I’ve felt like an actor for the majority of my life.
I’ve carried myself from childhood to adulthood with an invisible weight on my shoulders, very rarely letting anyone else help lighten the load. My struggle has also been my secret: I experience it internally and don’t like anyone knowing of its existence. Since my illness isn’t always visible from the outside, I’ve managed to project a version of myself that appears “normal.” But the problems I deal with don’t go away on their own – if ever. The act I’ve been maintaining for over 15 years is exhausting, and I feel like a cowardly person for not being open about my issues. I’m ashamed that I actively encourage public discussion about mental health, yet rarely am I willing to share my own personal account. So, as I enter further into my mid-twenties, I’m letting go of the shame and fear that’s been a byproduct of my disorder. I’m taking ownership of a part of me I’ve often wished wasn’t. I’m admitting that I suffer from mental illness. And I’m finally ready to talk about it, too.
I started exhibiting symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was around the age of ten. I was standing in the school playground at recess in the fifth grade when it first happened. A friend of mine accidentally called me Rachel – the name of a fellow classmate that we didn’t like. I was appalled at her error, and began to wonder why she made that mistake. Was I like Rachel? Was I secretly hated? Why would she say that to me? Then I started to feel funny. My thoughts caught fire and began lighting up my brain. I felt anxious and out of control and wanted to make it all stop. Suddenly I felt this urge to repeat the phrase, Laura, you are a very unique Laura, in my mind to “fix” the mistake my friend made, and to ensure that my fearful thoughts weren’t true. It was illogical thinking, but to me it made sense. I repeated the phrase over and over again until my anxiety slowly passed. I thought I had saved myself from a very terrible fate and that I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.
But then it happened again.
Since that day on the playground, my OCD has taken many different forms. I’ve had a terrible fear of contamination, where I would wash my hands until my skin cracked and bled. After I move passed my obsession with germs, I became fixated on bad things happening to my family members. I was convinced that if I didn’t repeat certain behaviors while thinking “good thoughts” (my mom won’t get hit by a car, my sister won’t go blind) then my fears would manifest into reality. On some level, I knew my thought process made little sense to the outside world, but to me, it was the only way I knew how to think. I believed the world operated in a way that I could somehow control: I had the ability – responsibility even – to make sure bad things didn’t happen. I felt trapped and tormented by obsessive behaviour, but I didn’t know how to stop it.
And until I got help, I didn’t even know I could.
I first saw a therapist when I began high school. She assigned an official name to my problem, which until that point, I had just called “my thing.” Talking about my OCD felt exhausting yet liberating. I had struggled in secrecy for so many years that I was thankful for finally getting the help I needed. I began to understand how my brain worked, and how to cognitively challenge the intrusive thoughts that swam in my mind. I actively resisted engaging in compulsions, and felt pride when my anxiety passed naturally. I was getting better, and was socializing with more ease. I wasn’t “cured” – my therapist told me that managing my OCD would take continual effort. But I was feeling happier, and to me, that seemed like enough.
After I stopped going to therapy, I wanted to pretend that I never did. I didn’t tell my friends that I had sought help for a disorder, because they didn’t even know I had one. I graduated high school in a decent mental state, and managed to keep my OCD under control. It wasn’t as if it wasn’t still there – it still loomed over me – but it was more of a light, gray rain cloud, rather than a heavy, dark one.
In my first couple years of university, things in my life were mostly good. I was studying fashion and finally felt like I had some control over my life. I loved living downtown and had a great group of friends. I seemed, from all outward appearances, to be confident and happy. And for a while, I really was.
Things started to get bad around my third year of school. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and I began to feel anxious over the thought of possibly losing her. I developed sleeping problems and became overwhelmed with my commitments. I didn’t know how to cope with my mother’s illness, and like with my own, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. I told a select few friends that my mother was going through chemotherapy, but to the rest of the world, I pretended she was fine. As a result of all the stress I was experiencing, my OCD rushed back into my life with great force and became my coping mechanism. I couldn’t accept the fact that I was losing control of things around me, so I maintained a false sense of security through compulsive behaviour. My brain tricked me into thinking that if I did any behaviour while thinking a “bad thought,” (my mom will die) it would come true.
Simple tasks became excruciating: I couldn’t even pick out clothes without my brain flooding with scary thoughts. I would reach for a dress and think, What if this dress is bad luck? If I wear this dress today, something bad is going to happen. So, I would sift through my entire wardrobe, forcing myself to think “good thoughts” (everything will be ok), until I could put on an item of clothing without thinking something “bad.” To anyone else this behaviour would seem ludicrous, but in my head I felt like I had no choice but to carry on this way. So, as an OCD-consumed twenty-something, I went through the motions of everyday life like a zombie. I was trying to “prevent” my mother from dying; I was trying to appear “normal;” and I was trying to act like everything was okay.
But everything wasn’t ok, and one day I just cracked.
I was sitting in my doctor’s beige office when she told me I had suffered from a “nervous breakdown.” My mind was so foggy that I hardly remember the conversation. I was afraid I was going to be institutionalized, or put on heavy medication. My breakdown was the most terrifying experience of my life – I genuinely thought I was losing my mind. I had become lifeless: all I wanted to do was sleep because being awake was too painful. I didn’t leave my bed for weeks. I had little appetite. I had zero energy. I remember looking at my reflection in the mirror one day, and not recognizing the person staring back at me. My eyes appeared hollow and my skin was pale. I was a shell of myself, and I feared I would never be the same. I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to live either.
It took me about four months of rest before I started to feel better. With each passing day, I slowly regained energy, and began to believe that I could come out of my dark trance. I began seeing a therapist who was instrumental in my recovery, and started to take care of my body in ways that I hadn’t before. Through weekly counselling sessions, journaling, regular exercise and eating well, I developed a lifestyle that helped manage my disorder. It’s a lifestyle that I still maintain today, and it’s the only lifestyle that feels good to me.
It’s been four years since my breakdown, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come. It’s not as if I don’t still struggle with OCD or anxiety – I do – but I deal with it, so it’s more manageable. It’s very hard to write about my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in a way that makes sense to the outside world – because logically I know it doesn’t. I’ve avoided discussing my struggles in the past out of fear that I’ll be judged, seen as weak, or deemed “crazy.”
The painful stigma that often accompanies mental illness prevents honest and open conversation, which ultimately leaves sufferers feeling alone. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that among the 20 per cent of Canadians that experience a form of mental illness in their lifetime, only about half of those affected by anxiety or depression will get help from a doctor for it. I masked my OCD for so long so no one would suspect I have a problem, which ironically contributed to the severity of it. I will never be “cured” from my disorder, but I’ve learned that I can live with it. I’m at a point in my life where I want to shed my shame, rid myself of embarrassment, and admit that I have a problem.
Because if I can’t own my disorder, it will own me. And I’ve already spent too many years hiding in its shadow.
Laura Hensley is a Toronto-based writer who is currently working on her Master of Journalism at Ryerson University. When she isn’t planning her next travel adventure, Laura enjoys stalking celebrities and cuddling her cat, Sushi. She dresses mostly in black to hide the food stains she frequently gets on her clothes. You can follow her on Twitter at @LolaHensley