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Missing appointments and making a change

| Tuesday, October 12, 2021

I missed my therapy appointment last week. It was completely my fault: I thought the appointment was at a different time, but the hour I was actually scheduled was during one of my classes. I shouldn’t have been that upset — I had been laying in bed for the half hour before my appointment thinking about how I didn’t really have anything to talk about and I could really use this time to do homework. But my therapist tends to be booked tight, and when I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her for another week, it threw my whole day off. I felt more anxious, irritable and overwhelmed, and am honestly still waiting to shake that off. It couldn’t have been more ironic timing, either — I missed therapy right smack dab in the middle of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Of course, Mental Illness Awareness Week doesn’t really mean anything to me, nor do the myriad other days, weeks and months throughout the year designed to advocate for mental health care (see: Mental Health Awareness Month, Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, International Stress Awareness Day, etc.) But it’s always an interesting exercise to see how people talk about mental health and mental illness when they have an excuse to post about it. Looking through the #MIAW tag on Instagram, you can see a rainbow of carefully-designed graphics proclaiming “Having Anxiety Can Be Exhausting,” “You Are Not Alone” and “Mental Illness Doesn’t Define You.” It’s nice — the good intentions are obviously there — but it’s never felt like it’s for me.

When I was in middle school, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I’ve been in therapy for it on-and-off ever since then. In the last ten years, I’ve come to learn that OCD is probably one of the most misunderstood and underdiagnosed mental illnesses out there. Of course it’s misunderstood on a basic level (haven’t you heard? OCD isn’t just being clean), but these misunderstandings about what it actually looks like leads to OCD being chronically underdiagnosed. I’m not a professional, of course, but I’ve met plenty of people in real life who describe to me storms inside their head that sound just like mine and write them off as general anxiety or depression. If you’re not someone who struggles with OCD, or any mental illness, it’s hard to emphasize what a travesty that is.

I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that therapy saved my life. My OCD has yet to be so severe it is actually life-threatening, but I know I would’ve spent my adolescence in much more pain if I hadn’t been able to name and treat my mental illness. I wouldn’t have become the person I am today, attending a college I am proud to name, without therapy. 

Therapy has always worked for me, but lots of people treat their OCD with just psychiatric care, or combine the two approaches. However, even just the ability to identify and understand part of what’s happening inside my head has been life-changing for me. I can’t speak for other kinds of mental illness, but one of the most sinister things about OCD is that it convinces you that all of your intrusive thoughts are true, and that you are the only person who has ever thought them. It is an awfully alienating experience, and the shame and guilt associated with OCD thoughts keeps a lot of people from speaking up at all. Once I knew I had OCD, however, I could scour the Internet (shoutout International OCD Foundation) for other people who had similar experiences, read about how they recovered and understand that I was never really alone. It has never been easy to quiet my mind, but having being able to name what’s happening gives me a lot of power back, and it gives me the ability to find others who struggle in kind.

I sometimes feel so lost and alone struggling with mental illness, even when I have a diagnosis, active and successful treatment and an incredibly sturdy support system. I can’t imagine how lonely and confusing it feels to have OCD, or any mental illness, and have none of that. This is why those Instagram posts always strike me as funny. If you’re struggling with a clinical mental illness, the assurance that you are not alone is not really enough to make you feel not alone. This isn’t to say support systems aren’t important — they’re absolutely vital — but mental illnesses persist despite great friends and family. I needed (and still need) professional help to live with OCD, and it’s okay to recognize that your mental illness can’t be fixed by platitudes served up on a candy-colored Instagram grid.

Awareness is a massive part of mental health advocacy, and a big reason why illnesses like OCD are still so chronically underdiagnosed is because of a lack of awareness. But awareness means nothing if not paired with professional mental health care, whether that means diagnostic testing, talk therapy, or psychiatric medicine. This kind of care is just as vital to our health systems as any other, and it must be treated as such. There needs to be more government support for mental health care to reduce the costs of therapy, businesses and universities (I’m looking at you, UCC) need to avoid taking a one-size-fits-all approach, and we all need to work to reduce the stigma around both having mental illnesses and receiving mental health care. 

I am so extraordinarily grateful that I have had such a supportive and wonderful experience treating my mental illness, and it is one of my most ardent beliefs that everyone deserves an experience like mine. It is a lifelong battle, there’s no doubt about it, but everyone deserves to live that life feeling truly not alone. I hope we can work together to build a world where that’s possible. In the meantime, I’ll try not to miss any more appointments.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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