We asked, she answered - meet Seren.
Q: Do you struggle with mental illness? If so what?
I live with generalized anxiety and OCD. I have a history of trauma, but nothing’s been diagnosed on paper yet (honestly, I don’t want it to be either, because there’s just so much stigma out there and I don’t want to touch that with a ten foot pole at this point).
Q: When did you first realize you struggled with mental illness?
Well, I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was five. I was scared of everything - I remember having a phase where I was terrified of poison ivy, and then another where I was scared of hydrangeas (as far as I remember, this was because they’re poisonous if you eat them? Unsure why this was so distressing, but oh well). I’ve never seen myself as neurotypical, which has both had benefits and drawbacks: I think it’s not great for your sense of self to be diagnosed with a disorder when you’re so young, because it really does become part of who you are, but on the other hand, I do think it’s set me up to be more comfortable coexisting and coping with some of my symptoms.
Q: How were you diagnosed?
I got diagnosed with anxiety when I was five. I had a lot of trouble socializing with other kids and that led me into therapy. In high school, I found out that I had OCD through my own research and Googling, which got me to go back to therapy my junior year.
Q: What do your disorders feel like for you? Describe your symptoms.
I think I’ve honestly over-normalized a lot of it, especially anxiety. I have SUPER bad academic anxiety, to the point where I’ve opened up a test grade and then had to sit down because the pins and needles in my legs were actually THAT BAD. I laughed that off, but then once I told other folks about it, it was like, oh. That’s not normal, is it? I kind of forget that I have anxiety a lot of the time at this point, because I don’t remember it ever not being there, so it’s like, well is it me or is it the disorder?
OCD is thankfully less of a presence in my life than it used to be. Since I don’t have many overt physical compulsions, my OCD flew under the radar for many years, and now thanks to ERP, you really can’t notice it. I’m still aware of it from time to time when it flares up, but for the most part, I think it’s under control now.
Trauma is, I don’t even know if I have the words for it right now. I feel a bit weird talking about it because I’ve never been officially diagnosed, but that’s more due to my therapist than to me not having anything, so I’ll try and list it out a bit. The main way it shows up for me is just wacky moods - I was convinced I had a mood disorder for a lot of high school, but it turns out that trauma messes with your ability to regulate your emotions, and it was just my past coming back to mess with me.
Q: Do your friends and family know about your illness? If so, how did you tell them?
Most of my friends and people in my social circles know, just because I’m really open about it (most of it). On a day-to-day basis, though, I’m usually happier to identify as a survivor or identify as neurodivergent/neuroatypical than I am to identify as mentally ill. I think it’s a delicate balance between not over-normalizing what I live with, but not romanticizing it either, and that’s something I still struggle with navigating.
Q: How has mental illness impacted your life?
I think it’s complicated for me, because, yes, it’s a disorder I live with, but it’s also a part of my identity. Some of my favorite things about myself (empathy, compassion, being able to sympathize with others) have come out of my experience, and I want to keep those parts of myself. I feel really strongly that nothing (especially nothing this big) is completely positive or completely negative: there are symptoms I still struggle with on a day-to-day basis, and there is also this immense resilience and strength that has come out of what I’ve had to live through.
Q: How do you manage your symptoms?
At the risk of being a bit controversial here, I think what’s helped me the most is just having a sense of community. Neurodivergence is an incredibly isolating thing, and I’ve learned a lot from other folks with lived experience that no one told me in therapy. That said, doing ERP for OCD absolutely gave me my life back.
Q: Any stereotypes you'd like to address regarding the disorder?
STOP SAYING OCD IS JUST ABOUT BEING CLEAN!!!
Seriously. It’s why I didn’t get diagnosed or treated for seven years, because I never knew that harm and taboo themes were OCD as well. Also, not necessarily a stereotype per se, but if your first response to someone telling you they’re a trauma survivor is to ask what their trauma was, please, just don’t. Just. Don’t. I shouldn’t have to say it, and yet -
Q: Are you an advocate? If so, please tell us about your advocacy work.
Yeah!! I started doing OCD activism when I was in high school, and now I’ve morphed over to also talking a lot about trauma and grief and the importance of feeling your feelings. I have an instagram page (@seren.hopes) that I’ve been running since I was seventeen that’s honestly gotten me through so much. And it’s also connected me to the AMAZING OCDvocate community on there, which makes me so happy.
Q: Any books, resources, or influencers that have helped you?
From day one with my OCD, I was in the advocacy community (which, ok, maybe not the best idea, but oh well).
I found a lot of comfort from hearing about other folks' experiences, especially folks who lived with similar themes to me.
Aaron Harvey, Rose Cartwright, Chrissie Hodges, and that whole generation of OCD advocates really showed me that I wasn’t alone.
Q: What do you want people to know about mental illness?
That you aren’t alone (cliche, I know) and that just because your story doesn’t fit the mold of what people expect doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to find a community of folks who *get it*.
Q: Use three words to describe your experience.
Different isn’t bad.
The Exposure Project would like to thank Seren for her vulnerability and willingness to share her story with us.
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