When I started speaking out about my own experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) several years ago, I was scared of what people might think. And while there weren’t as many outspoken advocates as there are today, the ones who were sharing their stories pretty much all looked like me! One reason Valerie Andrews became an advocate for OCD awareness was so other people of color might see themselves represented in the mental health community. Her voice is refreshing and adds so much insight. Thank you, Valerie!
You were a star of the documentary “Uncovering OCD: The Truth About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” How did it feel to share your personal experience with OCD?
Oh, you are too kind. I certainly felt like a star. The entire crew was such a delight. I think that I literally floated back to my car after we were done filming. I cried all the way back to my hotel room. (I had driven down from Northern California to Southern California the previous day.) For the first time in my adult life, I felt that I had done something to not only advocate for the OCD community but also to move the needle toward bringing the community of color on board by seeing someone who looks like them featured in this documentary. A documentary that I instantly knew had the potential to reach, teach, and educate hundreds of people. Every background, every gender, every religion across the board that I perhaps could never accomplish by myself. How could I say no? I shall be forever grateful and hold a special place in my heart, reserved just for Ethan Smith, the director of such an amazing film. I am humbled just thinking about it.
I’ve never hidden my diagnosis. I just didn’t wear it on my sleeve as I do now. Being 10 years beyond diagnosis having spent 54 years not having the slightest clue of what was going on with me, and then to learn not only that it was a medical issue but treatable too, you can say I was definitely ready. Without a doubt I am sure that my age will remain a vital part of my advocating. It’s a constant reminder to remain transparent. At 64 years today, I don’t have any time to waste. I’ve done enough of that already.
How long have you had OCD? When did you realize what you were going through was OCD, and how did you realize it?
In hindsight, I believe almost straight from my mother’s womb. I didn’t walk until I was three years old. During that same time period I would pretend my arm was broken and I was really in pain. I was so doggone convincing my parents took me to the local hospital and had the doctor examine and X-ray it. Even after finding absolutely nothing wrong, my mom said for several additional months I insisted that it was indeed broken (her words, not mine). Although I actually have no memory of either event, I have oftentimes pondered if that was the onset of OCD. The words “mental illness” never even crossed my mind and certainly not OCD. It was never on my radar. I struggled, or should I say accepted, what was going on in my mind until I was physically forced to. Following an emotional breakdown during an unscheduled doctors appointment I sought the help of a licensed therapist in 2009. It would take an additional two years and the observation of another doctor until I was given the diagnosis of OCD in 2011.
How did you tell your husband and children? What questions did they have for you?
Believe it or not, none of us can recall. I think because I had been in therapy for two years before learning I had OCD. By then all my children were adults, either in college or married with children, except my youngest who would have been just about in high school at the time. My husband had yet to retire from the fire department. I more than likely told him over the phone. No one was caught off guard with the actual news, perhaps the diagnosis of OCD, but not by it being a mental health issue.
My children have always been extremely supportive and loving. I’ve been exceptionally blessed. It still requires a bit of catching up and work for my husband Melvin. He’s the only one still in the same house with me. I can’t imagine what he’s had to endure over the years! My entire family, inner circle, church, a host of friends have joined me every year at the annual walk-a-thon.
How are you doing now?
I’m in a better place now. Once I realized that it is not my job nor my responsibility to convince anyone that OCD is real. I don’t have that ability. Rather, God has shown me that it is not about size but servitude; now that I have this (OCD), how am I going to use it to glorify him? How many can I reach and teach? How many can I bring hope and encouragement to?
I’m in a “better” place because I know what direction to head toward and my purpose. I don’t believe that I realized that until now. Don’t get me wrong, Valerie is still a work in progress. I expect that I always will be. I experience up and down days and I’m beginning to come to terms with that. I’m in a good place despite the current pandemic; it has taught me that I can always find my strength in God.
I’m learning that my value to God or society is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow. I remind myself that I am a warrior. When my Goliath thinks he can puff and challenge me, I tell him to meet me on the battlefield because I will never surrender!
You’ve said you advocate for OCD awareness because you feel a responsibility to be a voice for the Black community. This also puts a burden on you because no one person can represent an entire group of people. Is there a cultural stigma around discussing or acknowledging mental illness? How can that stigma be combated?
I feel the burden of the need to address the plight, the needs, and responsibilities regarding mental health issues such as OCD, but I’m not carrying that burden. That burden belongs to every one of us, whether you are African American or not. However, being an African American woman my passion and commitment is unapologetically geared toward them but not limited to them.
It’s important to my story to remember that I am a product of the 1950s and I bring all those experiences to the table. I lived through the civil rights movement, I survived school busing, I watched my parents’ struggles to fight and overcome racial injustices in real time. My parents refused to be faceless or nameless members of society when they saw a need for their communities, so how can I? However, my parents also knew how to “play the game.” There were certain invisible lines you dare not cross because it could result in yours and your family’s safety.
The number one rule was what goes on in my house better under any circumstances stay in my house and that included any talk about mental health (state mental hospitals were commonplace during my growing up era). The only person you could talk to other than your parents and not fear any repercussions was Jesus! I share that story because all those expectations, experiences, and emotions are deeply rooted in the African American culture, especially in our elders. I could never fault them for their belief system because it was about survival; however, I can challenge and encourage them to step over and even beyond those invisible lines we have kept in place in order to protect our communities. So yes, there are several barriers and hurdles yet to overcome. Racism and racial disparities are still an essential fight; look at the division we’re seeing during this pandemic. It’s hard to believe it’s 2020, not 1956!
I’m very open about my own struggles with OCD, but I know I’m privileged to feel comfortable doing so. How can someone like me help spread awareness for everyone with OCD without speaking for them?
Oh, I love that question. It warms my heart. I think you have answered it already. Simply having a desire to know is the most important virtue. My very first act of advocacy was polishing my toes teal, the official color of OCD Awareness Week. It was both an act of advocacy but also my way of defiance, my way of silently protesting the lack of diversity I saw! I was coming from that same place of wanting to do something. Years later that place of being has led me to start a Facebook page. That Facebook page is still in progress, a nonprofit called Ms. Mabel Sparrows, that is designed for women of color but accessible to all women. It allows me to advocate and promote the importance of a woman’s value and self-worth. We can all advocate simply by starting the conversation within our inner circles and family. We can be inclusive with our narratives. If all else fails, polish your toes!
When you attended the OCD Conference you were disappointed to see so few people of color there, and so few classes geared toward POC. What would a more representative event look like to you? What would it mean?
“If you’re going to care about the fall of the sparrow, you can’t pick and choose who is going to be the sparrow.” I love that quote from T. Berry Brazelton. It speaks so well to this question. OCD is colorblind. It doesn’t care if you graduated from college, arrived here on a boat, who your daddy is, or how much money or lack of money you have in the bank, we are all potential victims. There is no Us and Them—surely our International OCD Foundation must reflect that!
The IOCDF is an amazing organization filled with brilliant minds and kind hearts who are trying their best, but it lacks diversity. Is not the main ingredient of any international organization diversity? The very word itself means between nations and the Webster dictionary defines it as jointly engaging by common action. I did not see or feel that during the 2017 convention. That has got to change. The question is how do we accomplish that as an organization? I am very comfortable with the skin that I am in, however, when I attend any international event I as a participant expects it to reflect that! If it does not then I got a problem.
The annual IOCDF conference is such a wonderful event for anyone suffering from OCD. The freedom, the support, the comradeship extends beyond one’s expectation. But it could be so much more! For starters the social media outlets should have a wider range of ethnic appeal. First impressions to many people are everything. It reeks from the lack of people of color to a point of being almost offensive. I should not have to endlessly scroll outlets in search of someone who looks like me—that frankly is a turnoff. It gives the impression to people of color that they need not apply. In addition, where the heck are the classes, workshops, speakers, books, vendors, resources, articles, artwork, anything to bring awareness to the unique needs and great value we can bring this foundation. By the way, a sprinkle of classes don’t count. I want to open up the conference guide pamphlet and have just as many classes and workshops as my peers of noncolor do.
Finally, thank you for this question, it is so very important. Sometimes we must start the conversations in our own backyards. The only way to keep those difficult conversations going is to start one. Respectfully submitted. Stop the stigma.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?
The one piece of advice I would give others suffering from OCD would be one of my favorite Bible passages: “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear: You are of more value than many sparrows.” Luke 12:6–7. Never forget your value!