At first, it felt like a weight being lifted off my chest. I finally had words and reasons to explain everything that I had been feeling and intensely experiencing for the past nine months, and in hindsight, my entire life. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Insomnia.
You know that feeling when you leave the house and you think to yourself, “did I remember to lock the door or turn off the stove?” For me, those thoughts were on steroids. They were happening every minute of every day about everything. It is a hard sensation to describe, but try to imagine an internal monologue that never ends, and the more tired you are, the more irrational and illogical the thoughts become:
“Did I just say something that accidentally offended them?”
“Did I complete everything at work today?”
“Did I lock the door?”
“Was my tone in that email too harsh?”
“My head hurts, am I dying?”
“Oh shit, I forgot to text them back, are they mad at me?”
“Did they just notice me using hand sanitizer three times in a row?”
When I began this journey, I thought it would be something I could “get over” or “beat”. Six years later, I realize this is part of me, and the management will be a life-long process filled with many highs and lows. For me, my lows leave me feeling broken and defective. But during the highs, I feel empowered and resilient. While my experience isn’t the same as anyone else’s, I hope by sharing my story, I can help de-stigmatize discussing mental health and maybe let others know they aren’t alone.
After receiving my initial diagnoses, I decided I wanted to manage my disorders without medicine, so I agreed to start counseling. I was excited to begin tackling these issues and heal. Even with my enthusiasm, I quickly ran into roadblocks that delayed me from getting the help I both wanted and needed. It would take almost three weeks before I could see a counselor. Then once I got my first appointment, the therapists were booked so far in advance that my follow up wasn’t for another two to three weeks.
I was only able to see a counselor twice between June and September of 2014. I made the decision to switch counselors in hopes of seeing someone more regularly. Of course, making the switch meant I had four to six weeks where I wasn’t able to see a therapist. To say the least, my OCD, anxiety, and insomnia were heightened. And let me tell you, this particular trifecta of disorders creates an incredibly potent negative feedback loop. The constant worrying and anxiety leads to compulsive thoughts and behaviors, which in turn causes insomnia, and the lack of sleep only causes me to worry more and have more compulsive behaviors and thoughts.
After several additional months of counseling, I still wasn’t sleeping. It got to the point where I had to take naps during my lunch breaks to make it through the day. I felt like a failure. The reality was I needed medicine to manage my anxiety, OCD, and insomnia and that reality made me feel weak.
I’ve thought about this a lot in the past six years. Why is there such a stigma around mental health disorders and taking medications? I have never resisted antibiotics for an infection or pain relief for a migraine, but when it comes to my mental health, even today, I feel the stigma and I resist using medications to manage my mental health disorders.
Next began the very long, grueling process of figuring out which drugs worked best for me. I started working with a therapist who could prescribe medications, change dosages, and add new medications to counteract the side effects of other medications.
Fun fact I learned during this process: All of those side effects that only affect 10% of people or less, I experience. Grogginess, the inability to concentrate, lack of interest, the list goes on. So the medicines manage my mental disorders, but they create a slew of other issues that affect my daily life and leave me feeling not like myself.
When we finally found the “right combo,” my first question was, “how long do I have to be on these medications?” My therapist recommended two years, at the least. So, two years later – almost to the day – I began to slowly wean myself off the medications. I felt fantastic! I had just graduated from my Master’s program, I moved in with my very supportive boyfriend (now husband), and for the first time in two years, I felt like myself. I thought to myself, “I beat this! I am good now; this is in my past.”
Well, if you didn’t already guess or don’t know much about mental health disorders – like I didn’t at the time – they aren’t something you beat or that are cured. In my experience, they are something you learn to manage and live with. Hindsight is 20/20, so not surprisingly, when I couldn’t find a job, and my stress levels increased, the negative feedback loop began again. I returned to my therapist and counselor to restart medications and resume talk therapy.
My lowest moment of the entire process was when I was told I would never get better by both my therapist and counselor that I would never live unmedicated again. The next few days were dark and lonely. My thoughts continued to swirl and spiral downward, out of control. I could not shake the feeling of failure as I started back on my regimen of medications.
Since the first round of one-on-one talk therapy didn’t seem to work, I found my way to group therapy. I was skeptical for the first three sessions and continually resisted the process. One session I broke and hit rock bottom. I told the group therapist everything and all the medications I was on. She just looked at me and said “Do you just feel snowed on all that shit?!”. And for the first time I felt hope. Someone understood how shitty I felt taking medications that were supposedly “helping me”.
My new therapist cursed, wore chucks, and joked during therapy. She gave me hope. She told me that maybe not today and probably not this year, but someday I could live medication-free. I continued seeing the group therapist in private sessions after the group program ended. She helped me process that my diagnoses weren’t something to cure, but to learn to manage and hopefully live medicine free one day.
Fast forward to present day. I have done considerable work to create routines and boundaries that help me live and manage my mental health disorders. I have learned to recognize when I need help, seek it, and not feel ashamed. But honestly, every day is a challenge, and some days I do better than others. Writing my story during a global pandemic has added an interesting twist because right now, most days are bad ones. While I know these are unprecedented times, they are challenging me in ways I didn’t know were possible, but I know I am resilient and can find hope in the small daily steps I take. I hope others will take solace in knowing they aren’t alone in their journey and that others are also struggling to manage their mental health disorders. While I know there will be plenty more bad days, I also know I can take one day at a time and handle anything.