“Dolphin donuts dolphin donuts dolphin donuts!” rang the taunts of a pack of mean girls who apparently had nothing better to do than to harass me. The “insult,” based on my tendency to wear dolphin-themed clothing and jewelry, didn’t bother me as much as the mere fact that I’d been targeted. Why me? I wondered every day.
“Witch,” hissed the devout choir boy, whose pursuit of popularity definitely didn’t jibe with Jesus’ caveats about wealth and pride. I’d made the mistake of sitting near him at lunch, where he launched into another sermon to the other kids about how crazy and evil I was. I had (have) OCD and had confided in him, thinking he was my friend. I also had a Ouija board in my room. He sent his sister over to my house with the lie that she was collecting something he left in my room, and she poked around and dug up all my journals, picked through my “slutty” clothes (paisley-print bike shorts and a butterfly-embellished peasant-top that showed off my not-cleavage), and most importantly found the Ouija board. She left armed with plenty of ammunition against me.
Such good Christians.
The harassment wore on me. Being a teenager is hard, as countless TV shows and movies attest. Being a teenager with anxiety is harder. Being a teenager with an exceptionally severe case of OCD and its various symptoms of depression and mania is nearly fatal. And as much as I tried to hide it, it was as though I wore a sign over my head asking for people to show their unimaginative attempts to hurt me.
But again, I wasn’t insulted. I was humiliated. Constantly being the target is what hurts. Constantly feeling looked at, laughed at. Constantly having to monitor how your face and hands look, making sure you’re not biting your lip, or leaving your mouth open for too long, or letting your hair fall in your face, or having a slouched sock, because no matter what I did, I was sure to have the most normal of things made into a big deal — and although it certainly distracted from my learning, most of my teachers didn’t care and seemed to think I somehow caused/deserved it. I didn’t care what people thought of me — and yet I had to, because just walking down the hall was inconvenient if I didn’t look perfectly normal. But clearly, my mental illness put a “kick me” sign on my back, and the smear campaign by Choir Boy didn’t help matters.
Twenty years later, I still cringe when I hear people laughing near me in the grocery store, convinced they’re laughing at me. Constant negative attention does tend to make one paranoid. On the plus side, after being followed and stared at all day, I was not interested in being popular in high school.
“The 409 is for WIPING COUNTERS,” blared the sticky note by the kitchen sink. The bottle of 409 sat almost sheepishly next to it. Ah, my roommate who was so offended by the tiniest spot on the counter.
I’d been in recovery from OCD for 8 years at this point, but still enjoyed a clean kitchen. Apparently, I lacked a fastidiousness that she wanted, even if she didn’t exhibit it herself. Only my mess was a problem.
“I’m sorry, I’m just so OCD,” she’d giggle, as though her insistence that she had exclusive rights to the TV remote and propensity to leave an army of passive-aggressive stickies everywhere were verified symptoms of a disease I happened to know a lot about. I’ve since realized what disease such people actually have, and it’s not OCD and may be named after a certain unspoken body part.
OCD has been destigmatized, at least if you joke about it. Gotta have your closet colorized? “I’m so OCD, LOL!” Got an anal-retentive coworker? “He’s a little OCD, sigh.” Apparently it’s okay to have a mental illness if you can turn it on or off depending on how quirky you want to seem. Naturally, my consequent complaints and insistence that one not trivialize such a serious disorder are met with “Lighten up!” That’s me, ever the not-lightened.
It wears on me. I desperately want to be normal. Hours of treatment and bottles of meds haven’t cured me. There is no cure. And the tenacity of my disease is what calls the stigma. Because I haven’t successfully willed it away, I’m to be scorned for it. “Have you tried meditation/yoga/kale?” ask well-meaning friends. Yes, of course. I want to be normal. I want to feel better. Then comes the thinly veiled judgment. “Well, happiness is a state of mind.” “You get from the world what you put out into it, so just think positive!” If I had a dime for every time I heard that, I’d probably have enough money to actually buy myself some happiness. But happiness is the not the opposite of mental illness, nor is it a cure for it. And besides, I am happy.
I am not content. I am not relaxed. I am burning with a passion for life inside an icy, stitched-together cocoon of past trauma and ever-present anxiety. My days are flowing over a duality of experience: I am not my illness. And yet my illness won’t leave me. And I see others recognize this in me, scaled over my body like scar tissue, my light peeking out through fresh wounds.
Not everyone was unimaginative in their attempts to hurt me. In my adult life, the “kick me” sign changed into a neon sign reading, “Psychopaths! Hot, fresh prey right here!” After all, throughout history, the freaks have been exploited and denigrated, and our condition gives predators an easy out.
“I think I might be in danger from you,” read the Facebook message that sent me into a convulsing state of tears. Coming from someone who beat me in every way, the message affirmed my fears that the opposite was true: I was in danger from him. I had been, every day. He was quick to call me abnormal and talk about what good genes he had, while I had “problems.” As though OCD and anxiety are comparable to a history of violence and a tendency to manipulate and abuse others. But it didn’t matter. I was the one carrying the cute diagnosis sheet declaring me “crazy,” albeit in medical jargon. He was the one who was undiagnosed; he therefore could show his proud psychopath badge only to those he chose. After my escape, I found that approximately 80 percent of people who knew him thought he was quirky. Ah yes, the privilege of claiming an abnormal brain as a quirk, while my OCD sits inside me like a little monster, shouting through my eyes, “Fresh crazy person! Get your fresh crazy person here!”
It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older, as do many things. I think that neon sign has faded out a bit. But the scales covering my body do me no favors. I am guarded, waiting for the laughs to be about me, while constantly muttering to my OCD to shut up. I am stitched together, worn down from years of self-monitoring while my OCD demands that I check the door again — and myself. I am un-lightened, swimming in the dark end of the pool while others ask me why I don’t get out. Such is the nature of stigma.