People have told me I’m brave for these posts, but I’m not–I swear I’m not–as evidenced by the fact that I’ve meant to write this post for forever, but I’ve held off. I don’t even plan on posting it on Twitter or Facebook. (Though I know it’ll autopost on Twitter at some point.) I want this searchable, though. If you saw the searches that end up on my blog, you’d know that this post needs to happen…and, yet, you have know idea how much I don’t want to post this.
If my usual candor seems absent, I hope you’ll forgive me because once upon a time, someone found out I had OCD and they assumed I was dangerous, violent, and suicidal. At the time, I was none of those things. I’ve only ever been one of those things. But mental illness isn’t a well-known topic and that person’s ignorance…well, let’s just say that things weren’t good for a bit, and there were repercussions.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with OCD, you might assume that the risk of suicide is fairly low–when the inverse is actually true. There is a very high-rate of suicidal tendencies among those with OCD. A quick internet search has it at 50% according to some studies. How accurate this is, I don’t know. I do know that in those I’ve spoken to on the topic, 100% of the women had considered it at some time. Fewer men, but I haven’t spoken to as many about it either. If you don’t have OCD, you might find this surprising…so I’ll explain a few of the reasons.
1. OCD is often found with other conditions: depression, autism, agoraphobia, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and anorexia to name a few. The presence of other mental disorders will obviously acerbate many of the symptoms and feelings associated with OCD. When things stack against you, depression seems as inevitable as the next compulsion.
2. It’s the bane of OCD that we know our rituals, our obsessions, our avoidance, our behaviors aren’t actually accomplishing anything. But we do them anyway. We may try to stop, but, even then, we know we’re pushing against it. That lack of control is frightening in someone who needs control so desperately. The harder we push against what our brain is suggesting–the more aware we are of it.
At some point, everyone I know with OCD has wondered if they were actually mad–or going mad. This fear of madness–this lack of control–has teeth. These worries get in your brain and make functioning harder. Even medicated and with the support of many people and doing well, this uphill battle is tiring. The path seems long–actually it seems endless. Most of us know there is no magic cure. OCD feels terminal. (I’m explaining the feeling–not the reality. There is a lot of hope at the end of this post–push through.)
3. The insomnia. How long does it take you to get to sleep? The average person takes 10-20 minutes. It takes me hours. Last night, I was stressed out and obsessed so it took me three hours. Tonight I couldn’t sleep until I wrote this post. Insomnia affects the greater percentage of people with OCD. After three hours of staring at the ceiling–things look bleaker than they are. Your body doesn’t handle long-term sleep deprivation well. I’ve been sleep-deprived my whole life. It compromises your decision-making skills quite a bit.
4. The darkness. I’ve mentioned in another post the issue of dark thoughts, but I don’t think you can really comprehend how dark they really are if you don’t experience them. Those nightmares you have where you behave so much at odds with how you are that you wake up gasping and loathing yourself until the nightmare fades? The nightmares where you feel…depraved and ugly on the inside? Those are the thoughts that brush our heads during the day. In church. On a bus. In a restaurant. At our kids’ schools. My OCD medication keeps them at bay fairly well, but when they’re strong and present, it’s really hard to think of myself as a good person…which leads to:
5. The impossible self-expectations. I’m the middle child. I followed two brilliant, logical brothers, and I felt like I could never measure up. My teachers didn’t help the situation. I heard, “Oh, you’re Adam’s sister,” in every class…on every first day…everywhere. Add to that, I thought I was going insane, and I had the dark thoughts to compete with. I never thought I’d be good enough because I thought I wasn’t good on the inside. Most people with OCD are driven. It’s never enough. We’re never enough. The hormones of my teenage years were awful, and then, later, postpartum depression hit me and, once again, I never thought I’d be good enough or sane enough. It’s brutal.
6. The isolation. I’ve heard the average age of diagnosis for OCD is 28 years old–for the official diagnosis. Most people with OCD have known for many, many years, but they’ve been hiding it. When you’re hiding something as big as OCD, you tend to keep some of yourself apart. Also, if you have the fear that you’ll inadvertently harm anyone who gets too close…you want that space. OCD is lonely. You’re doing things that don’t make sense for reasons that sometimes don’t even correlate. The darkness inside your head feels crushing. It’s not surprising if you wonder if anyone can understand you. (Finish this post–it gets less…this. It gets better.)
7. The treatments. OCD is often difficult to treat. I can’t even begin to tell you how many different meds I’ve tried. Manipulating brain chemicals can be a scary thing. You know the big warning on anti-depressants saying to consult your doctor if you have suicidal thoughts? Yeah, well, guess what? OCD is typically treated with anti-depressants. And that side effect…is ugly…and the reason why I discontinued several meds abruptly. It’s horrible. If you read my other posts, you know I washed out of therapy–twice. Two therapists told me that therapy was making me worse and both said…that for the first time ever…they were recommending a patient stop therapy. Twice. Treatments are sometimes tough to get right and often a lot of work. I work harder at being sane than at anything else.
Now that you understand the why…let me stop and say that none of the above matters. If you’re reading this and you’re dealing with OCD, the road may be rough but there is always someone out there willing to walk beside you even if you don’t know it yet. They don’t have to “get” OCD to be supportive and love you. And everyone is worthy of love. You are worthy of love. There are qualities inside you that will never be duplicated in another human being ever. You have the potential to do things for the world that no one else can do. You are worthy of respect and kindness. Never forget that.
There are these moments in my life that have seemed so desperate–so intense. Nothing seemed to matter as much as what mattered in those instances. That is the lie of OCD. The intensity is a mirage. It’s brain chemicals producing an urgency. Life is longer than what happens in a second, or a day, or a week even. And life can be brilliant and amazing and shouldn’t be sacrificed for what you feel when your brain is working against you. The past is the past. The present is fixable. The future can be better than you’d ever guess if you stop focusing on the intensity of one single moment, one situation, one horrible year. You have that control. You are enough–powerful enough, good enough, strong enough. You are enough.
I started off saying that I’m weak…that I’m not brave, but I think this weakness has made me strong. The ability to say that the fight is hard is not the same as giving up. It is recognizing that being human means being comprised of parts that might not always work how they should. This weakness–this madness–this frailty has helped to strengthen others. If I’d known as a teenager that I’d be able to talk about any of this–that I’d be able to help other people by talking about it–I’d have seen a light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of worrying about being normal or cured, I’d have focused on being better at being me.
I’m not brave enough to spread this around, but I’m just brave enough to post it, and I hope that if you have OCD, you’ll recognize in this list of reasons why suicide lingers…the very same reason why it shouldn’t: all the reasons above are linked to OCD…not you…but to OCD. I’ve known many authors who have written letters to their teenage selves. Here’s mine:
It is not hopeless. It will not always feel this endless. Someday you’ll find someone who you can tell all of this to, and they’ll understand. And that will lead to you telling other people. And even being alone will get easier because you’ll accept that your OCD is not you. You’ll know that you’re not dark. And you’ll believe that you are worthy of being loved…and being loved for exactly who you are–inside and outside. Someday, you’ll be glad that every time you considered suicide, you put it off until another day. That day will never come that suicide is the right answer. Better days are ahead. Believe in that…and believe you have something to give the world that makes your life precious because it is.
That control that seems every elusive–it’s always been inside you. You eventually can control the demon in your head because you’re the one who decided it wasn’t meant to be there. Someday, you’ll know that you are enough–that you were always enough–that everyone always thought you were enough. You were never alone–even if you were lonely–you just didn’t look around. Someday…you’ll discover that everyone is a little mad–and you’re a charming sort of crazy. And you’ll be happy. You will laugh every day–sometimes every hour. And you will cry when you look back and wish you really could send this letter to the girl you once were. It was never as bad as you thought it was, and it’ll be better than you could have imagined. It gets better–I swear.
And I take a deep breath, and post…and go to sleep. Hopefully. Geez, insomnia is vile.
*None of these posts on OCD can replicate or replace a visit to a health care professional and are my own personal experience and opinions. Please seek help if you feel you or someone you love needs it.*