Channeling Uncertainty: On the 2022 OCD in Society Conference

Abigail Savitch-Lew reflects on the third OCD in Society conference (London, 28 May 2022), from Enlightenment to eugenics, and pathology to peer support

I obsessed about attending this conference. There was the risk of getting COVID-19, the fear I hadn’t taken the rapid test correctly, and the chance of spreading mono to my hosts through the dishware (after infection, it can last in saliva for 18 months). I’m a great Googler, knowing way more than I need to about things that frighten me. Still, it seems that the more I learn, the less certain I become of everything.

Thankfully, however, I pushed through the unknowns and make it to the third OCD in Society conference. The conference series brings together artists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including people with OCD, to discover what can be learned about the lived experiences of OCD—and about society—through a critical engagement with this highly misunderstood disorder.

Hosted by PhD candidates Eva Surawy Stepney and Matthew Hiller, this year’s conference was titled “Theory & Practice” and held in London on May 28, 2022. I was there to present a memoir-in-progress that describes my experiences growing up with OCD in Brooklyn.

During the conference, I found myself grappling with the relationship of OCD to modern western culture and Enlightenment ideas of order and rationality. I came away with new questions about the dynamics between OCD and systems of knowledge-making and with new thoughts on OCD as a pathological condition.

Linguist PhD Poppy Plumb presents at the third OCD in Society conference. Photo credit: Lydia Bowden

Rationality, Borders, and OCD

In the keynote address, Dr. Emily Chester presented her article on the novel Watt by Samuel Beckett, arguing (to quote her abstract) that Watt “posits endless obsessions and compulsions as an inevitable component of rigorous adherence to the Cartesian Method.” She explained that, according to Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, one must subject all claims to thorough scrutiny and accept nothing as true if it can be doubted. With the invention of the character Watt, a man who obsessively questions his reality, Beckett may be ironically suggesting that if one takes the Cartesian Method to its logical end, one could end up with a mental disorder, Chester argued.

This notion—that those with lived experience of OCD seek certainty—was echoed by a presentation on a paper by Hiller and Surawy Stepney. They drew on the scholarship of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who in her book Purity and Danger describes how humans tend to create boundaries between perceived categories—things like “dirty” and “clean.” Yet creating boundaries can lead to fears of what might get through; boundaries mark what we know and understand, increasing our fear of what lies beyond. Hiller explained how OCD is essentially characterized by the same logic. For instance, while most people are interested in keeping “dirty objects” (like shoes) away from clean spaces (like kitchen counters) people with OCD may feel a heightened anxiety about the possibility of dirt entering clean spaces. The more rituals the individual adds to ensure cleanliness, the worse grows their fear of the potential for uncleanliness; the more one seeks order, the more disorder is created.

These presentations, which speak to both the human drive—as well as the suffering individual’s urge—to pursue purity (of spaces or of ideas) recalled to mind what I’ve learned from Jack Tchen at The Anti-Eugenics Project. Eugenics, a pseudo-scientific movement that emerged in the 19th century, sought to improve human society by breeding the so-called “fit” and limiting the reproduction of the “unfit.” While perhaps the tendency to seek purity is a facet of human nature, the eugenics movement followed this urge to a new place—with the categorizing and “purification” of humanity itself. Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and ableist ideals usually framed the movement’s understanding of fitness.

After these presentations, I contemplated how the Enlightenment and eugenics may have impacted my own life in 21st century America and my experience of OCD. For instance, some of my first compulsions centered around ensuring I was the perfect student; I also suffered from obsessive thoughts that I didn’t deserve my place in “Gifted and Talented” schools. At the conference, I pondered: was New York City’s competitive, hierarchical environment—and modern western culture itself—partly responsible for the rise of my OCD? In a related vein, some conference attendees wanted to know if OCD is a first world problem—whether people in low-income countries do not seek the perfection or certainty that OCD seems to strive for.

Matheus Sanita Lima, PhD candidate in Biology, updated us on the neurobiology of OCD. Studies show the correlation between OCD and certain genome regions, he said, but correlations are not the same as causations. That leaves room for the influence of environmental factors. Sanita Lima explained that researchers have found OCD to be prevalent worldwide, but certain “themes” (e.g., harm OCD vs contamination OCD) might have different preponderances in different cultures and/or in different time periods.  More research is needed on OCD manifestations in different communities across the globe.[1]

Some pre-modern religious literature describes Catholic priests and nuns suffering from intense, excessive fears that they had committed a sin. Is this evidence that OCD is not a modern phenomenon? Or would it be ahistorical to paste a modern medical label on premodern experiences? Going forward, I hope to explore these questions further.

A Pathology, or a Gift?

That people with OCD have a unique tendency to doubt led Hiller to end on a question: instead of only pathologizing OCD, is it possible to draw on it, to make use of it?

It’s a question that must be treated with care, without minimizing the pain that accompanies this disorder. Many people with OCD have the unfortunate experience of being told their OCD makes them a good person—just one of the many ways that the suffering of people with OCD is trivialized. (Linguist PhD Poppy Plumb honed in on this point in her presentation of “Corpus-Assisted Critical Analysis of OCD in the UK Press“; she’d discovered that in UK press publications, the word “bit” is often used in conjunction with the word OCD, as in “I’m a bit OCD.”[2])

I don’t believe untreated OCD can be a gift to the individual. Many of us would rather be good people who do not suffer with torturous thoughts.

That said, I deeply admired the people who attended the conference and who self-identified as having OCD. I appreciated their thoughtfulness, their sensitivity, and their creativity, and I wondered why these attributes sometimes appear to accompany the illness. I also left the conference thinking that perhaps if those with lived experience of OCD can recover, we can become people who learn to accept life’s uncertainties and can teach others without OCD to be open to the unknown, to the ambiguous. Perhaps we can also lead the way in questioning rigid categories and distorted dichotomies—such as the “fit” and “unfit” of eugenics.

From peer support to artistic healing

Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment. During the conference, we also discussed a variety of other recovery tools.

Chrissie Hodges, founder of Treatment for OCD Consulting, LLC, spoke to the value of connecting people with OCD to certified peer support workers who have themselves experienced recovery from the disorder. Counselor and pastor Jordan Williams shared how Christian counselors can respond to cases of OCD by applying scripture to address the underlying motivations of the individual’s obsessions and compulsions.

The conference also highlighted the power of art. Art allows the artist a chance to explain their lived experiences, to bond with others, to view their experiences from a different standpoint, and to educate the wider public. Both Jonathan Tilley’s sculptures and Brooke Bastie’s poetry book Household Objects captured the frightening, magical and surreal quality of the OCD imagination. (One of Bastie’s poems can be viewed here.) In addition, Stuart Ralph, host of The OCD Stories podcast, held a live podcast introducing the audience to the makers of other inspiring projects like Laura Johnson’s OCD Doodles, the blog and website Taming Olivia, the forthcoming film Waving, and the young adult novel When I See Blue.

In the excerpt of the memoir I presented, I explained that I once avoided writing about OCD: it seemed like a medical issue to be tackled privately rather than one deserving public discussion. My opinion on this changed as I began to realize how class and race inequities perpetuates in-access to OCD treatment.

The OCD in Society conference has only furthered my passion for engaging with others in a critical and arts-based analysis of the disorder. It’s important that those with OCD achieve personal well-being, but we also may offer a unique perspective on society as a whole—and a unique vision for the collective future we wish to see.

 

Abigail Savitch-Lew is an MFA student in creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark and a former staff reporter for the NYC news outlet City Limits. Her participation in the OCA in Society conference was sponsored by the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University and the Rutgers Graduate School – Newark. Find her at abigailsavitchlew.com, @Savitchlew.  

[1] For more on this subject, see Dan Stein, “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Global Mental Health,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 61 (January 2017): S4-S8,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343414/#

[2] To be fair to the UK press, Plumb noted that some of the texts using the word “bit” were in fact themselves discussing the minimization of OCD by the general public.

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