Talking About My Journey with Anxiety and OCD
I'm not good at sharing. I'm starting with that sentence so if this doesn't seem like I'm sharing much you know why. It doesn't come naturally to me. I tend to keep things close to the vest. Here's an example. When I'm in the hospital the only reason my friends and extended family find out is if my mom tells them. I might not even mention it after it happens. So they may never know if it weren't for someone else telling them. That's just the way I am. So to share is not a natural thing for me. Maybe this has to do with my social anxiety, I don't know. Anyway, I know that we as a society have such a hurtful stigma against mental illness. Just the term often brings about feelings of shame. I want to change that. I can't do it single handedly but I can be a part of it, I can help. And I think that helping starts with sharing my story. Even if it's just some of it. You have to start somewhere, right?
I know it looks like I'm choking my cat here, I'm not. hahaha. Just hugging him and having him protest. He actually lets me hug and cuddle and kiss him quite a bit and does the same to me quite often. What does this have to do with anything? Well, Sawyer (my cat) is something that helps me immensely. Just petting him and cuddling with him calms me down. Oh, how I love this little guy. <3
So, my mom says she noticed signs of my anxiety and OCD (which is technically an anxiety disorder) from the time I was quite young. I don't really remember doing anything compulsive when I was younger, but that may just be because it was normal to me.
Wait. Before we go on, let me put the definition of OCD right here:
"Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), and behaviors that drive them to do something over and over (compulsions).
Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts. But this only provides short-term relief. Not doing the obsessive rituals can cause great anxiety and distress."
This definition is taken from MedlinePlus. I include it because too many people believe that OCD only encompasses wanting things neat, orderly, tidy, et cetera. Like when you see someone line up their pencils in a perfect row. I'm not saying that isn't part of it I just want it to be clear that it is much different than what society tends to portray it as. A well known example would be someone who has to repeatedly wash their hands. For no apparent reason, they just keep washing. There are infinite numbers of compulsions, though. Counting is a popular one. And it's one that I share to a degree. Which I find sort of ironic because I hate math. (Just trying to diffuse a little humor...) My number of choice is 4. I count things in rounds of 4. Once I get to 4, I start again. I sometimes count my steps.
I prefer even numbers to odd. I find it hard to do anything in odd numbers. To give an example. the volume on the television. It has to be on an even number. If it starts on 26 I can't go up to 27, I have to turn it up to 28. Now, to throw a wrench in what I just said, there are exceptions to this even number rule of mine. One is if someone else puts the volume on an odd number. Then I don't have to change it because it wasn't me who did it. Something else, though. Well, it's hard to explain. There are certain odd numbers I'm okay with, but there are very specific reasons for it. The number 7, for example. I'm okay with that number. Why? Well, in history 7 is meant to be a powerful magical number. There are also 7 Harry Potter books. So, I'm okay with that one. There are others, too.
I'm not being neat and orderly isn't part of it for me. I do often have to straighten things out that are uneven. Like pencils. I fix the books on the shelves in Barnes and Noble. And I can't even tell you how many times I've said my room is messy and anyone there strongly disagrees and says it looks neater than their room ever has.
Trying to explain your compulsions to people, oh boy, is that a nightmare. Many people (including me) often try to hide these things, but sometimes it's just not possible because you HAVE to do it. You HAVE to. Why? Because if you don't, whatever the obsessive thought is will then happen. Does that make sense? No. And I'm well aware of that. But it's almost like two separate parts of my brain. Two separate voices. Two little beings on my shoulder. One telling me I don't have to and one telling me I need to, or else that thing will happen. The second voice tends to win out. What causes OCD? There's the kicker. We don't know yet. Here's another snippet from MedlinePlus.
"Health care providers do not know the exact cause of OCD. Factors that may play a role include head injury, infections, and abnormal function in certain areas of the brain. Genes (family history) seems to play a strong role."
It's often infuriating. I think some people may be able to do the compulsion a certain number of times and then go on. With me, yes, a number comes into play but I have to do it right. If I don't, I need to repeat the compulsion over and over until I do get it right. What's worse? Usually, I'm not even sure what right means. Something in my brain just clicks to tell me that I got it right and then I can move on with my day. I have spent fairly significant amounts of time trying to get it right. As I said, infuriating. And to try to explain it...might be more infuriating because it's so hard to explain. But the jury is out on that.
That brings us to anxiety. General and Social Anxiety. The first panic attack I remember having I was seventeen. We were going to Florida. I was on an airplane. I'm terrified of flying. I started having a panic attack because it wasn't as if I could get off that plane, and I was stuck doing something that terrified me to the bone. Even just writing that brings up some of that panic in me.
Things went pretty well for a while. What's interesting is, looking back, it's quite possible I had smaller anxiety attacks in the years between this one and my next big one.
This panic attack took place in college. I was twenty-one, sitting in the library with a few friends. I'm not sure to this day what brought it on. I know that my friend brought me home. I thought maybe it was because of the people around but I'd been in the library countless times.
I also remember sitting in my Poetry class after having been in the hospital and starting to feel a panic attack come on. Shortness of breath, light headed, this feeling in my chest...it's so hard to describe, so hard to do justice to it. I got up and nearly ran outside to get fresh air. Mind you, it was February. I had on a sweatshirt but I had a coat, too because it was freezing. I didn't bring my coat with me, I needed that cold air hitting my skin.
In one of my Literature classes, I felt the symptoms come on once more. I got out of class as quickly as I could and locked myself in a bathroom stall to ride it out. I think I threw up that time, as well.
Another time, I didn't catch the symptoms in enough time to get away and ride it out. I'd just come back from the ladies room, I thought everything was fine. I sat down in my Spanish class and it came on quite suddenly this time. My Spanish professor noticed and came over to my desk. She picked up my things and told me to come with her to her office. I sat there with her and she actually told me to call someone to take me home, that was how bad it was.
Social Anxiety. This is something I remember having for well, as long as I can remember. I didn't call it social anxiety I just remember always being nervous around people. I most definitely still am and would usually prefer to be alone. Or just with a small group. Again, just thinking about this makes me a little nervous. Honestly, there are very few people I've never been nervous around. Even the people I love.
I think my General Anxiety and OCD have gotten a bit better. What's difficult is trying to pin point why, what did it. I think routine is a part of it, at least for my anxiety. A lot of the time, my anxiety would stem from being literally paralyzed by not knowing what to do first. To the point that I just did none of it. This did not work so well for me. With a routine, I know what to do when. Maybe it sounds restrictive but it's really not. It's not a down to the minute plan every minute detail routine. It gives me enough structure to know when I'm doing my morning ritual, when I'm setting up medicine for the night, when I'm working on content or when I'm writing or editing, when I'm off of work for the day. And it's not rigid, I honestly believe it's more about the order of the things.
My mindset is another thing. And I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes. I get it. I don't think mindset can cure anxiety disorders like some people do but I DO believe that it can help. Having a morning ritual with some meditation (by the way, it's only 2-5 minutes), reading and journaling has honestly done wonders. I also do yoga nearly every day now. I try to workout every day, too (and have been pretty consistent) but yoga is something I've grown to love. It's sort of another form of meditation. And carving out more time for writing my books is helping a lot. That's something I've quite recently started. I decided I was too focused on the media and not the writing. So I decided to change that and it's helped a lot. I mean, the writing is what I love to do. It's what I'm here to do.
Gratitude. Thinking about all the wonderful things and people I already have in my life. All the experiences. The books I've written, people I've met. The fact that I'm still here even though my doctors gave me until age sixteen when I was diagnosed with Nephropathic Cystinosis. I feel immensely grateful and I realize how amazing life is.
Trying to go easy on myself when I have a bad day. Sometimes it's going to happen. It'll be a struggle to get one thing done. Or even to get dressed. I'm making a more conscious effort not to beat myself up about it.
Music helps quite a lot. It's hard to be anxious belting out a song. Or if I am anxious (or irritable, etc.) by the middle of the song I'm usually fine. Reading, books, stories. Any type of storytelling helps. It always has. I'm quite attached to many fictional characters, as you know, but did you know those characters ease my anxiety and even my OCD at times?
I think over the past five years my anxiety and OCD has gradually gotten better. And in the last year I've seen myself make huge progress. It will never go away, and that is okay. It's a day to day thing. And I'm proud of how far I've come.
If you want to talk you can send me a message on Facebook, Instagram or through email. But remember, I am not a mental health professional. If you need to reach out to someone (and it is totally OKAY if you do) please look for someone in your area. Or, if you'd rather check into online counseling, BetterHealth is one site you could check out.
Here's a link to a free anthology where people write letters to their mental illnesses. It's a powerful book and it shows that you are not alone. Far from it.