By Dr. Jezebel
I had wanted my first piece on the blog to be about something – well, really, anything – else. If I write about another topic first, I can introduce the readers to my personality instead of overwhelming them with something I’ve been afraid to talk about for a long time. But the truth is that simple. I am just afraid because this is me. I’m Dr. Jezebel and I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety.
I didn’t want to tell you about my OCD or anxiety because I thought it would make you like me less and not read anything else I had to say. I’ve struggled with this condition, and judgment from it, for my whole life. But today I’m sharing my story of what living with something that is classified as a mental health condition is like.
Anyone can have a mental health condition. I’ve come to loathe the stigma that surrounds mental health conditions because they are silent conditions. When you break your leg, you get a cast and people can see that. They can even sign it and show how much they support your recovery with little hearts in silver sharpies. Alas, you don’t get a cast for the things that ache in your psyche and, more importantly, nobody asks you how you’re doing in your recovery. If they do ask, more often than not it’s with a delicate, gentle pity tone. I despise the pity, but it is only one extreme. Pity and apathy comprise a double-edged sword in the problem of recognition and acceptance for mental health conditions.
Profound things in life often exist in great juxtaposition. For me that has been true with pity and apathy in regards to my anxiety. I’ve had people that have been too sensitive and sheltering of me once they know. Their overbearing nature suffocates me and makes me feel like a helpless child. I’m not helpless; I have been living with this so much longer than this person has been living with me and my anxiety. Then there are the callous, apathetic ones that tell me I’m being a baby and making things worse for myself because anxiety’s not an actual issue. Or, worse still they’ll say, “Why can’t you just control it? Anxiety’s not even a real problem. Just get over it.” For me, apathy hurts more, because these people do not know what it is like to live with constant uncertainty. At least oversensitive encompasses awareness and recognition, albeit excessive. The apathetic seem crueler because they feed into the self-doubt that accompanies many mental health disorders.
This self-doubt has lead me to ask myself numerous times, is this my condition or me? Are my feelings legitimate? Is this normal worry that everyone feels or is it because of my anxiety? Does feeling this was make me weak? These were hard questions I struggled with when facing the both types of people. No one should feel ashamed of themselves for a condition they have, be it a broken leg, diabetes, cancer, depression, anxiety or anything else. For this reason, I will share my personal…journey…with anxiety. I was very tempted to put struggle, in place of journey, but I feel this undermines my point. I have struggled with shame, sadness, and hate for my anxiety but the awareness I have now is something I would not trade for the world.
I did not become aware of my condition until this year, following a return to therapy. I was crying off and on and felt in as though I’d evaporated into a haze of perpetual stress. This was my anxiety of course, as I would come to learn through talking at my therapist. I find, more often than not, therapists lead you to personal discoveries by gently coaxing the direction of conversation. For this reason I say that I discovered my anxiety; I never got an official diagnosis.
Due to the nature of mental health conditions there is a spectrum for how a condition presents in people. Some people, through personal awareness and strategy, can manage their condition on their own without medication. Some require light medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. I would compare it to having high cholesterol; some people can alter their lifestyle to rectify the problem while others may have a condition that can only be controlled with medication. I fall into the first category of people who can manage through awareness and lifestyle adjustment.
For me, my struggle was not knowing what I would find out when I walked into that therapy office, which was very difficult to do, by the way. I definitely almost cried in the waiting room thinking I was only there because I was too broken to fix this myself. Do I have an anxiety illness? Do I need medication? Am I broken? Did I inherit this brokenness due to some faulty wiring in my own head? These were my personal fears at my lowest point before I realized there is nothing wrong with being different. Just as someone may have blue eyes and someone else brown, maybe my brain is wired differently, but that doesn’t make it bad…just different. And, most importantly of all, it doesn’t matter because it is mine.
My discovery, however, did not largely come from talking at my therapist but instead by stumbling through a serendipitous Wikipedia wormhole. I had already been back in therapy when I saw an article on Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. That’s the one where people are particularly cleanly or count doorknob turns. The article happened to link to OCD and I read through, out of curiosity. It’s a most peculiar, fascinating experience when you find a story that describes your life in front of you on the Internet.
If you don’t know how OCD works, it’s an anxiety condition where you become so stressed (obsessed) with a certain idea, event, or outcome that you form ritualistic practices (compulsions) to release the stress and abolish the threat from the stressor. You can also have just obsessions or only compulsions; they need not depend on one another. Reading the Wikipedia page for OCD became more like a list of boxes I could check off on a form. Every single episode of mental health upset or unsettledness was on the page in front of me. The obsessions list reminded me of those doctor surveys you’re given that say “Have you now or ever previously experienced…” and I would have checked off the following.
- Compulsive Hand Washing: I remember doing this as a kid because if I didn’t (in my mind) I would get horribly sick and die. I would wash them long after they had dried out, cracked, and bled. I appreciate the irony of this now that I’m a microbiologist greatly. In due time I just grew out of it because playing like a kid was more fun. “Dirt don’t hurt” as my mother used to chide me.
- Fear of Religion: Another check. I had two bouts with this one. The first was probably the most scarring that I remember. I was about ten and afraid that God was equivalent to Big Brother, listening in on my thoughts. The obsession was that if I had a “bad thought”-something that God would find blasphemous such as burning a bible- then I would burn in hell. I had no compulsion to remedy it and this melancholy caused me to run crying to my mother in fits of hysterics. At the worst, I remember my mother crying and asking me what she should do or where she should take me. My mother not knowing how to help me was probably the reason this was the most scarring and I remember being young and afraid she would send me away to a “nuthouse.” I had nothing to fear, but it was a formative moment for me. I, too, grew out of this obsession phase. The second bout occurred several years later where I had to pray every day a certain way or someone would die. The prayer was very ritualistic, practically on the level of organization as a legal document having a preamble and place for amendments to be added. I frequently forgot this one and it would cause me to wait in high anxiety for a day fearing repercussions. But they never came. I grew out of this one as I grew to shed my religious, Catholic upbringing.
- Sexual Identity Crisis: Ah, my favorite obsession of them all, because it is very silly to me looking back now. This was the obsession that got me to check myself into therapy the first time. This was a very silly fear to have as 1) I had many friends of every orientation you can imagine and I loved them all the same without a single thought to their sexual preference and 2) I knew I was straight. I could not summon the will to care if I liked men women or both but I was afraid to be wrong about myself. I grew out of this one after figuring out some personal management styles to help me when I was upset. I still was unaware that I had anxiety at the time.
But there is all was on the screen in front of me. The definition I had already defined for myself as the true meaning of anxiety staring right back at me. You can rationally know something and accept it as fact but nonetheless your body will reject this fact and send you to a worried state of existence against what you mentally desire and will. Discord at its finest. I knew instantly that I had OCD. But why didn’t my therapist tell me?
The following meeting in her office she gave me a knowing smile but still refused to say, “you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”. She explained to me that you only ever really get a diagnosis for something if it hinders your ability to function and your day-to-day quality of life. Perhaps I may have gotten a diagnosis during my greater periods of upset in my past, but I had moved on a long time ago from each episode.
With my therapist’s silent affirmation I once again fell into the zone of having something but not having it bad enough to be acknowledged. To me, the greatest challenge of mental health conditions is the spectrum and that people adamantly refuse to accept what they cannot see. I am a scientist and I understand this as a rule in my field. Repeatable, visible patterns dictate truth. But the next time you think of mental health conditions, I encourage you to think of the spectrum of light. Sure, you get to see the reddest flames, greenest spring grass, and piercing blue oceans, but there’s infra-red radiating off of our hot skin after a workout and ultraviolet light that gives the most painful sunburns. They’re real and in the spectrum, you and I just don’t have eyes capable of seeing it. As we often say in science, perhaps this just means our means of detection are not good enough and we need better detectors. As much as I hate to say it because it comes off as cheesy to me, an open and understanding mind is the best way to modify our scope of understating.
I understand that some people will never believe me because they cannot see my OCD or anxiety. They cannot feel the stress in my shaking, heart-beating-ever-so-fast body. They cannot perceive the unbearable amount of pressure around an anxious person. Furthermore, I understand that you may think I WebMD’d myself and am wrong about myself.
Then, back to our double-edged sword of pity and apathy, there’s always the alternative: being perceived as “damaged goods.” One of the most hurtful moments of my life occurred after I opened up to a best friend about my OCD. I told him about my condition and what I had learned in therapy and he later told me that he would not want to date me because if we got married and had children it could pass down to them. To be fair there is a lot more to that story and, spoiler alert, that person is still one of my best friends and, in fact, a very good person. But their misunderstanding was still one of the most hurtful things ever spoken to me. If he understood what I’ve gone through to get to this point I think he’d respect me a whole lot more, enough to know that I am not hindered by this condition and that it’s just one part of the complex, infinite-variable existence I lead.
I have OCD. Does it affect me? Yes. But does it affect my overall quality of life?…No. Not at all really. Having an answer has helped me find the peace I needed to accept those times of uncertainty. I already knew that my anxiousness tends to be irrational. I already knew fairly well how to calm myself from that sort of state and move on. I have since moved on from therapy with a newfound understanding of myself, mental health conditions, and life itself. I am not my “disease,” but it is a part of me. I don’t believe in limits and I intend to live the fullest life I can with the only body and mind I have, my universe detectors. So, frankly my dears, if someone tells me that I’m not a good little universe reader because of anxiety, I don’t give a damn and neither should you. For all the people out there who have known mental health conditions in one way or another, this was especially for you. Know you are not alone, ever.
All my love always,