Photo credit: Ed Bowron
Why is the brain the only organ in the human body where it is not okay to be sick?
This question could not be truer for me; I was born premature so I had my fair share of medical issues growing up but I was never embarrassed by these. My mental illness was another story it took me about 4 years from the time my anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder got really bad for me to actually build up the courage to ask for help. Looking back I have had anxiety and OCD my whole life, when I would go to the doctors when I was younger my mother always made a joke that I looked like the woman off of the overwhelmed with anxiety poster.
I have had rituals for a while (rituals are routines people with OCD must complete before moving onto other tasks) like checking to make sure doors were locked and making sure items were unplugged. These rituals became more intense the summer between junior high and high school, I began to develop new rituals and doing simple tasks seemed to take forever because of the extra time it took me to get through my rituals. Not having my own personal space or being in control overwhelmed me, it seemed like everything was closing in on me, friends were starting to go different ways, my grandmother was dying and starting high school terrified me.
One night before high school started I broke down, I was beginning my nightly rituals of locking doors and unplugging electronics which usually took a half hour, this night it took five. For five hours I walked up and down the three steps leading to my back door, checking and rechecking to make sure it was locked, unlocking and relocking. Every time I walked down the hall to my bedroom a paralyzing fear struck and I had to go back to make sure it was locked. At one point I remember collapsing on the stairs and silently crying to myself, worried about what my family would think if they found me checking doors at 4am. I knew something was wrong with me but I had no idea what it was, what to do or where to go for help. I felt like I was 1 in a million, not 1 in 5 because mental health was not something that was discussed regularly. I worked tirelessly to hide my problems from people, my rituals intensified which made them extremely hard to hide.
The day before I started high school my grandmother passed away, I started spinning into a dark hole there was a lot of stress building between my best friend and I, I did not know any of my teachers and I felt like I had no one to talk about my problems with. I was constantly in a fight with my mind, one part of me telling me to perform a task or something would go wrong and the other side telling me what I was doing made no sense. At times I felt it would be easier to just end my life. I felt trapped in my own body, constantly performing actions which got me nowhere which I had no control over, I did not want people to know what was wrong because I felt they would judge me and treat me differently. Too embarrassed to ask for help or make a call myself I would spend hours on the kids help phone website reading stories from other youth and took the advice the professionals were giving them. These struggles continued throughout high school, I put on this charade pretending to be “okay” the felt if I was really involved in school people would think everything was fine, which they did.
The stress of beginning university caused my rituals to intensify again, I would leave for 11:30 classes at 8 just so I would not be the last person in my house, if I was the last person in my house I would never get out, I would spend hours checking to make sure doors were locked and electronics were unplugged. I dreaded making mistakes because it meant there would be one more ritual that I would have to perform. Taking tests would take me double time because I would spend so much time checking them over, and then there was the time I would spend and the lies I would tell to try and cover up my mental illness. In one of my biology classes my professor briefly explained mental illness and its causes and everything started making more sense to me. I was finally starting to make friends again after building up walls in high school. The problem was there was not enough time in the day for my OCD and for my charade of living a “normal” life.
I finally broke down to my nurse practionor one day after four years of suffering and she referred me to a therapist for help. I was prescribed medication which helped balance my serotonin levels (cause of OCD) which improved my life immensely, but now instead of hiding my rituals I was hiding my pills, I was hiding my illness, instead of being trapped my illness I felt trapped by the stigma. Only my mom and a very select few friends knew of my mental illness and I planned on keeping it that way. That was until I was on a volunteer trip with Free the Children and Me to We in Ecuador, I was sharing a room with 10 other girls who I had not met before this trip when one of them opened up about her depression and suicide attempts. My heart started pounding, my blood turned cold terrified about what the other girls would think, how would they react? Their open mindedness and support overwhelmed me, they did not judge her, they were so proud of her for being honest, they did not see her as being weak, they viewed her as being strong. I spent two years hiding my diagnosed illness from everyone around me, even though those pills were one of the most amazing things to ever happen in my life. Her openness changed me, when I came home from that trip I slowly began to open up to people around me, I stopped hiding my illness from everyone I stopped hiding my rituals. I was finally able to be myself, I had gotten my life back. Since then I have been quite open about my struggles with OCD and anxiety, I hope that me being open about it will help someone else who is struggling just like my friend in Ecuador helped me. I feel if someone would have shared their struggles with me in high school I would have gotten help a lot sooner.
Mental illness is something I will have to live with the rest of my life, although the anxiety attacks are happening less often and the rituals are occurring less and less, it is always going to be a part of me. I have learned to avoid situations which may trigger my anxiety and OCD and how to better cope with them when they occur. I have also surrounded myself with an incredible group of friends I know I can count on when things get tough, which is one of the reasons I feel so comfortable being open about my past struggles. OCD and anxiety are not going to define me, my work ethic, dedication to my global community and my love of basketball and family is what is going to define me.