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I Have No Friends | Courtney Ryman | TEDxGeorgetown



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Transcriber: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: David DeRuwe

I have no friends.

Some people say "I have no friends"

when they're complaing about the friends that they do have.

It's just a placeholder for "My friends are too busy to hang out right now."

Or it can also be used to indicate the quality of someone's friendship,

like when you're in middle school, hating yourself and the world,

and you just desperately want to hang out

with someone who hates the same things as you.

In this instance, "I have no friends" means

"My friends don't really connect with the situation I'm dealing with."

And given the barbarity of middle school,

it's hard to connect with yourself, let alone your peers.

When I say I have no friends, I mean it quite literally.

I can easily go an entire week and only receive a text from my mom.

That's how many friends I have.

You might feel a little uncomfortable when I say I have no friends,

but why is that?

For a long time, I was ashamed of my friendlessness,

and I never acknowledged it,

although I suspect that people knew.

And shame really refers to a feeling about who you are as a person,

so it was distressing to grapple with what I saw as defect in my character.

I further rationalized that if I didn't acknowledge it,

that meant I didn't have to deal with it or my underlying problems,

but none of that is true.

It is true that my lack of friends doesn't reflect my inherent value,

but nonetheless, my admission is pretty taboo.

I think we feel uncomfortable with my admission

because we share the implicit belief

that friends enrich the quality of our lives.

Not having friends may be a marker of an unfulfilled life,

and it makes us sad to see people living contrary to their well-being.

We live in a social world.

We're so linked to one another that when asked about ourselves,

we often express our identity as the sum of our relationships with others

and the experiences we've shared.

I have no desire to downplay the importance of friends.

People draw strength from communities of support,

and that is undeniable.

And I believe that meaningful friendships are perhaps the most important component

to personal flourishing.

So why have I lived contrary to my well-being?

Why have I lived as if my happiness is disposable

rather than my unqualified right by function of my personhood?

For a long time,

I didn't know why I had trouble making friends.

Growing up, adults used to tell me that I was so mature,

but the implication was it was really difficult for me to be a kid.

My family says that I have a great memory

when I do something like quote an embarrassing thing I said years ago

when everyone else has long forgotten it,

but the truth is my memory isn't all that special.

I've just always run through my social interactions like mental flashcards,

incessantly checking my role against some standard reference point

and critiquing myself based on my actual performance.

I spend hours at a time thinking about things

like my interpersonal interactions, my worries, my fears, to-do lists,

the what-ifs of an upcoming or a past situation,

or mentally adding up the days and hours until an important event.

The brain is just an organ,

albeit it might be the most important organ we have.

But much like we breathe in,

and our lungs oxygenate our blood without much fanfare or celebration,

the brain's most obvious job is to think.

And although we don't consciously will our lungs to think,

we do imagine that we have total agency

over the content and duration of our thoughts.

But sometimes, I don't get to choose what to think,

and it's difficult for me to slow down my brain

once it gets going.

I'll lay in bed all night willing myself to go to sleep,

but my thoughts don't stop racing and I can't relax.

These sleepless nights are hard,

but they make the following day even harder.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

OCD is a chronic mental illness,

which means that while there are treatments

to help you mitigate your symptoms,

there's no cure.

There are two components to OCD:

obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are these unwanted, intrusive and distressing thoughts

that give rise to intense anxiety.

Compulsions are the behaviors you engage in or avoid

to relieve your anxiety.

People often use OCD as an adjective.

You may have heard someone say,

"I am so OCD,"

or, "That's so OCD,"

when they share a photo of a neatly organized drawer,

color-coded bookshelf

or something else that's equally visually satisfying.

I don't believe that these people mean to downplay the seriousness of OCD

as a mental illness.

I mean, I'm a nerd, so I want that bookcase too,

but having a preference for organization doesn't mean that you have OCD.

For a diagnosis of OCD,

your obsessions and compulsions have to meet a certain degree of extremeness,

measured in how much they interrupt the normal functioning of your life.

Everyone has worrying thoughts sometimes,

but when you have OCD, your thoughts feel persistent,

and they feel like they'll never leave your brain.

I'll break up my obsessions into two categories:

germs and social.

I fear that I sound crazy when I explain my obsessions and compulsions.

Like most people with OCD, I recognize that my obsessions are irrational,

yet this does not provide relief.

OCD is an unreliable narrator.

My obsessions are outright lies or manipulated truths,

but through twisted reasoning and sheer repetition,

OCD makes them seem valid.

You're probably most familiar with obsessions around germs,

and it's not uncommon to hear people without OCD say,

"I'm a bit of a germophobe."

But my obsessions don't just tell me that something is gross.

My obsessions tell me that I am unsafe.

I am unsafe around coughing, sneezing, heavy breathing, pungent smells,

or touching heavily-trafficked doorknobs or handles.

As far back as middle school, I've dreaded the cold and flu season.

I've walked through the path of someone's recent coughing fit

holding my breath to the point of headlightedness,

not allowing myself to breathe until I've reached some unmarked buffer zone.

It's really remarkable I'm not a physics major,

given the countless times

I've mentally calculated the velocity of a sneeze headed my way,

and while no one likes to be sick,

when I have a cold, it's especially torturous.

At no point do I feel more uncomfortable by my surroundings,

and at no point do I feel under greater threat.

I'm the embodiment of what I perceive to be unsafe,

and I can't escape myself.

My compulsions around germs are easiest to hide.

Through time and practice, I've refined my face

specifically for these situations.

When I can't escape though my mind is on fire,

I contort my face into a sea of calm.

I steel my spine, and suddenly I lean away from the offense.

I crunch my hands and release the pressure,

but if someone is talking to me,

it becomes increasingly difficult to process what they're saying.

I come across as cold,

uncaring,

ambivalent.

This is the dichotomy I live by.

In my efforts to conceal,

I inadvertently manipulate the outward representation of my character.

The social casualties of my OCD are vast.

In his 1897 book "Suicide,"

sociologist Émile Durkheim found that integration into our communities

through these connections we form with one another

decreases the likelihood that we will end our lives.

And though I'm often alone, I am not alone in my loneliness.

The former US Surgeon General said

that loneliness is one of the most pressing public health risks,

and research shows that by 2030,

the loneliness public health crisis is set to be an epidemic.

So the importance of social connections is old news,

but it's actually never been more relevant.

Friends are not just those who share our lives;

friends safeguard our lives,

and that's a pretty big deal.

Though I don't have friends now, I've had them before.

I had sporadic friendships growing up, but in high school,

I finally found a group of people and two mentors, two teachers,

Scott Roosevelt and Dan Lee,

who made me feel like I was a valid and important member of the community.

That made me really happy.

They made me really happy.

Scott spoke to me with genuine compassion.

He was interested in my point of view,

and he made me feel like I could change the world,

that it's not naive to stretch further than you can reach;

in fact, that's the recipe for progress.

Dan was the thought leader of our little community.

He encouraged us to succeed and enabled our excessive enthusiasm.

We declared Dan's classroom Halloweentown,

and we hosted informal Thanksgiving lunch.

For the record, I should note that is sparkling cider.

Dan is still a public school teacher, and I believe he wishes to keep his job.

(Laughter)

Though these people, my friends and mentors,

didn't know that I had a mental illness -

and I hadn't even been diagnosed yet -

their support made it easier to cope with my OCD.

But I still struggled to reconcile my social world

with my social obsessions.

I remember I was spending the night at a friend's house,

and we were watching a movie.

It was the 2006 cult classic Aquamarine,

starring Emma Roberts, Sara Paxton and pop icon Jo Jo.

Now, the movie is entirely irrelevant to this anecdote,

but I like to celebrate art whenever I get a chance,

so here we go.

I remember it well, though, because long after everyone fell asleep,

I was awake.

My most debilitating obsession comes to me in moments like this.

My most debilitating obsession tells me that I'm a bad person -

that's just how it is -

that I operate under the presumption of guilt

in all affairs of my life.

It isn't true.

I'm a good person.

I make every effort to see good in others, but it's hard to see the good in myself

when my OCD tells me that it doesn't exist.

And since OCD lives in my head,

it's difficult to separate it from who I am.

I personified OCD.

I allowed it to link itself to my moral and internal self.

I helped OCD shape my identity.

It started to seem like I didn't just have OCD;

it was like I was OCD.

And that distinction fundamentally changed

the moral balance of friendships in my life.

If OCD hadn't been a good friend to me,

why would it be a good friend to anyone else?

And what would it say about my true character?

Should I subject this onto others

when I so wish that I wasn't subjected to it myself?

Under these conditions,

what choice did I have?

What choice did I have but to conclude I would be a burden on others

should I seek or keep their friendships?

It was easy to slip into this mindset.

I dissolved my friendships, and I didn't try to create new ones.

It was easy.

I abandoned the people who did not abandon me.

I provided myself with evidence that I was a bad person,

and although I thought I did this

to spare the people I cared about from OCD,

to spare them from me,

maybe I really did it because I was afraid

that if they knew about my OCD and decided that it didn't matter,

then my obsessions were for nothing.

Though there's no cure for OCD,

treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

Essentially, you deliberately subject yourself

to the situations and stimuli that cause your obsessions

and gradually work up on building a tolerance

by changing your perceptions.

It's incredibly hard work, and it requires a little bit of bravery on my part.

I have a tendency to throw myself into something completely,

but constantly exposing yourself to your greatest anxieties

is mentally and physically taxing.

It's important to strike a balance,

otherwise I'm just baking in the sun without sunscreen, and I definitely burn.

Separating OCD from my internal self requires that I externalize it.

When I first learned of my diagnosis, I told very few people,

and those I did tell I only told the very surface level.

I then started out by telling a few of my older friends in greater detail.

It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do,

but it forced me to recount my personal narrative.

And that made it easier to see that I do have agency,

that OCD is just an obstacle in my life, and not the definition of my character.

I fear

voluntarily subjecting myself to the stigma around mental illness.

When I first learned I was to give this TED talk,

my obsessions kicked in.

I filled a few pages in my legal pad

with the pros and cons of publicly disclosing my mental illness,

I listed the pros and cons of each pro and con,

but through this I realized if I chose to further conceal my OCD,

I'd be complicit in the silence and shaming around mental illness.

It would be active choice to affirm OCD as a core part of my internal identity,

and not something that is significant in my life

but absolutely irrelevant to my character and the quality of my friendship.

I refuse to disrespect my progress and delegitimize others like me,

so that's why I'm here.

Though I'll always have OCD,

I'm getting better.

And I believe that people with mental illnesses

should unabashedly aspire to their personal flourishment

because it's what we deserve.

I don't have to help OCD.

I choose defiance.

I choose courage.

Though I don't have any friends right now, I intend to have them in the future.

I'm a good person.

I'm worthy of friendship.

And I don't make too bad of a friend myself.

Thank you.

(Applause)