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I’m a socialist and an animal-rights advocate. I also live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
After hearing about my mental health challenges, a typical reactionary comment might be: “Well, I should have known you were a nut from your politics!” (Of course, the joke’s funny because one would have to be crazy to support an egalitarian society or to oppose killing animals for gustatory preference.) The fear of having my perspective easily dismissed in this way is one factor that has, in the past, led me to delay and sometimes altogether avoid getting the psychological support I need.
Those who are outside the mainstream are frequently pathologized. And because those on the far left of a particular issue are, by definition, outside the mainstream, it’s no surprise that pejoratives used against progressives are often couched in terms of mental illness. One hears phrases like “the looney left” all the time on right-wing radio, for instance. Thus a situation is created in which radicals who suffer from psychological problems are reluctant to admit their trouble for fear of confirming conservative criticism that their politics are not based on principle but on mental instability.
Progressive writers, while respectful of mental-health issues, seem all too aware of the potential unwanted implications that leftists with psychological trouble would represent. I’m very, very far from an Encyclopedia Brown of socialism or animal rights. But I’ve read a bit. And off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single significant radical figure who has been identified as suffering from psychological trouble. This is surprising, even assuming those who rise to leadership positions are least likely to be those in mental distress, given what we known about the frequency of mental health problems in the general population.
I can only assume a history of women and men working for change with the burden of mental health problems exists, but progressives choose to not to discuss it for fear the left is at the moment so weak it can’t bear the additional stigma. Whether this realpolitik is justifiable in today’s conservative climate, I don’t know. But it has been unhelpful for me and I imagine many others.
The potential of leftists with mental health problems having their politics pathologized is quite real. I experienced this during the breakdown that led to my diagnosis with OCD intrusive thoughts. To be fair, this was done less by mental-health professionals and more by my family, who believed they were acting in my best interest.
To understand this, one must know a little bit about scrupulosity, which is often described as “OCD plus religion.” The classic sufferer might repeat a prayer thousands of times a day in the hope of thinking or saying it in just the “right” way. The Catholic Church has long been aware of this destructive phenomenon of hyper-morality and one could speculate that significant figures, such as the founder of the Jesuits, who confessed petty sins unceasingly for hours and couldn’t bear to step on pieces of straw that formed a cross, as he feared doing so was blasphemous, were sufferers.
As our society has become more secular, psychiatrists are beginning to diagnose obsessive adherence to non-religious ideological systems as scrupulosity. And here’s where it gets complicated. I believe at times I have been pathologically scrupulous in my commitment to socialism and animal rights. Now, this might give you the impression that I am or was some kind of perfect progressive. But that would be inaccurate and represent a misunderstanding of how OCD works.
First, scrupulous obsessions often focus on completely meaningless things, as shown by the example of avoiding the crossed straw. Second, OCD sufferers often avoid what triggers their obsessive thoughts because the mental and behavioral compulsions associated with them are simply too exhausting.
For instance, most people would assume that those who engage in cleaning rituals have immaculate houses. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes their hygienic compulsions become so burdensome they will allow their living spaces to degenerate into squalor rather than engage their obsessions.
“If something dropped on the floor I couldn’t pick it up again,” one poster on OCDForums.org relates. “If I did pick it up I went into cleaning compulsions.”
In a similar way, at various times in the past I have avoided politics altogether, often moving intentionally in reactionary directions, because I knew from experience that engaging with progressive thought could bring me to create arbitrary, hyper-moral, and increasingly restrictive rules for myself that would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown.
But the difference between those with a religious scrupulosity and those with a leftist strand (such as mine) is that sufferers of the former are never counseled to give up religion altogether. Instead, they are encouraged to adopt a less draconian and more self-tolerating faith. I, on the other hand, was encouraged to avoid political activism completely. My family, for instance, discouraged me from publishing broad critiques of capitalism in our local newspaper and argued with me when I decided to resume my veganism, which I had given up in the immediate wake of my breakdown. I don’t blame them for this, especially considering the amount of heartache my turmoil put them through. But I think their position needs to be examined within a context of religious ideology today being mainstream and therefore sane, and socialist and animal rights ideology being outside the mainstream and thus potentially pathological.
OCD is often described as pathological intolerance of doubt. This can be seen in how I am most comfortable in being completely politically committed or, conversely, totally disengaged. I am uneasy in the uncertain middle ground that most of us belong to. It’s going to be a long-term struggle for me to learn to tolerate that uneasiness and find balance, without either engaging in a self-destructive, impossible search for political perfection or abandoning my ideals entirely. Still, my OCD affects only my expression of my political ideals, not their essence.
I’m a socialist and an animal rights advocate with mental health challenges. My politics are not a symptom of my disorder.
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.