'We All Have Problems': OCD Awareness on Campus

by Christopher Cartwright | 10/11/17 2:10am

When you think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? A year ago, I associated it with compulsive handwashing and cleanliness, just as many people do. But obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychological disorder that is largely misunderstood by the public. The easiest way to describe it involves breaking down its name: the obsessions are fears that one’s brain latches onto, while the compulsions are mental or physical tasks that one repeats over and over to prevent those fears from coming true. The compulsions have the opposite effect than intended, however, and they make the fears stronger. Although it may seem easy to simply not perform the compulsions, from the viewpoint of a person with OCD, it just has to be done. It is important to remember that usually the obsessions don’t make sense to outsiders — the brain distorts the obsessions and intensifies the fear for OCD sufferers. For example, the most commonly portrayed obsession in the media is the fear of contamination from germs, while the most commonly portrayed compulsion for this is excessive handwashing. While there are definitely people who suffer from this form of OCD, it is by no means the only form that OCD can take, and I learned that the hard way.

Last fall my OCD symptoms were at an all-time high thanks to the stress of high school and college applications, but at the time I did not know it was due to OCD. I knew I had exhibited some symptoms throughout my life but had brushed it off by saying that “everyone can be somewhat OCD.” My compulsions involved frantically researching articles online to prove to myself that my irrational fears would not come true, which in turn made my fears worse. That is, until I stumbled upon a Wikipedia article. It was entitled “Pure obsessional OCD,” and as I read it a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. This weight had been building for the past 10 years, and one that spanned many fears and sleepless nights.

The first obsession I can remember began many years ago. I watched a film with my family about a woman who contracted tuberculosis, and the fear of that disease stuck with me. After that, every time a family member coughed, I took it as a sign that they had tuberculosis. I had to constantly ask my mom each night if everyone in our family was healthy, because if I didn’t I was afraid the person would die. Although I did not understand it at the time, I now know that I was using compulsions to try to neutralize my fear, which made that fear grow stronger.

My obsessions then shifted to chemicals and poisons, and I was terrified that the toys I owned contained lead paint and would poison me. As a compulsion, I avoided these toys as much as I could and would not go near the oleander plant in our yard, for fear that I would somehow ingest the toxic leaves. This is why OCD is so insidious: the disorder remains expertly hidden from friends and family. Compulsions can involve mentally repeating thoughts or phrases, or ruminating on past actions to check to see if one has committed some error, rather than more obvious physical tasks like checking and re-checking to make sure the doors are locked. On the outside, everything seemed normal, as I had many close friends and did well in school. But at night, I couldn’t sleep as intrusive thoughts invaded my mind, and I would perform compulsions like closing my bathroom door several times.

Contrary to popular belief, no one can be “a little OCD.” Despite what online quizzes say, you do not have OCD if you get frustrated when your day planner entries are not color-coordinated. I believed these misconceptions a little over a year ago and they did not seem harmful at the time. These misperceptions are harmful, though, because they interfere with people understanding what OCD actually is, which delays them from seeking diagnosis and getting the help they need. Also, obsessions extend far beyond fears of contamination and germs. There are fears of hurting others or oneself, fears of one not being religious or moral enough, fears that one is gay or straight and fears that one doesn’t love their partner enough, to name a few. It’s also important to spread awareness about these forms of OCD so that people who have these intrusive thoughts can understand what is causing them and seek therapy to help overcome them.

But how does this relate to Dartmouth? First, about 2 percent of the U.S. population has OCD, whether they know it or not. That means that around 100 undergraduate students at Dartmouth probably have this disorder. These people look, act and seem like everyone else around them. They aren’t any more “weird” or “quirky” or “creepy” than the rest of us. I was nervous when I first arrived at Dartmouth because I worried that my OCD symptoms would flair up under the stress of starting college. I proactively began taking steps to manage my OCD and my life has since dramatically improved. Based on my experience so far, the College has done a great job of trying to promote a healthy atmosphere around such sensitive topics as mental health. And we, as students, can and should continue to foster mental health-positive dialogue on campus because these problems are nondiscriminatory — they can affect anyone. Mental health issues should be treated like physical illnesses: just because you cannot see the actual injury does not mean that it causes any less pain. If we are open in discussions of mental health and treat those who have mental health issues the same as anyone suffering physical injury, we would encourage more people to step forward, share their story and get the help they need.

Speaking up about the actual facts around OCD and other mental health issues can help end the stigma that surrounds them. If society refuses to talk about these disorders and to help spread accurate information about them, people will hide their problems and suffer alone, or even worse, not know that they have a disorder and suffer for years in confusion and isolation. I debated remaining silent and not writing this column. I’m only a few weeks into my first term at Dartmouth, after all, and I wondered what type of impression this would make on people I’ve never even met. But I decided that I would just be perpetuating the stigma if I remained silent out of fear, and I decided to go ahead and write. So if you ever see me and want to talk about OCD (or anything else for that matter, since OCD is only a small part of my life), feel free to stop me and say hello! In the words of one of my favorite songs (“Carried Away” by Passion Pit): “We all have problems / we’re all having problems / and we’ve all got something to say.”