OPINION: A case against ‘overcoming’: shifting mental illness rhetoric toward recovery and care

An abstract drawing of a person’s head growing as a flower, pulled into four petal-like sections. Around the head there is static.
(Max Ranney • The Student Life)

CW: Mental Illness 

I do not remember a life without Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My first memory, at four years old, is of having an intrusive thought and feeling my heart pound and stomach drop. It was the first time of thousands that I would try to silence and smother those thoughts, the overwhelming sensation of the world being far too big and small at the same time, suffocating me with both uncertainty and not enough possibility.

We have a habit of sharing stories of difficulty and struggle after we’ve overcome the problem, and then telling them with a curated and positive lens. This is silencing and isolating for those of us who live with mental illness and deal with symptoms daily.

I understand why most people don’t share their experiences with mental illness. I often find language a frustrating medium to convey the nuances, ups-and-downs and truth of a struggle that exists only internally. It’s difficult to articulate and is often met with confusion.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is someone living in my psyche alongside me. They talk to me, flash jarring images and ask me to perform compulsions that hurt me. I don’t remember what life was like before them, and until I began treatment, I didn’t realize we were two different people. There were periods of my teenage years when my health completely deteriorated, scaring my loved ones and leaving my parents feeling helpless. At my lowest points with OCD, recovery seemed like an ideal I would never realize for myself.

No matter what my therapists or parents said, I couldn’t let them go. They told me my support system didn’t understand, and I believed them. They told me only they could protect me, and I believed them. I didn’t know how to live without them, and they convinced me I would never learn how to.

They don’t care about my health, well-being or survival. They care that I keep talking to them, and until very recently I did. Our identities were intertwined. I was not vulnerable, intimate or honest with people. They told me I was fundamentally different from other people, that I didn’t deserve fulfillment or relationships like they did, and I listened. In some moments, when they told me I was worthless and wrong, that I wasn’t strong enough for or deserving of life, I believed them.

I used to resent them with every fiber of my being for what they took from me. A normal, peaceful childhood, the presence to be in the moment and the ability to relate to my peers and their feelings. Through hundreds of hours of treatment, the financial support of my parents and a lot of grief, I am learning to live with mental illness in a society that seems unable to understand it. Every day, I learn more about boundaries, limits and practices of care.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not something I will ever overcome, and it’s not helpful to hear that rhetoric echoed by social media, in academia and even mental health providers. Recovery from destructive, life-threatening compulsions and behaviors is a daily practice for many of us. It is ongoing, evolving and requires constant self check-ins and professional support. Recovery is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute practice for many of us. For me, it means choosing sustainable coping mechanisms and vulnerability. Some days those choices are easy, and some days they are exhausting.

I know the experience of complete darkness very well. Feeling like a complete stranger to myself, consistently scaring and disappointing my loved ones, lying and not knowing if I deserved health or life. But I do. We all do. No matter how unrecognizable I felt to myself, it was just a feeling, and it did pass. It always does.

There is no version of me that exists without mental illness. My experience has vacillated between severe illness, moderate symptoms and recovery. No level of recovery or health will change that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will always be part of my life, and that doesn’t mean I don’t live a wonderful life, it just means that my disease will always be with me.

I want to make a case for celebrating care, recovery and maintenance, not conquering. A case for prioritizing accessible care and actively changing the stigmatizing environments we all participate in. My experience with mental illness is one of privilege. Access to care to sustain practices of recovery requires financial resources, transportation and access to technology. It requires the flexibility to take time away from obligations and the cultural and social support to prioritize treating mental health disorders. 

At this moment in time, when miseducation, stigma and inaccessibility dominate mental health discourse, I encourage you to prioritize empathy over your desire to “fix” the people you care about. Every stage of learning to cope with things we did not choose is worth recognizing.

Sara Cawley SC ’26 is from Chicago, IL and a News Editor at TSL. She loves looking at dogs, talking about dogs and hugging dogs.

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