Archives for posts with tag: Health

‘If anyone doubts that you have OCD, they can talk to me.’ -my therapist

Remember that post I wrote almost a year ago called ‘A Confession :/’? It was a rough, stitched-together, binoculars-from-the-wrong-end account of how I worry all the time about bad things happening to me and the people I love.

[obsessive] To recap: I worry constantly about freak accidents, not-freak (regular?) accidents, illnesses; things breaking, things falling, things burning; cars crashing, planes crashing, storms taking down trees on top of houses with people inside. When I pick up a kitchen knife to cut an onion my thoughts go directly to my wrists and before I can stop myself I’m suddenly, irrationally scared I’ll cut them. When my mom goes on a business trip and texts us that she loves us, I immediately see myself in thirty years having written a chapter in my memoir about the last text my mother ever sent me before the plane crash. And it isn’t ‘normal’, quiet, banishable worry. It’s loud and it doesn’t go away. I try to rationalize away the likelihood of planes crashing, and tell myself that there’s nothing I can do even if it does crash, so I should just continue living my life normally goddamn it, but it doesn’t help. Because for a fraction of a hundredth of a second, I experience the reality of my mother’s death, or whatever it happens to be at that time. And then, when I can force my brain to think of something else, inevitably something pops up again and the process repeats.

[compulsive] In order to cope with this constant stress, my brain has come up with various superstitions, including never telling anybody ‘goodbye’ without saying ‘see you later’, or ‘goodnight’ without ‘see you in the morning’. Another superstition is that if I visualized the word ‘no’ that would negate whatever ‘bad’ thing I’m thinking. There is a special image of the word that I use (it’s red and white) that I came up with when I was little and have been using ever since.

[disorder] This happens all my waking hours, since as long as I can remember. It’s exhausting, actually, and it sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate or enjoy things.

It wasn’t always this bad. I’ve been using the ‘no’ image for as long as I can remember but I would only use it for very bad things—like whenever I heard the word ‘death’, or ‘illness’. I was sure I could stop anytime I wanted to. Gradually I started worrying more, though, and my worries became more subtle, and more terrifying. I started using the ‘no’ image more often. The ugly mental dance took up more and more of my thoughts until they defined my mentality.

I’d been living like this for years, until suddenly, one night in India, I stood in my pajamas in the dark next to my bed, hand on the light switch, trying to convince myself I wasn’t going to die in my sleep.

It was that night that I decided that I couldn’t let this continue. It was no different from the hundred nights that came before it, or the hundred afterward, but for some reason something, well, snapped, as they say. It wasn’t the first time I had wished I didn’t worry so much, but it was the first time I realized that maybe this was something to take seriously. That maybe there was something more than just wrong here, there was something broken . . . and that maybe could be mended.

When I got back to America, and to school, I sought counselling. Even then I didn’t seek a therapist, because I didn’t think my problem was severe enough. I could still function, after all. My grades and friendships weren’t suffering. Everybody worries. But the more I spoke to my counsellor, the more she became convinced that I should see somebody who specialized in anxiety disorders.

And so I finally told my family what was going on and they set me up with a highly specialized therapist in the city.

He gave me terrifying assignments, like to say ‘goodbye’ to everyone I parted with for a week, without saying ‘see you later’. When nobody died, my brain was supposed to learn from the experience and realize that my saying ‘see you later’ has nothing to do with whether anybody dies. These assignments were very difficult, and I struggled with them.

But I did them. Today I’m in a much better mental state than I was at the beginning of this year. I’m not cured—you can’t cure OCD, but you can manage it, and channel it into ways that are not destructive. I still have a long way to go but honestly I’m proud of how far I’ve come. When I think that I’ve been entangled in this for as long as I can remember, and how utterly, deeply lost I felt that night in India, I’m amazed. So much for something I never took very seriously at all.

I’m telling this story because it’s about my struggle with my mental health. If, instead, I told a story about how I walked around with a broken arm all my life, but I was afraid to tell anybody until one day I realized I should probably get a cast, you’d think that was ridiculous, and you’d be right. Instead, it’s a story about how I felt so ashamed, frightened, and just generally weird about my mental health problems that I lived with them for much longer than I needed to, and caused myself much undue stress.

I couldn’t even tell my parents, the ones who care about me the most, about this thing that had pretty much defined my mental landscape for as long as I can remember, until about four months ago.

I thank God, Buddha, the ancestors, and whomever else it is that I’m supposed to thank that, after all, my problems weren’t so bad as to truly interfere with my life. Bajillions of people have OCD, anxiety disorders, depression, and other nasty things so bad they literally can’t do anything else. I also thank all the aforementioned that I am lucky and privileged enough to have a family with the means to support me, and the caring to do so. Gazillions of people with mental disorders have to struggle alone, or with inadequate support, because they simply can’t afford help.

Finally, millions of people struggle alone with their mental disorders but don’t call it that, because they don’t take their own minds seriously. For those people, I’m telling my story. For almost my whole life so far I’ve lived with a problem and didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t think it was a ‘real’ problem. I had never met anyone who talked about their OCD or anxiety, or heard about any symptoms of OCD that were less than extreme.

The idealist in me likes to imagine a world in which mental health is no longer a taboo reality, and is treated with the respect and honesty it deserves. The cynic in me doesn’t see this happening for a long time. But one way we as a society can bring that vision closer is by telling our stories, and being frank. The more stories that are floating around out there, the more likely it is that some little girl in the future might recognize herself in one of them.

Consider this my contribution to bringing that vision closer.

P.S. Here’s a link to a blog called ‘Hyperbole and a Half’, by Allie Brosh, who wrote (ironically?) a comic about her struggle with depression. The comic is so good it’s scary; it will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Make sure you read Parts I & II!

In high school, I was in the drama club and we were doing All Shook Up. The director, a slow-moving, obese but cheerful woman with whom I never interacted very much (I was in stage crew), had a heart attack at a local diner and died a week before opening night. The show, of course, went on, but every student in the drama club learned how fragile life was and how it could be drastically changed–or taken away–in an instant.

When I was younger, I read a small story in a newspaper about how these two little kids went out to play soccer; they were struck by lightning and killed instantly. The reporter quoted the mother weeping something like, ‘You never expect it to happen to you, you just send your kids out to play soccer and it’s just raining and you think they’ll come home’.

My best friend in middle school told me once that her uncle died one night for no reason at all; he just stopped breathing in his sleep.

Life is fragile. I could think of a hundred good stories that begin with, ‘and those were the last words I ever said to my father’. We love those stories, where someone dies or loses a limb or gets otherwise life-alteringly hurt–and it only ever takes a second, and it could happen to anybody. In fact, it usually happens to those who least expect it, or deserve it. These stories remind us to live our lives to the fullest, and enjoy your loved ones while you have them, because you never know when that could change.

But all I learned was to worry.

Every moment my loved ones spend out of my sight is a moment they could choke, have a heart attack, get hit by a car, get struck by lightning. It only ever takes a second. And myself, every waking moment I spend is a moment my heart could stop beating, my lungs deflate, my brain swell, the earth quake, the house crumble, a tree fall on me. I find myself imagining scenarios in which I die, or worse, someone in my family dies–what happens next? Who is the first to know? Do I go back to school? Do I go to India? What about my other family members? What is the funeral like? In other words, my mind is like an out-of-control car that I am constantly trying to wrench back to rationality: calm down, this isn’t happening, how can you be thinking of this, it’s just making you upset.

I used to be afraid of feeling my pulse in case it stopped; now I can’t go ten minutes without checking it for the same reason. I now know more ways of checking my pulse than any health class could have taught me. I try to do it discreetly so I can do it anywhere. I am hypersensitive to the workings of my body: if something feels even vaguely wrong, or ‘off’, or even different, it consumes my thoughts. If my heartbeat is irregular, it’s about to give out. If I feel dizzy for no apparent reason, something must be seriously wrong with my brain and no amount of normal MRIs will convince me otherwise. If my feet feel tingly it’s because my circulation is poor, which means I have a weak heart or diabetes and will probably die soon. If every time I thought this, of course, something actually was wrong, I would be an invalid by now. So I wrench the car back on the road. Sometimes I wish I could go to sleep to stop worrying so much but of course the idea of sleep is worrisome for obvious reasons–what if I don’t wake up?

Perhaps what is ironic about all of this is that usually, once people realize how fragile life is, they are supposed to live life to the fullest. But I don’t. I am overly gentle with my body; I hate exercise, because when I exert myself my heart starts pounding and I think that’s bad. So I do no more than what I need to in order to function and convince myself that I’m still alive physically okay.

Every night, I tell my family, ‘goodnight, see you in the morning’, because I’m superstitious enough to believe that if I say I’ll see them in the morning, then I will, and if I forget to say that, then I won’t. Same for ‘goodbye, see you later’. I don’t remember the last time I told anybody just ‘goodbye’.

This is not an easy post for me to write. It took me a long time to decide to write this. I’m probably not going to proofread it. I must have checked my pulse at least ten times so far.

I have never been formally diagnosed with anxiety, or OCD, or anything of the kind. I wonder, does everybody feel this way? My mother tells me she worries about me all the time, because that’s what mothers do. Do mothers always feel like this? If so, I don’t know why anyone would want to be one.

I read today: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’ Well I do want to live life to the fullest and stop living in fear. I don’t want to be anxious like this any more.