When You Live It, You Learn From It

I received a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder as I began university, and boy, was it a relief. It was a relief to me, to my family, to everyone in my life. It was a relief because after six years, eight or more mental health professionals and many sleepless nights, we finally had answers to why I do the things I do. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but knowing what my diagnosis is made me feel an overwhelming sense of “things may just be alright after all.”

I grew up in a loving home, played multiple sports and loved school. In many ways I was excelling in life as much as a kid could, but there was always this nagging anxiety that I was going to fail, and that I would never be good enough. It started when I moved to a new school. I made quite a few new friends, but for some reason a lot of the kids decided I would be their number one target to pick on for all of junior high. According to them, I was weird, I was ugly, I was unfit to have friends and to be happy. I began to agree with them.

After a while I got sick, and I started missing a lot of school. I would wake up and get nauseated and would take the day off. It got so bad I had multiple medical appointments where they searched for a physical cause for why I was getting so sick. I believe there was a physical reason for me getting sick but a lot of it was also because I was too anxious to function and my body responded in the only way it understood how to.

Eventually, I told my family and friends what was going on and soon learned to see myself through the eyes of the people who mattered to me most, and that there was nothing wrong with me that warranted the torment I was receiving. With the help of my parents and some teachers, I stood up for myself. I was afraid asking for help would cause more problems, but I was wrong. My Dad – who has rarely stepped foot in one of my schools due to the fact he never needed to as I never had any issues until this moment – marched down to the principal’s office when he found out. The principal called a meeting with the bullies and myself. I was able to voice my feelings and concerns to these people in a safe space. I don’t know if it was the fear of being punished, or if the bullies realized how much damage they had done, but after that the bullying stopped. The mental illness symptoms, however, remained.

Then came what I’ll call my “season of depression.” High school brought extreme periods of darkness on top of my already anxious self. There were days I couldn’t even get myself out of bed in the morning, but my family and friends kept pushing me to do the things I loved.

Depression soon turned into obsession.

By the summer before university, every second of my day was filled with obsessive thoughts about germs, illness, diseases and death. I was afraid to leave my bed. I was afraid to leave the house. No one could touch me, and I could not touch anything without the overwhelming desire to sanitize my whole body or to shower until I felt clean. OCD is not what I expected – it is not being anal about how organized my desk is, it is not needing my pictures to be straight, or folding towels in a certain way so they fit in a drawer. What it is is hell on earth. It is being trapped inside your body, knowing that what you are doing is so far from rational, but having to do it anyways. It’s distressing and tormenting, and can impact every aspect of your everyday life.

The treatment for it is worse. I wasn’t ready for that when I received the diagnosis. Exposure-response therapy is the main treatment to minimize OCD symptoms. You pick things that trigger compulsions and do them without following through on a compulsion until it is no longer distressing for you to do those things. For me, that meant exposing myself over and over again to things I thought would kill me, or would give me flesh eating disease, or cancer, or Ebola (see? irrational fears for the most part). Although OCD has been challenging and will continue to be challenging, the truth is, I learned so much from it, and the things I learned made me the person I am today – a better person than I was before.

I’ve been told OCD will always be a part of my life, and I’ve reconciled with that. It’s sort of become such a part of my identity that I am unsure of who I would be without it.

But with it I have learned to not make assumptions about who people are and why they are the way they are. I’ve learned that everyone has a story and not everyone will be willing to share it. I’ve learned more about consent and relationships than I ever would’ve understood before. I’ve learned who real friends are, what family means, and how to show I love them even on days where I can’t physically love them. I’ve learned to smile at strangers. I’ve learned the importance of a good support network.

Being diagnosed with OCD, and the journey it took to get there, made me want to use my voice to help others like me. My passion for writing was one of the only things that remained constant during the journey, so I began to use it to try and make a difference. I learned that silence wouldn’t fix things, but speaking out just might. I met people who told me that me speaking out helped them realize what they were going through, too – and that right there made all of the tormenting worth it. I also learned that not everyone will understand, but that’s okay, it’s the ones that do who matter.

But the most important thing I learned is that I am not OCD, I have OCD and having OCD has shaped who I am today; it was the best lesson on how to be a better person I could have asked for.

If you’d like to learn more about why I am thankful for the lessons OCD taught me, and the journey I took to get to where I am today, stay tuned for the memoir I am currently writing in the University of King’s College MFA Program.