Like many people, my descent into mental instability wasn't swift or sudden or even necessarily obvious. It was slow, and spiraling, and Bell Jar-esque, and over what I can only estimate as being over the course of 12 years. I didn't have an out-of-nowhere mental breakdown, or drop my basket during a time of transition, or have a hormonal imbalance triggered by puberty. To most of my family and friends, it wasn't a disorder at all -- I was just a high-strung, anxious, type-A person. Because I grew up with obsessive compulsive disorder, it had always been virtually impossible to separate my symptoms from my personality.
This was my outlook as well -- that the rituals, obsessions and habits that plagued my day-to-day routines were simply just what life looked like for me. Because of the stigma surrounding mental disorders and illnesses, it was easier for me and everyone around me to write off my symptoms as personality quirks rather than acknowledge them for what they really were. Some people liked listening to music on airplanes, I couldn't get on one without my designated plane shoes, backpack, and a stash of Clorox wipes. Some people slept with a nightlight, I slept with my closet doors closed an exact way and after telling my mom I loved her three times and kissing my doll on the very top of her head. Some people ate a little extra when they were stressed, I had to force myself to eat even one meal a day during times of high anxiety.
I don't look like the type of person that society labels crazy -- I have a full-time job, attended a prestigious four-year university, am relatively social, was a member of a sorority, and would like to think I generally put myself together pretty well (just don't catch me on a Saturday morning). I don't talk to myself (at least not in front of other people), or look disheveled, or have visible ticks. I am in most ways the exact opposite of every stereotype perpetuated about people who suffer from mental disorders -- in that, I hope I serve as an example that it can happen to anyone.
It took me until I was a senior in college to seek help via therapy and eventually start taking psychiatric medication. I was feeling particularly overwhelmed as graduation loomed, struggling through a messy breakup, experiencing a severe loss of appetite and emotional instability (lots, lots of tears), and crumbling under what felt like suffocating weight of everyday life. It felt less like a choice and more like an inevitability that had finally caught up to me. It also felt like defeat.
Two years later, I am not a completely new person. I am still a bit high-strung, still am particular, and still am working on the process of letting go of my rituals. But I can, in no uncertain terms, say that finally admitting I had a problem and seeking help for it gave me a life I never thought I would be able to have.
I can now sit on an airplane in sandals, take public transportation, travel without planning out each minute, and fall asleep without any ritualisms. Without spending hours struggling through the roadblocks posed by my OCD, I have time for things I wouldn't never done before -- I rock climb, go to yoga, and recently completed my first screenplay. This month, I moved to San Francisco -- something I would've never even considered because of the anxiety it would cause. I finally have control of my life, and that has opened up a world of opportunities for me. Over the past two years, I've emerged as the person that had previously been hidden behind the crushing weight of my disorder.
The stigma of mental illness is a heavy one -- if we have something wrong with our bodies, it's fine to admit it, seek help, and advocate for others to do the same. But if we have something wrong with our minds, it's suggested that we are being dramatic, should be able to work through it ourselves, and should -- above all -- keep it to ourselves. How can we be advocates for health if we refused to acknowledge and provide help for one of the most important parts of our bodies?
I spent 12 years of my life -- some of the most important years of my life -- living as a shell of what I could've been, and that's a hard reality to face. I mourn the person that I could have been had I not been too stubborn and ashamed to seek help and hurt when I think of how many years of suffering I could have avoided. But above all, I am thankful that I sought help, now have the opportunity to live largely free of OCD, and can do my small part to reduce the stigma surrounding mental disorders.
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