The stigma surrounding mental health is such an enormous barrier in terms of healing. So many people are afraid to speak about their struggles. We don’t want to be seen as weak. We don’t want to be considered ill or broken, unstable or dangerous. We worry it will effect friendships and professional lives. We worry and we hide.
But there are so many of us you guys! Honestly, I don’t know of a human being that does not combat demons, whether or not they are diagnosed with a mental illness. I mean, think about all of the people running around who are tormented and stay silent, never receive a diagnosis, never get treatment or support of any kind. That is heartbreaking to me.
Why those who are challenged in a mental/emotional way get treated differently than those challenged by a physical illness? Because we can’t “see it”, and we only believe what we can see? We have all seen someone with a mental illness that is noticeable in an outward manner. Maybe a homeless, wandering, talking to imaginary people, possibly acting out aggressively. Those people we know and believe are ill because we can see it. It more than likely makes us uncomfortable, and we probably avoid them.
Now, I’ve never really been one to care too much about what other people think of me. It’s a double edged sword of course, but it does allow me to be honest and not beat around the bush. And yet, as I look back at my child self, I can recognize now, how at a very early age I learned to hide part of myself from the public at large, and build walls to protect myself from being found out and consequently hurt.
I started noticeably struggling with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. Without getting into all the medical and scientific “stuff” there are several types of OCD, one being that which runs in families, is passed down genetically. This type usually starts rearing its head in childhood versus adolescence. I come from a long line of superstitious triple checkers. Cousins that couldn’t pass buy certain bushes without touching them and uncles who made funny twitches with their mouth before they took a drink, because they just had to. My mom had obsessions and compulsions as a child, and knew immediately what was happening when she noticed my first compulsion, which was feeling for my heartbeat to make sure it was still beating. Poor Mom, she knew the terror I felt inside. She tried to help, but there wasn’t a lot of information on OCD 35 years ago. We all just thought we had a quirky family.
Some of my most memorable obsessions and/or compulsions…
Constantly feeling for my heart beat
Forcefully coughing and flicking my fingers while looking out windows to expel any bad juju
Avoiding food that looked funny in case it was contaminated or poisoned
Fear that the devil would possess me
Holding my breath around people who gave me weird vibes
Violent obsessions about stabbing and killing loved ones
As I got older the obsessions and compulsions changed. I was always able to keep it mostly hidden at school or away from home. No one ever knew about the broken record that was incessantly playing in the background of my mind or the petrifying fear that would overtake my body by the visual obsessions that would flash through my thoughts uninvited and unwelcome. There were times when OCD wasn’t even evident and I had a break in the action. I don’t remember having too much of it in high school, but then traded the obsessions and compulsions for anxiety and panic attacks.
I tried talk therapy. I prayed. And finally in my early twenties, when the violent obsessions and panic attacks became so challenging, I saw my first real psychiatrist. Mind you, I was working and going to school… in retail management, and some college courses. No one suspected a thing. I lived with my boyfriend (now husband) and he knew I struggled with anxiety, that I sometimes got nervous or spacey, but had no real idea about what I was going through. My mom knew of course, I could always talk to her in detail about the scary thoughts and feelings and she always understood. But as terrifying as it all was, as much as it literally took my breath away, I was somehow able to maintain the facade. I was working and going to school. I didn’t ever miss days due to “illness”. I was dedicated in whatever I was doing and would not allow myself to “be weak”.
I still remember my first appointment with Dr. P., and still hold a tender place for him in my heart. He listened and asked questions. I thought for sure I was crazy and dangerous and he was going to tell me so. He was so kind, and so knowledgeable. He comforted me and shared with me about his own family. And he gave me the first official diagnosis of OCD. “It’s a mild case” he said. “NO way!” I said….”there are people that have it worse than me?!” I immediately held such compassion in my heart for them. We discussed the genetics, the ways to talk back to it, and even challenge it, began ERP and I started taking medication. I saw Dr. P. for some time. I remember one time asking him “but WHY, why do I have these terrible thoughts, what if I actually do something really horrible one day?!” And so clearly recall the sweet look on his face, and his calm and confident response “I would trust you with my son in a heartbeat. OCD is not you. It is not who you are. It is the opposite of who you are, that is why it terrifies you to your core”
He eventually took a hiatus. Going on a sailing trip with his family, and I ventured out on my own. Throughout the years, I continued to take medication, read countless books and found another fabulous therapist. I obtained so many cognitive behavioral tools that I continue to use to this day, and even teach my own kids. I discontinued medication 10 years later when I became pregnant and resumed it after I had the baby, because the post-partum hormones and a very vulnerable new baby whose life was purely in my hands, brought Harm OCD and anxiety back with a punch to the gut. But it didn’t last long because I faced it head on. I applied exposure therapy and made myself continue to fight. I brought the terrifying obsessions purposefully and vividly to mind and let the panic flood my body and mind. I sang about killing my baby through choking tears. I had even more reason now to be strong and to be badass. I was not backing down or hiding in a corner afraid of the dark. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. I even volunteered to become part of a study through John Hopkins University. I gave a blood sample, as did my parents. I did surveys. I gave what I could to the research because I believe knowledge is power and I want to be of service.
I’ll be 42 this year. This has been part of my life for 36 of those years, on and off. When I was about 38 I began practicing yoga, meditating, and learning about Reiki, plant medicine and other alternative therapies. I have always been an avid learner, not always the best academic student, but always thirsty for knowledge and propelled to share what I learn to offer help and support to others. It took time for me to soften myself after years of holding a defensive posture. It took time to quiet myself after years of endless mind chatter. It took time to open myself after years of ceaseless fear. And I have found a new level of healing. It’s a whole healing, not just a healing of the mind. It’s amazing and magical. And I know, I will still find challenges along this path. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows. As of this moment I am in my first week of reintroducing medication. I was off of it for a year, and recently decided, at this stage in life, I’m better on it. It may not be forever, or maybe it will. But I live in today as much as possible, not in yesterday and not in tomorrow, so I will take it as it comes. I know I don’t struggle alone, nor do I struggle as badly as many. I strongly believe OCD has been part of my life experience for a reason. I don’t hate it, even though there have been so many times (years and years worth) that I have wished it away. I am not ashamed of it, and will not hide from it, or from you. I now use this part of who I am to support others in healing.
I am a believer in sharing, and letting it all hang out. I don’t want to hide things about my human experience that could support or encourage you, even if it is scary for me to share. I want you to know you are not alone. You are not broken (even if you feel that way). It is never ever hopeless. It’s okay to come out of the shadows. I know you think you are the only one, that no one could really understand, and probably that there is something “wrong” with you. There is nothing wrong with you. You are exactly who you are supposed to be. There are people who can help, and there are people who love you. It doesn’t matter what the ones that don’t think or perceive. They are seeing you through their eyes, and their dream. No matter what you do, that is the case. There will always be people who judge. People will give you opinions, even if you don’t ask for them (take medication, don’t take medication, talk to someone, therapists are just quacks, try acupuncture, don’t waste your time…you get the picture). You have to discover what works for you. YOU are the only YOU there is. Completely unique from any other person. Their experience is not yours. My experience is not yours. There will likely be several ways to support yourself, some conventional, some alternative, or who knows, maybe you’ll come up with one of your own. Find your mental wellness.
Be who you are, because I know in my heart, we are all who we are for a reason. We need each other’s healing. We need each other’s contribution. I need you to be the gift that you are meant to be. I know it’s terrifying…AND I know you can do hard and scary things.
With abundant love
Trisha – www.mammasonfire.com