Obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t just about the compulsive behaviors. It’s also about the obsessive thoughts. Such thoughts are intrusive, scary, and are rooted in control. Shannon Purser recently opened up about her struggle with OCD in an essay for Teen Vogue, and talks candidly about how debilitating those thoughts can be. The Stranger Things star even talked about how those obsessive thoughts led her to suicidal ideations.
OCD is stereotyped as the “hand washing” mental illness; that is, those with the condition engage in compulsive behaviors like washing their hands to avoid germs. But Purser highlights the invisible, cognitive aspects of the condition. She describes becoming obsessed with not understanding material she was reading. It’s not that she couldn’t intellectually comprehend the words, she worried that she couldn’t. “I developed a compulsion to re-read almost every sentence over and over again, until I was completely convinced that I’d absorbed the material,” Purser wrote. As an actor and student, reading was integral to her work, so it is easy to see how this symptom would be a huge disruption for her.
Unfortunately, Purser’s obsessive thoughts began focusing inwards. She began believing that she was “evil, disgusting, and perverted,” with violent and sexual images overwhelming her mind. It’s a hallmark symptom of OCD, but not one that is visible as say, hoarding or obsessively checking to see if the oven was left on. These thoughts can cause extreme anxiety, and for Purser, that anxiety led her to begin thinking of suicide.
Writer Maya Kachroo-Levine described a similar obsessive thought pattern to Refinery29. For Kachroo-Levine, she explains them as obsessive irrational fears, writing that she had intrusive thoughts about something violent happening to a loved one. These fears are often not grounded in reality, though someone with OCD is consumed with anxiety and fear about it occurring. “When you’re struggling with OCD, irrational fears don’t always succumb to logic,” she writes.
Ultimately, both Purser and Kachroo-Levine found treatment in the form of medication. Amanda Seyfried also discussed taking medication for OCD, and said that she may be on the medication for the rest of her life. OCD is, after all, like many mental illness: a chronic condition that may be lifelong. For Purser, that treatment also involves therapy. She credits it with helping her to manage her obsessive thoughts. “It was such a relief to have a trained professional listen to my thoughts and help me positively restructure my thinking. I am now able to calm myself down when I’m struck by anxiety or find myself becoming obsessive,” she writes.
Treatment may relieve symptoms, but those with OCD still battle the public perception of this particular mental illness. “Wanting to keep things clean...is in no way comparable to what it is really like to have diagnosable OCD,” writes Purser. It’s an illness with many more pervasive symptoms, and it’s about time we treat it as seriously as we should.
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