Because this is about a mental illness, it's a lot harder to talk about than the fibro was, but I'm hopeful that this will be meaningful for a lot of people. For those of you who have similar issues, I hope this helps you to understand yourself, to know you're not alone, to find help. For those of you who don't suffer from mental illness, I hope this broadens your world view and gives you some idea of what it's like. Thank you for reading!
-- via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Though it can be hard to pin down where and when mental illness originates, I've had the hallmarks of an anxious personality since I was young. I recall not instances so much as feelings, mostly a desperate need for reassurance from others. Adults often described me as "high-strung" or "moody." My first ballet teacher said that I was "the only three-year-old she knew who PMSed."
Because I couldn't understand sexual desire, I mentally jumped from sex to rape, and my mind would not let it go. From then on, my Barbies somehow always ended up getting raped by monsters in the stories I'd play out with them. That was the first compulsion I ever had, in response to an obsession about sex--and it was incredibly distressing. I couldn't make it stop. That's the nature of OCD--you're trapped thinking and doing the same things over and over again, even as it drives you slowly insane. I ended up throwing all my dolls out to get away from it. I remember Mom being upset about this because she thought it was a hallmark of her little girl growing up. I let her believe it then, because I had no way to explain the reality. To this day, I struggle with obsessive thoughts about rape and sexual assault that have kept me from developing in or understanding my sexuality. I'm only now just starting to become comfortable with the idea.
In the midst of my Barbie-compulsion, my family moved cities, and that's when the first public occurrence of my mental illness happened, while going camping for the first time. It was Girl Scout camp, supposed to be all good fun, but I already had a fear of insects that caused a lot of trouble. After struggling to make myself use the spider-infested outhouse, Mom and I went to visit a magic tree you could make wishes on. Always the girl for stories, myths, and legends, I was very excited about this. The only reason I used the outhouse at all was because Mom said I couldn't go to the magic tree unless I did.
But the magic tree did not turn out to be very magical for me. As we stood listening to the story of the tree, a swarm of bees came down from the mountains and started stinging people. I didn't get stung, but seeing everyone else freaking out set off a panic attack that continued long after they had all calmed down and were now just trying to comfort me. Mom ended up driving me home early, and for the next six months, I suffered from an awful phobia of bees.
When people say that they have a "phobia" of something, most of the time, they're just speaking about your average fear. In reality, a clinical phobia is a fear so strong that it alters your life and destroys your everyday functioning. I had a list of inviolable rules that I followed to protect me from bees: no wearing bright colors, no wearing the color black, no perfume, no going outside unless absolutely necessary, definitely no going outside with food, never go close to any flowers. I flinched at flies. I had constant nightmares. I broke the rules by hiding in the coat closet at recess. One day, during PE, I began screaming after we passed a bee outside, and promptly got sent to the principal and school counselor. I remember the confusion on their faces as they lectured me about the importance of academia outweighing such silly little fears. I remember the way my teacher looked at me, like I was a monster instead of a terrified little girl.
I got over my bee phobia somewhat accidentally, when I was forced to go outside at recess and a bee flew by, grazing me with the stinger. Exposure therapy, all in one dose. After that, I returned somewhat to normal, though I was very shaken and confused and to this day have a visceral reaction to bees that can be hard to control.
For me, that was a turning point. For the first time, I'd experienced real terror and, in the midst of it, seen how helpless adults could be. I also realized, for the first time, that there was something wrong with me. But what?
When my BDD was at its worst, in high school, I was going to the bathroom five or six times a day to "fix my face." I sat in class unable to think of anything but when I could next reapply my makeup. I arrived to classes, concerts, and other events late and in tears because I couldn't get my face just right. Once, I took a thumbtack to my nose in an attempt to destroy the "wrongness." My face wasn't my only issue; I also had a couple of episodes where my hair looked wrong, and for the entirety of ninth grade, I wore only baby doll tops because I was convinced that my stomach was enormous. This also caused disordered eating, where I allowed myself only 1200 calories a day and exercised for hours on end trying to work the rest off. The urge to exercise became almost as powerful as the urge to apply makeup, and both were pretty extreme compulsions. Today, I am BDD-free and have a generally positive body image, though I still struggle with dermatillomania, a skin-picking compulsion, and trichotillomania, a hair-pulling compulsion.
Almost two years after the bee phobia episode, our family doctor realized that something was off with my youngest brother. One of the many possible diagnoses was Sensory Integration Disorder, and for a while, we thought I might have it, too. I still feel really uncomfortable when I think about how hard I embraced that potential diagnosis. I was desperate for answers as to why I felt so wrong, but the harder I tried to fit into that box, the more anxious and distressed I became. Though I didn't know it, my OCD had developed into the main form it would take for the rest of my life: moral scrupulosity, or an obsessive focus on being morally perfect. A year and a half later, my brother was diagnosed with autism. I still had no idea what what going on with me, and without a diagnosis, I could only conclude that I was wrong, all the way to the depths of my soul.
So I resolved to do everything I could to make myself look like someone who deserved a place in society. Deep down, I knew that I was a monster who had somehow destroyed the perfect spirit that God had given me. The only way I would get even a speck of redemption was to act like the person I was supposed to be--no mistakes, no slip-ups, definitely no weird bee phobias or nasty pimples. I would have to work a thousand times harder to be half as good as the people around me--but I had to do it, because otherwise, all I had was my awful, imperfect self, a self so far from normal or okay that other people would be horrified to see her.
Then, in a spiral of obsessive energy, everything came crashing down. Though in retrospect, this boy clearly returned my feelings, I was suddenly convinced that he didn't. This spiraled me down into the deepest depression I've ever experienced. I now spent hours writing everything in my diaries that I had done wrong. I blamed myself for his lack of attention, and I did so with violent self-hatred. I wrote over and over again about how stupid I was, how ugly, how useless, how wrong. I developed a raging jealousy towards anyone he paid attention to, even my closest, most trusted friends. I even stopped eating for a while, not because of body image but because I was so distraught that I lost my appetite.
Then the situation got worse. I was reminded that my religion, Mormonism, has a guideline against both dating before sixteen and having serious relationships before adulthood. The Church also doesn't look kindly on dating nonmembers. To me, these statements weren't just guidelines, because, honestly, I had no understanding of the word. With morally scrupulous OCD, you don't understand grey morality or exceptions to rules or the difference between guidelines and commandments. To me, the stuff we talked about in Church was all set in stone, and if I messed up in the slightest, I was only worsening the depths of my sinful imperfection.
Now I had two obsessions warring in my mind, at total odds: my obsession with the boy and my obsession with morality. I desperately wanted him to be in love with me, for us to have a deep and epic romance and to someday be married and then save the world from evil together, as you do. But I also knew that according to my beliefs, I couldn't date him, and that therefore all of this obsessing I was doing over him was wrong. This was all made worse by the fact that very few people liked this boy--and for good reason, because he was a bully who did basically all of the things that I considered wrong, and not to a trivial degree.
The only way out, I thought, was death, and it was getting to the point where I was willing to do just that if it would free me. However, like most suicidal people, I didn't actually want to die. So one night I broke down, furiously crying, and screamed out to God that I couldn't take this anymore and I couldn't choose either side and if he didn't make this war stop, I was going to take my own life.
I had a very powerful spiritual experience at that moment where I was strongly comforted and in that, found a reason to keep going. It wasn't easy. The obsessions continued to fight it out in my head for some time, but eventually, they began tapering off. One thing that helped was when my history teacher took me aside to say that he had read my free writes for class, which included the same depressive obsessing that was in the rest of my diaries, and that he was terribly concerned for me. I was so ashamed I couldn't look him in the eye for the rest of the year, but I did start taking steps to separate myself from some people who had been, unintentionally, encouraging my obsessions. Another thing that helped, though it was also terribly painful for me, was that the boy I had a crush on moved. Eventually, in his absence, my crush/obsession faded away.
The worst had passed, though my struggles were far from over.
In many ways, diary writing has been my biggest compulsion, although when done without that urge behind it, it's also good for my mental health. Go figure.
When it came time to graduate high school and move on to college, I was wearily grateful. For a while, college was very good for me. But after an incident of sexual harassment, the OCD came crashing back in, my first of two mental breakdowns I talk about in reference to my diagnosis. It was mild compared to what happened in eighth grade, but the contrast was striking when compared to how I'd been doing in the six months before. I was constantly crying and panicking over little things, most related to guys, dating, and sexism. I had to keep leaving in the middle of classes to get a hold on myself. Finally I started counseling, as detailed in the last post, and it got me through to the summer, at which point breakdown number two happened, for the same basic reason: another instance of sexual harassment, combined with the usual family issues.
The second breakdown was much worse, probably the worst time I've had with the OCD since eighth grade. In this period, I developed a social phobia that got to the point where I had nausea-stricken panic attacks every time I left the house. In the midst of this, my trichotillomania worsened to the point where I was now ripping my skin open with tweezers. I knew I needed help, and after my positive experience with the ASU counselor, I was much more willing to get it--but I had no resources. I had to wait until I got to BYU-I, where they would have free, high-quality counseling available to me.
After that, though, things began looking up. I got a lot of help from the BYU-I counselor and from a medication adjustment. Knowing what my OCD is and being able to label it makes a huge different for me. I also named my OCD Codi, as shown in this post (which inspired SAMMI), which helps me distinguish between obsessive thoughts and my own feelings.
I returned home from school early for multiple reasons, the OCD being one. There, with a new counselor, I had to deal with the OCD even more extensively, at which point I sorted out the different "levels" the OCD takes. Sometimes, Codi is acting in my favor to bolster me in standing up against a real problem that I care about, sometimes she's acting in my favor but going over the top and making it difficult for me to control myself or deal with the situation, and sometimes she's just dragging me down with thoughts about my complete lack of perfection.
Now, after much help from the two counselors, I have my OCD under relative control. I still relapse once in a while. It's hard to fight an enemy in your head. But I've developed the tools and understanding I need to deal with life as an OCD patient, and that has made all the difference. I honestly didn't realize how much emotional pain I was in, or how good my life could actually be, until I started getting better. Let me tell you, it's really nice not to hate myself anymore.
I am incredibly grateful for the diagnosis, the people who have helped me, and the things I know now, and I want to pass that on to you. If any of this sounds familiar to you, please seek out help. If you suspect at all that there's something not right with the way you're feeling and thinking, get help. I can't even begin to express how much I wish I'd done so back when things first started feeling wrong.
And to those of you who don't have to deal with stuff like this--I hope this has helped you to understand a bit better.
Images via hellogiggles.com, education.rec.ri.cmu.edu, exploringyourmind.com, pipelinefilm.org, nexusillumintai.blogspot.com, blog.enroll.com, and daniellespringerhealthyliving.com.