As of writing this, I am about two weeks away from turning twenty-one years old. I am finishing my last semester at Michigan State University, from which I will graduate with two degrees: one in Comparative Cultures and Politics and one in Professional Writing. I will also have a minor in Spanish and graduate with 4.0 GPA, assuming I can finish this semester.
In addition to classes, I balance three jobs that help me pay for my education while getting professional experience. I have an incredible family, with two beautiful little sisters, loving parents, and the sweetest dog named Junie B. My boyfriend and I have been together for over five years, and our relationship is healthy, fun, and always mutually supportive.
I have to type the previous two paragraphs because they represent the surge of guilt that consistently accompanies my severe OCD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. I have not experienced trauma, nor have I ever been treated by my friends and family with anything but love. For this reason, I have difficulty justifying the seemingly ever-increasing instability of my mental health.
My story starts when I was four years old and starting kindergarten. For the first several months of the year, I vomited before leaving the house with my parents. At first it was because of nausea – yet it soon became an irresistible compulsion that led my parents to take me to the doctor.
Nerves. That was the response from the physician at the time. Overcoming these nerves became my task, which I eventually was able to do in order to deal with school for a while.
The next striking memory I have of what I now know is OCD happened when I was about eleven years old. I began constantly trying to yawn, always unable to “finish” the yawn or get enough breath to satisfy me. I thought I was slowly suffocating; I felt each breath was becoming shorter and if I didn’t pay attention, I would exhale for the last time without even noticing. I slept just a few hours each night and struggled to get through my classes without rushing to the bathroom having a panic attack about my breath.
I became transfixed by edges: edges of walls, fences, pencils, desks. I had to feel them. If I couldn’t drag or trace my finger along the groove I was focused on, I had to vomit or endure a panic attack. I had no idea how to put this into words without it sounding ridiculous, so I kept it to myself.
The next several years passed without any significant episodes. I was able to manage the urges and the panic attacks and the throwing up until the summer before my senior year of high school. My grandpa passed away at the beginning of the summer. Although it was somewhat unexpected, he had not been very healthy, so it was not a great shock. However, following this event, my mind became consumed by new terrors that I now would call intrusive thoughts.
I knew everyone I loved was going to die. I knew it. While my boyfriend drove from my house back to his, I found clutch my phone and sob, waiting for him to tell me he was okay. Even when I got the text confirming someone’s safety, I couldn’t be sure it was them until I saw them in person.
It was around this time my boyfriend suggested I see a counselor to talk through some anxieties. I was completely opposed to this idea. Always the over-achiever, I thought this was another challenge I could handle myself. Yet to satisfy him, I tried therapy with an older woman for two sessions before I quit, denouncing therapy and assuring him I was fine.
I saw another therapist for a brief amount of time the following summer before I went to college. Similar to the first experience, I quit shortly after beginning. I hated opening up to another person about my fears and my anxieties. It was painful and I loathed the whole process.
I adjusted to college decently. I devoured the class material and built solid relationships with my roommate, professors, and other new friends. I was okay until November after Thanksgiving, when my world began to shatter beneath my feet.
I was in my room waiting for my boyfriend to show up at my dorm room to do some homework with me when I was immediately struck with the knowledge that I had never loved him, and he was the last person I wanted to see. When he got there, I started panicking and told him he had to leave – the sight of him was painful and only reinforced my feelings of indifference toward him. This was also the first night I began to obsess over my ability to harm those around me.
My health deteriorated during the next few weeks leading up to winter break. I stopped eating almost entirely and vomited nearly every day, coughing up my own bile when there was nothing on my stomach to expel. I spent one evening on the phone with my mom choking out my fear that something was the matter with me – that I needed to be surveilled at all times. She sent me the information of a therapist, who I thankfully scheduled an appointment with for over break.
As soon as I got home, I became nearly incoherent. I could not look at my family without having suffering from debilitating thoughts about sexually harming them. I knew that I was not to be trusted around my little sisters. I couldn’t be left alone with anyone for fear of molesting or stabbing them. I couldn’t talk to my boyfriend without hating him for caring or being worried. I refused food, didn’t sleep, and desperately felt any edge near me.
This was my crisis. I lost fifteen pounds in just a couple weeks, and I already typically fall on the low end of the weight spectrum for my height. I was fortunate in that I began to see a therapist I loved – she was (and is) blunt, sarcastic, and makes me laugh. She gave me a name for my thoughts when she gave me a diagnosis. She gave me a reason for my broken mind when she wrote out a series of acronyms – none of which described me as a sexual deviant or person with homicidal tendencies.
It has now been two years since I had my crisis and began to see my therapist, and every day is still painfully difficult. I have cycled through five different medications; one of which gave me suicidal thoughts and then severe withdrawals when I had to “emergency stop” them. My therapist is available for texting and Facetime when I need her, and she recently encouraged me to reach out to a psychiatrist. I did so just last week, which has started a new cocktail of medications in addition to my weekly CBT with my therapist.
A little over a year ago, I began to self-harm in order to cope with my OCD. It has become a compulsion, one over which I have little control and struggle to repress daily. My boyfriend – who fortunately has retreated from being the focus of my intrusive thoughts – is unyieldingly supportive and as non-judgmental as he can be. Divulging in him has been my saving grace and was my only non-therapist outlet until this past fall.
In a fit of panic, I accidentally ranted to a new friend about what I had been dealing with – including the self-harm. Shocked by his unphased response to be supportive and remain my friend, I was encouraged. About a month later, I tearfully admitted to my supervisor, who happens to be a social work master’s student, that I was struggling. She has allowed me to confide in her and text her the code “arm warmers” when I’m having a particularly bad day.
Trusting people to be understanding and empathetic is terrifying and rewarding at the same time. While I have continued to struggle with my intrusive thoughts and the depression and anxieties that accompany them, I now have a support system of three incredible people who know everything I have hid from even my family, for fear of being a burden or causing too much worry in others. My therapy helps. The dedication of my doctors to find a medication combination that will work helps. Exercising daily helps and ice cream helps and doing crossword puzzles with cups of tea helps.
To end my story, I want to repeat a phrase that I’ll find whenever I decide to do research about my broken brain: “There is no cure for OCD.” Okay, admittedly this appears to be a bit discouraging. And sometimes I still see it that way. But I think for all of us who suffer from OCD, it is important to acknowledge progress instead of waiting for the day we wake up without a compulsion or obsessive thought. Today I wrote out my story and I ate a full meal and I didn’t throw up and I went to work and I didn’t self-harm. That is progress. And that is a good day.