*To preface my story: this is in no way supposed to be a sob story or asking for sympathy, it is simply a piece to tell my story and educate people about the truth of living with mental illness for your entire life. It is a conversation starter and a beacon of hope.*
I never thought anything was wrong, I thought this was how everyone thought and acted. It never really crossed my mind at six years old that I was different. My friends all chalked it down to me being me, not that I was weird or “sick”.
I was a pretty laid back baby and toddler; I slept all the time and ate anything you put in front of me. I laughed, I was social, people liked me. When I was in Kindergarten, we went to have dinner with family for a birthday or something of the sort. I ate chicken fingers. That night I came down with a stomach bug of sorts. I decided it was because of the food. After that, I wouldn’t want to step foot in a restaurant; my parents tell me that when we would walk across the parking lot holding my hand, I would start to sweat and stand in place, refusing to go in. Since I was five, I was forced in anyway. But I would avoid chicken fingers like the plague.
Soon after that, I started washing my hands excessively to rid myself of germs so I wouldn’t throw up. That was the big fear: vomit. It didn’t even have to be mine, because if I was near it I was convinced I would catch whatever made that person sick. I wouldn’t use the bathroom at school, or any public place. I would pump the soap three times rinse and repeat ten times. Then I would wash the backs of my legs where they touched the toilet, because the toilet is full of germs that could make me sick, so I had to do everything in my power to stop that.
My parents soon saw how chaped my legs and hands were and started to take me to various doctors to see what was wrong. I had no clue what was happening. At this point I was probably six years old, and didn’t know your mind could be sick. I was finally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, more commonly known as OCD. That still didn’t register with me, so my new therapist described it as a bully in my head that was making me do things that I didn’t want or need to do “or else”. We started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and I was reluctantly put on Prozac (my parents were initially against it, but was told by a psychologist that I was suffering and medicine would improve how I was feeling and acting, so they decided to put me on it because they couldn’t bear knowing that more could be done to help me).
Something that I have always been afraid of, besides vomit, was failure. In first grade and into second grade, I had a compulsion where I would rub spit on a place where a misbehaved kid touched me. I don’t really know the reasoning behind the spit; I guess it was to clean the bad with good? I needed so badly to be recognized as this amazing person and to have approval from authority, so I needed to separate myself from the bad kids in every way possible. I was (am) worried about the future, and I didn’t want to be…well a fuck-up, to be blunt.
Another compulsion that popped up was based on an old superstition: throwing salt over your left shoulder after you spill it, or else you’ll have bad luck. Of course, I couldn’t have that, so everytime I dropped something, I threw it over my left shoulder. Also anytime I made fists, I had to unfurl them over my left shoulder.
Once I was sick, like vomit sick, and said that the nausea went on and off. So I would alert my parents that I was nauseous by saying that I was “on”. That continued well after the illness went away, because, for some reason I thought it would prevent throwing up. I find that a lot of my OCD goes in opposites, kind of like jinxes. So if I say I won’t get sick, I will and vise versa. So I would constantly tell my parents “I’m on” to try to reverse psychology the universe. I was that way with a lot of my compulsions, come to think of it. I would say up (as in throw up) every time I said down, and I had and still have mantras I say in attempts to ward off “bad things”.
That’s the whole point of OCD, though, it’s to prevent bad things from happening. And people who have it find ways to do that through compulsions made from small connections to their “bad things”. I worked, and still work, in therapy to overcome these compulsions. We do exposure therapy and lots and lots of CBT. We delay the compulsion, we change it to be different every time so it doesn’t stick, we work at the root of the fear to help see why this won’t prevent anything, we also do something called “junk thoughts vs. facts” where we would list the thought, the “junk thought” and refute it with the facts. I always hated this as a kid, but I try to do it everyday now with both OCD and general anxiety.
Too many people think OCD is about being clean and organized, which it can be, but there’s an intense fear of something bad happening that’s attached to it that makes it OCD. It’s my pet peeve when people go “I like to be organized, I’m so OCD about it”. They don’t realize the depth of the disorder, they just prefer to be organized, they don’t have to be or else they will be paralyzed with fear of impending doom. I try to point this out to people, but I just end up looking like an ass.
As I got older, I started to develop more generalized anxiety. I had my first panic attack when I was eight on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Too many people, too much noise, too overwhelming. I started to become less social, more focused on doing well in school. I had two or three key friends by fifth grade, compared to the fifteen or so in Kindergarten. I worried more and more about the future, especially watching my older brother grow up, and do things that I would soon have to do. In middle school, I developed social anxiety based on self esteem issues, but that’s quite common at that age. I wasn’t able to talk to new people, I wasn’t able to give a class presentation without stuttering, sweating, crying, or all of the above.
The self esteem issues then stemmed into body dysmorphia. I was in seventh grade (I think? Either that or sixth), and I was at my yearly doctor’s physical. They weighed me and told me I was 103 pounds. I flipped. I thought that was way too much, even though I would kill to weigh that now. My poor self esteem and OCD teamed up to make me anorexic. I would only eat dinner, and I would eat less than half of it. I would do upwards of 150 sit ups, twice a day. I would do any kind of exercise I could do. By eighth grade I was 80 pounds. Before this, I had stopped going to therapy for a while, because, at the time, I was stable. My parents didn’t realize the depth of it until my physiatrist talked to me and weighed me. I went back to therapy, ate a bunch of sweets and gained the weight back, and then some. I was resistant to gaining weight at first, but I was told of all the health risks and I started to panic. Also, my therapist is super strict with that so I knew I had to.
I still have similar type thoughts to those I had when I was anorexic. I think about restricting my eating, and I get really uncomfortable when I see something in the mirror that I don’t like. Luckily, but not luckily, I don’t have the restraint I did back then to not eat (and eating healthy is hard when you’re a picky eater). And most days, as of right now, I am feeling ok with my body. Would I like to drop a few? Yes, but I won’t go to unhealthy lengths to do so.
Eighth grade into Freshman year of highschool were my lows. My brother had started looking at and applying to colleges. I was sad to see such a constant and loved part of my life leave me. However, I started analyzing myself. I realized I had no idea what I wanted to do (who does in eighth grade?) and that I probably wasn’t smart enough for an Ivy League school if my brother wasn’t either (I placed a lot of personal worth in being smart, so not going to an Ivy was a hard pill to swallow). I hate(d) the unknown and was rushing toward college before I had even started high school.
Ninth grade starts, I’m in all AP or honors courses. The social and academic stress starts to get to me. I have panic attacks daily, and leave school most days. I started self harming, because I felt I deserved it for being weak, or not doing well in class, or just because I generally hated myself. I was extremely depressed; all I wanted to do was sleep, because I didn’t want to deal with life and I started isolating, without realizing it, even though what I needed most in my life was people. I would have a meltdown every school night because I couldn’t bear the thought of going.
At one point I had posted something online that was vaguely hinting toward a plan of suicide. My closest friend at the time caught wind of it and told her guidance counselor. We had the same first period: studio art. One day she wasn’t there, which I found fishy since she was always there. Then the classroom phone rang. My heart dropped and I knew then what was going on. I was summoned to the guidance office where my friend, her guidance counselor, my guidance counselor, and my mom had gathered. She was telling me how worried she was, then my mom did the same, but said she didn’t know how serious it was. I never really talked about my suicidal ideation out loud before, so how was she to know. All she saw was anxiety.
It was decided that I would be pulled out of school and participate in an outpatient program at the nearest mental hospital. At that point, I was apathetic and didn’t really care what happened next. So, I spent all of November 2013, my freshman year of highschool, at a mental facility. To this day, I don’t know how many people or who knew where I was, and I don’t care to. I don’t want their sympathy that’s really only a formality, when they’re really thinking that they didn’t realize that I was that crazy.
I came back to school, not feeling all that different. We eased me back, going the first four periods one day, and the second four the next. I had to drop all my honors and AP courses because I was just too far behind, and the stress of trying to catch up was not ideal at the time. I was really down on myself for that, because I wasn’t appearing as smart and now would DEFINITELY not get into an Ivy League. There was a program at my school for kids around the county with learning disabilities. They had their own classes and counseling department. I only used the latter, but I was also helped by one of the aides. She helped me catch up and stay on top of work. She helped me calm down from anxiety and panic attacks. She was my savior. This program also helped me get 504 or IEP accommodations in school , meaning I was legally identified with a disability and was entitled to certain tools to help me succeed with my education. I can still use it in college, which is great.
Throughout the rest of high school I was kind of a loner, sitting quietly in the front of class, going to the library for lunch. Most of my friends at the time went to a different school. That didn’t matter though, because they would end up ditching me because I was too sad. That’s a long and complicated story, but basically, I was a bummer to be around, so they stopped inviting me places or responding when I invited them places. It blew up from there and I had pretty much no friends going into my junior year.
I was starting to get a better handle on things at that time, though. I was becoming more confident and less anxious. I made a friend or two in my classes. I started working towards college, which we never thought would happen just two years before. I made amends with one of the girls who dissed me because we had a class together senior year and started to reminisce and realize how much fun we were together. I got accepted to nine of the eleven colleges I applied to, and waitlisted at the other two. Ultimately, I decided to pursue fashion at the University of Delaware.
My first year at UD was good and bad. I made a lot of progress with anxiety, made some good friends, and even joined a sorority, which I never in a million years thought I would do. I also failed my first class, did subpar in the rest, had a witch of a professor who threw me into a minor depressive episode. But, it was good enough that I wanted to come back!
I’m still learning and growing and figuring out how to deal with my issues. As long as you work hard and have a good support system, you’ll get there. There’s hope, there’s always hope. You just have to ride the wave, and then you’ll be where you need to be. You can live a happy and fulfilling life with mental illness, it’s 100% possible. Please let my tale inspire you to achieve your dreams, or help out a loved one in need.
Remember: there’s no flowers without the rain.