Why I Won't Stop Writing About My Mental Illness

"Talking about mental health is a big part of my job, but that doesn’t make my own mental illness any less personal."

I didn't fall in love with John Green’s writing the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once. I fell in love with it the way you pass out during a particularly nasty panic attack: all at once and then all at once. I remember reading the whole of The Fault In Our Stars in one go while riding to San Francisco in a friend’s car. It was my favorite part of the trip. 

Not long after that, the rest of the world fell in love with John, too. I keep waiting for that to make me love him and his work less, for tendrils of irony to swoop down and twist my tender high school fangirl feelings into something more laconic and “cool.” But nope. I’ve read all his books multiple times. I even give an annual lecture at a local college about the benefits of teaching young adult literature in high school classrooms, and I use The Fault In Our Stars as my primary example. 

It isn’t just the books, though. John Green’s online presence extends so far beyond his writing that it often transcends it. He vlogs, he tweets, he creates educational videos, he podcasts, he helps run a huge online charity fundraiser every year, he has a dog and an honorary doctorate… 

I find a lot of comfort in seeing the life John Green leads because, like me, John has obsessive compulsive disorder. Like me, he deals with intrusive thoughts and spiraling panic attacks and time-consuming compulsions on a regular basis. I know this because he talks about it. I’m so grateful that he does.

Talking about mental health is a big part of my job, but that doesn’t make my own mental illness any less personal. I spend a lot of time carefully balancing what to share and what to keep for myself, and while part of that is just keeping my own personal boundary, there's also a lot of shame that factors into it.

I don’t want you to know how often I have panic attacks, how hard it is for me to keep my apartment clean, how difficult I find college and schoolwork. I share pieces of those things, but always tidied up and usually after the fact. I need time to find a bow to tie around a given experience — a narrative with an ending that comforts not just the reader, but myself. And when I cannot find one, I feel personally responsible for failing to be sick in a way that is palatable to other people.

I question whether I should be writing down any of it at all.

But then there are the comments:

“Thank you so much for being open about your OCD. It really resonates with me.”

“I saved your article on my phone so that I could pull it up and read when I’m having a hard time. Thank you for writing it.”

“I really needed this today. Thank you.”

Over and over, a chorus of, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” It’s a form of gratitude that I am all too familiar with — it’s what I feel whenever John Green talks about his OCD. To see someone use their platform to discuss something as stigmatized and isolating as mental illness makes me feel not just less alone, but also less strange or bad or weak or any of the awful things I've internalized about having a chronic illness.

"In sharing the most lonely parts of our lives, we become unalone and make others unalone in the process."

In my darkest, most vulnerable moments, I have turned to videos where John discusses his illness. I’ve found immeasurable hope in seeing someone build a beautiful life and meaningful career in the face of such a debilitating and pervasive illness. I remember the first time I ever heard John Green mention having OCD, how I immediately burst into tears. My mom was sitting next to me one the couch while I was reading one of his interviews on my phone.

“Are you OK?” she asked. 

“He’s like me,” I said. “He knows how this feels." To think that I could provide even a fraction of that feeling to another person is more than enough reason to keep talking about my mental illness. It’s a pretty good reason to get out of bed in the morning at all. 

OCD is a vast and diverse illness by nature of the vastness and diversity of the humans who live with it. I will never truly know the exact suffering John Green feels, regardless of the space we share between the lines of the DSM — and he will never truly know mine. We are both broken and bent in our own ways, beholden to pathologies in place that treat common denominators and placate insurance companies. And yet, to hear his story is to hear echoes of my own. Echoes that help me find my story when I worry I might have lost it forever.

Just by being vulnerable, we make ourselves and others seen. In sharing the most lonely parts of our lives, we become unalone and make others unalone in the process. We find the parts of each other’s stories that match up and we hold them up to the light and say, “See this place right here? I’ve got a scar on my heart that looks just like that. I thought I might be the only one, but I’m not. I’m not the only one of anything at all.” 

♦♦♦

#OCDame is a weekly column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart, too. 

Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at jennib@ravishly.com

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