Today we're talking with J.J. Keeler, author of I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands: The Other Side of OCD
FQ: As I mention in the review, do you feel as if people only view OCD as very low on the Richter scale of illnesses? Such as, they simply chalk it up to a person who needs to wash their hands a lot? How do you feel about this?
I do feel like OCD is sometimes passed off as a joke of a disease. People view it as "cute" or even "quirky." Shows like Monk of course help to perpetuate this stereotype. Sometimes, OCD can even be viewed as beneficial. People hear you have OCD and assume you are highly organized and efficient, leaving them to think OCD is an asset, when it's really just as ass. There are even companies who have named themselves after OCD, hoping to play on the fact that they have attention to detail. For some reason, people think this is okay. But, if a company were to name themselves after any other disease, people would be disgusted. Something like HIV Marketing would never fly, but some companies have no qualms about using OCD in their title. Yet, no matter how those on the outside see OCD, the reality is that OCD is a very real, very devastating disease. It's a disease that tortures those who have it and one with the capacity to ruin lives. There is nothing cute about it.
FQ: I am of the personal belief that we are all OCD in some way. Do you feel that we all obsess over something - even some little thing - that simply nags at us?
I do sometimes feel this way as well and I have, in the past, said these very words. But, to play Devil's advocate, does the fact that we all have times when we are really happy and times when we are really sad mean that we are all Bipolar in some way. Honestly, I don't know. But, I do know to truly have OCD (at least to be clinically diagnosed) one would have to have obsessions that demand a great amount of time, say hours a day, or drastically interfere with life. Regardless if we all are OCD or not, I do honestly believe that everyone in them has a little bit of crazy. Even the sanest people in the world have, in one way or another, some sort of crazy inside of them.
FQ: Your wit and sarcasm are a large part of this book. Do you use humor as a way to help with your own OCD, and to explain the issues in a way that people will be more receptive to it?
Well, humor is just my writing style. I have really never written anything that was not - in some way - sarcastic or funny (unless you count the five paragraph essays from middle school). I had a little bit of reservation about using so much humor in my book, mainly because I am sensitive to the way OCD is perceived by society (i.e., it can be seen as a bit of a joke). But, I used humor because I wanted this book to be engaging and entertaining; I wanted it to be a book that people with no personal ties to OCD would still enjoy.
As for my own OCD, at times I use humor to deflect it. When I'm explaining it to others, I tend to use it a lot. I almost think you have to in order to tell someone you have a mental illness. But, using humor as a way to cope with OCD is also beneficial. Making fun of your thoughts, instead of believing them, is a good way to take away OCD's power.
FQ: In the book you say you ended up with a very good life and a husband who loves you - can you speak about the effects OCD has on family members - the ones closest to you?
OCD can be very hard on family members. A lot of this comes from the person with OCD wanting their family members to enable them. Usually, this form of enabling comes from the OCD sufferer asking their loved one to check something for them. They might drive to the market and hit a bump and then ask their spouse to make sure they didn't hit a child, that sort of thing. The family member that enables the person with OCD might think they are helping, but by checking they are actually feeding the disease. So, what the family member is really supposed to do is refuse to check, or even say something like, "Yes....you totally hit a kid. In fact, you hit seven of them." This can make the OCD sufferer mad, as they have all this anxiety and want their family member to help them assuage it, and it can be a point of contention. But, ultimately, a family member that refuses to be an enabler will help their loved one get better.
FQ: Do you believe OCD can be seen in a new light? Will there be better treatments for kids who are not only contemplating suicide, but may actually carry it out because of OCD or depression?
As of right now, there are really quite a few excellent treatments for people with OCD. Cognitive behavior therapy and SSRI's, to name a few, are typically thought of as the Gold Standard. The problem, in my opinion, is that OCD is so misunderstood that people who are suffering from it may have no idea that they have it (or parents may have no idea that their children have it). As I said in my book, when I began to have harming obsessions, I thought I was some sort of monster waiting to emerge. Not in a million years would it have ever occurred to me that I had a mental illness (until a friend suggested it to me). That's one of the biggest challenges with OCD. Because OCD is almost always described as a disease where people constantly wash their hands, feel a need to clean or organize, fear germs and diseases, and are extremely meticulous, everyone ends up assuming that's all OCD is. Yet, in reality, OCD manifests very differently for all those who have it. For me personally, I am extremely unorganized and pretty much a slob, I'm not a compulsive hand washer or a germ-a-phobe. So, I guess my hope is that this other side of OCD will start to be better understood. Really, I wish that the media would report on the type of OCD that involves harming obsessions, because all it really seems to report on is the kind that everyone already knows about (organization, germs, cleanliness, etc.)
FQ: You say people with OCD see the world as a 50’s TV series - black and white/good and bad. As you learned more and got treatment, etc. did this quality remain? Or, does it get easier for a sufferer of OCD to see the colors and differences in life and accept them more easily?
Well, I should probably clarify that I am generally not someone who views the world in black and white except for when it comes to morals. People with OCD, and this includes myself, tend to have a very high sense of morality. So they don't have a lot of patience for people who lie or steal or cheat or manipulate. I don't believe my sense of morality is quite as black and white as it used to be, but it's still there...and it's still high, which I don't see as a bad thing. Except that people with high morals can tend to be very hard on themselves, even when it's not necessary.
I have found, however, that I am more open to explanations than I used to be. To give you an example, I grew adamantly against hunting. Part of this is because my sense of morality believes it is wrong to kill, and the other part is just because I am a huge animal lover. However, I had a really good friend who was a big hunter and he told me that if hunters didn't hunt deer and elk, then a lot would die from starvation. After hearing that, I wasn't so adamantly against it, though it's still something that I know I personally could never do.
FQ: You talk about your father in the book, which was very moving to me; about how he was so many things and had so many traits - there are people out there like this who others see as OCD because they’re so different. Do you believe OCD can come from genetics? Or, do you believe that when people finally accept others for who they are, things will finally change?
I definitely believe OCD can come from genetics. My father has OCD and I also have an uncle with it. If you talk to people with OCD, often you will find that they have a family member who also has it. Interestingly, this isn't always a parent or a sibling, it could be an aunt or a cousin. But, if you think about it, all kinds of diseases - cancer, heart disease, diabetes - have a strong genetic link, so why would mental illnesses be any different?
It used to be believed that OCD was caused by something that went wrong during toilet training. But, now almost universally it's believed that there is an underlying genetic component to it. They refer to it as a biologically based mental illness.
FQ: Bullying is now the big item in the news, with children committing suicide because of the pain others give them. Is there an outside influence that brings OCD on? Or, is this strictly something internal?
Well I'm not an expert on this aspect of OCD, mainly because I'm not a scientist, I'm an English major. : ) So, I guess it would really fall back on the old "nature versus nurture" argument. While I do feel that there is a strong genetic component to OCD, it is also entirely possible, in my opinion, that OCD can kind of just come on out of the blue. I've always believed that both nature and nurture strongly influence things. Kind of like how some people are just genetically more prone to cancer, but just because your DNA isn't wired for it, doesn't mean you can't get it.
There are actually some OCD cases that are linked directly to strep throat. Basically, a kid gets strep and then, pretty much over night, becomes obsessive compulsive. I don't think it's very common but it does happen. With this type of OCD, strep is really the main culprit and it is my understanding that treating the strep helps treat the OCD.
FQ: I love the humor in your stories. It is so amazing to see someone speak about such a harsh subject who can also see the ‘funny’ aspects in what they’re going through. Can I assume it was very different growing up?
Well when I was going through it, I didn't find it funny at all. Really, my childhood wasn't marked by OCD. I had my moments, but they were few and far between. It was in college where it hit the fan, so to speak. And, yeah, it wasn't funny in any way. It was miserable.
FQ: Is there any advice - one really special thing you would like to have hit home with people - that you can say to someone who is going through these issues that still doesn’t now that it’s OCD?
I would say that if you find yourself having intrusive thoughts that are interfering with your life, go seek help. These thoughts can range from being afraid of touching door knobs to being afraid you might choke a loved one, to being afraid you somehow caused a catastrophe. OCD is nothing to be ashamed of and mental illness doesn't need to be cloaked in secrecy. OCD isn't curable, but it is treatable and people can live normal, functioning lives with it. But, they usually have to get treatment in order to do this.