(written for Mental Health Awareness month; contains reference to mental illness, medicine and suicide)
Come to think of it, I was always prone to obsessions and “magical thinking”. I my early years and even in my teens I remember myself falling for games like “if you don’t send this letter to seven other people something awful will happen to you,” or “if you leave the scissors open your mom will die.” Stupid, childish stuff nobody thought twice about it, least of all me. My beliefs about this oscillated between “it must be what everyone does” and “it is my little secret, I’ll just do these things and nothing bad will happen.”
Fast or slow forward a few years ahead and the conversations in my head would take over days, nights, classroom teaching or whole parties I was physically present at. By the time I was in my twenties, I had moved on from letters and scissors and started running whole loops in my head, projecting things that could happen to loved ones or to me, over and over again, nervously trying to find the perfect solution that would bring me peace. Because every loop of thought brought with it more and more intense anxiety that could never be quenched.
In my early thirties, when anxiety had transformed into countless panic attacks in one day and my weirdness into depression so deep I wished for cancer instead, just so that someone could believe I was in pain, luck, my fairy godmother, the universe … opened the door to my first psychiatrist’s office visit. An unbelievably patient, cheerful and kind professional who, despite the fact that I had basically just stumbled into his office and he was the director of the largest psychiatric hospital in a capital city, spent over one hour with me and my mother who had dragged me in there, scared about what was happening to me. I had lost ten kilos in a month, I was not eating or sleeping all the while I had a one year old child at home. The doctor listened to me and for the first time in my life gave my “weirdness” a name: obsessive compulsive disorder- OCD. He could have just as well said that a curse was cast upon me by an evil witch and that I have a misterious pox coming out of my every pore and that everyone else was able to see.
Oh the stigma! The shame! Being officially diagnosed in a mental hospital and prescribed antidepressant and anxiety relieving medication. Having to go back for visits. I was not to be mentioned in any hospital records (for fear this would impact “my reputation”), the meeting was not documented and the prescription for pills said “major depressive episode”. What an infinite shame! For this to happen to me, the model child, the model wife, the model daughter! Who would have thought!
I left the hospital planning on how my child will be raised by other people, convinced medicine was going to make a vegetable out of me and I will be addicted for the rest of my life (as I had read and heard in countless accounts of people who had never taken it). Gone home I inhaled everything that I found on the internet at that time. How could I have OCD? I wasn’t furiously washing my hands, I was not checking the door three times, I was not making sure I am saying words in a certain order (yes, my source for these ideas had been the series Monk). From the outside looking in, everything should have been ok. “What reasons do you have to feel anxious?” – was a question almost everybody around seemed to be asking. Except for the couple of people who took the time to look into my eyes and noticed life was not there.
I was going to be coming back often as the doctor wanted to see me every month. And he did so, for years. With the same kindness and the same dedication until death did us part. Before he went, he taught me important lessons about mental afflictions, completely contradicting popular legends that I am sure keep many people from treatment and many times lead to death. Here are some that made a difference to me:
Find the doctor you trust and then stick with them. Only them. Stop Google-diagnosing yourself, stop listening to your fourth cousin who had a depression bout a decade before, don’t think you can cure yourself. By all means, look for doctors until you find the one you trust and then use them as your only source for information. One day I walked into my psychiatrist’s office with a huge book I had invested in, describing OCD, symptoms, cures and the like. He looked at me, smiled and said “You found no good fiction?”. He then proceeded to explain how after psychiatrists and chemists, “intellectuals” are the hardest to treat. And with the same smile on his face, he made a firm ask: “If you want me to continue to help you, you stop going for information anywhere else, right now. Not to the internet, not to books, not to the medicine box. Just to me, in our meetings and when you need me.” Needless to say this was hard to do with information at my fingertips but little by little I understood the upside – information all around, which was not about me but about everyone else, was feeding my obsessive thoughts which in turn were affecting my recovery.
Mental illnesses are illnesses. They are caused by genetic factors, chemical inballances, they are serious afflictions that must be treated by a doctor. Just like one cannot will their insuline to regulate in diabetes or cannot will their blood pressure up or down, in the same manner one cannot get out of an obsessive loop. My former husband was stunned when he very aptly explained to the psychiatrist: I told her to think of something else. And how I loved the man (the one in the white coat) when he took a deep breath and very slowly spelled out: She cannot!
Medicine is part of the solution. Not any medicine, not herbs from the internet, not something a cousin takes to sleep, no! Medicine prescribed by a psychiatrist, under their care and frequent checks. I was lucky, the doctor had cautioned me that we might have to try several types of substances before finding the one that helped me. That we would have to start treatment and in two or three months we were to decide if it worked (while hell broke loose in me every 15 minutes and I had to mother, work and wife). My lucky strike was the first medicine he put me on which worked – and still does, 15 years later. Interestingly enough, half a year into taking the medication I realized I had always needed it. Not only was the medicine not making me feel like a zombie, I was feeling more myself than ever before.
The rest of the solution is constant, hard work. To understand, accept and support yourself. To go on. One day at a time.
The hardest trick in the book and one I am still learning, falling off the wagon and getting back on (sometimes within the same day), is to understand that the same brain writing this and the same brain understanding my illness is the brain that is ill and suffering from it. Differentiating between what is rational worry and rumination, legitimate questions and the “what if” loop of death. If you have ever owned a pick up vynil player (I am sure there is an actual name for this) and you played a vynil that was scratched, you know what happens: the same word or lyric will play on and on and on and on. This is what OCD is like. Except the vynil in my brain does not include songs and is not fun. It replays incessantly my greatest fears, my deepest and most shameful secrets and attacks what I love most and my core values. Put these together in a combination and the tune is maddening. Unlike the vynil playing machine, this one cannot be stopped. What medicine does is that it offers me better chances of living with the repetition.
I will always live with this. I know this now. I remain hopeful that medicine and therapy continue to help me in the years ahead and I try my hardest to learn over and over again the lesson that I know will save me: staying in the now. Staying in the body when my mind is otherwise engaged. Being mindful of what I engage in and how far I go and never putting my mental health in jeopardy. If I can help it. 🙂
The next time you utter the phrase “I am so OCD about this” remember this post. Discounting my doctor’s orders and cruising the internet for miracle cures I realized there are so very many people suffering from this awful illness. It has absolutely nothing to do with being too much of an orderly person or eating only a certain type of food, with dressing a certain way or wanting only some people around. The next time you want to utter this phrase like it is some sort of character perk, think twice. Replace OCD with something else in honor of all of us who would do anything to be OCD free.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Very good advice. And language IS power – our parents used it on us, for better or worse. There is a reason why people say “it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.” If we prophesy, let us speak positively, with encouragement. To raise ourselves and others up, not to demean or destroy.