I have been living with mental illness since I was twelve years old, following the passing of my grandfather. It wasn’t until months later, when it came time to attend summer camp, (day camp mind you), that the first signs of a problem arose. I recall adamantly refusing to leave my mothers side. We had always been close, which is why I had never gone away to sleepover camp, but this attachment seemed to have changed. That summer, my mother and I spent every day together. As it turned out, this appeasement of my separation anxiety was a harbinger of further issues.
When it came time to attend a new school in the fall, the true extent of my mental state was revealed. I missed two months of school that first semester. Over the previous summer, I had developed, in addition to an unhealthy attachment to my mother, a debilitating case of obsessive compulsive disorder. My compulsions weren’t the stereotypical hand washing or counting that society has come to recognize as symptoms of OCD. Had they been, they may have been easier for everyone to understand. Somehow, following the death of my grandfather, I became obsessed (there is no other word) with the safety of my mother. I had come to believe, without any doubt, that my actions (or inaction) would affect her safety. While this may seem like it was obviously irrational, mental illness is not rational. Believing that you, and only you, are responsible for the safety of a loved one is a paralyzing responsibility. My compulsions were solely focused on her safety. Each night I would sit in the same spot on my bed and pray for hours - never mind that I don’t and didn’t believe in religion. I would repeat the same prayer, an indefinite amount of times, until it felt “right”. If I said it “wrong”, I would have to start again. If I seemed annoyed with having to go through this process, I would have to apologize to god for seeming ungrateful and would then have to start again. Some nights this took ten minutes, other nights it took hours. It’s one thing to believe that your actions or inaction will cause a certain outcome, it is quite another to believe that even your thoughts could be the difference between life and death for someone you love. You can’t even think freely because you fear you’ll be punished for any negative thoughts that you have. Not only was this disorder personally intrusive, it was disruptive for my family, especially my mother. At night, after I prayed, she would lie with me in bed until I fell asleep. I was thirteen years old. Once I started regularly seeing a therapist, (having gone through at least ten that I didn’t like), we began a process known as cognitive therapy. Each night, my mom would sit on a chair beside my bed, and move it incrementally towards the door. Eventually, her chair would be outside my bedroom, and I would be able to fall asleep without her. This successful, yet traumatising form of therapy later helped me attend school. Each day, my mother would sit in her car for the entire day outside my junior high school, so that I knew where she was, and that she was safe, at all times. And after a while, she’d stay for an hour less, until eventually, she didn’t need to be there at all.
In time, the compulsions surrounding my mother’s safety all but disappeared, thanks to therapy, time and medication. Today, only one remains. Anyone who knows me will have probably heard me say “I love you be careful” whenever my mother and I separate, no matter where she’s going, or for how long. Sometimes, I feel compelled by my anxiety to even say it before bed. In the past, if she didn’t say it back or the way I believed it “needed” to be said, I would have to repeat the mantra until we both had played our parts correctly. Looking back on this time in our lives, I remember feeling frustrated and angry when my mother would make a mistake in any of our routines. Now, I can’t imagine how much pressure I must have placed on her. Not a day goes by where I am not thankful for her support, patience and understanding. This story would most definitely have taken a darker turn if it were not for her support.
Today, I still struggle with OCD, but my compulsions no longer surround my mother. They have evolved to a feeling of aversion towards responsibility, less so for people and more so for things. When I leave the house, I know that I need to give myself an extra ten to twenty minutes to accomplish my checking routine. Each day, I walk through my home and make sure that all the appliances are unplugged, or turned off, even those I haven’t even used, just in case I brushed against them and turned them on accidently. I check that the straightener is unplugged, that the dog has enough water, that the side door is locked. I do not trust my own judgement. My mind plays tricks on me. Imagine knowing that the front door is locked, that the alarm is on, that you’ve closed the car door, but then being plagued with crippling self-doubt. This huge voice inside your head making you question everything you know you know. “What if” it asks. And me, being ever the rationalist, decides that it is better to take the extra time, to give in to the compulsion, then to deal with the consequences. I do not want any responsibility for any wrong doing.
This constant battle means that I spend so much time inside my own head, it’s no wonder I identify as an introvert. It’s no wonder that large crowds and big social networks overwhelm me. I exert so much energy just dealing with my self, with this endless internal argument that I don’t have the time, let alone the patience, to deal with relationships with other people.
This is just a glimpse into my daily life. Yet, while mental illness remains an everyday struggle, I have made some significant gains. From the girl who just years ago couldn’t even sleep alone, let alone go to school, I spent the past summer living in Geneva Switzerland, working for a non-governmental organization. And yes, I still had to deal with checking my apartment door, the stove, the fan, the straightener, countless times. Yes, I was late for everything. But I made it. Each day, I walked away from the compulsion to check. From the girl who, even today, prefers to be alone with her thoughts, who avoids big crowds, who only recently started going out with friends, I delivered a statement during the 29th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. From the girl who struggled to go to school, even when her mother sat outside day in and day out, I have just applied to law schools all across the country.
My mental illness hasn’t held me back, yours doesn't need to either.