Confessions of a Former 'Perfect' Student
I cannot remember a day when I woke up and did not already have an image in my head about how that specific day was supposed to go; it’s something my kindergarten teacher called “mature,” my mom called “organized,” my middle school math teacher called “perfectionism,” and my doctor now calls “obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
While completing some of my earliest homework assignments (you know, those ones about colors and shapes and basic multiplication tables that 10 years later still leave you pining for that simpler stage of life), the “a” in my first name had to be written just right at the top of the page or else I could not continue. I would erase it, rewrite it, erase it again, until finally it was acceptable. I appeared to be an eager, motivated elementary school student yearning to perfect her penmanship, and nobody really ever thought anything else of it. But the monsters were building their home in my head and getting settled.
I think there must have been a day in the past, a long time ago, when germs were still the invisible, inanimate particles they truly are to most normal people. I loved going bowling and doing the monkey bars and eating all the snacks I could possibly get my hands on. But one day, those tiny little molecules came to life right before my eyes and started creeping into my skin from every angle and every surface. They took on an energy and presence of their own and suddenly the world was not a safe place for me anymore. I had to wash my hands before touching anything that would even go near my mouth, and I stopped letting my mom make food for me unless I watched her wash her hands first with my own eyes. I saw the little dirty creatures everywhere I turned and I felt them all over my body. It was both a feeling of terror and a feeling of helplessness. I did not have control anymore. The monsters had started a family and invited all their friends over. They wanted me to come live among them.
If I did not put my phone in its proper position on my dresser, face down, before getting into bed, it would undoubtedly fall in the middle of the night and wake up my parents and send them running into my room because they thought something happened to me. If I did not recite my prayers at night the exact same way each time, something bad would happen to my family and friends about whom I was praying. If I did not gently knock on my wooden bedpost before closing my eyes, anything “bad” that popped into my head would surely happen in real life because I neglected to “knock on wood,” therefore neglecting to protect myself from those bad thoughts coming true. If I did not check five times to make sure my window was securely locked (even if it was 30 degrees outside and I had not unlocked/opened that window in weeks; what if somehow it got unlocked on its own?) I would most definitely be kidnapped in the middle of the night. The monsters even told me on some nights that if I did not go double (sometimes triple) check that I turned the faucet off in the bathroom, my whole house would flood overnight and drown my family and all my belongings.
It was my own personal hell, an inferno of obsessive thoughts and irresistible compulsions permeating every single second of every single day. The monsters had built hundreds of new homes in my brain, making an apartment complex out of my neurotransmitters and building a pool in my anterior cingulate cortex. They were trying so hard to get me to move into their community full-time instead of just using it as my vacation home, and I was losing my willpower to fight them on it. A move to the unfamiliar world inside my head did not have to be a bad thing, right? At least everyone there would understand the twisted roadmap of my brain; nobody here really seemed to get it.
* * *
I lived among the monsters for a few years, and as I watched their families grow I became accustomed to their way of life. It was a safe life and I felt more secure each and every day, as these strangers became my friends. Nothing bad happened because everything was done meticulously, each action and movement was “just right,” and every single aspect of life was quadruple checked. However, as a result of this type of lifestyle, I learned that nothing exciting ever really happened in the world of the monsters. I stopped trying new foods or seeing new places, and I also stopped meeting new people who were not part of the monsters’ world. I slowly started to see my old friends and family less and less, and even when I did see them, the interactions would be difficult because nobody else understood my life among the monsters. I lost best friends and boyfriends because people in the human world did not like how close I was becoming with my monster “friends.” I realized the monsters had full control over me by this point, which was a frightening realization. It was at this moment in time that I made the decision to escape from the world of the monsters and try to make it back to my old way of life. At this exact minute, I still remain in the process of fully escaping those ruthless monsters who held me captive for so long; they still convince me to come back for frequent visits, especially around finals week and the holidays. I hope to make these visits less frequent as the years go on; I have gotten pretty good at making up excuses as to why I cannot visit, because I know they are just trying to suck me back into their world. I like it better here, though, and while those little monsters will always hold a special place in my heart, they have become a part of my past.
* * *
It’s difficult to say, even at this point, which coping mechanisms are actually healthy and effective compared to the ones that just get me through the day. I can carry around hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go, wipe down any “dirty” surface with wipes and check the locks and faucets until my brain finally shuts up, but how are these things helping me in the long run? The simple answer — they’re not. I know now that these actions are feeding the monsters, just quieting them temporarily, but that they will soon return hungrier and louder than ever.
This is not to say that I have not found some healthy coping strategies that do work. At the most basic level, I know how important it is to take my medication and attend therapy when I can; in other words, I need to accept the help I am being offered and receive it with an open mind. Rejecting this help just exhausts me more and never actually solves any of the problems. It is also important for me to be aware of the things that trigger my anxiety and send the monsters into fighting mode; some of these triggers include the holidays, certain social situations and certain locations I consider especially germy or threatening (such as airplanes, public bathrooms, doctor’s offices, among many more). To clarify, however, this does not mean I actively avoid these triggers; avoidance helps nobody and just lets the monsters know that if they persist long enough, they will eventually get their way. Instead, I am simply aware of these triggers and the effect that they may have on me, which allows me to effectively prepare for the coming minutes, hours or days.
More than anything, I have learned how important it is not to let one bad day or one bad anxiety attack get me down too much. The monsters and I fight each and everyday, pretty much constantly, but just because they may win a certain battle here and there does not mean that they will win the whole war.
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