Mental illness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
My mother has bipolar disorder and I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and since I was a tiny child I’ve felt the stigma weighing on our family. For fear of using clumsy language, people never really knew how to ask about our wellbeing, and the resulting isolation was palpable.
I kept my OCD secret for a decade
My OCD set in when I was 15-years-old with intrusive sexual mental images. Highly vivid and distressing, they entered my mind uncontrollably, thousands of times a day, causing me to ruminate compulsively as to their meaning. I kept this illness secret for a decade, because I was deeply ashamed of my thoughts, and I was terrified that if I told anyone they’d think I was depraved or that I should be locked up.
But after receiving effective therapy when I was 26, and witnessing first hand how treatable mental illness can be, I felt the thrilling yet terrifying urge to open up about it. As a writer, it felt natural to try and get my experiences down on paper, so, with my nerves in shreds, I pitched an article to the Guardian about my life with OCD, and they decided to run it.
Talking openly was totally worth it
The response to the article was overwhelmingly positive, and countless people with OCD emailed me to tell me they’d found it comforting. The outpouring of warmth seemed to make my ten years’ living with the condition totally worth it. But mental health stigma was still evident, and I remember one online comment clearly: “Has she really got OCD or is she just a pervert?”
When I read it, it stung badly. I felt embarrassed and queasy at the thought of someone interpreting my work like that, and hurt that someone could treat such a raw subject so flippantly. Worse – it played into my OCD. Maybe he’s right, I started thinking, maybe all of this is just lies, and deep down I really am just a big old perv.
Confronting stigma stripped it of its power
But ultimately the feeling of liberation at having come out as mentally ill far out-weighed the words of a lone troll. I know that his comment represented a wider ignorance, but that only made me want to shout about mental health all the louder. Ironically, stepping up to the stigma and staring it down stripped it of its power.
I was so encouraged by this paradoxical sense of freedom that I pushed ahead with my book project – an OCD memoir called Pure, which I’d long kept secret. I decided to publish via crowd-funding, to avoid the marketing pigeonholes to which many traditionally-published mental health memoirs fall prey. Had I not opened up my pitch video to the public, I would never have experienced the comfort of so many people’s genuine empathy.
Life is full of trolls – the willfully ignorant and the unsympathetic. They’re under the bridge tapping away at their laptops, or antagonising people down the pub, or cutting mental health funding in parliament. Before I published the article and the Unbound campaign, I imagined that the whole world was equally hostile, so I stayed tight-lipped, frightened to talk about the contents of my mind.
But my recent experiences suggest that the trolls are outnumbered by the curious and the kind; by the people who want to learn about mental health and who are receptive to unusual new ideas. Until we talk, we may never know that they’re there.
You can follow Rose on Twitter @RoseBretecher. Read more about Rose’s experience of OCD and pledge for her book, Pure.