Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.
I started writing a blog post about depression and mental illness but I stopped because it was the same thing you see in every other article that addresses mental health challenges.
I started with the same old things: it’s not the person’s fault, they don’t choose it, we need to understand brain chemistry, blah blah blah.
But I’m tired of those articles.
I’m tired of people not getting it. I do understand completely and totally that if someone has never lived with a mental illness, then they can’t understand the complexity of having such a disorder and they can’t understand the true feelings, in the same way that at this point in my life I cannot understand what it must be like to live with a physical disability.
But I have empathy. And I understand that, while I might not know what it’s like to have them, anyone who lives with a physical disability obviously has a certain number of challenges centered around it.
I am tired of telling people over and over (and over) about how mental illness isn’t a choice. I am so, so tired of trying to explain to people that it’s about the way the brain develops throughout childhood, and the brain’s ability to adapt to its stimuli, which is both a good and bad thing.
I am tired of trying to explain to people that having a mental illness is nobody’s fault, and it doesn’t mean anyone has failed the person, or that the person has failed themselves.
I am tired of explaining to people that mental illness does not and cannot equate to weakness.
And I am damn tired of people not understanding the need for self-care and sick days for their mental health.
So, I won’t talk about that. Instead, I’ll talk about what it feels like.
Sometimes, on bad days, it feels like smothering. It feels like huge black clouds rolling in overhead, particularly in the sense that the clouds are all the eye can see. There’s no way out until the storm passes.
I wrote a poem last night which I won’t post, but in it I talked about being trapped, suspended in a huge jungle of vines and feeling like the vines held me hostage. For me, anxiety can be compared to the paralyzing fear of being choked to death by the vines, trying desperately to wriggle my way out of them. The depression is when I finally give up and the vines cause sensory deprivation. I want to feel, but I just need to wait until the vines let my feet touch back on the ground.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), on the other hand, feels like needing there to be an exact number of vines in order for me to be safe. In the real world, OCD is me not being able to get out of the car if the hour is X:39. I need to wait until it changes to 40 because 39 is a “bad” number. It’s the fact that, if I like an Instagram post and my “like” turns the number over into a new number that’s divisible by ten (for example, if I liked a post and it went from 569 to 570), then I have to scroll through and find two more numbers like that to change. I can’t put my phone down and I can’t like any of the posts in-between until I change two more posts from X9 to X0.
It’s also needing to get in and out of the bed on the same side because otherwise, I’ll have a terrible day. It’s sometimes wanting to chop off my long, brown hair because of the way it feels on my collarbones. It’s needing to do things in a certain order, like, which dishes to wash first, to ensure my safety or the safety of those I love. It’s not being able to have the side of my quilt with the little orange tag on my upper body because it foreshadows my impending doom. It’s needing to bring a block of wood with me across the ocean for a school trip because I was afraid the hotel rooms wouldn’t have real wooden furniture.
Nobody can tell me I “made up my OCD for attention” because most people probably (definitely) don’t know the extent of my thoughts. I hide it very, very well, and when I can’t, I pass off these obsessions and compulsions as “quirks” and “superstitions.” You don’t see the wars that go on inside my head. If I come to your house, you don’t see me subtly knocking on the wooden banister of the patio on my way in or see me knocking on the wooden frame of your bathroom door. You don’t notice me counting the number of buttons on your remote to make sure there’s not a prime number. You don’t think about the fact that I take a slightly different path than you around the cars when leaving the house. Despite no one knowing, my mind is constantly reeling from all of the things I have to think about to ensure my safety. Sure, I have it way more under control now than I used to, but it’s never going to just “go away.” It’s always going to be a part of me.
Sometimes it’s worse than others. When I’m not too stressed out, these little rituals I have seem much less dire if I don’t do them, and I even sometimes purposely don’t perform them (yay me). But, if I’m in a period of high stress, they are out in full force and I am trying desperately to make the stress go away by doing whatever I can, including nonsensical and irrational rituals like putting my right leg out of the shower first.
With all this material written, the question is, why did I just use 947 words to tell you all about what it’s like inside my head?
Well, firstly, it’s because I feel it’s better to be transparent, and now perhaps people who know me well will be able to see that dealing with a certain set of symptoms doesn’t make me any different. I’m still funny, hypersensitive Dan who likes to drink Jack Daniel’s and reads Leo Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald and watches WWE with her friends.
Secondly, it’s because I’ve had enough of the surface conversations about mental illness. It is my opinion that we need to do more than simply outline the societal implications of mental health challenges. Those things, like knowing that it’s not someone’s fault that they live with mental illness, should be obvious and should now be readily accepted amongst the general public.
However, those things are not yet readily accepted, and it would seem that being preachy about it isn’t working. I decided to share a snapshot of my story because I believe the only way to beat the stigma is by digging deep and having the hard conversations. We need to start speaking up and we need to start laying all of our experiences out on the table. It’s not enough to talk about eliminating the stigma and why we should; we need to start opening the cavern of secrets that we all hold within us and exposing them to the light. We need to share that we are strong, capable and smart, even though our brains don’t make enough serotonin. We need to demonstrate that the “abnormal” electrical currents in some of our brains don’t make us any less awesome. If we don’t talk about our stories, nothing will change. We need to be vocal about the fact that we are all “one of those people.” We need to make it OK for people to talk about their mental illness, and we can do that by being honest.
I was honest today because I hope someone who reads it will say, “wow, I didn’t know that about OCD.” Maybe I can change somebody’s mind. Or, maybe my story will inspire someone else to open up and put their stories out there for all to see.
The reality is, this is my life. I think I’m doing pretty well. Sure, I still have to make sure I put my pajama shirt on before my pajama pants, but, even still, I’ve got lots for which to be grateful. Mental illness doesn’t have to negatively affect our quality of life and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re any less capable of doing great things. Living with any set of symptoms just means that’s your lot in life; we’re all dealing with something.
It’s more than OK to live with mental health challenges and I encourage you to open up to those around you, not only about the fact that you have depression/anxiety/OCD/bipolar disorder/schizophrenia, but also about what that means for you. It’s the best way to make others understand that mental illness doesn’t have to be scary, and more than that — it’s a great way for you to see just how much of an impact you can have on the world around you.
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Unsplash photo via J Scott Rakozy