Coming Out, Depression

It’s about time I start taking my own advice

I love books, and like most bibliophiles, I’ve amassed a collection I can’t possibly read in a lifetime. Short of becoming the world’s fastest speed reader, these books will likely remain unfinished. With such self-awareness one would think I’d stop buying books. Alas.

I’m a bit stubborn, so it takes just short of an eon to make changes in my life. (It also takes me several years to write a blog post. Mea culpa.) Back on April 15, 2016, I posted about needing therapy. I was in a bad way, and I knew it. Once again, however, that self-awareness didn’t propel me forward. Imagine me instead sitting on my futon-that-strives-to-be-a-couch contemplating therapy and then deciding life sucks anyway and then seeing what’s on Netflix while chastising myself for not cleaning my apartment.

That is, until now.

Drum roll please.

I started seeing a therapist, who confirmed that I was indeed in a bad way. Not only do I have OCD (which, thankfully, has been manageable), but I also have depression. Apparently, I’m also in the business of collecting mental illnesses. Unlike my book collection, however, I plan to deal with my disorders effectively. To that end, I’ve started taking antidepressants, which have been a life-saver. That’s not an exaggeration. I’ll devote more time to discussing my meds later. (Perhaps when the current ice age ends?) For now, I’ll just say that the medication has been working and therapy has been good.

Taking the step to get help is hard even if, as I have, you’ve done so before. I mean, I even advocate on therapy’s behalf. I go door to door passing out flyers. I write therapy fan fiction. All this to say, I’m an imperfect advocate, but that’s ok. (My therapist says I should be less hard on myself.) So I’ve gone and done it; I’ve gotten help. I think I’ll celebrate by buying myself a book.

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Magical Thinking, OCD

Poking the OCD Monster

lesson

I just read that book. I read a lot, so this shouldn’t be a big deal. But this book has magical powers. If you read it, someone you love might die. You can’t be 100% certain that will happen, so you shouldn’t read the book at all. Or so my OCD said.

I bought this collection of stories the day my friend died in a car accident. His sudden death was a painful reminder that life truly is uncertain. That event triggered my worst bout of OCD symptoms, which ultimately led to my seeking help. That was six years ago, and while I’ve certainly gotten much better, I couldn’t shake the connection between that book and that terrible day. I remember reading the timestamp on the receipt and concluding that my friend was dying while I was purchasing the book. There’s likely no truth to this, but I imbued the book with dark magic anyway. The title, I thought, was especially portentous. Here Comes Another (Painful) Lesson.

So I didn’t read the book, and even looking at it made me nervous. Over the years the book remained on my shelf, and then I moved and didn’t bother putting all my books back in their bookcases. I lost track of the book or deliberately forgot about it. More to the point, I purposely didn’t read it.

I don’t know what happened to make me finally do it. I’ve certainly been inspired by the people I interact with on social media. I’ve seen so many people overcome struggles, which made me feel less alone. Also, I believe that the act of posting something publicly is a way for me to hold myself accountable. That’s how I’ve managed to continue meditating for 200 plus days and counting, so I took this approach with the book.

I posted that I was reading the book and then started posting fun quotations from the book and then realized I wasn’t nervous while reading. In fact, I felt a strange sort of calm. I don’t know that doctors recommend this sort of public reckoning, but the approach worked for me. I’m just describing my experience.

While posting these messages, I had moments of feeling too brazen. I’d defiantly type “suck it OCD.” This, of course, made me scared. Don’t poke the OCD monster. Then I realized this was more of the same OCD thinking, so I kept poking the monster. Suck it OCD. Suck it so hard.

And then it happened; I finished the book. It took me about a week, and I made it through with minimal pain. When I was done, though, I cried. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. I had invested so much emotion in the book, and I could finally let it go.

The cover still makes me a little nervous, so I keep it out in the open. The title doesn’t seem so portentous now. I’ve learned a lesson, and it was a good one.

OCD

This is OCD

I live with OCD, which means my brain is often a cauldron of worry. Most people don’t truly know what living with OCD means, so they say ignorant things or make stupid jokes. Here’s how I see OCD, but keep in mind that every person experiences the disorder in their own unique way.

Having OCD means a person is hounded by intrusive thoughts and lots of them. Intrusive = we don’t want them. So we engage in compulsions or rituals as a way of blocking out the thoughts. This only brings a modicum of relief until the thought returns, so we have to engage in the ritual again and again ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

The thoughts might run the gamut from harming your loved ones to doubting your faith to believing you’ll throw yourself in front of a train. People with OCD might worry that their house is on fire. Still others might be bothered by thoughts of stabbing or strangling someone. Now before you go judging, keep in mind that most people experience intrusive thoughts of some kind. More than 90% of people have experienced such thoughts in their lifetime. Over 90%. That’s a lot. Having these thoughts is essentially a part of life. If you have OCD, however, you take these thoughts seriously. Really seriously. After all, the thought came from inside your head, so it must have value.

Of course, such thoughts don’t have value. They’re just thoughts, but don’t flippantly tell someone with OCD that. We give these thoughts a lot of weight, and we can’t believe we’re having them. They are, in fact, contrary to who we are. That’s where the pain comes in. WE DO NOT WANT TO HURT ANYONE. We do not want to hurt ourselves. We do not want to be infected by disease. If we’re believers, we don’t want to be blasphemers. If we’re faithful, we don’t want to be cheaters. We do not want our actions or inaction to make the world tumble into chaos.

So we ritualize.

Here’s the caveat: we know ritualizing won’t stop the pain. So why don’t we just stop ritualizing? BECAUSE WE CAN’T. Okay, we believe we can’t. The pain is too real. That’s what needs to be understood. The pain is real. Imagine that time you were so frightened you could puke. Imagine that time you were so enveloped by dread it’s the only thing you felt. Now imagine feeling that constantly. This is OCD.

Pure, unadulterated dread. Crystallized fear. Doom.

I write this with urgency because I believe our pleas to stop using our disorder as a synonym for fastidiousness are being unheard. The seriousness of our condition is not understood. The pain is real. I just want that to resonate.

Mental Health

The Reluctant Sentimentalist

I’m trying to figure out how I’ve gotten so much cornier as I get older. Shouldn’t the cynicism be firmly entrenched by now? I’ve long said that I’m only masquerading as a cynic, which is true. I know life can be incredibly difficult, and I’ve faced some dark days myself. If running away from my brain ever became an option, I’d likely do so for an hour or two, maybe even a weekend. That aside, I hold onto hope for reasons I can’t understand, and that scares the crap out of me.

But now things have gotten out of hand. I may or may not cry when I see a sentimental story. I also look at dogs and kittens and maybe even miniature humans and think, “How cute.” And I’m blaming all this on my niece. She’s six, so she can handle the responsibility.

The fact that I become a big weepy mess when she invites me to school functions is all her fault. That I say “I love you” more often to other humans, including that little one, is all her fault. That I want to do better by her is all her fault. And I’m no stranger to temper tantrums, bouts of screaming, and nose-picking. We have that in common. But here’s the thing: it’s amidst all this that I still find love. Damn her.

The world has not prepared me for this. I am completely caught off-guard by my love for her. (If you’re interested in how this all started, I wrote this story about it.) And it’s made me so so saccharine. But – big sigh – I think it’s good for my mental health. You need a cause bigger than yourself to feel fulfilled, and while I’m still working on that in terms of my career and my passions, I have my niece to thank for showing me who I’m working for. The world is hers now, and – forgive my corniness, for I have sinned – I want to make it just a little better.

Anxiety, Depression, OCD

Ask for Help

The first time I needed help, I only asked for it when I hit a breaking point. I had known about my OCD for years, and only once did I try to speak up about it. It was a failed attempt that included me stumbling around for the right words to say. I forgive myself for that now, but I would love to go back and say, “You don’t have to wait to ask for assistance.”

For whatever reason, I set up my own self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew I wouldn’t get help for my OCD unless something devastating happened. I believed my OCD had to get so out of control that I’d have no choice but to seek assistance. Then the devastating thing happened. My friend died in a car accident, and I couldn’t handle it. I was teaching at the time, and I’m grateful for those hours I spent in front of the classroom. While up there, you’re forced to concentrate on the task at hand. There’s no time for lingering thoughts. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again because it’s so true: performance has much in common with mindfulness, and it’s one of the reasons I feel at home when I adopt a persona, be it as a teacher or a comedian. Don’t get me wrong; I am myself when I teach, but I’m also performing a bit. I’m the version of me that’s not an introvert.

During that terrible time after the accident, when I was home alone or just sitting still somewhere, I couldn’t escape the rituals. Unexpected accidents are a chief concern of my OCD-addled mind. Nearly every ritual I complete is a stopgap against this uncertainty. At this point, I was checking traffic reports every time my sister went to work to make sure she was safe. I called my parents every night to see if they were still alive. I could no longer sit quietly and watch TV or read a book. And still I didn’t get help.

My body pushed me in the right direction. I became so ill with the flu that I had to go to the ER. The nurse who took my information offered me a ride to the room in a wheelchair. I thought she was joking, even convinced myself I didn’t need no freakin’ wheels. The nurse knew better. She kindly, gently got me to sit down, and I was grateful for it.

I recovered from the flu, but my mind was still wary. It took me sobbing on the phone to my mom to finally say, “Hey, perhaps I should call a psychologist.” I had reached my breaking point. But here’s the thing: there shouldn’t have to be a breaking point. I wish we could all be free to say, “I need help.” Even now, I’ve hardly learned my lesson. I’m hurting deeply, and I know I need to make a phone call. I’ll do it, if only because I’ve said I will so very publicly. But those words are still hard to write.

Ultimately, I can’t be an advocate if I don’t take care of myself. I’m going to take care of myself.

OCD

What if I don’t have OCD?

The first time I went to see a psychiatrist, I thought, “What if he says I don’t have OCD?” Though not a doctor myself, I was fairly certain I did have OCD. I had read about it, and the symptoms seemed to match mine. Perhaps not completely, but every case is different, right? It wasn’t until I was face to face with the reality of seeing a doctor that I briefly wondered if I’d gotten it wrong.

I’m fascinated by the brain, and if I were smarter, I may have become a neuroscientist. As it is, I just read books about the brain and its myriad dysfunctions. There are worse habits. At any rate, my accuracy in diagnosing brain disorders was at 100%. See, I had just diagnosed one of my students with synesthesia. During a creative writing class, she began describing how each letter for her had a particular color when it’s said aloud. This rang bells for me. I told her about synesthesia, and she checked it out. She’d always thought she was odd in a bad way. I feel like I actually did her a service. Man, I miss teaching.

Presently, however, I was facing the intake specialist. She wanted me to describe the reason for my visit. I was nervous and thoroughly overwhelmed by my (perceived?) OCD. My friend had died in a car wreck, which made my symptoms spiral out of control. The stress alone brought on the worst flu I’d ever had, for which I was only just recovering. So I likely fumbled a bit, didn’t quite articulate what I truly wanted to say. I mentioned OCD, and she scribbled notes. She seemed more interested in the trauma. I steered her back to the OCD. Was I leading the witness? Ultimately, she recommended that I see a counselor for the recent trauma, and (perhaps perfunctorily?) also recommended that I see one of the psychiatrists in the practice who “deals with OCD.” That seemed terse. Did she not believe me?

I had to wait a week before I could see the doctor, but his name was auspicious: Dr. Still. Yes! He’d keep me calm. Providing I actually had OCD, that is.

The agonizing week finally ended, and I met the doctor, who looked to be about 21. “So soon out of med school,” I thought. “Would he really have the diagnostic tools necessary to meet my needs?” This sentiment was unfair, but I was nervous and overwhelmed. I told him my symptoms, and he just kept writing notes. I alternately felt both assured by my doctoring and horrified that I’d gotten my diagnosis completely wrong. I think I may have squeaked out, “I guess it’s OCD.”

He finally put the pen down and said, “Oh, you have OCD.”

That made me laugh a little with relief. Then I thought, “Wait. Is he chastising me?” This was another unfair assessment because he followed with the best words I’ve ever heard in dealing with this disorder. “You’ve just been coping?” he said. “For over 20 years?”

I nodded.

“Well, I want you to do so much more than cope.”

Thank you, Dr. Still, for helping me thrive.

OCD

Stretch, Leap, Sail, Jump

I have this theory that OCD informs some of the risks I take. These are calculated risks, though some might say that’s absurd. That’s because these gambles involve jumping out of airplanes and leaping off tall buildings. But even as I’m filling out the paperwork to relinquish vendors of any responsibility for my potential death or dismemberment, I’m thinking, “Well, how often does the parachute fail to open?”

Here’s where the OCD comes in. The only way to get better is to face your fears. You have to flood yourself with anxiety in order for that anxiety to decrease. So jumping out of an airplane isn’t exactly exposure therapy, but part of me has taken these leaps to overcome the fear I’ve gotten so sick of throughout my life. (Please note that I’m not endorsing this behavior; I’m merely speaking from personal experience.)

OCD has been a constant source of pain and fear for me for nearly three-quarters of my life. I get tired of fear, so I’ve confronted it in myriad ways. To date, I’ve gone skydiving, jumped off the Stratosphere (twice), been zip-lining, and let my niece put bugs in my hands (which she finds hilarious).

A boss from long ago once told me I liked certainty. Based on his observations, I wasn’t someone who’d easily stretch beyond my comfort zone. He was ­­right and wrong. I do like certainty; it’s at the very root of my ritualizing. But I will push my limits. I don’t consider myself a thrill-seeker; I’m just someone who hates to be chained to fear. Perhaps it isn’t the OCD itself that informs my behaviors. Instead, there’s a lesson embedded in the recovery process. Stretch, leap, sail, jump – you’ll be happier for it.