‘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!