One reason so many people still don’t understand the breadth of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is that it’s hard to show, limiting how we can spread awareness of it. Cartoonist Jason Adam Katzenstein’s new book, Everything Is an Emergency, illustrates some of the anguish people with OCD feel—but it will also make you laugh.
Thank you, Jason, for being here!
You have a new book out! How does it feel to publish something so personal?
When I first shared sections from this book, people told me I was “So brave.” I thought, “Oh no! I am not trying to be brave.” The truth is, I used to try to hide my OCD from the world, and that gets really tiring. I felt embarrassed, ashamed even, of this stuff. I found that when I did begin talking about it with my family and close friends, they were way more understanding than in my nightmare hypothetical scenarios. I want this book to give other people permission to feel like this is stuff it’s okay to share.
What inspired you to write Everything Is an Emergency? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I started working on the book while I was doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Initially it felt like a way to hold myself accountable to doing the therapeutic work. It evolved into being the kind of book I wish I had when I was diagnosed as a teenager. I wanted to tell stories about OCD that aren’t just scary, or woe-is-me. Sometimes it’s a ridiculous mental illness, or even a hilarious one. Also, I am sincerely filled with hope in my own life about how to manage my OCD, and I wanted to share the story of how I’ve arrived here with other people.
People with OCD—you, me, most of my readers—understand what it feels like to worry all the time, but with COVID-19 the whole world has been thrust into uncertainty and overthinking. How have you been coping with the pandemic? Do you think some people without OCD might come out of it with a better understanding of anxiety and OCD?
I do think it’s easier to explain OCD now. You know how you feel about touching things in the grocery store? That’s how someone with OCD has felt all the time. It breaks my heart that in this moment it’s a more universal feeling; I don’t want everyone spiraling all the time. I have realized that the tactics I’ve worked on to cope with my own spirals are applicable to living through this time, and so I think it’s my job to help my friends who are newer to feeling this omnipresent anxiety. Here’s how to breathe, here’s how to make peace with uncertainty.
How long have you had OCD? Did you know what OCD really was before you were diagnosed with it yourself?
I was diagnosed when I was fifteen, so I’ve had the diagnosis for half my life! However, I look back on the years before the diagnosis and I definitely was obsessing and behaving compulsively. I didn’t know much about OCD, just what I’d read about this alien planet in a sci-fi novel where everybody counted floor patterns.
Some people keep their diagnosis to themselves, only sharing with a few close friends or family members. Others are open with everybody but their family and friends, opting to form a community of people who get it firsthand. Since you’ve written a book, can I assume most people in your life know? How did you go about telling them?
It was difficult not to tell the people I lived with because they’d see me avoid touching things, or curled up in a ball crying on my floor. It’s been interesting learning exactly how to ask for support from my loved ones. Their inclination is to reassure me that I’m safe, to open the door for me or explain why this thing that feels like a threat isn’t one. I’ve learned that asking them to perform my compulsion still legitimizes the obsessions as threats, and so now I’ve gotten better at saying, “I am having an OCD thought, and I’m not asking you to engage with the thought but I just want to say it aloud and acknowledge that it’s OCD, and then I’d love a hug.”
And have you built a community of peers? (If not, welcome, you’re one of us now.)
Group therapy has been so important for me! I also used to go on an OCD chat room. It’s super helpful to talk to other people whose brains work this way. I love my OCD community.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?
I think a common worry we all tend to share is, “This feels like OCD, but what if this time it’s actually real?” You will never, ever be certain one way or the other, but you can make peace with that lack of certainty and choose to behave as if the thing is OCD.