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When Life Before Your Mental Illness Diagnosis Feels Like a Lie

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The moment the psychologist told me I had the Pure O branch of obsessive compulsive disorder, I felt relieved. These horrible intrusive thoughts and weird behaviors aren’t my fault? Is this the explanation for the misery I’ve experienced for the last 12 years?

But positive relief quickly turned dark and negative. I felt angry and deceived. Had everything I believed, reacted to and felt until now been a lie? Can I not trust my brain anymore? Has nothing about my life been the correct perception of reality? Who am I now?

Two words flashed in my head.

Mental illness.  

Am I one of those people? Who will love me now? How can I have a “normal” life? Who will hire me? What kind of life could I have with this negative label?

The trap of personal stigma consumed me. While external stigma focuses on public perception and belief about mental illness, personal stigma dives into our internal beliefs and misconceptions about mental illness. Personal stigma is a twisted, convoluted web of lies needing untangling to emerge positively in recovery.

For the next 13 years, the outside world saw me as happy and content, but inside simmered shame and embarrassment regarding my mental illness label. I wrestled with low self-esteem and unworthiness. I longed for peace and comfort in my own skin, but couldn’t overcome the powerful negative emotions.

I actually grieved the loss of the Chrissie with pre-diagnosed OCD. This was a girl whose beliefs, actions and reactions were controlled by a mind protecting itself from a debilitating disorder. I grieved the control I never had. No decisions I had made were my own, they were merely a reaction to a brain disorder. My tenets were the result of appeasing my brain instead of free will. The awareness of my lack of self-directed independence was crippling. Everything I believed had been a lie, manipulated by my brain. It was difficult to cope with the loss of the person I thought I was, and figuring out my new identity with mental illness seemed daunting.

I grieved the loss of the future life I hoped for before diagnosis. Despite the misery I experienced with Pure O, I still imagined I would have a successful life. This was contingent on believing one day I’d wake up and the torture would be gone. I hoped my brain would magically heal itself. In hearing I am now deemed “mentally ill,” the life I once pictured for myself vanished. It was replaced with what I believed society saw for people with mental illness. It became a life undeserving of happiness. It was a life unworthy of love, hope and success. Personal stigma barred me from seeing any other future than what society believed I was capable of obtaining.

I wouldn’t disclose to anyone about my experience with Pure OCD not only because my obsessions were shameful, but because I had no physical evidence of the pain and torment. There were no x-rays, casts or tests to validate the torment. My only visible proof was a six-inch scar of shame from a suicide attempt. In my mind this scar only proved I was too weak and too scared to handle my illness. If only there had been a litmus test or MRI to prove the torture I endured. But I only had my voice, and it was too timid, apologetic and fearful of judgment to stand proud.

Thirteen years after diagnosis, I suffered a tremendous relapse. The tormenting symptoms took me back to the moment in the hospital when I was told I have a mental illness.

But this time I didn’t feel anger. I felt compassion and empathy for that 20-year-old Chrissie.

It was time to forgive my brain for developing Pure OCD. It was time to forgive myself for attempting suicide. It was time to let go of shame. It was time to live. I had a choice. I could accept my disorder as part of me but not the definition of me, or I could continue hating myself and allowing personal stigma to control me.

I chose acceptance.

Terrified, I began speaking out about my experience with Pure OCD. Personal stigma told me others would reject and judge me if they knew I was mentally ill. I found the opposite to be true. Speaking out about Pure OCD brought people closer to me who experience the same stigma. I felt less alone. My timid voice turned into a powerful one. My wounds of personal stigma began to heal.

Personal stigma had ensnared me in shame and silence for 13 years, forcing me to believe I am not worthy of happiness. I took a risk to break out of that trap and the payoff was worth it. Embracing my life with OCD, sharing my experience and surrounding myself with support from individuals who accept and understand who I am with OCD has become my key to living successfully. It was imperative for me to move through each painful emotion of personal stigma to reach recovery. It was through the journey of denial, anger and sadness I discovered who the new Chrissie has become — not because of OCD, but because of surviving with OCD.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Originally published: May 13, 2016
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