Even (Especially) When They Don’t Look How You Expect
Trigger Warning: This article talks about a variety of issues that are related to mental health as well as briefly mentions pedophilia. If these topics are triggering for you, we would encourage you to read a different article that is written by this author. If you struggle with your mental health you can schedule a free appointment with the NDSU Counseling Center, contact your doctor, or you can call the national suicide hotline at 988.
In the past twenty years, overall public awareness and acceptance of people with mental illnesses has gotten a lot better. This has, arguably, for the most part been a positive thing. People with mental illnesses are able to get the accommodations and care they need a lot more easily, and the stigma around asking for help has been reduced. However, along with this increased visibility, has come an idea of what mental illness is “supposed” to look like. People whose symptoms don’t fit into this are often villainized in media and treated in real life as if they’re just bad people for struggling, which is often worse than before as grace is extended to all the mentally ill except for you, specifically.
In this article, I want to talk about being kind and understanding, even when people’s symptoms aren’t the way society has decided they’re supposed to look. Recently, online I’ve seen some discourse around obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts – a term which has, unfortunately, been watered down almost past the point of function in recent years – are a symptom most commonly associated with OCD. According to Mayo Clinic, intrusive thoughts are “unwanted thoughts and images that can cause anxiety and distress.”
Mayo Clinic also notes that “Unlike regular thoughts, intrusive thoughts can feel strange and uncomfortable and are difficult to control.” This is crucial. The intrusive thoughts most people are familiar with are things like, “What if I left the stove on and the house is burning down right now?” or “What if I just drove into the river right now instead of just driving past like I do every day?” Intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of a person’s actual wants and opinions, which is part of why they can be so distressing.
But recently, I’ve observed a couple instances online where people with little to no understanding of OCD and intrusive thoughts discovered that a lot of intrusive thoughts can be sexual in nature. Intrusive thoughts regarding things like pedophilia or bestiality are pretty common, and this information led to a bunch of uninformed people dogpiling on innocent people with OCD, which is maybe the scariest thing that can happen to a person with OCD (speaking from personal experience).
Obviously pedophilia is wrong, disgusting, and unforgivable. I am simply using it as a vehicle in which to discuss an explain the concept of intrusive thought and I would never endorse pedophilia or say that it’s acceptable. Let’s me break this down. Intrusive thoughts are meant to be distressing and jarring to the person experiencing them. That’s why they’re often things like “What if I dropped that baby out a window?” The thought is fleeting and not an actual impulse. Rather, it’s an unwanted – intrusive– thought that either happens for no reason, or is a symptom of an underlying condition, like OCD. According to Healthline, in a 20214 study, 94% of participants had experienced intrusive thoughts over the past three months.
These are common, and you’ll probably have them once in a while. When they become much more severe, they’re often a symptom of a mental illness. They’re a common symptom for people with OCD, especially with morality-based or religious OCD. If I have obsessive compulsions about being Christian and I’m constantly afraid that if I don’t do my compulsions or rituals correctly, I’ll be a bad person and go to Hell – well, my intrusive thoughts are probably going to be related to this. A common one for people with religious OCD is “What if I shouted obscenities in this church right now?”
Intrusive thoughts prey on the things you are afraid of and find repulsive. So if you have OCD and are absolutely repulsed by the idea of pedophilia, and some of your compulsions are related to making sure you’re not somehow, secretly, a pedophile (which isn’t possible, by the way. You cannot keep secrets from yourself. There is only one person in your head, with very few exceptions for things like dissociative identity disorder) then it makes sense that your intrusive thoughts would be related to this. They want to scare you and make you uncomfortable, and that’s exactly what happens.
What’s crucial to understand is that intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you whatsoever. If anything, they’re a reflection of things you would never do. But unfortunately, a whole bunch of people online with very little knowledge about OCD and intrusive thoughts, decided that intrusive thoughts were indicative of a person’s morality, and went on rants about how having intrusive thoughts of doing things that are morally wrong makes you an inherently bad person. Yikes.
Absurdity of this and the leap to judge aside, can you imagine being someone with morality OCD, constantly terrified that you’re secretly an awful person, and having a ton of strangers online who don’t know anything band together to tell you that your therapist is wrong and you are a terrible person? That shit is scary, to say the least.
I don’t think the people dogpiling on in this instance had malicious intent. They just didn’t know what they were talking about. And I’ve talked before about the importance of just saying “I don’t know enough about this to have an opinion right now,” but this goes especially for things like mental illness. People with mental illnesses are people, including people with the “scary” mental illnesses like dissociative identity disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Rather than making assumptions and judgements based on our knee-jerk reactions and social prejudices, take a second to stop and think.
That man walking down the street talking to himself isn’t scary or hurting you. So what if he’s being loud? The stereotype of mentally ill people as dangerous and violent is harmful and untrue. I promise the lady on the bus crying and muttering to herself is not plotting to attack you. She probably didn’t even notice you, unless it’s because you’re being a total asshole and staring at someone having a breakdown in public. Everyone deserves support and care, and that includes people whose issues aren’t the sanitized, palatable versions of three disorders that get to be seen on TV.
Like, we’ve got to stop using “psychopath” (which isn’t even an actual diagnosis, by the way) as a synonym for “bad person.” Psychopathy is a symptom of antisocial personality disorder, which people no more choose to have than I choose to be depressed. I know unexpected things are jarring, and that includes seeing people experience symptoms you aren’t familiar with. It’s ok to be surprised. It’s not ok to treat people poorly just because you don’t understand them. Acceptance of mental illness includes all mental illnesses, and until we stop dividing mental illnesses into “good person” and “bad person” categories, we will continue to do more harm than good.