Love, Poetry, and Team Sports: How to Build Community and Deal with OCD

By Joe Antonellis
7 minute READ
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How community makes unbearable things better

It’s hard to find a silver lining for the most difficult things in life. I remember earlier this year, during the first week of college football training camp, I couldn’t have felt more alone. The anxiety of not knowing anyone, sleeping in a new place, being judged all day by unknown coaches — what did they think of me? What did the other players think? Every night when I tried to sleep all I could imagine was their voices. Why did we even recruit him? Who does he think he is? What’s his problem? I couldn’t even sleep because the thoughts were endless. No matter what I did during the day, how positive or negative the experiences were, these anxious questions would always find their way into my mind. I couldn’t really do anything about it, because this is just how my mind operates in these sorts of uncomfortable situations.

As the season wore on, love is what cured my anxieties. I felt love for the game of football. I felt love from my teammates, my coaches. I’ll always remember what one senior said to me: “We’re a team. We’ll love you no matter who you are, what you do, what you say. It’s a family.” Without this feeling of compassion, I would have stayed lonely, and my obsessions might have continued to overtake me on a day-to-day basis. But I found that silver lining. The 7 a.m. wake-ups, the long and tense meetings, the hours of practice in the 100-degree heat — it was all worth it. I had experienced how bad my anxiety could get, but now I was rewarded with knowing, through perseverance, that there were eighty other players who supported me no matter what I did, giving me the ability to fight my inner struggles with a greater confidence than ever before.

What’s love got to do with it?: Acceptance and OCD

I’m sure many of you had already seen Neil Hilborn’s 2013 performance of “OCD” at the Rustbelt poetry slam, and if you hadn’t, I hope you enjoyed watching it above. Hilborn’s performance inspires bravery in all of us. To go up on stage and talk about heartbreak is one thing, but telling a bunch of strangers about specific OCD symptoms is one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.

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As I mentioned in a previous article, I often worried that I shouldn’t start writing for nOCD because of the possible triggers I might experience while exploring my past experiences. I thought it would bring everything back in full force. Even reading about OCD scared me! But, after all, I’ve experienced the opposite. After finishing my first article, I let out a huge sigh of relief, as it was almost like a barrier I had yet to cross was finally broken, and I was finally allowed to be open with myself and the world. I sense this same feeling in Hilborn’s work.

“I have been wondering, mostly, if love and sanity are the same thing. When I say I am in love I am also saying the world makes sense to me right now” ― Neil Hilborn, Our Numbered Days

Just like being part of a loving football team, Hilborn’s experience of falling in love allowed him to feel comfortable in his own mind. “How can it be a mistake that I don’t have to wash my hands after I touch her?” Hillborn asks. This person loves and accepts him for who he is: for all his obsessions and all the compulsive behaviors he turns to. Her acceptance is a beautiful denial of all the times other people have told Hilborn to change; it allows him to feel comfortable with who he is, and to open himself up more completely in a way he’s never risked doing before.

Neil Hilborn’s performance of OCD at the Rustbelt poetry slam

Opening up often allows people to feel less lonely about their situation, as it can strengthen connection and make a relationship more meaningful. This is often missing in our society: true, unconditional love, no matter what someone is struggling with. Even though this was missing toward the end of Hilborn’s relationship, it was clearly an important breakthrough for him. This type of genuine interpersonal acceptance can only occur in a society that takes mental health awareness more seriously.

Creating compassion: knowledge comes first

So, why is the nOCD team working so hard to try and help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder? Because of its immense relevance in today’s society, and the fact that so many people are still out there struggling. We want to create a more loving and accepting society, where people like Neil Hilborn can feel genuine human compassion every single day. A society where you don’t need to be in love or on a football team to feel accepted for who you are. In Hilborn’s poem, the woman eventually could not handle being with someone dealing with that type of symptoms, and left him. My goal is to help create a society in which Hilborn’s girlfriend doesn’t feel like she has to leave him– where mental illnesses are understood, and people have the necessary skills to help their partners or friends without overreaching their capacity and hurting their own mental health.

Often mental illnesses are clumped together into one muddled group, but the first step to creating a general understanding of mental health is to distinguish each illness from the others. OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder, but it is often put in a category of its own due to the variety of ways it can affect your mental health. If you’re diagnosed with OCD, it might mean you’re especially susceptible to other mental illnesses, like mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, ADHD, and a variety of related conditions.

A book about Mental Diseases Cause and Cure

The fact that OCD is so often accompanied by another condition is part of what makes it so difficult to understand, diagnose, and treat. There are also many different subtypes of OCD, making the term OCD more of a larger category for a multitude of more specific types. For example, when analyzing the Neil Hilborn poem, you can pick out multiple different subtypes.

Checking — “Did I lock the doors? Yes.”

Contamination — “Did I wash my hands? Yes.”

Ruminations — “I can’t go out and find someone new because I always think of her.”

Symmetry and Orderliness — “On our first date, I spent more time organizing my meal by color than I did eating it, or talking to her.”

These are just a few of the many complexities OCD has to offer, as we are just scraping the surface of the disorder. Gaining a new perspective on OCD and mental health is a great first step to developing an acute sense of mental awareness. We can always learn more; these issues are always more complicated than they seem. Even having gone through it myself I haven’t come close to developing a complete understanding of the disorder, but everyday I strive to learn about it on a deeper level. Trying is the key, as even the slightest attempt at learning more could markedly help those around you, preventing them from also having to cope with the intense loneliness of dealing with OCD around people who don’t understand it.

Build the structures you’ll need if things get tough

None of this means you need to be in love or on a football team to start feeling better. But it’s also vital that you don’t view recovery as a solitary quest– a simple matter of gritting your teeth and fighting through things until you’re well enough to wander your way back to society. Even if you’re not in love or part of a supportive team, developing a sense of community will make the almost unbearable parts of having OCD or another mental health issue much more bearable. It will also give you a reason to get better.

I believe we can all find a silver lining for any of our struggles. I remember times in my life when I didn’t even want to exist; these became the memories that fueled the moments when I lived largest. Although it can be almost impossible to see how in the world concepts like community or acceptance might help you at the lowest of your lows, if you can store away an aspiration to pursue them it might help you when things start to get really tough. In Hilborn’s poem, it was his girlfriend that gave him hope. For me, it was being part of a football team. Where do you think you might find the love and nourishment that everyone– dealing with mental illness or not– needs to live well? The question seems tacky; the answers you might find are anything but.

Looking for a great (and free!) way to learn how to cope with thoughts that bother you? Click here.

Joe Antonellis
WRITTEN BYJoe Antonellis

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