I recently read an article explaining different forms of “mental illness”. It described a myriad of conditions from schizophrenia, to major depression, to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD for short).
My one concern was the author’s use of the word “illness”. On the medical side, that term implies pathology, and is often used to describe something you catch through germs, bacteria, or bad lifestyle choices.
But many mental health conditions, such as OCD (which I happen to have), are biopsychosocial in their origins. In other words, those of us who have it were likely born with the tendency to develop it, and social and psychological influences contributed to its emergence. OCD, along with bipolar disorder, clinical depression, chronic anxiety and a host of other conditions, fit these criteria. They are largely manageable with proper treatment and self-care, depending, of course, on level of severity and other factors.
I’ll focus on OCD here, only because I’m personally as well as clinically knowledgeable about it. OCD generally involves ritualistic behaviors one engages in, in order to quiet or eliminate disturbing—and often irrational—thoughts. An example would be someone who compulsively arranges all the coffee cups in his house with the handles pointing to the right, hoping to offset an obsessive feeling of impending doom.
In terms of its origins and life impact, I equate OCD more with developmental challenges such as the autism spectrum or Down’s Syndrome, which, like OCD, have genetic origins. Let me illustrate.
Years ago, before becoming a Professional Counselor, I worked with a woman, Teresa, who had Down’s. In 20 or so years of working for the same organization, Teresa never once called out sick or was late. She always had a smile for everyone, and as a worker she was the best. She also lived in her own apartment during the week and spent weekends with her mom.
A good friend’s insight
Teresa and her mom visited my wife and me one summer, and in the evening we all were having a good conversation about life. I asked Teresa (because we had the kind of relationship that we could pretty much ask each other anything):
“Teresa, if you could be born again, would it be with or without Down’s?”
Without hesitation, she answered, “WITH it!”
“Why?”, I asked.
“Because it’s part of who I am, and I LOVE who I am!”
Her simple but profound answer resonated with me and inspired me to accept and celebrate a part of myself that for so long I’d hidden in shame, afraid that I must be crazy. It prompted me to seek therapy, through which I learned how to more effectively manage my OCD, and even to appreciate how it contributes to my completeness as a human being.
That’s right, I said appreciate. For example, I keep a neat office and most of the time can find anything, because I super-categorize all my files. And my wife loves how I leave the kitchen spotless after I’ve cooked.
The power of a single word
OCD also makes me, I think, a better clinician. Psychotherapy is as much about empathy as it is about technique and scientific know-how. My OCD journey has given me a greater appreciation and understanding of my clients who also struggle with it and other mental health challenges.
“Challenges”….Yes, I like that much better than “illness”. Perhaps that term should be adopted into our lexicon describing what so many mental health conditions are…and are not. It’s certainly more inspiring, more sensitive, and perhaps more accurate to talk about meeting and surmounting a challenge, than it is to talk about living with an illness.
© James Genovese, LPC, LCADC / Milestone Group LLC (2018)