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.







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