“Apologies for the graphic post, but this is part of what #MentalIllness truly looks like.”
Among people who have never experienced a mental illness, the need for professional treatment may not always be clear. It’s tempting to think people with generalized anxiety disorder just need to “calm down,” people with depression just need to “think positive,” people with eating disorders just need to “eat a burger,” and people with OCD just need to “stop doing that.”
If only it were that easy.
Part of the reason mental illnesses are so misunderstood and often not taken seriously is because so many of the destructive symptoms are invisible: They happen silently in the brain. However, one recent social media post made those invisible thoughts a little less hidden.
Minnati Zaveri, who is in recovery for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), shared a powerful before-and-after photo that makes the pain of her disorder—and the benefits of seeking treatment—completely visible. “Apologies for the graphic post,” Zaveri wrote in the caption, “but this is part of what #MentalIllness truly looks like.”
According to Zaveri, the “before” photos were taken when her OCD was “at its worst.” She was washing her hands around 40 times a day, and her skin’s first layer was cracking, bleeding, and peeling off. In the “after” photos, she has noticeably healed skin.
Zaveri points out that she still has OCD, but her hands are visibly improved because she’s been “aided with therapy and medication,” she wrote in the captions under her Twitter handle @greaterthan65. The name refers to the psychological test Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which assesses personality traits often associated with mental illnesses.
Treating OCD: Not Just Breaking a Habit
The after photos don’t just show healed skin, but they imply a healed mind. After all, OCD is a type of anxiety disorder, and you can think of compulsions as a coping mechanism to relieve anxious thoughts. Thus, treatment for OCD is similar to treating other anxiety disorders: It starts with the mind.
Many people living with OCD benefit from a combination of therapy (especially a style called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT) and medications (like antidepressants). CBT helps address the anxious thoughts underlying the compulsion.
In addition to therapy and medication, Zaveri says she’s made several lifestyle changes. For example, she’s been advised to exercise in gyms—not just for the endorphins, but also to chip away at her social anxiety and fear of crowds.
“There are good days and there are bad days,” says Zaveri. “I would not say I’ve completely recovered, but yes, there has been a drastic improvement in my health.”
A Better Understanding of OCD
Social media posts like Zaveri’s may help chip away at myths about OCD by exemplifying just how severe the anxiety underlying a compulsion can be, and that OCD is not just a “quirky habit” or a desire to have your bookshelves arranged in alphabetical order. To misuse OCD in this way mocks the real pain and mental suffering that people with OCD have to deal with.
“Individuals with OCD usually feel compelled to perform rituals or behaviors [such as handwashing] to get rid of a specific obsession or anxiety,” says Dr. Sal Raichbach, PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Even though compulsions seem irrational to others, they typically provide the individual with a sense of safety and comfort.”
The thoughts behind OCD are incredibly powerful—and the person having them often fears that something catastrophic will happen if they don’t complete the ritual. The compulsion almost feels like a bargain to the universe to prevent the feared thing: your mom dying, being diagnosed with a serious illness, loss of control, or accidentally hurting someone, to name a few of the most common.
While color-coding your folders can bring you some pleasure if you have a Type-A personality, there’s nothing pleasurable about OCD. The thoughts are intrusive, the compulsions are disruptive and unproductive, and the anxiety can start to affect your physical health.
Zaveri says she finds these jokes “highly infuriating” but that she has learned to let it go. “Most people do not understand that OCD stems from a deeper root because of the lack of awareness,” she says. “But those who know the difference and continue to [say it] deeply hurt those who actually suffer from OCD.”
The Power of Treatment
Zaveri was only diagnosed and started treatment a year ago, despite dealing with these OCD symptoms for over 10 years. It’s common for many people to muscle through a mental illness, worrying things aren’t “bad enough” to need to seek treatment. Unfortunately, delaying treatment often causes the mental illness to worsen, cement itself into the individual’s thinking, and become more resistant to treatments.
The hard work of treating a mental illness can be slow and at times grueling. The incremental improvements can feel so sluggish that you might take the progress you’ve made for granted. Considering this, it’s not surprising that Zaveri says she was “pleasantly shocked” when she first saw the before-and-after photos beside each other.
“After the initial shock wore off, I felt extremely proud of myself,” says Zaveri. “Proud to have sought help. Proud that I kept up with my therapy sessions every week, come what may. Proud that I was actually applying all that I learned in therapy. Proud of how far I had come in such little time.”
Zaveri hopes her post encourages others to better understand mental illnesses, and perhaps more importantly, to seek treatment if they’re struggling themselves.
“Suffering from any mental illness is difficult, and healing and recovery [is] never a straight line, but you can gather the strength and courage to seek help. Let that be step one,” says Zaveri.