Mental illnesses are something the queer community is all too familiar with. In 2022, 73 percent of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing anxiety symptoms and 58 percent reported experiencing depression symptoms, according to the Trevor Project.
While these numbers are devastating, they are not surprising. Almost every queer person I’ve met has some form of mental illness, including me.
I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder in 2016, and although I am still on my journey of healing, I’ve come a long way.
I was only 19 back then, and my mind was falling apart at the seams. I was still adjusting to college life in a very different environment from where I grew up, and I genuinely felt like I was losing my mind. I would have random extremely graphic and traumatizing things pop into my mind, sometimes in the form of mental pictures and sometimes as words or phrases.
I drove myself sick wondering what kind of evil, depraved human would have such thoughts, and constantly tried to reassure myself that I had a good character. I was scared that talking about what I was experiencing would make me look like a bad person, so I didn’t share it with anyone.
Eventually I realized that I could no longer live with these thoughts and decided to turn to a professional psychologist.
Walking into the first therapy appointment, I was almost certain the therapist would say I was the most unstable person they had ever seen. I was shocked when I learned that the opposite is true — that many people have similar random, scary thoughts.
One of the most validating experiences of my life was being handed a checklist of obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms by my therapist. It felt like I was reading a personality profile; it was exactly what I was experiencing. At that moment, I knew that I wasn’t alone, evil, or dangerous. I was just someone with OCD.
To understand OCD, you must understand intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are generally either positive or negative and can be random or triggered by specific things. A positive intrusive thought might include a spark of artistic inspiration, while negative intrusive thoughts can include nonsensical and frightening thoughts or mental images.
We call these unwanted intrusive thoughts, and most people experience them. The difference for those of us with OCD is that these short thoughts can trigger a longer spiral of exhausting and sometimes traumatizing ideations.
For example, a person without OCD might be walking on a bridge and think “What if I pushed someone off the bridge?” or “What if I jumped?” They might chuckle, finding the absurdity of these random intrusive thoughts funny, or perhaps give the thoughts no attention at all and just continue their day.
Unwanted intrusive thoughts are not the same as having the actual desire to harm yourself or others. These are random quick thoughts that catch us off guard and scare us, not the actual desire to jump or push someone off a bridge.
When I have these kinds of thoughts, my mind can become entirely occupied by a series of self-assurances and traumatizing images.
“Why would I think of throwing a stranger off a bridge? Am I a horrible person? No, I know I have no desire to do that. It was just a crazy thought — wait, am I crazy? I know I’m not a bad person, because bad people wouldn’t even be bothered by that thought.”
Often, the thoughts that we are most upset by are the ones we react the strongest to. The sick irony is that by giving these thoughts energy, by reasoning with them and trying to consolidate ourselves, we enable the spiral to continue.
Of course, unwanted intrusive thoughts are not the only symptom of OCD, and everyone experiences the disorder differently.
These days I take medication for my OCD, and I’ve learned that unwanted intrusive thoughts are meaningless and should just be ignored when possible: do not feed into the spiral.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned our thoughts do not define our character. Our choices do.