'The Secret Illness' Is About To Change The Way You Think About This Disorder

"I'm not sure which thoughts are really mine anymore."

'The Secret Illness' Is About To Change The Way You Think About This Disorder

How many times have you heard someone casually say they're "so OCD," when what they really mean is they're extremely detail-oriented, meticulous, or neat? Today, the term "OCD" has become synonymous with the word "anal-retentive," but when people without OCD carelessly describe themselves as having it, they do a disservice to the people who actually have it.

Many people don't actually understand what OCD is, which further perpetuates common misconceptions. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a chronic condition in which "a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over," according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These obsessions and compulsions can interfere with their everyday lives, making it harder to do well at work and maintain personal relationships. 

To help bring awareness to the condition, Becca Laidler and Liz Smith co-founded The Secret Illness, a creative arts project that explores the truth behind living with OCD. 

"One day Becca told me about what it was like growing up with a mum who had OCD," Smith told A Plus. "I was fascinated and very surprised I knew so little about what OCD really was." 

After that, the pair embarked on a mission to bring attention to OCD and created a multimedia project that people living with OCD could contribute to.

One way these people contribute to the project is through "The Wall," a place where people can anonymously share their experiences with the disorder.

"Its purpose is to help other people with OCD realize they are not alone," Smith said. "And it helps people who, like me two years ago, thought they knew what OCD was, get to understand what it really is, through these really honest, sometimes heartbreaking, very visceral human stories." 

To contribute, people send a private message to The Secret Illness, and their stories are later added to The Wall's montage with a pixelated image. Contributors can choose to omit their name if they'd like. 

The messages they receive show just how different the obsessions can be. "If I don't check the door again, someone will come in and kill my family," one of the submissions said. Another said, "I can't prove that I won't be raped again so I must trust my mind and bleach my hands to stop that from happening."

"I think the anonymity of The Wall has given people a voice," Laidler explains. "There is so much stigma about OCD and it seems hard to change people's opinion on something they think they already know. We have been contacted by so many brave and strong people. Some full of hope, others in their lowest moments, but it is clear throughout that people are wary of speaking out loud about their intrusive thoughts for fear of being labelled 'mad' or 'weird.'"

Another way people contribute to The Secret Illness is through submitting poems or short stories. Laidler and Smith then work to turn these stories into short films. They have just released the first of these short films. Entitled "This Old Ghost," the film was created from a poem written by James Lloyd, who has lived with OCD since childhood. 

"OCD is a painful, debilitating illness, and one that's often misunderstood. With this poem, I wanted to get across the reality of living with OCD. The endless grappling with dark, unwanted thoughts. The feeling that everything will unravel if you don't do something — anything — to undo them. The soul-crushing anxiety and sheer exhaustion of it all," Lloyd told A Plus. 

"But I also wanted to get across the hope that comes with knowing you're not alone. I went years without realizing I had OCD, but since then the OCD community has been a lifeline. I know I'd be in a much worse place if it wasn't for them.”

Laidler and Smith have received tons of encouraging emails thanking them for creating a safe space where they can share their experiences without feeling ashamed. The pair plan to continue to build the project and have already learned a lot along the way. 

"I've learnt that OCD comes in so many different forms, and that it can be far more debilitating than people imagine, and I'd like other people to find that out too. It might mean that someone currently undiagnosed gets diagnosed," Smith said. "I've also learnt that while there is no definitive 'cure' per se, with the right help it is possible to find ways to manage it and live a full and happy life again, which is why it's so important people get the right diagnosis and they get diagnosed quickly. So many people suffer in silence with it for countless years before they get diagnosed."

Laidler hopes the project will help people like her mother get diagnosed sooner. 

"My mum wasn't diagnosed until much later in life and I realize now how much easier her life would have been if she had been diagnosed earlier. Hopefully people will read the wall, realize they are not alone and seek the help they need," she said. 

"It's wonderful to take something that can be so debilitating and turn it into [something] beautiful and positive."