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Mental Health

I’m Messy, But I Still Have OCD

Being OCD isn't a cute way of saying you're fussy. It's a disorder, and it comes in all flavors.

I purchase a pretty planner at the start of every year, but I find that this turns out to be a waste of money.

I don’t use it. Instead of using it to keep track of my life, I stuff them improperly in the cubbyholes of my mind.

But I buy the planner anyway. It seems like the sort of thing I should be good—even meticulous—about using, having OCD and all.

Because people with OCD are clean and well-organized. Aren’t they?

What OCD Feels Like

As a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s extremely difficult to explain the rationale behind my compulsions to others.

But of course, the stereotype that everyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder is extremely well organized is just that… a stereotype. We’re not all well-organized, and we’re definitely not all neat freaks.

The stereotype that everyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder is extremely well organized is just that… a stereotype.

My mom asks why I keep flicking on and off my phone’s ringer, as we drive with the radio volume knob turned specifically to between 17 and 19. At night, I twist the dial of my bedside lamp and knock on my wall––incessantly––to the count of a random number thrown into my mind, just not an even one. This prevents a future crime from happening.

There’s no reason for any of this, except that I can’t really help it. If I were to somehow ignore these compulsions, either my mom could die in a car accident, or I could wake up with the flu. It makes me nervous to even write this down, forever in text, but I hope that tunneling my thoughts through this cyberspace will possibly help others understand.

A freckled, ginger-haired girl stands in front of the water on a cloudy day wearing a blue sweater.
Author Kelsey Fredricks has struggled with obsessive-compulsive tendencies her whole life.

OCD Isn’t The Same As Being Neat

The one thing that people think they know about OCD is that everyone with the disorder is clean, tidy, and organized. They think that the day-to-day challenges of having OCD are comparable to being particular about coasters, or cleaning out the spigot on your bottle of dish soap, or extricating every last strand of hair from your brush between groomings.

In other words, people mistake having a mental health disorder with being fussy. Which is kind of an insult all around, if you think about it.

This is not to say that cleaning rituals, like the common handwashing one, are non-existent with people who have OCD. They do exist, but compulsions come in all different forms, and being OCD is not just a cute way of saying that someone is a highly-functional neat freak.

When you have OCD, compulsions become as irresistible as heart attacks.

When you have OCD, compulsions become as irresistible as heart attacks. If I try to resist the compulsion to twist the dial on my bedside lamp at night, my mind will intensify the thought or fear behind it–in this case, a future crime–until I exist in such a state of elevated tension, I have no choice but to complete the action.

Stop Reducing OCD To A Stereotype

My compulsions, however, have nothing to do with neatness. So I don’t neatly fold and put away my clothes, instead leaving them sprawled on the floor until I wear them again. This doesn’t bother me at all, but if I don’t turn on and off the sink a set number of times before I walk out the door, I’ll risk a breakdown.

Why is this important to say out loud: that people with OCD aren’t all neat freaks? Because by stereotyping people with obsessive-compulsive disorder in this twee way, you avoid actually trying to empathize with us. And without empathy or understanding, we are isolated.

By stereotyping people with obsessive-compulsive disorder in this twee way, you avoid actually trying to empathize with us.

So yes, I have OCD, even though filled garbage bags are stacked up in the corners of my room, verging on toppling over. Yes, I have OCD, even though I step on bobby pins and receipts that litter my floor when I climb into bed at night. And yes, I have OCD, even though my penmanship is messy, and my pretty planner is disorganized.

I realize that these are not habits imagined for someone with OCD, but I want you to understand that this life of mine is not squeaky clean and smooth to the touch. Because the reality is, even if you are clean and neat, the experience of having OCD is messy… and the compulsions in my mind are far too set-in to wipe away with Clorox.


Mental Health

Flipping The Script On A Mental Health Condition

Is there a way to turn the compulsions and symptoms of a mental health disorder and channel them towards recovery?

Like many people with anorexia, I have perfectionist tendencies That led to a dietician once telling me: “Great… why don’t you try to be perfect at recovery?”

It got me thinking – are there parts of me and my condition that are being used for bad, and could be flipped into something positive? For example, we often hear of people replacing  an unhealthy addiction to alcohol or drugs with something more socially acceptable, like exercise.

So is there a way to flip the script on a mental health condition like anorexia? I went looking for answers.

Using Your Will Power To Recover

The first person I spoke to was Tabitha Farrar. Tabitha is a coach, author, and activist who battled anorexia for 12 years before recovering, then dedicating her life to helping people recover from eating disorders. She says that the same commitment she had to being anorexic was something that could be flipped into being great at recovery. And she thinks this is true for most people.

“I promise you that you have the willpower to do anything that you want to. Including recover.”

“One complaint I hear quite often from people in recovery is that they don’t have enough willpower to be consistent with the rewiring process of taking the opposite action to what their disorder tends them towards,” she explains.

“This always makes me chuckle. Really? If you have the stubbornness to restrict food, to compulsively exercise, to avoid any situation, person, or thing that threatens your eating disorder, I promise you that you have the willpower to do anything that you want to. Including recover.”

Study Your Systems, Then Hack Them

But it’s not as simple as just doing the “opposite” of everything you did before. Instead, you need to be aware of how your personality traits and routine feed into your illness. Once you under the system, it’s easier to hack.

This is what Lucie Manning, age 30, did. In her early ’20s, she struggled with borderline personality disorder, but has since recovered from the condition by studying the system, then flipping it.

“So the trick is: if you can direct your capacity for compassion inwards, you can help heal yourself with self-love.”

“With borderline, your personality splits between good and bad, positive and negative. When you’re feeling good, you’re extra compassionate; when you’re feeling bad, you can flip and be an uncaring bitch. So the trick is: if you can direct your capacity for compassion inwards, you can help heal yourself with self-love. ”

First she had to become aware of what she was doing, and the underlying motivations that drove it. Then it was a case of actively directing it in a different way. Not easy to do, but with focus and commitment, entirely possible.

Turning Symptoms Into Positives

Nor is recovery the only goal of flipping the script on a mental health condition. For example, my artistic friend Georgie, 27, has autism… and while that sometimes causes her issues, it can also be a positive.

“There’s something called super-focus which is sort of like obsessiveness,” she says. “So I sit down in front of my laptop or paper for hours, forgetting about everything except the task in hand, until I feel better.”

Acknowledging The Journey

So yes, you can flip the script on a mental health condition, within certain parameters. But it’s still important to be careful how we fame this idea. Recovery is not as simple as just choosing not to have  a condition anymore. Likewise, while some conditions may have weird perks—a person with OCD might have an easier time getting through their bucket list, for example–that doesn’t mean that that condition itself is any less hard to manage or deal with.

Perhaps, then, it’s less about “flipping the script” then acknowledging all aspects of the journey that an illness takes you on.

Perhaps, then, it’s less about “flipping the script” then acknowledging all aspects of the journey that an illness takes you on. Long term illnesses are difficult and burdensome. But they are part of a life, and like the individuals with them, have many different facets. Sometimes it’s possible to flip it round and find a bright aspect, or see it from a different perspective to find something positive. Attitude isn’t everything – but it can help.

Mental Health

President Of The Drowning Girls Club

With her popular series of designs symbolizing issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, tattoo artist Fidjit is helping people like her struggling with their mental health.

On the underside of her chin, tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle has the words “I don’t scare easy” inked in bold black letters. While most of the tattoos that cover her arms and legs reference things like loved ones, childhood memories and favorite films, her neck piece touches on another major part of her life: the debilitating phobia she’s struggled with since she was 8 years old.

The now 28-year-old artist, who only tattoos in black ink in a process known as blackwork, began her first tattoo apprenticeship at the age of 19, right at the tail end of an awful two-year period where her phobia was so intense she couldn’t leave the house due to intense panic attacks.

“It was very difficult in the very beginning,” she says, “There were a lot of times I would make excuses for not going in, leave suddenly, or just feel terrible the whole day while at work.” After the first year, things began to improve, which she credits in large part to hypnotherapy, and she became used to having to wait out feelings of panic and dealing with them after she left the studio.

Tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle.

Today she’s based in Southend, England and frequently works in studios in London and abroad, having attracted a large following who often identify with the personal and feminist themes found in her work.

In talking about her own mental health, Fidjit points out that while she has Tourette’s, which is a neurological condition, it comes with a number of comorbid conditions like OCD, OCB and PTSD. She also experiences difficulty in social situations, sensitivity to sensory overload, dissociation and mixed personality problems.

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life.”

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life,” she says, describing her flash sheets (pre-drawn images that anyone can ask to have tattooed) as a visual diary. “I don’t have any interest in just drawing pieces that have nothing to do with my brain or me personally. I’m lucky in that a lot of my clients are on the same wavelength, so they’ve specifically picked me because something I’ve done has spoken to them in a certain way.”

One popular image that still strikes a chord with many of her clients first appeared three years ago in a flash sheet inspired by the suicides of female authors. Adapted from a painting Fidjit had made based on the death of Virginia Woolf, the drawing shows the top of a woman’s head peeking over stylized waves.

One of Fidjit’s blackwork tattoos, which often symbolize mental health issues.

Since then over 1,000 people have gotten variations of the tattoo, members of what she now calls “The Drowning Girls Club.” She says that while some versions are sarcastic or have light-hearted additions like party hats, many clients get them for reasons related to their mental illness or the struggle of keeping their heads above water. Whether people ask for the original drawing or add personalized details, she loves that the image has resonated with so many and that a community has formed around it. “I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have,” she says.

Recently she’s found herself working on a new series of custom tattoos based on mental health. Like with the drowning girls series, it began with a flash sheet, but this time with drawings inspired by her own experiences with dissociation, panic attacks and an eating disorder.

“One person got one of the pieces done and I wrote what it was about [on Instagram] and then someone asked me to do a custom piece about dissociative disorder,” she explains. After posting that second tattoo and a brief description online, more and more requests came pouring in from people wanting to have their own conditions turned into tattoos.

“I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have.”

The tattoos, often framed with radiating lines that almost vibrate around the central figure, give viewers a sense of the full-body sensations that accompany many mental conditions. A tattoo depicting panic attacks, for example, recreates a feeling of claustrophobia as seven detached hands reach at a floating head, the character’s distressed face half in shadows as lines emanate along their profile.

“There’s obviously so many different reasons why people get them, but I think there’s an ownership element,” she muses, talking about how people often place their trust in her when coming up with a design but the process is still a collaboration and conversation about how they personally picture their condition.

Capturing often overwhelming experiences in simple visuals, each piece is a unique window into how a specific person experiences and understands their own mental health. Just as putting a name or diagnosis to a condition can be validating, so can creating a representation of your relationship to it.

There are over a thousand variations in the Drowning Girls Club series.

She says that for many, “It makes them feel more in power of something that’s maybe hindered their life in a certain way, because when it’s invisible and kind of floating about it seems a bit harder to take control of. If you have a visual representation you can look at it and remember that’s what it is. It’s just that. I think sometimes it’s quite a nice reminder that is just one part of you and it’s not something that necessarily that needs to rule you.”

“It’s odd, because it’s just a tattoo, but it really does help,” she adds, reflecting on her own piece. “Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control, that I’ve got power over it.”

Having the invisible made visible can other benefits as well. She knows of people who’ve gotten these tattoos partially as a conversation starter, a visual way of announcing and explaining their condition or simply showing that they aren’t ashamed.

“Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control.”

Fidjit’s own openness about her experiences on Instagram is one reason for her major following, which she credits to changing trends in the tattooing industry. Whether it’s the movies they love or the social movements they support, she says social media has made it easier for people to seek out artists they identify with. “I think clients are really interested in the person behind the work and their lifestyle more than their actual work sometimes,” she observes.

Her own posts about things like an abusive ex-partner and the experience of having her rapist acquitted, along with participating in fundraisers for rape crisis and domestic violence charities, has helped her attract customers with similar stories who know her studio is a safe space, even if they might not want to specifically talk about their experiences.

Fidjit’s tattoos help people struggling with mental health issues remember that they are not alone.

Fidjit says that the greatest difficulty her conditions present in terms of tattooing are often social interactions, since talking is often a major part of the job but she can find making normal conversation difficult and doesn’t always know how she’s coming across. That doesn’t stop her from offering a sympathetic ear or calling out abuses she sees in the tattooing industry.

“I’m happy to tell anybody who to avoid – I’ve had tattoos on my body from people who are abusive and it’s a horrible feeling because it’s this thing on your body from a horrible person. I hate that feeling, and I hate other people to have that feeling.”

Because while a tattoo might just be an image on skin, the story of how that image got there can mean everything.