Updated: Jul 31, 2020
For those of us living with OCD, our symptoms frequently lead others to view us as "quirky," rather than seeing that we are suffering from one of the top ten most psychosocially debilitating illnesses. Compulsions that cause profound distress and impair our functioning are invalidated as mere "quirks," putting a bright, cheery twist on what are anything but a fun personality trait.
A couple of years ago, as I was settling down in the aftermath of back-to-back treatment stays and starting school again, a clinician proposed a new treatment goal for me: to "embrace my quirkiness." At that point, it meant forging my own identity outside of mental illness and treatment. It meant setting out to discover what brings me full-fledged joy, and doing those things a bit each day. It meant owning that I've suffered from several years of social anxiety and that I may be a bit awkward as I navigate life outside of hospitals. It meant exploring who I am underneath the ever-changing persona I presented as to please other people. It meant recognizing myself as an artist, and using that to recreate myself in a way that pleases me.
It was some indie coming-of-age film shit. I immediately felt empowered.
Fast-forward to four months ago. I was in OCD-specific residential treatment, constantly surrounded by a diverse group of individuals who all understood me in a way that very few others have, and who have all struggled in similar ways. I quickly learned that we all shared a common experience with stigma: we were misrepresented in the media, unmentioned in mental health advocacy platforms, and dismissed as having "quirks" rather than a debilitating illness. The word "quirk" lost that feeling of empowerment in this different context.
The phrase "embrace your quirkiness" had become such a profound tool in my recovery--I even got the word "quirk" tattooed. Now hearing it used in a demeaning, dismissive manner, I wondered: How could this community reframe and reclaim that word?
It's really tough living with an illness that makes you relentlessly doubt everything you logically know, spontaneously brings horrific, graphic images to your mind, and believe wholeheartedly that you are dirty, bad, toxic, satanic, perverted, offensive, or anything else completely off the mark from who you actually are. And, it is incredibly hard work battling for recovery every day by facing your fears head on with no safety behaviors to lean on to decrease the distress.
It is HARD WORK, in illness and recovery, to quirk (yes, I am using it as an adjective). In illness, uneducated or ignorant people may refer to your distressing compulsions as cutesy "quirks." What could a quirk look like in recovery though, when you are not engaging in compulsions? What could "quirk" mean in a positive, recovery-oriented light?
One of my recovery quirks might be wearing odd, clashing, mis-matched outfits––this makes me extremely anxious (historically I wouldn't leave the house in such outfits), but that is what I have to do in recovery to accept that I may look bad, people may judge me, and I still have a life I want to go out and live. Another might be listening to Spotify's sex playlists while driving to the grocery store––not because that's my idea of feel-good music, but because OCD has made me fear sexual content, and my recovery involves changing my relationship to sex.
My point: some of the things we do to face our fears in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment may be unusual, interesting, or quirky. This treatment and recovery process is anything but easy. It is hard work to quirk.