“Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not permanent.” ~Mignon McLaughlin
Here I stand.
OCD has been called “the doubting disease.” “Did I leave the stove on? No, I turned it off… but did I really? Or do I just think I did?” While many of us have probably had this internal dialogue at one time or another, for OCD sufferers, the doubting can be relentless.
I’ve dealt with mental illness, in the form of multiple episodes of major depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, for most of my life.
I was hospitalized for the first time for depression when I was 12. Not even yet a teenager, I was already suicidal: praying God would let me die and planning my death, in multiple ways. Upon leaving the hospital, I was no longer suicidal and I began to function again. Yet, because of my mind, life was not necessarily easy for me.
Perfectionism personified, I was very hard on myself, to say the least. When I made an 89.4 — a “B” — in an honors math class, I didn’t allow myself to eat for 36 hours. Throughout high school, I was in drill team, exercising 3+ hours a day, and if I weighed over 104 pounds, I wouldn’t let myself eat for the day. Over the years, the food restriction transferred to cutting. If I wasn’t perfect – I told myself—then I needed to be punished.
By the time I was 24, I had become so reclusive that I wouldn’t leave the apartment for 4-5 days at a time. And if I did need to go to the grocery store, it would take me up to 2 hours to work up the courage to venture out alone. At this point, I spent my days in solitude with nothing occupying my mind except for thoughts of suicide. At the time, we didn’t realize the OCD component of my mental illness. Looking back, I recognize the relentless, intrusive thought of suicide as my obsession. I slept with the television on and wore headphones all day long in an attempt to drown out my suicidal thoughts. Even after participating in a 3 week, 8-hour-a-day outpatient program to treat the depression, the thoughts were still there. A couple of weeks after leaving the program, on my 25th birthday, my husband saw new cuts on my arm. He rightfully sent me back to be with my parents since he wasn’t home to watch me during the day. Back at my parents’ house, my mom saw that I had taken a chef’s knife from the kitchen and had hid it under the bed. That night, she sat up all night long in a chair next to my bed, being my guardian angel so that I could sleep. The next morning, I went into the hospital…again.
Because of my nature to please others and have people like me, I’ve always smiled. Surely, if people knew the depths of sadness and despair that I felt inside, they would reject me, right? So, there I stood — smiling — so that I was likable to the nurses who had me disrobe so that they could search my undergarments for concealed items intended for self-harm. I still have the polaroid they took of me on intake showcasing my signature smile along with vacant, glassy eyes.
After this hospitalization, I declared that I would get better and would never enter a psychiatric ward again. I wanted to have a baby and I didn’t want to be a crazy mom. After a year of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, I had my first child — the light of my life. Two years later, his precious angelic sister came along. My therapy was still holding and things were looking ok.
Over the years, my germ phobia came and went. I remember standing in line, waiting to receive my college graduation diploma, in a panic because I’d have to shake the Dean’s hand. Over the years, I’d have to drive back home — after just arriving at work — to make sure that my iron was unplugged. Over the years, I’d have to come back home – at most 5 times in a row – to make sure that I had locked the front door. But, this was me just being quirky, or so I thought.
Then, the August my daughter was 2, my obsessive thoughts overwhelmed me unlike any tidal wave of depression that I had ever experienced. Words and phrases would repeat in my mind, without stop. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with this recurring thought (that I won’t mention here.) These words were “playing” over and over and over again in my mind. I’d try to read and could only read one or two sentences at a time without these obsessive thoughts taking over. I tried to watch TV and wouldn’t be able to pay attention for more than 15-30 seconds at a time. I had never seen anything like this. This time, though, I wasn’t obsessing on suicide. While I was unable to work, drive, or even function, we decided to treat this episode at my parents’ house while I took a heavy duty mind sedating drug.
It was now clear that OCD was a part of my life.
Three years later, my obsessive thoughts overwhelmed me yet again. I am sensitive and kind-natured, unable to stand any type of conflict. As a gentle and loving mother, I chose time-outs as my preferred method of correcting my children. I’ve only spanked each child once, and I still regret those two experiences. And yet, the thought that stuck into my mind was, “What if I go crazy and harm my children?” The “doubting disease” was in full force, unable to be reasoned with. “What if…?” I worried that I would accidentally kill them.
My counselor said, “I know you. You are kind and gentle. I’ve spoken to mothers who have killed their children and you are nothing like them.” She reminded me that with OCD, the subject matter wasn’t important. “You could be obsessing about a lump of coal.” But, this thought was so alarming to me (“How could I think I could accidentally kill my kids? What kind of monster would even allow that thought into her mind?”) and caused me such panic that one night, I almost called 911 on myself. I was going to say, “I’m having the thought that ‘what if I go crazy and kill my sweet, precious babies?’”) And so, back to the hospital I went.
Those 8 days, while I felt reassured that I wouldn’t harm my children, were very difficult. One of the other patients became fascinated with me and would follow me around, doing awful things with his hands down his pants. Because of this, they moved him to the other end of the unit and had a guard stand watch at my door. That was a few years ago and I am now grateful that I was hospitalized because they found a mood stabilizing drug (meant for those with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) that seems to help my OCD.
It’s been 26 years since my first hospitalization and I still struggle to accept that this is a life-long battle. While I’m currently stable, every day, in the back of my mind, I wonder, “What if this is the event that triggers me to spiral out of control… again? What if the pain comes back and knocks me to the ground… again?” Or, more the more frightening question, “What if my children inherit my mental illness?”
I’ve decided to face this worry head on. If it comes back, I will face it. Just like I have every single other time. I’ve survived, every single other time. And I’ve learned new ways to deal with my mind, every single other time.
As for my worry that my children might inherit my mental illness? Because I’m aware of this possibility, I’m on the look out for it. If this becomes an actual concern, or a realistic problem, I’ll be a proactive, informed parent, getting my children the help that they need. I’m also comforted by the thought that “you can only go as deep with others as you’ve gone yourself.” Because I’ve experienced so many difficulties with my mind, I have so much compassion for others who are struggling. I know that if my children one day face the same struggles, then, in me, they will have a loving, caring parent, who will be able empathize and meet them where they are.
If you are here, then you are most likely part of my tribe; my people. You are most likely one of the nearly 44 million Americans – one in five – struggling with mental illness this year. I am here to remind you, when you feel that life – and your mind – has knocked you down, to have hope. My mind has knocked me down more times than I can count. And yet, here I stand…
Michelle has written three books and has 5 stories published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is a wife, mother of two, and a lover of mindfulness, peace, and happiness.