Despite people’s hesitation to openly discuss their mental health, one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness each year. I am one of that 20 percent. Ever since I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety, dysthymia and traits of obsessive compulsive disorder. While the full-blown depressive states have been few and far between, I have a constant current of anxiety and obsessive thoughts that I experience on a daily basis.
Anxiety has been my companion since what feels like my conception. I don’t remember a day where I didn’t ruminate on people’s words or obsess over thoughts, fears or worries. I recently asked my best friend why I was so anxious all the time, and she responded that it was probably a combination of brain chemistry and environmental factors. I can’t disagree, as my father’s side suffers from extreme anxiety, and I experienced my own share of childhood trauma, though my situation was far from unique. My parents separated when I was three years old, and I remember the night my father moved out way more clearly than I’d like to. Since I was too young to comprehend the reasons for the separation, I blamed myself, and cultivated a fear of abandonment. I have always had trouble trusting the security of relationships, and I attribute that in large part to my parents’ divorce.
When I was in elementary school, I went to a doctor because I had some behavioral patterns I had trouble controlling. The doctor explained that these actions were tics, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an idiosyncratic and habitual feature of a person’s behavior.” While the vast majority of young Americans may associate tics with the exaggerated body movements of individuals featured in MTV’s True Life: I Have Tourette’s, my own experience has been much less extreme. I wasn’t diagnosed with Tourette’s, but I have certain obsessive behaviors that worsen when I’m anxious. I can clearly remember certain phrases that I repeated, such as the bizarrely intense response of, “Sorry I touched your breast,” if I accidentally grazed my mother’s chest. I also required that my parents tell me “I love you and I’ll never leave you,” each night before I went to sleep. I remember whispering to myself “red convertible” every time a car that fit that description drove by. As far as compulsions go, this was pretty harmless, but it became so incessant that I would close my eyes or block my vision when cars were passing nearby to eliminate the need to repeat the classification. I used to type what people said to me on an imaginary keyboard or handwrite it in cursive with an imaginary pen. To this day, I crack my neck, jaw, and wrists repeatedly whenever I’m uncomfortable or under a lot of stress.
I send silent thanks to the universe that my OCD is so mild. My experience, luckily, has not been a huge interference in my life. On the surface, it’s hard to tell I have OCD traits. I don’t turn the lights on and off for a predetermined number of times, or wash my hands until they bleed. I do, however, turn doorknobs again and again until I’m convinced doors are locked, and spend countless minutes making sure each of the stove burners are off. These are, of course, on top of my behavioral tics. My compulsions have always been few, but my obsessions are intense. I ask the same questions over and over again and never believe the answer. I read sentences in books many times before absorbing the meaning. I discovered recently, while watching Netflix with a friend, that I automatically turn subtitles on when watching TV to make sure I get every single word exactly. If I don’t understand it the first time, I rewind again and again until I know every word. It can be extremely difficult for me to just sit back and enjoy television — or life, for that matter.
I have never been uncomfortable about sharing my experience with mental illness. It’s a part of me, just like my brown hair, just like my cat tattoo, and just like my Sephardic heritage. I have been in and out of therapy since the age of four, and have no problem owning up to that. I would much rather be honest and open about my struggles than have them inadvertently scare people off or cause people to misconstrue my behavior.
There are periods in my life where my anxiety becomes nearly unmanageable. For instance, from about mid-November of last year until late February of this year, I was in a state I like to call “BB mania” — paranoia caused by bed bugs. A brush with the terrible pests caused my compulsions and obsessions to increase exponentially, and I was incapable of thinking about anything else. I checked beds and bedding obsessively and often perched upon areas I designated as safe instead of casually flopping on beds or couches.
My anxiety also peaks as a result of failed social encounters or perceived slights, and won’t subside until the next stressful thing happens. My anxiety is like a rain cloud I carry with me throughout life, but it only really thunderstorms when aggravated.
Throughout my life, I’ve encountered countless opportunities to test my self-confidence and strength. Because I’m so anxious all the time, I constantly doubt myself and my abilities. In working hard to establish who I am and what I believe in, I have an incredible sense of self. I understand my emotional responses on a very deep level, and have an awareness that is sometimes too aware. In an effort to celebrate myself, warts and all, I am on a constant search to find my best self and best life. While I wouldn’t glorify mental illness, I’m grateful for the insight into myself that it has provided.
Featured image by Practical Cures on Flickr. Used under license.