There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness within the legal profession. Having a mental illness does not make one unfit to go to law school, practice law, and even be an outstanding attorney.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (“NAMI”), “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions). Although people with OCD may know that their thoughts and behavior don’t make sense, they are often unable to stop them.”
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a neurodivergent condition that affects about 2.2 million people in the United States, a statistic that likely includes law students and legal professionals as the legal industry suffers from higher rates of mental illness. OCD can use up over an hour of one’s time every single day. Obsessions cause anxiety because one cannot control the intrusive, irrational thoughts and feelings occurring. Obsessions beg compulsions. Compulsions, the excessive urges of doing certain actions, provide some relief from the obsession-driven anxiety for a short period of time, but ultimately reinforce the obsessions. It is a never-ending cycle.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an illness. It is not simply having a collection, an organized desk, or being superstitious about a sports team like the media would have you believe. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not quirky, it’s not funny, it’s not even romantic. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a battle for people like me, every single day of our lives. It can be a determining factor in forming relationships, going grocery shopping, visiting the doctor, and so many other things that neurotypical people do not think twice about. OCD destroys effectiveness and gets in the way of seemingly simple tasks, even making it difficult to get out of bed in the morning.
Compulsive behavior such as putting your pens in color order does not automatically mean you have OCD. A key diagnostic criterion is to have obsessions. Without obsessions, one’s compulsive behavior is may simply be a habit or desire. It is not Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder until your brain is telling you, “do this action, or else…”; it is not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder until, like me, you spend a good portion of the day “mental checking,” which is described as a mental exercise which pits your obsession against reality. This means that you spend time ensuring that your obsession is irrational-thinking so that you will be able to squash it. The fact is, you usually can’t, or at least I can’t.
The “obsession” of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder often gets overlooked. Many people do not know what obsessions are or why they occur. However, without the obsessions, compulsions would not even exist. People find compulsions irritating, but often they do not realize that it is their body’s defense mechanism against the obsessions, which are involuntary thoughts that are repetitive and intrusive. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can often distinguish between what is logical and what is illogical. Still, the second they make the distinction, their minds trick them into believing it is all real.
I have heard many jokes about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, “Omg, I’m so OCD.” If you use social media, you probably have seen this phrase along with a picture of a tile pattern not being perfect, or documents in alphabetical order but two letters are switched. People can be particular. People can be neat. People can even have certain compulsions, but OCD is on a different playing field. The ignorance that I see among young adults, whether it be on social media or people I meet in person, is so upsetting when I have lived with this burden my whole life. These views of OCD created by society lead to people like myself feeling so misunderstood. I spent years thinking there was something seriously wrong with me that was far more serious than OCD because I wasn’t just tidy and particular; I had wild thoughts that I was even too afraid to say out loud.
I am not my OCD, but I know that it has shaped my world. I’ve suffered from this condition since I was five years old. That’s a bit earlier than the average age than it is usually detected, probably because it is hard for young children to verbalize what is going on in their minds and why they are doing what they do. Personally, I have come a long way in my journey, but there is no cure for OCD, just medication to help with symptoms. However, the reality is that one of the biggest factors that changed the way I live my life is talking about my mental illness. Being open, not feeling like I have some secret to hide, has allowed me to be my authentic self.
This is why I share stories about what I have been through and am part of an organization like NDLSA because my disabilities do not make me less than; they make me whole. I am open about who I am so that others, especially other law students and legal professionals, will be able to do the same. It is hard enough navigating law school and the legal profession, try doing it while having to divert a certain amount of energy (energy is a precious resource for law students and legal professionals) every day to suppressing your authentic self.
Cheryl Little Sutton put into words a visualization that I could never explain, “picture standing in a room filled with flies and pouring a bottle of syrup over yourself. The flies constantly swarm about you, buzzing around your head and in your face. You swat and swat, but they keep coming. The flies are like obsessional thoughts — you can’t stop them, you just have to fend them off. The swatting is like compulsions — you can’t resist the urge to do it, even though you know it won’t really keep the flies at bay more than for a brief moment.”
This article used information from the following sources:
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America
The National Taskforce on Lawyer Well-Being 2017 Report