude is shifting. It’s a slow shift, but it is still a shift. And it’s exciting to see.”
Hayley Fiedler is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Photo Credit: IOCDF Facebook