Picture this: you’re at home, watching something on your laptop. Suddenly, a very specific, deeply distressing and taboo thought crosses your mind. At first, you think nothing of it, dismissing it as one of the many rogue thoughts that pop in and out of the human brain. But, before you realise it, the spectre of that thought consumes your whole identity and your stomach drops.
Without going into the science of it, I can now tell you that this is what it feels like to have an ‘intrusive thought‘.
I started having them two years ago, when I was completing my master’s degree. These thoughts, the content of which I shudder to divulge even today, had me struggling to draw clear lines between what caused sleepless nights – was it embodied trauma, sensory meltdowns or the fact that I now had a discrete aspect of my lived experience that was so repulsive?
As my obsessions continued without any tangible connection that I could make, my brain would tell me to do little rituals. For instance, a mental reviewing of my response to any thought-inducing triggers, in the hope that it would keep me from engaging with, or worse yet, acting on these thoughts. This ritualising, that I felt driven towards, would neutralise the thoughts for some time and then they would be back again, playing a video reel of my worst nightmares in an infinite loop.
My maladaptive behaviour waxed and waned for months before I was almost on the precipice of collapse, which is when I established contact with a therapist and then with a psychiatrist, who finally diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.)
Up until that point, I thought I had a basic understanding of what OCD meant and how it manifested itself, which was nothing like what I was experiencing.
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Based on well-accepted representations, I thought OCD was an aggravated case of being a ‘neat-freak’ and not a serious mental disorder that required long-term professional assistance and medication to help cope with a life spent navigating dangerous what-ifs.
This is why I am wary of yet another spate of attempts to bring mental illness back into the cultural conversation. Yes, it’s true that between any two stories of mental illness that we do decide to sensationalise, there are a million others that get shoved under the rug. But what’s also true is the rampant appropriation of all forms of neuro-divergence by the two we’re most comfortable with – depression and anxiety.
A lapse in our rational, goal-oriented selves can take many forms including, but not restricted to, addiction, paranoia, Schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder (BPD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, in my case, OCD.
However, depression and anxiety seem to have become the umbrella terms that encompasses all of it. Since these two conditions lend themselves easily to the creation of snappy hashtags and funny t-shirt designs, they become a synonym for other conditions that don’t serve the purpose of brevity and business quite so well.
This oversight has the potential to create pervasive obstacles for individuals experiencing symptoms of less talked-about mental illnesses, while also reduces the biopsychosocial model of mental health to a clandestine interlude in the broader scope of things.
I can’t help but think of how much smoother my diagnosis and treatment of OCD would have been if I did not grow up believing that it was all about cleaning.
As cautiously hopeful as I want to be of this fresh interest in mental health, we must first recalibrate the conversation to address how exposure to and consequence of all mental illness is not the same.
There is still a lot of secrecy and misinformation around facets of mental illness that induce discomfort: auditory/visual hallucinations, taboo thoughts and consumption of anti-psychotic drugs, to name a few. Stigma around these can go on to become just as, if not more, formidable causes of emotional duress and self-harm when the heterogeneity of mental illness is rolled into a monolithic category.
Anushka Sinha is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty