“You ever have a really dark thought?” asks comedian Maria Bamford on her live album “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome.” “Like, ‘What if I licked a urinal? Augh! Why did I even think of that? What if I’m a urinal licker? What if I’m out of control?’” Bamford exaggerates the example for comedic effect, but the answer to that first question for me is always “yes.”
Unwanted thoughts enter my head on an almost daily basis. They range from violent to macabre to strange. If my attention drifts for a bit, I envision disastrous scenarios: The plane I’m on will suddenly explode; the building I’m inside is going to implode and bury me in rubble; the sky is going to tear in two and the world ends. Sometimes, I envision myself committing disturbing acts: screaming in the middle of a lecture for no reason; destroying fragile, expensive objects in a shop; physically hurting my friends and family. These ones are harder to shake off, and they terrify me the most; I cannot get past the fact that I have the capacity to act on these thoughts. I know that I will not follow through — that is the most pressing thought when these scenarios enter my head — but imagining my bare hands causing such pain frightens me.
Upon hearing Bamford speak about her own unwanted thoughts, I was shocked. I had never imagined that someone else experienced these anxieties. I did a little bit of research and continued to be surprised. Unwanted, or intrusive, thoughts are real, and they are not uncommon. In fact, millions of Americans experience them. There are different degrees of how intrusive these thoughts are, from nagging distractions to crippling fixations; when coupled with OCD or depression, the thoughts are harder to shake and, in some cases, paralyzing.
After learning how common unwanted thoughts are, I felt slightly at ease, but there was still some discomfort. Did I have OCD? Was there something wrong with me? I, like many other people who experience unwanted thoughts, choose not to identify as obsessive compulsive, despite the fact that unwanted thoughts are one of the disorder’s most common symptoms. Though the self-diagnosis may be accurate, I must imagine that dismissing the possibility that I have OCD is a way to distance myself from it.
But this creates a new problem: In removing myself from that conversation, in choosing to treat these unwanted thoughts as a personal struggle, I contribute to the stigma surrounded mental health issues. Too often, mental illness is discussed in extreme terms that reduce patients to rare cases of “crazy” or “broken” people. The irony is that, in feeling eased by the prevalence of unwanted thoughts, I have once again separated myself from these cases. Unwanted thoughts exist along a spectrum, and there is no use in trying to remove myself from it, even if I sit at the less extreme end.
Much of Bamford’s comedy involves her mental health. She discusses, in very honest terms, her experiences with OCD, bipolar disorder and thoughts of suicide. She discusses the stigma that she faces — in one heartbreaking bit, she describes a radio interview in which a DJ brushed off her humor by claiming that she is schizophrenic. She cushions these tough issues in comedy, but she still talks about them. It’s this honesty — the same honesty I see when fellow students write about their own experiences with mental health issues in essays for the Yale Daily News — that begins to tear away at the stigma. It’s this honesty that can convince people to not feel discouraged from seeking help. It’s this honesty that lets me know — when I’m driving on the road and imagine myself swerving onto the sidewalk — that there are people who are like me, and there is no reason to feel ashamed or afraid.