I’m eight years old, sitting alone in my room; Dr. Phil is playing on the TV. A blonde woman is crying about her inability to wear red or associate with numbers that say 666. I can’t tear my eyes away. The same red shirt has hung in my closet for the last year because I worry that red is the devil’s color. I’m taking mental notes now, taking notes of all her compulsive behaviors.
I know it’s ridiculous, but as a child I had all these rituals set up. I couldn’t go to bed unless I chanted Hail Mary’s until my eyelids drooped. I had to sleep on the right side of the bed, because Father Daugherty always said the “right hand of God” in his sermons.
I never told anyone.
These were my first compulsions, but they wouldn’t be my last.
I wouldn’t be diagnosed with OCD until I was 19 years-old, but I was no stranger to mental health diagnosis.
When I was 16 I ran away from my small family apartment to a friend’s house. I was just coming to terms with my sexuality, and I was tired of everything. Even though my gayness wasn’t what made me depressed, it certainly didn’t help. I wanted to control everything in my life, and my sexuality was something I couldn’t control.
I remember mud coating my jeans from the rain outside. I leaned against a car on my friend’s street talking to my dad. He’d always been in and out of my life, in and out of jail, struggling with addiction.
I lived with my dad for two months, and during those months I often didn’t have food or hot water even though it was the end of Fall. Sometimes my dad would get high and bang on my locked door.
That whole time I wanted to die. I’d lay awake at night sobbing, thinking about jumping from the window or in front of a car.
I moved back in with my mom, went on medication, and started seeing a therapist.
I considered suicide seriously for the first time that February. I was going to cut my veins until I bled out. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyway, but during that time all I could think about were ways to kill myself.
All I ever talked about was how depressed I was. I felt like a burden to my friends and my family.
The psych ward was the worst thing to happen to me to this day in my life.
The nurses would tell us that we were never going to amount to anything in life—they’d say it was psych wards first and jail later.
They’d point to kids who had been in the ward for longer periods of time and tell us we’d end up like them if we didn’t “get our acts together.”
I spent my days doing elementary school math as a requirement of the ward, and trying to forget about my AP US History homework that would be overdue when I got back.
We rotated between “school” and “art” where we’d draw pictures of how we were feeling.
For the rest of the day we sat in the day room, where fights regularly broke out.
Not surprisingly, I was back in another ward two months later. That time I knew how to go through the motions. I smiled and I told the nurses what they wanted to hear.
When I got out of the second ward, I considered jumping off a building. I had to leave immediately for a club competition in the Poconos after I was released. I couldn’t let my team down any more than I already had.
My mom didn’t want to leave me alone in the hotel room because she knew that I still wasn’t stable.
I stood on the balcony and looked over. If I jumped, my team would be scarred for life.
I feel like I was standing on that balcony for the next year of my life. I vowed never to tell anyone that I was suicidal again. I’d rather die than go back to a psych ward. I stopped talking to my friends about my mental health problems. I was terrified that if I told anyone how I felt, they’d judge me.
I promised myself that when I went to college, I would put my mental health problems behind me.
In college, I became obsessed with grades and perfection. I’d stay up late at night calculating my student loan debt or double-checking the money in my banking account.
The stress became too much, and I again, considered suicide that February. I knew that I needed to see a therapist again, even though it felt like a failure.
I still see a therapist. I still struggle with depression and OCD. Sometimes the smallest mistakes make me feel worthless. I go over conversations with my peers or professors in my head, looking for mistakes I could have made.
Some nights I have flashbacks to past events and I lay on the floor crying until I fall asleep. I wake up the next morning and go to class.
I don’t think that most people would know this about me. I’ve got a 3.92 GPA. I’m in multiple clubs and activities on campus. But that’s why this is so important. Even people who appear “mentally healthy” struggle. I want to take away the stigma. Mental illness should be talked about just as much as physical illness.
I’ll keep talking about my mental illness, and I’ll keep fighting to cope, because my story could possibly help someone else. Maybe that’s the reason I’m alive, to spread awareness, and make the world better for people like me.
Caitlin McLaughlin is currently pursuing her B.A. in English. She enjoys writing poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction in her spare time. She considers herself an activist for mental health, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Caitlin can be found on Twitter.