I've had this post in my queue for months now, partially finished and just…waiting. Waiting for what, I'm not really sure. The right time? The right moment? I don't know. And I don't know why now feels like the right time. But it finally does.
She digs her fingernails into her own scalp so hard it creates little specks of blood in her blonde hair. Her forehead is pressed into the carpet, her scream absorbing into the skritchy scratchy fabric of the hallway.
The lights are on but everything is dark behind her eyelids. There is only a spiraling, spinning, endless terror. Her body feels heavy, like she's been drug to the bottom of a lake. But her mind feels heavier, as though it's collapsing down into the spaces behind her cheeks, slipping through her throat, and splattering against her chest cavity.
She must be dying. She must be.
Everything is pins and needles; everything is folding in on itself.
She wishes it hurt more. Maybe then she could stop the whirlwind in her head.
She screams and screams and screams.
She shakes and shivers and convulses.
And there is a moment - a brief and beautiful moment - when everything goes blank. Enveloped in her own destruction, there is a second of silence.
Her eyes flutter open, wide and blue and exhausted.
The monsters, wiry and skeletal, slink back into her shadows.
The worst has passed…for now.
But it will be back. It always comes back.
My post today isn't as specifically "feminist" as usual. But it is about something incredibly important. Today's post is about something I deal with daily and I know other people do too.
I have severe OCD.
I have panic attacks.
And I take medicine because of it. 20mg of Prozac every day.
Ready to delve a little deeper? Everything from here on out is super duper personal (but that's what I love about writing this blog!). Mental health - and my experience with it - is something that, not too long ago, I was afraid to talk about. I was afraid of judgement, embarrassment, and weakness. I was afraid that talking about my anxiety might make it worse - but it did exactly the opposite. These days I like to be super open about it, in the hopes that any stigmas or shame relating to the issue can be resolved. And that, if anyone else has gone or is going through something similar they'll know that they're not alone, and that things can - and will! - get better.
So, here we go…let's embrace our crazy together :)
I'm a highly anxious person, and have been ever since I can remember. Fear is an emotion that I hold near my heart constantly. I've been a chronic worrier since I was a child, and my OCD has been so severe at times that I literally couldn't leave my room. I have panic attacks from time to time, and I've spent periods of my life in a shroud of depression. Anyone who's ever lived with me will tell you that I'm unpredictable and unstable, moody and manic. And I'm the first to admit that I have my share of "issues" (such a weird, loaded word). But - over the years - I've found out just how strong I am, and I hope that my journey battling anxiety will help others know that they're not alone. We're all crazy - it's what you make of the crazy that matters. It's been a long road for me, trying to cope with and overcome my fears. And I’m definitely not the only one – a huge percentage of the population deals with some combination of anxiety/depression/etc. But I'm here to tell you that it can be overcome - and that it will make you a better person.
From the time I was cognizant I remember being afraid. It's literally been a part of my psyche and my personality for 25 years. I never felt safe - I was terrified of every place and every one. One strange example: McDonald's ball pits were one of my worst nightmares. I was a germaphobe by the age of 5 or 6, and fast food playgrounds seemed like a breeding ground for a variety of awful things. While my brother would dive headfirst into the pit searching for lost chicken nuggets and wads of gum, I would tiptoe my way into the edge of the pit, disgusted and conflicted.
Driven by some sort of desire to be ‘normal’ I would wade in as far as I dared before darting out tearfully. I would wash my hands until they were raw and obsess over all the unknown diseases that I was sure I'd contracted.
From very early on I was terrified of thrift and antique stores - or anything that had been owned by someone else. I would have nervous break downs and teary fits whenever I had to spend time in an old building. By the age of 8 I was convinced that were needles in the seats of movie theaters, filled with incurable illnesses, so I stopped going to the movies.
By the time I was 12 and in middle school, my worrying and obsessive compulsive behavior had escalated to the point that it was debilitating. And my fears became increasingly stranger and unrealistic.
First there was my fear of aliens. I blame a good portion of this fear on watching “Men in Black,” and “Signs.” Regardless of where it stemmed from, I became convinced that aliens were among us and were, at any moment, going to kidnap or kill me (or both). My teacher? She was a little too friendly; maybe it was all an intergalactic scam. The mailman? It was all too possible that delivering packages was an elaborate ruse. The bagger at Albertsons grocery store? He was awkward and twitchy and he tried to give me a sticker—definitely an alien. I spent almost all of my time obsessing over who might be an invader from outer space, and it threatened to drive me nuts. I even became convinced that my parents might be aliens, and that, in the middle of the night, they might destroy me with some terrifying alien ray gun.
Ultimately, I got over this. Unfortunately, it came with a price—an even worse and more immobilizing fear.
I became convinced that I was dreaming.
Suddenly everything was upside down and uncertain. I knew—just knew—that when I was supposedly “awake” I was actually asleep. Therefore no part of my life thus far had any meaning, and every moment was a façade.
Honestly, I don’t very well know how to describe the awfulness of this situation (I was probably 13 years old or so at the time this was happening). There is no other time in my life where I have been so miserable and felt so helpless.
From the moment I “woke” up to the moment I went to “sleep,” everything was thrown into question. I was constantly afraid that my life was not real. That every joy and every sorrow had been in my head, and that maybe I didn’t even exist. Maybe no one did. Maybe everything was one huge dream.
The what-if’s spiraled through my mind, filling me with doubt and anxiety.
What if I was asleep…what if none of this was real…?
It didn’t matter if I was taking a walk with my dad, celebrating Christmas with my family, or sitting in Home Ec class, all I could think about was that every new experience might be a lie. I was so distracted and freaked out I almost drove the sewing machine's needle through my finger.
I stopped talking to and hanging out with friends. I stopped sleeping at night, just to see what would happen (incidentally I turned myself into an insomniac, but my lack of sleep did nothing to convince me what was real and what wasn’t - it only made me more confused and anxious).
If you’ve never shared this intense fear, I can see how it might seem implausible that something so far-fetched could make me feel so wretched. But there I was, barely a teenager, wrestling with the idea that everything that meant anything to me—even life itself—might be a fabrication of my own mind. This is an absolutely gut wrenching sensation. Imagine believing that everything you’ve worked for and everyone you’ve ever loved is a trick played by your mind. It’s terrifying.
At some point I decided that, if I wasn’t dreaming then I must be crazy. Like, legitimately out of my mind. At times I became so consumed by the thought of my own insanity I risked fainting. My vision would tunnel out, my breathing would become sporadic, and my body would go numb. My reality once again got thrown into question—if I was insane, what if everything was a hallucination? Or what if, in a fit of madness—I hurt myself or someone else? What if I had to go to an insane asylum? What if, what if, what if what if what ifwhatifwhatif whati if what if what if what if if if if…
It was around this time that I started having panic attacks.
As my mind careened out of control, so too did my body. Besides spastic vision/breathing/etc. it was as though I lost control of my limbs. I’d flail and thrash and throw myself to the ground. I’d pound my fists and my forehead into the carpet; I'd kick my feet into the walls. And I’d scream. A lot.
I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen (just ask my loving parents), and even as a young child I had a tendency to be overly emotional. I’m sure my dramatic nature didn’t help when the panic attacks struck, but I wasn’t seeking attention.
I was looking for salvation. Some sort of escape or relief or understanding of why I felt so damn awful all the time. It was in these moments that everything culminated into one big, messy cacophony of fear, anger, paranoia, and anxiety, and my mouth and body were the medium.
In a way, though these attacks were terrible, there was a brief sense of clarity within them. For a few seconds, while my body spasmed, my mind had a chance to be still. There was so much chaos inside me that, when it erupted, it left a momentary blank slate that I could hole up in.
Then the panic attack would pass and, lying on the floor or my bed or wherever, my arms and legs would relax, I’d regain control of my tongue, and all the horrifying thoughts and worries would resume their place in my mind. Calm had returned to my exterior, but the storm raged on within.
It was a ruthless cycle that left me with little time for anything but myself. Which, quite frankly, was the last thing I wanted to deal with.
I don’t know how long this cyclical destruction might have continued had my parents not made an executive decision. After much research and many referrals, they told me they were taking me to a therapist.
At first I rebelled against the idea. The idea, in and of itself, made me nervous and embarrassed and ashamed. If I went to a therapist it meant I was "officially" crazy, and that thought made me nauseous. But my parents were relentless. They had watched me suffer long enough and no longer knew how to help me.
I am forever grateful that they made the call to Dr. Lewis. It changed my life.
I went to Dr. Lewis for just over a year, and it was in those months that I began to - for the first time ever - gain control of my fear and anxiety. I spent most sessions sobbing, trying to articulate my outrageous worries. Through it all he listened patiently and assured me that it was going to be alright. He told me, over and over again, something that has stuck with me to this day:
"You're stronger than you think you are."
These words have become my mantra, and because of Dr. Lewis's tips and teachings, and the love and support of my family, I began to resume a normal life. Sure, I still worried, and yeah, I still had bouts of OCD. But I began to smile again, I hung out with friends, and the panic attacks resided.
In the fall of 2012, I headed off to college at The University of Tulsa - something that had, just a year ago, potentially been off the table due to my inability to operate in society without extreme discomfort and terror. In college I continued to overcome my fears. I quickly lost my fear of germs (sleeping on frat floor bathrooms will do that), and I was so consumed by classes, boys, booze, and new friends that I had little time to worry.
College took a previously shy, wall flower of a girl and turned her into a bubbly, outgoing party animal. The first semester of my college year was spent mostly drunk or hung over, always dating someone, and always down for a good time.
Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest way to live for six months, but it sure as hell worked wonders on my psyche and my anxiety. I’d never felt so happy and so worry-free before.
Ultimately, college was the best remedy for my worry. It gave me other things to focus on and showed me that there was more to life than being afraid all of the time. My fears and OCD would continue to plague me sporadically throughout my time in Tulsa, but I was always able to reign them in and cope.
Upon graduation, I moved to Arizona and things regressed. With the hot desert air came a new slew of worries. I was in an unhealthy relationship, in a town where there was nothing to do and little hope for a future as a writer, and my unhappiness and dissatisfaction took the form of anxiety. My OCD resurfaced again, and I began turning lights on and on on and off on and off, and getting in and out and in and out and in and out of bed. I couldn't go ten minutes without having to do something compulsively. This is, as you might imagine, exhausting. I became increasingly depressed and discontent. I spent my free time - of which I had a lot - watching TV or sleeping. I stopped writing completely.
As my relationship continued to dissolve, I made the decision to see a therapist again in the hopes that I could save what I thought was love. Almost immediately after diagnosing me, my therapist asked if I'd ever been medicated.
"No," I responded adamantly. Medication had always been - in my eyes - a form of weakness. If I needed pills to cope with life, then I was a failure. I'd been raised to be strong, to be determined, and to never stop trying. Taking meds seemed like a cop-out.
He told me I should consider it.
I left feeling disgruntled and called my mom to complain.
"He told me I should be medicated," I mumbled grumpily into the phone.
My mother was silent.
Her next words shocked me. She told me, calmly, that when I'd first started going to therapy years before, Dr. Lewis had recommended strongly that I start taking medicine for my anxiety. My mother and father didn't want to make that decision for me when I was still so young, so they told him no and never told me.
"Oh," was all I could say.
"Maybe…" My mom said gently, "You should consider it."
I told her my aversion to it - about how I wanted to be brave and masochistic and blah blah blah.
"Sometimes being strong," she said, "is about trying something else. Maybe this will change things for you. You might feel so much better."
I thought about it for a week. I was worried (of course) that taking pills would change me - turn me into someone else. Who was I without my worry? In the moments after that thought had formed in my mind, another realization struck - a beautiful, wonderful, hopeful realization. Without my worry and anxiety, I'd be me. I'd be so much more myself if I could overcome my fear. Fear shouldn't define me. It didn't have to define me. I wouldn't let it define me.
I started taking Lexipro (an antidepressant, anti-axiety pill) several days later. I didn't notice any changes at first, in fact, things actually seemed to get worse. My relationship didn't get better, instead It ended - full of tears and broken hearts and disillusioned dreams. I moved home, shaken up and utterly lost. I felt like an entire year of my life had slipped by, full of sadness. What was I going to do now?
My panic attacks came back worse than ever, despite the Lexipro.
I ended up in the ER one night the panic was so bad - I couldn't walk, couldn't talk, couldn't even function. I thought I was going to die.
I sat lethargically in my room for days after that, trying not to think. I cried almost every night, unable to stop thinking. I couldn't find a reason to be happy.
Until, in a desperate moment, I sat down at my computer and started typing. Poem after poem flowed from my fingers. I hadn't written in over 12 months, and I realized abruptly that I had a LOT to say - to my ex, to my family, to my friends, to myself. Several hours later, I was shaky and fatigued, but I felt better than I had in a very, very long time.
That was a turning point in my life. From that night on, things started to get better. I went out to eat with old friends, spent time with my family, and started finding and re-defining myself. And, within the month, I'd met the love of my life, moved to California, and begun to create the life I'd always dreamed of living. It sounds wild and farfetched, I know, but it's amazing what hope can do for the human heart. My hope came from writing, from family, from friends, and from the deepest parts of myself, and it reminded me that, like I'd been told once before, I was stronger than I'd ever thought.
About two years ago, not long after my move to LA, I switched from Lexipro to Prozac at the recommendation of my new doctor. I was still having the occasional panic attack, and my doctor suggested that Prozac might be a better fit for me. He was right. Almost immediately I noticed a change. I felt far less anxious and much less high-strung. The panic attacks aren't gone completely, but I do feel like I can handle them better now. I'm seeing a therapist that I absolutely love, and I'm surrounded by people who support and encourage me, in spite of the fact that it's still a bit difficult to be around me sometimes.
I've come an incredibly long way in my battle against anxiety, OCD, and depression. And it's not a fight that's completely won. Hell, I don't know that it will ever be completely won. I'm a worrier by nature. I still have at least one moment of OCD a day, and I still have a tendency to be anxious about things. But, if there's one thing I've learned in 25 years, it's that there are things you can do to alleviate much of that worry. And that being a worrier is NOT something to be embarrassed about. I'm now so thankful that I decided to start taking medicine - and I'm a huge advocate for positivity and openness surrounding medicine/therapy/etc. There's still so much of a stigma attached to being medicated/attending therapy/etc (even though a good deal of people do one or the other or both). I stayed away from it for so long for fear of being perceived as "weak" or feeling ashamed. Medication definitely isn't for everyone, and you 100% need to talk to a doctor about it and be safe/smart/informed - but I strive to make people feel comfortable about it, whatever their decision. I'm very open about my OCD/anxiety/Prozac, and I think sometimes that unnerves people. But if I can encourage just one person to feel good about and comfortable with themselves no matter their issues/situations/etc. then I'm going to keep sharing my stories.
Whew. Goodness this was a long post. If you're still reading, thank you. I really feel like this is an important thing to talk about, and it's something I'm dedicated to keeping an open conversation about. I know this isn't a specifically feminine issue, but I do know a lot of ladies who deal with anxiety and worry (and men do too!). Being a feminist has actually helped me have strength and courage when it comes to talking about my anxiety, and feminism has made me a more passionate, more open person in general.
Whether you're struggling with, have struggled with, or know someone struggling with anxiety/depression/OCD/etc. I hope this has given you some hope, insight, inspiration, and encouragement. There are a lot of wonderful programs and people out there who can advise you more specifically and officially on these sorts of things than I can - please make sure you contact a doctor/professional to address anxiety/depression/etc. in a safe and healthy way. And, most importantly, don't hesitate to seek help if you are dealing with any of these things. And know that you are not alone, and that you can always, always, always reach out to me.
You're stronger than you think you are. I promise.