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What does an OCD diagnosis mean during a global pandemic?

Beauty Dhlamini considers whether accepting an OCD diagnosis is a betrayal of her politics

5 to 7 minute read

A torn billboard poster showing key workers in face masks CREDIT:JOHN PERIVOLARIS

Despite what we are told, the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ended the global emergency status for Covid-19 after declaring it more than three years ago, effectively calling for countries to manage the virus that has killed more than 6.9 million people and disabled one in five people who had been infected with it. This declaration from the WHO does not change the reality of things. 

People like me who live on the fringes of society – the disabled, the immunocompromised and the chronically ill – are living proof that the virus is ever present and continually altering our lives. The delusion that we are returning to normality, if it ever existed, is rooted in distinguishing those on the fringes of society from the general population; one considered ‘vulnerable’ to Covid-19 and one who would be ‘fine’ following every infection. Except that this is not true. 

At present, there are 1.9 million people with self-reported long Covid, many of whom have been abandoned by society at every single level. In spite of this, there are little to no regulations, nor is there any real effort to fight for them.

As we pass the midpoint of the year in the UK, and with the end of all social, economic and political safety measures, Covid-19 deaths are still averaging around 336 people a day. We continue to be gaslighted at every level of society which is why it has never been more important for people to protect themselves at the collective and community level as no one else will. For what reason could we possibly know all of this and ignore it, other than the forced construction of a reality that encourages mass collective denial?

Self protection vs state protection

Recently, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This often misunderstood mental health disorder can be conceived as two interlinked parts: having recurring thoughts (obsessions) that can lead people to engaging in repetitive behaviors (compulsions). As a mental illness it presents itself in many different forms and goes far beyond wanting things to be neat, hand washing or cleaning (although these are very common compulsions).

Despite misconceptions around OCD, my experience of previously working in mental health has meant I have always understood what it means and how it can impact the daily lives of people. So I was very surprised when I found myself being assessed for health anxieties and OCD symptoms after reaching out to my GP for what I assumed was my inability to manage the symptoms of my existing mental health illness. 

Receiving this diagnosis caused me to mentally spiral because, once again, I felt like I was being gaslighted by the very system that should be protecting me. When the obsessive thoughts and behaviours were valid responses to the current sociopolitical circumstances around me, how could they be symptomatic of a mental health disorder? Instead of realising that this was not a personal failure but a state failure, I became obsessed with protecting myself in all the ways that had been abandoned by the very people put in power to protect us – but this is not how it was being seen. 

My first impulse was to delve deeper into how OCD was affecting Black women. However, as with most mental health illnesses, especially their prevalence in minoritised communities, the data specifically relating to OCD was lacking. This made the entire ordeal even more frustrating and isolating because I could not understand how or why this was being pathologised as though I was unwell for wanting to protect myself.

I could not understand how or why this was being pathologised as though I was unwell for wanting to protect myself

I had reached a point of crisis. The routines I had frequently engaged in as soon as I would get home, seemed to get longer and more frequent just to ensure I would not get sick, even though I did. I found it hard to leave the house because of how frequently I had been getting sick – I was making excuses to not see friends or go to work, and pretty much formed my own bubble inside of my flat because it was the only place I felt safe. All of which seemed normal and perfectly justifiable to me.

While I cannot deny I reached the ‘threshold’ for this diagnosis given I fit so neatly into all its requirements, I still had a hard time accepting it. It made me start questioning my reality even more and deeply doubt myself. But a part of me knew that my reasoning was valid because, if my obsessive thoughts which led me to compulsions that were so irrational, why was I and everyone around me still getting ill? What was the point in grieving over something supposedly being wrong with me again when it was only a matter of time before it was something else? How would I balance living with this new diagnosis when I know my actions could be the very difference between life and death, not just for myself but for someone else?

I refused to accept that I was sick for wanting to protect myself and others from state negligence. I refused to accept I was sick for not wanting to get even more sick. But most importantly, I refused to accept that I was sick because of my ‘irrational’ fear of getting sick, when millions of people have died and continue to die from getting sick.

Putting safety back in our practices

‘What is it you are so afraid of happening if you don’t entertain your thoughts and engage in these behaviours? What do you think is the worst thing that could happen to you?’

This was a question my therapist asked me in our first session, and is one that has stayed with me since. I still cannot answer her now because there are so many answers and yet none could possibly satisfy my OCD symptoms and why I give in to them despite having the tools to manage them. What I do know is I do not think this is something that can be completely fixed – nor do I want it to be.

As someone who exists on the fringes of society, accepting this diagnosis feels like a betrayal of the very things I continue to advocate for. Going to therapy and ‘seeking help’ felt like an admission of guilt for not acting ‘normal’ since ‘the pandemic is over’. I was worried my safety-centred politics would turn into mere buzzwords and the abandonment of the people who need us the most. Though it’s hard to admit, even the most well-intentioned people who share our politics have completely deprioritised our safety.

Despite all of this, I stuck with my therapy sessions. I knew my feelings were valid, but I began to understand how debilitating the frequency and intensity some of these behaviours were to me in being able to live a full life. I’m trying to live a life now that allows for smaller changes, one that stops me from punishing myself for things out of my control but one that doesn’t forget the reasons why I choose to keep myself safe.

Beauty Dhlamini is a health organiser and writer

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