When I was 11, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In the previous year I started developing an extreme fear of germs. The only trigger that I can trace it to is when I had a very nasty stomach bug that was going around over the winter and for some reason, the vomiting and nausea and general awfulness of being sick made me terrified of ever having to do it again. So I started washing my hands all the time and using hand sanitizer before I would touch my face or my food. I would start hyperventilating if someone was coughing or sneezing around me. If someone threw up, I would nearly pass out or implode. I don’t know if I was ever actually sick or not. I either mentally stopped my body from vomiting with sheer willpower or the times I felt nauseous it came from me worrying so much it made me feel sick.
Needless to say my parents soon realized something was incredibly wrong with me and so we visited a psychologist where I was diagnosed with OCD. They talked about medication and therapy, but my parents balked at the idea of putting an 11 year old girl on medication for fear that I would be on it for the rest of my life. So instead, I started therapy where I learned deep breathing techniques and talked out my unrealistic fears until I could function appropriately in every day life again, and bullies who touched my food in order for me to give it up, no longer bothered me (as much). I’m still rather wary of illness, but it isn’t debilitating anymore, fortunately.
What I didn’t realize until a few years afterward was that my OCD hadn’t magically gone away, but rather, it had moved to a different obsession. In high school, I became increasingly involved in academics in my pursuit of acceptance into an acclaimed college and finding a great career. By the time I was a junior and attending a highly competitive and academic Governor’s school, my OCD bubbled over again and I started having daily panic attacks about my grades and project deadlines and who knows what else. I was a perfectionist in crisis because life just kept getting harder. When you can never let up, you run out of steam but not the drive to succeed. Eventually, I ended up back in the psychologist’s office with the offer of medication again, but this time being a little older, I was allowed to make my own decision. However, I had convinced myself that I could defeat anything with willpower. So I approached my overwhelming perfectionism with an open mind and a desire to control it without the use of medication. This worked…for a few years. But by the time I was a sophomore in a highly academic college atmosphere, my OCD had really changed into depression. I had accepted I couldn’t be perfect all the time, but somehow that cheapened my world. It sucked out all the color and left me feeling useless. I resented my past because I felt like I had wasted my time in high school only pursuing academic endeavors and not developing friendships and social skills so that I was severally lacking in those areas. I had an ex-boyfriend who would blame this on me, saying that I simply didn’t try hard enough. That I should just go out and meet people. That I was just being stuck up. Of course, this wasn’t actually the case. I just happen to have the unfortunate collection personal traits including introversion, awkward social skills, and shyness which don’t translate well when meeting new people.
And that’s when I really started having feelings of suicide. It wasn’t so serious that I would ever contemplate actually killing myself, but I just would fantasize about what it would be like if I was no longer around. Would people feel sorry that I was gone? Would anyone miss me? Would they feel bad that they had so many expectations of me that had driven me to death? At times dying looked like my only option for escape. These dark feelings simmered at the surface of my psyche for the rest of college. During my senior year, after a break up with my college boyfriend it reached a point of tension that he actually reported me to the mental health center, and I started a group therapy session weekly. It was a different and enlightening experience because I had never been around other girls my age who would openly talk about their inner world of issues, but I’m also an incredible actress. I know what to say and what not to say. I can dig down to a certain level in these situations and distract the therapists with that. I still felt in control of what people knew about me even though my ex-boyfriend had unnecessarily (though understandably) pushed the panic button on my suicidal inner monologue.
It wasn’t until after graduation, when the world looked bleakest of all that I finally decided that I should try medication. That summer after graduation I would have hysterical fits about the most inconsequential things. I didn’t want to apply to jobs because I didn’t want to be turned down. And I also felt like I had studied hard for the last sixteen years so that I could be successful, not work at Walmart. Eventually though my mother brought it to my attention that not all problems could be fixed by willpower. Some problems were caused by a chemical imbalance like any other illness, and the only thing that could help with that would be medication. I also learned that she had been on Prozac for a while after both my brother and I were born because of extreme post-partum depression. It was so debilitating that she wouldn’t even get out bed some days.
With the encouragement of a wonderful friend who later became my boyfriend and my family who finally talked openly about their own secrets, I went to the doctor and I started down the anti-depressant road. First Zoloft and later Prozac, and always on the minimum dose. I can’t say that taking the medication made all my problems go away. But it did help clear my head enough that I no longer wanted to die all the time. It gave me the clarity to know that I needed to start seeing a therapist again and work out the many issues involving family and perfectionism and feelings of failure that I’ve been piling up over the years.
Some of my illness is chemical and that’s where the drugs are helping—something I just couldn’t accomplish without them despite my insistence for years on the power of my sheer will. But deep down I know that most of it comes from deep rooted and twisted feelings and memories that I have such a hard time letting go—that’s something drugs will never be able to fix.
My refusal to consider anti-depressants for so long also stems from the stigma I found associated with mental illness in the first place. If I didn’t take drugs, I was just a confused adolescent/young woman trying to work through my issues—something completely normal. If I did use medication, then I was obviously irreparable broken and sick in the head so that no amount of therapy or drugs would ever be able to fully pull me out of the dark abyss I had descended into. Some of this is my overactive imagination, but unfortunately, a large part of it is a direct result of my peers’ reactions—even well intentioned ones.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times someone—completely well-meaning—has told me that I just need to “pray about” my depression. And that “God has a plan for me that he just hasn’t revealed yet so there’s no point worrying about it.” But I do worry about it. And I do pray about it, but it doesn’t get better. Does that make me a bad Christian? Does it mean even God has given up on me?
When you have a “depressed brain” (I rather like that term), you think differently than your average, content person. Everything is a struggle. Every choice you make is meticulously combed through in your mind to determine if it was right or wrong. If you failed or succeeded. Throwing God into the mix and still meeting resistance in terms of “overcoming your depression” generally leads to more depression because you’re left feeling like an inadequate being in the universe.
No one likes feeling all alone in the universe.
In the end, I’ve found that it still all comes back to me and my own decisions and perspective. I have to decide how I’m going to look at life. At my depression. At the use of medication. At my past.
No one is going to wave his or her hand and magically fix my life. It’s a long and hard road, but it’s still a path that I can choose to be on. And that means I have an end goal. And sometimes, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—even if it is miles away—is all you need to stay afloat.
Brave confession, Kaitlyn. The balance between depression and drugs is probably going to get more complicated in the future. Thanks so much for writing this.
I don’t think the average person is content or happy. I know more depressed people than otherwise. Thanks for talking about this — I feel like more people ought to be willing to open up to themselves and others to talk about whatever issues they’re facing rather than feeding the awful cycle of self-recrimination and doubt.
Everyone faces their own struggles and I think it’s important to be able to talk about them and realize that not only are we not alone in facing them, but that there isn’t any shame in having to struggle in the first place. We cannot all always be perfectly contented, competent individuals able to handle any curve-balls thrown at us and it’s frankly unreasonable to have that expectation forced on us. Sometimes things get hard, and that’s okay. I just wish society treated it like it was okay and gave people room to struggle without facing social stigma (which increasingly turns in to self-blame and loathing).