Transparency and Mental Health Day

What does it mean to be transparent? Transparency is a word that is frequently used these day to imply an hones, “share my truth” kind of mindset.  The hope is that it will  bring better and deeper connections with others. The question of what to share and how much plagues both my writing and my everyday life.

The internet, and more specifically, social media, is filled with people being honest about what they think via hateful and angry words. I don’t want to add to the ugliness out there. In those cases, it seems better to follow my mother’s rule for me as a child: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it”.   But does that mean I only write the nice things?  I don’t believe that is the answer either. The answer lies somewhere in the gray area between “nice” and “mean”.  I am not a fan of the gray area. There are no definite rules to follow, and everything is subjective.  Which means that if I am going to be honest, I am also going make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding and rejection.  That scares me.

Brene’ Brown writes about how important love and acceptance is to every human being. She says, “if we want to fully experience love and belonging, then we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we can let go of what other people think of our own story, we gain access to our worthiness. Our sense of worthiness lives inside our story. The greatest challenge for most of us, is believing we are worthy now. This minute.”

There are different truths that I could share today, but since it is mental health awareness week, I’ll talk about the truth of my mental illness.  The conversation around mental health has gotten easier and more prominent, but this was not the case when I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder twenty six years ago.  Back then depression was something people were just starting to understand, but OCD was (and still is) just plain weird.

We don’t want to talk about things we are ashamed of, but the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it.

The type of OCD that I have involves intrusive, obsessive thoughts about deadly germs, and therefore a compulsive need to wash — especially my hands.

Here is one shameful admittance about my early years with OCD:   There was a time when I went through eleven large bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I used the alcohol to rinse my hands because I didn’t believe that just washing them got rid of all the germs. My young son hated the smell and wanted me to get rid of what he called “the white stuff”. Like an alcoholic medicates his anxiety with a drink, I erased my anxiety by pouring it on my hands. I told you it was weird. Show of hands — who out there thinks that drinking a shot of tequila is more normal than pouring rubbing alcohol on their hands? Thought so.  That’s why it is a mental illness. It is irrational. I don’t want to have the thought, the need to wash.  It is not something that I think other people should do.  It makes no sense, yet I am compelled to do it beyond any rational thought.

So many people look at OCD and think it is about control. You’re just a control freak. or, you need things to be just so. That is not OCD. There are people who are control freaks, but they don’t suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They simply have an obsessive personality. Their desire for order makes them happy. By contrast, people who suffer from OCD are miserable. They (I) live in mental torment.  They would give anything not to need to wash (or count, or move a certain way).

For me, when I start my day, I am not looking forward to all of the things I will clean. I start every day at one side of a minefield that I must cross to get through the day.  Each day I step carefully, tentatively, afraid of coming across a trigger that will blow my emotions apart and leave me, post blast, in the white noise of my brain, unable to see or hear anything except the pounding of blood in my head.  FIGHT.  FLIGHT.  FREEZE.  One of those three things happen when I trigger my obsessive thoughts.

Fight is the best of the three.  If I can fight the obsessive thoughts, I will come out the other side stronger for it.  I am most likely to fight if the explosion is a small one — something I encounter regularly, or something I have to do on a regular basis.

Flight is my most common response.  I rush home, if I can, and find relief in my safe environment.  I have a sink and a shower where I can wash away the anxiety and fear so that I can think again.

Freeze is the worst.  My brain just stops working properly.  I can’t think of what to do next.  My hands shake so hard I can’t hold a phone, my extremities go numb, my body sweats profusely, and I have trouble speaking more than a few words.  The longer I stay like this, the deeper the anxiety spirals.  I can’t stop it.  It just HAPPENS to me.  I usually need help from someone close to me to break through a spiral this bad.  I have to move slowly, breathe deeply, and just WAIT until some of the panic ebbs and rational thought is allowed back into my brain.

The bad freeze episodes don’t happen very often, but they are terrifying enough that I spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid triggers that might lead to a freeze.  The things that I do to avoid the triggers, are the types of things that others see as controlling actions.  It doesn’t feel that way to me.  I feel like the world is this big messy place intent on crushing me, and I have no armor, no battle skills.  The most that I can do is put little flags up in the minefield of my day.  I put these flags by the triggers that I know, and sometimes by triggers that I just guess at.  And then I stay away from those flags.  Sometimes the explosions can be triggered by others in my life, so I ask them to stay away from those flags too.  It doesn’t make sense to them, because they don’t feel the explosion.  They don’t feel the mindless panic.  They just see a stupid flag.

It is a lonely world controlled by an unwell mind.







Why I’m Not Writing

When I was a little girl, I probably had a lot of dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The one that I remember the clearest, though, is the dream of being a writer. I was an avid reader at a young age. My mom tried to read books before me, but she eventually gave up and just let me read because she couldn’t keep up. We had something called the Scholastic Book Club at our school. We would get a thin, newsprint magazine of the books available for purchase that month, fill out the order form, and give it to the teacher with our money. One of the greatest things my mom did for me in my childhood was allow me to order as many books as I wanted. A week would go by, and the magical day would come when the Scholastic book order was in. I could always spot my order on the teacher’s desk, because my it was the only one that was a pile of books that had to be double rubber-banded together.

I read everything. And then I read A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and my love of reading became a desire to write. The book was unlike any I had read. It pushed the boundaries of imagination, it made me think that I could do wonderful and unimaginable things. I decided then that I wanted to write books like that when I grew up. Now here I am, some forty plus years later and I haven’t written a book, much less become an author like I dreamed. So I am asking myself — why am I not writing? It is not a new question, but one I hope to unpack a little further.

The first thing that comes to mind is 1. I don’t know what to write about. To the casual reader, this sounds lame. Just write about anything! I have done that in the past, and that kind of writing doesn’t really get you a book. It just gets you a bunch of free-form, journal type writing that nobody is every going to read. I have had some good ideas in the past, but I didn’t write them into existence in time for the story to be relevant. I heard someone say recently, “If you don’t do it, someone else will. And then you’ll be pissed.” This is true, and it has happened to me. Why? Because I had the idea and then I didn’t write it. Or I wrote part of it and stopped because it got hard.

The second reason that comes to mind is 2. I am wasting my time writing. There are already so many people out there writing, what makes me think that I will be any different? True, with the attitude that I have had so far, there is no reason to think that I will be any different. There is also a deeper element to this reason — the extreme self doubt. I don’t know exactly where it came from. I didn’t have it when I was eight years old, or even when I was fourteen years old. But somewhere after that the doubt in my abilities as a “creative mind” starting building. It built slowly, insidiously, until one day I had graduated from college and I no longer believed that being a writer was a viable option for me. It was a dream in the sky, like all of the guys who dream of someday being professional baseball players.

I have been reading a book by Rachel Hollis, and she poses a question that I am now asking myself: “Am I one of those people that wants an excuse for why I didn’t chase the thing I wanted?“. Maybe I am. I don’t want to be that kind of person, but I have definitely been behaving that way. To paraphrase Rachel, why do I keep telling myself that my life is so hard (because I have OCD, because my brain freezes up with anxiety, because I am on medication that dulls my brain) that I can’t write a novel or do anything productive for that matter? Why? Because it is true, yes. But if I listen to myself, I will do nothing, if I listen to Rachel, I am capable of more than I think I am capable of. Which is true? Does it matter?

Rachel Hollis says: It’s not about choosing what you want right now, it’s about choosing what you want most. My stomach drops when I read that. It sounds like she is going to ask me to do HARD THINGS. Hard things are exhausting and debilitating and, well, HARD. Like an-alcholoic-not-taking-a-drink hard. I don’t want that. Do I? Maybe I do. Maybe it gets easier, and maybe if I do hard things now I won’t be here next year and the next asking myself the same question that I have been asking myself for the past thirty plus years. Why am I not writing?

I’ll end this post with another paraphrased quote from Rachel Hollis. “Someone else doesn’t get to tell you who you can be (your spouse, your mom, your sisters, your community, statistics). Go all in. Take massive action. Anything I want, I have to do myself. I must set my mind and go ALL IN. I will only become the person I want when I take a huge leap of faith, flying through the air, not knowing if I have a parachute or where I will land. I must rise up from where you’ve been, scrub off the tears, and start again. Girl, wash your face.