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Pan Cooke: Being 'PUZZLED' (OCD)

Despite increased mental health awareness in recent years, OCD remains one of the most misunderstood disorders. Unlike anxiety and depression, it seems to have been overlooked in the many representations on children's bookshelves and streaming platforms. Worse, when OCD is depicted, it is often as a whimsical personality quirk. Characters are frequently portrayed with stereotypical eccentricities related to cleanliness and routines. An inevitable punchline overshadows their inner turmoil.

But OCD isn't funny, nor is it a quirk. People with OCD act out their rituals and routines to combat debilitating anxiety brought on by intrusive thoughts and feelings. It has nothing to do with having a preference. People with OCD don't enjoy what it makes them do. This all too familiar misrepresentation is a major contributing factor to why people with OCD, especially kids, endure their symptoms for so long before seeking help.

How can you seek help for something you don't know you have? People with OCD, on average, wait 11 years from the beginning of symptoms before seeking help and wait 17 years before receiving adequate therapy. Given the potentially debilitating impact of these symptoms, this delay is unacceptable and entirely unnecessary because there are treatments available that offer hope.

In my debut graphic memoir, Puzzled, I depict the symptoms I endured for nearly a decade before seeking help, facing both their challenges and the accompanying confusion. My understanding of my symptoms shifted and morphed as I got older, from the belief I was possessed by the Devil, to the more logical (I believed) conclusion that I was simply insane. I called it The Puzzle, because each time I acted out one of my compulsive behaviours, it was in an attempt to solve the anxiety and discomfort that accompanied them.

The Puzzle impacted every aspect of my life growing up, from nightly rituals which robbed me of sleep, to developing a problem with disordered eating in my teens. Managing friendships became increasingly difficult while working hard to conceal an all-consuming secret.

Because of the disturbing nature of intrusive thoughts and the accompanying shame, keeping OCD secret is a common experience among children. I thought to myself, what if saying them aloud them makes them true? But as I eventually learned, I was not my thoughts, and having bad thoughts doesn't make you a bad person. In fact, they are extremely common. The problem that people with OCD face is they become stuck, and compulsions are used to attempt to get them unstuck. It's this active resistance that gives them power—an unsolvable Puzzle.

Naming The Puzzle, even if incorrectly, seemed to make it more manageable. Yet, little changed even after discovering its true name while researching obsessions online. When I gained the courage to share my self-diagnosis with friends, the reaction was similar - I didn't keep things clean; therefore, I couldn't have OCD. Worse, people responded by using OCD as an adjective to downplay its seriousness. Common phrases like "everyone is a little OCD" were echoed to me. But OCD is not something you are; it is something you have.

This definition is crucial because it reassures suffering children that their intrusive thoughts are a treatable symptom instead of something they need to be ashamed of. It lets them know that it is not their fault. The clarity and relief I should have gained from naming my disorder didn't come. What use was a name without a meaning? The gap between the general public's understanding of OCD and its true nature perpetuates the needless isolation and suffering young people as well as adults with OCD endure even post-diagnosis.

Recently, the cousin of an 11-year-old girl with OCD reached out to me, sharing how my story helped her cousin feel understood and enabled her to communicate more effectively with her mom about her experiences. Representation matters. This is why I felt it so necessary to share my story in Puzzled: not only to help kids like me understand what OCD is, but to educate others. When someone asks for help, having a name for it matters.


Pan Cooke is an Irish artist and “cartoonivist” residing in Dublin, Ireland. He frequently posts cartoons about social issues on Instagram, where he has a large following, and he has created comics for Amnesty International and Campaign Zero. The memoir Puzzled is his first book.


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