The last time I had said I love you to someone romantically was years and years ago.
It felt strange as I murmured the words. It was a statement wholly unexpected on both of our parts. The surprise was unflattering.
He wasn’t necessary to my happiness.
But I liked having him around.
It’d been a short, whirlwind course of dating, marked by too many hours gazing into each other’s eyes and conversations about our dreams and our plans, our feelings about Romeo and Juliet and tireswings.
I wasn’t madly in love. But his existence made the world better, made my days a little sweeter, and for that I loved him. It was a simple fact, not a confession. It was never a secret, even from me, because the moment I said it was when I knew it.
I loved him for being unabashedly himself. For his passions, for his joy. For his willingness to be ridiculous for the sake of fun. For his ambition, for his compassion. For being a person who makes your life and the lives of those he meets a little more beautiful.
I was still embarrassed when the words slipped from my lips though. It’s nice to get to know something on your own for a while, to have time to turn something over in your mind. To let it be yours for a little while.
I blinked, things changed. He was headed out of town for the summer, I’m moving to a different continent in August. I was ok with goodbye hurting if it meant we had a wonderful time. I found myself wanting to suck every last drop, to get every last bit of fun and joy from our time together. He wasn’t, needing more closure and space than I, a sort of winding down period, which I respect, but certainly did not want or enjoy.
We spent our last day together with a game of him keeping me at arm’s length. Thanks to the wonders of disc golf, I mean that quite literally. Those discs are sharp.
These days, texts go unreturned or with a short reply. I had successfully moved into the being friends territory, but friendship doesn’t look like this. Friendship is genuine joy and caring. There are people I only talk to periodically, but there is such a warmth and a generosity of spirit when we do talk that it is clear that the friendship has not languished in the silence. Instead, the silence has simply been a chance for us to have adventures and thoughts and feelings of which we can speak together.
Here, I feel as something has crumbled. The distance resounds as if perhaps we’re afraid of each other, because real interaction might run the risk of resparking what had been, reminding us of the shining possibility that for a while there, we both so clearly saw. Or we might run the risk of hurting each other. Or a million other things that could go wrong.
And you know what?
It feels oddly satisfying to look at a pile of crumbles. To know that while it’s not what you wanted at the time, it doesn’t really hurt you, or your plans, or your dreams. To kick the dirt and watch it fly. To know that for all your inadvertent slips of the tongue, you never said anything you didn’t mean.
I always thought dating was something that happened when your life was perfect.
I’d be thin and absurdly pretty, with a well-paying distinguished job and a classy apartment filled with practical but comfy boho-chic throw pillows and exactly zero stuffed animals. I would wear contacts instead of glasses, having gloriously overcome my fear of things being near my eyeballs. And then love would find me.
In actuality, the stars don’t align. I still don’t fold my underwear, and I can’t wear liquid eyeliner. I wear my hair the same way I did when I was 8 (ponytail, slowly drooping over the course of the day). Sometimes my twenty-five year old face spontaneously erupts in acne. I still sleep with my stuffed snow leopard. His name is Sam. He’s every bit as snuggly as the day I got him in Kindergarten.
I’m chubbier than I’ve ever been, thanks to the depression (and carbs. God I love carbs.) that came with my OCD battle and now my OCD meds which cause weight gain.
Two months ago, I had to have a ping pong ball sized super glue tangle cut out of my hair.
I work two jobs, both of which I love, but neither of which are particularly fancy. At one, I still manage to push on the door you have to pull and then run into it like a bird on a cruel Windex commercial. Every. Damn. Day.
I never evolved into glamour, grace, or effortless charm like post-makeover Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries (though I have my moments). Clearly someone should have tied me to a chair with Hermes scarves more often.
There’s no magic timeline. At no point does the mystic love cuckoo bird that lives in your biological clock stick its scrawny little neck out and suddenly go “you’re a legitimate enough human being to date now.”
Because you’re legitimate already. Messy, ridiculous, not always pulled together you. Or even if you do have it all together, you don’t have to wait for some magical someday when your schedule becomes free and clear, or when you’ve done enough yoga that your tummy won’t be jiggly when you’re making out, or that you’ve mastered cooking and calligraphy and how to fold a fitted sheet without watching a youtube video.
You get to be you. And if dating/romance/love/like/monogamous handholding is something you want to pursue with someone, then you can. And if you don’t want to, that’s great, too! You do you! But know there’s no formula. You don’t have to wait to become perfect. You can enjoy meeting people and kissing people and dating people and all sorts of things at whatever point in your life you find yourself.
Show that screwy cuckoo clock love bird who’s boss, you lovable imperfect bad ass, you.
Sometime in our senior year of college, my suitemates and I found ourselves talking about abortion. We came to two important conclusions:
If any of us ever had an abortion, the others would buy her vast quantities of the candy of her choice (hereby known as “abortion candy”).
You got to watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for the rest of the day.
Strange as this may sound, I took great comfort in this. I still do. For all the sugar and TLC absurdity, we broached a topic easy to talk about in abstract from a political vantage point but rendered taboo in every day conversation.
As we debated the merits of Reeses pieces, gummy worms, and snickers, surrounded by our leopard print shrine to Abraham Lincoln and a life-size cutout of Justin Bieber which we decorated with bras far too large for his cup size, I internally sighed with relief.
This conversation meant that whatever choice you made, you could count on your friends to be there with and for you. It meant that we could talk through our options. It meant we would never be alone.
Several of us had had that heart-stopping moment of realizing our period was late. We found ourselves calculating the date of our last sexcapade, becoming more stressed by the minute (and making ourselves more late in turn). For me when I haven’t had a gentleman caller of late, this turns what I call the Virgin Mary Panic. “Oh my God, I can’t be pregnant…can I? I mean, it happened to the Virgin Mary! Maybe it is about time Jesus came back. I wonder if Jesus would be a cute baby. Probably not.” I always found solace in the fact that goodness knows God wouldn’t pick me and in the span of a few seconds reverted back to the sane and reasonable “oh, I must just be really stressed.”
But even when it wasn’t Virgin Mary panic and in fact real panic, our brains clawing back to possible failures of our birth control methods of choice, there was a sense of being not alone as we sent good blood-tastic thoughts to whoever was late. And we’ve been lucky. So far, it’s only been stress and hormones toying with our bodies. But should the day come otherwise, we’ll be there for each other.
The Abortion Candy conversation reminded us that should our birth control somehow fail, should we not be as vigilant as usual one night, should we find ourselves pregnant, our friends would be there as we figured out our course of action, no matter what that entailed for us. We had a choice, and in turn our friends had chosen in advance to honor and support our choice. Be there a baby or an abortion, we could talk to each other. We could be scared and overwhelmed together. We could be confused, relieved, happy, sad, or all of the above.
And we could eat candy together.
After all, there is a great strength in sugar and solidarity.
My boundary lines have been stepped on and crushed into oblivion so many times that I have built them into walls. The only way to get across how non-negotiable my boundaries are seems to be to let men run into them. Typically, they ignore my stating my boundaries, my warnings when I feel uncomfortable. They ignore every clear statement that they exist, seeming convinced that they alone hold some magic power that will force my boundaries to crumble before their greatness. They want to hold the key to my heart, so therefore in their addled mind my boundaries don’t apply to them.
Let’s take this example from a Tinder date I went on a while back:
I got home from a Tinder first date that involved watching our mutual childhood favorite musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, at his place, only to find text messages about how turned on he was and how hard his penis was. And I wasn’t happy about it.
Me: I mean, it was fun kissing you. Really fun. But trust me, if I wanted to know the current state of your penis I’d ask.
Him: Oh don’t be like that
Me: What, having boundaries?
Him: No, just don’t be so shy
Me: That’s not being shy
Him: Well sorry I’m so open thought you’d like it
So here he’s positioned the situation not as I have boundaries and he’s broaching them, but rather that he’s open and I’m by comparison closed. Open is deemed superior, and I’m somehow inhibited, and it’s up to him to open me up and get me to not “be like that.”
Let me make this very clear: The least inhibited thing you can do is to respect and name your own boundaries. That is the ultimate way to honor yourself as a sexual being.
When I say I don’t want to hear about your penis, I mean it. That doesn’t mean I’m shy or sexually inhibited. It means I don’t want to hear about your penis. I had had a nice evening. There was some hand holding, a little bit of kissing. I moved his hand a few times when it roved to places I didn’t want it to go. But all in all, a nice time.
However, I wasn’t at a place where I wanted to know about his arousal.
If I’m not at a place where I’m comfortable talking about intimate things with you, then pressing me to do so is only going to make me more uncomfortable. Attempting to manipulate me into doing so shows a total disregard for my feelings and my needs in light of your own desires and priorities. He did this several times, not seeming to realize that it wasn’t complimentary that he felt the need to tell me how turned on I make him but rather threatening that he cared so little about my boundaries in conversation. If he’s this dismissive via text, how bad did this have the potential to get in person if I went on a second date with him?
I should’ve realized this before this first date. When I had asked him if I should dress nicely or more casually, and he said t-shirt and panties.
I replied: You get that I’m not coming over to sleep with you right?
Him: Yes I know you’re not coming to spend the night or sleep with me if that’s what you meant
Him: I’m actually a good dude, you’ll see
Him: You mean seven brides for seven brothers isn’t a hint for sex? Lol
Me: You mean comments about my panties aren’t hints for sex?
Him: Was a joke! Sorry thought you saw it that way
Me: I get that you’re kidding, but when it’s someone you don’t know, it comes across as kind of like you have expectations or particular intentions but are trying to mitigate them with humor
Him: I get that and sorry, promise no expectations or intentions or plans other than watching a musical that I’ve known since I was like 7
I find it intimidating when someone assumes, or even implies, that I’m going to sleep with them. Suddenly a date is less about enjoying getting to know someone and seeing what happens and more about worrying if I’m sending the wrong signals, even if I’ve clearly spelled out my intentions for the evening, or how I’ll respond if and when he makes me uncomfortable again. I stop getting to function as a human being and become a sex object trying to regain her humanity.
If you care more about me as a sex object than you do about me as a person who needs to feel heard, to feel safe, then you’re not a good guy. Too often in my experience, when I call a guy out for objectifying me or making sexual jokes or comments that make me uncomfortable, the default comment is “but I’m a good guy.”
The “Good guy” identifier is an excuse to say whatever and then defend their delusions of what it means to be respectful using a self-applied label of who they think they “actually” are. “Good guy”-ness gets treated like a get out of jail free card. It’s a way of telling women that because I’m a good guy, I can lay claim to your body, objectify you, and make you uncomfortable, because I can’t envision myself as anything otherwise. Anything you confront me with that substantiates the opposite will fall on deaf ears, because I’ve decided I’m a Good Guy.
Being an actual good guy is more than “well, I’m not going to try to rape you. I’m not going to kill you, hit you, or drug you.” It is respecting someone else’s boundaries. It is making the effort to clarify those boundaries if you don’t understand them. It is consensual conversation, not only consensual actions.
I frequently find myself with the burden of deescalating the situation, of convincing someone that sexualizing me isn’t ok. Genuinely good guys don’t do that.
Real good guys don’t need to tell you they’re good. They establish their credibility over time. They build trust and understand that that takes a while. They become good guys in your eyes because they have been good to you, without expecting anything other than respect in turn.
Honestly, this is one of the hardest lessons Tinder has taught me: in my relationships and interactions, no one can advocate for me but me. As much as I can moan to my roommates and friends about frustrating conversations and they may commiserate, it’s up to me to stand up for my boundaries and champion myself. And sometimes, there’s only so much I can do. Sometimes you just have to walk away and know your own happiness and well-being are more important than someone you barely know.
Here’s to the real good guys. I’m glad you’re out there.
I went on a date recently with a wonderful man of whom I’m quite fond, and as I realized he had no stories to tell my heart began to sink. My mind twisted and turned, trying to piece together his identity from the scraps I’d been told. There were no sweet inferences or revealing adjective choices. There is no reading tone or basking in an adventure or lack thereof if there are no words shared, no attempts made.
I adore stories. They are the stuff I thrive on. And when I tell stories, I feel like I light up, like a Christmas tree, or a birthday cake candle, or your favorite childhood nightlight just when the dark starts to get spooky. I’ll mock myself, share my lows and highs, my good choices and bad (sorry, mom, I try). So often it reveals who I am, frequently in a way that makes me feel very vulnerable and strangely relieved and almost uncomfortable.
It makes me really damn happy to make people feel something right along with me. It’s my favorite part of being a person; it’s being human together.
And I love people who tell great stories. It’s why I adore dating artists, writers, and musicians, people who are willing not only to lay claim to their stories but to share them. Sometimes I meet amazing people who do amazing things, and then they can’t manage to tell you about it.
I’d far rather someone be boastful and tell a story that will make me laugh than have no story to share. I’d rather share in your embarrassment than protect whatever overly perfected image of you my brain accidentally mistakenly concocted. I’d rather sit rapt while you attempt to tell a story and fail miserably. Be weak. Be human. Be vulnerable. I’d rather see who you really are than fall for some half-baked construction of you that is painstakingly crafted and story-less.
I know some people don’t have this inclination. We don’t all think of our adventures as small narratives etched in our lives. But isn’t it at least an adventure to try to tell a story at all? A story in and of itself, that you attempted and failed to tell a good story?
There may be no glory in them. Goodness knows, many of my stories cast me in a terrible light. But at least try. Try and fail, try and be ridiculous, stumble and falter as you regale highs and lows.
I love Leslie Knope of Parks and Rec’s unabashed use of compliments to celebrate the people in her life. While her metaphors may seem absurd, they speak of the intensity of her love for her colleagues and friends. She values them, and they’ve come to accept that, bizarre as Leslie’s esteem may be, it comes from a profoundly genuine place.
So when I had the opportunity to spend some time with one of my favorite Tinder fellows this week, I found myself surprised as I reconsidered my own relationship to compliments.
This gentleman does wonderful things for the world, for his community. He stumbled into an opportunity to help others and has seized it, serving on a board advocating for those who need a champion and a role model. He worked hard to get a job at a place he dreamed of working. He mocks people on HGTV like a champ.
Oh, and word around the block is he can make chocolate chip cookie dough spring rolls.
I think he’s pretty amazing. He jokingly attempted to refute me. I wasn’t having it.
Then I realized I was being a giant hypocrite. So often when people pay me a compliment I try to brush it off. I try to play it as humility, as if modesty were some magic circle that made being complimented acceptable.
However, that’s operating on the assumption that accepting a compliment is somehow to be vain. I’ve spent my life treating embracing compliments as a shortcoming. I want to appreciate people. I love telling people why they inspire me, why they bring me hope, joy, and inspiration. Why would I not give them the joy of appreciating me if they should want to do so? Why hide behind the guise of modesty?
The answer immediately rang in my head, and I’m ashamed to admit it’s because I don’t think I deserve it.
I’ve spent the past year feeling like a giant loser. Hell, right now I’m applying to jobs like crazy and can’t manage to get an interview. I’ve taken to paying for groceries in change (sorry not sorry, people in the self-checkout line at Kroger). I couldn’t even afford my own car insurance (generous grandmother to the rescue!), can’t afford to get my eyes checked, and haven’t had a haircut in over a year. Between stress eating and OCD meds I’ve gained a stunning number of pounds, reducing my wardrobe to mostly jeans, leggings, and t-shirts.
My ego has been shot to pieces.
I didn’t realize how vain I was until I found myself hitting what has felt like rock bottom. Me, Miss Phi Beta Kappa, fancy liberal arts degree, talk your ear off, charming to a fault, somehow held down three jobs at a time during college—an incompetent mooching failure laid low by OCD and the job market.
And yet people still seem to like me. As all the things I thought I valued in myself have fallen away, academic success, employment, even my old appearance, people still like me. People still somehow have compliments for me. It’s absolutely blown my mind. I found myself attempting to dismiss kind words with a laugh, or sentences starting with “yeah, but…” Upon further thought, as someone who so values words, how unkind of me to dismiss someone else’s for the sake of my current lack of self-assuredness.
I’ve learned people value who I am so much more than what I achieve. They celebrate for me when I succeed and hurt for me when I struggle, but at the heart of that is a profound respect for who I am as a person, in spite of what I may or may not accomplish.
So often we forget that the measures of our own esteem are inherently flawed, twisted by years of assumptions and false comparisons. While we may think we fall short, in another’s eyes we may absolutely shine.
Even if in my heart of hearts I’m struggling to see myself in a positive light, I owe it to these people to believe them when they say kind things to me and to trust, even if I can’t quite see the good things myself, that compliments come from a genuine place based on their experiences with me.
So, you beautiful tropical fish, if I tell you you’re wonderful, trust me, and I’ll do you the courtesy of trusting you. Here’s hoping that the more we let ourselves be wonderful in each other’s eyes, the more we’ll learn to be wonderful in our own.
No one looks good covered in their own blood. The imagined streams of a positive and O negative poured freely in my mind’s eye. Arteries burst under the pressure of knife blades, of gardening tools, of particularly sharp sticks. And the blood was on my hands.
I spent a year completely convinced my destiny was to be a serial killer. I was simply delaying the inevitable. The thought of stabbing people burst unprovoked into my mind in the middle of television programs, walking down the street, in the shower. I didn’t want to stab anyone. I don’t want to harm anyone. Ever. Well, maybe not any more than one might with a barbed witticism. That is about the fullest extent of acceptable violence in my book. Yet bloody images of knives, gardening implements, and even protractors popped into my mind’s eye, again and again and again.
I pictured the bodies of loved ones on the floor, smeared in blood. I wondered if different blood types smelled different. I wondered how high blood would shoot from an artery as opposed to a vein. I wondered how long I’d be able to avoid knowing that. My mind twisted in loops, unable to think about other things from fear that my thoughts were in fact my destiny.
I started hitting myself in the face, totally unbidden. My hands would move before my mind could even recognize what was happening. I would be sitting quietly, anxiously dwelling over some email I hadn’t sent, some small failure, my current state of loserdom, and POW right in the kisser. Sometimes it was a punch. Sometimes it was a slap. I started to worry I’d give myself a black eye. My mind felt disconnected from my body. I felt trapped in a body that I couldn’t control.
I began to speak to myself, sentences that had no relation to what I had previously been thinking. They startled me. While completely innocuous in content, that I found myself blurting out sentences about cats or saying “I don’t like that” to myself randomly was almost as disconcerting as my violent actions towards myself. I’ve always loved talking, especially public speaking. That I had lost control of what I had to say scared me. My mind and my mouth were at bay. How long until I lost control entirely?
I was scared. I felt like there was some barrier in my mind that was just barely keeping some terrifying, violent me at bay. I couldn’t even keep myself from violence against myself; how long would it be before I started hurting others?
I hid. Unemployed, terrified, I spent the days hiding from most of the world, unloading the dishwasher in my parents’ house, baking bread while blasting Kanye and Jhene Aiko, playing video games with my best friend, and building endless Lego towers with my little sister. These things distracted me enough to keep me going, but I still couldn’t get out from under the shadow of fear. In some ways it’s been good for me. I hadn’t gotten to spend this long with my family in a long time, and they needed someone to run carpool and fill the crockpot with magical mac and cheese. While I’ve utterly destroyed my savings, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to spend time with my siblings, who are the lights of my life, even when I’m feeling not so shiny myself.
I managed to find a number of other welcome brief respites during this period. I went to the largest pageant in the world for female impersonators (often called “drag queens”) where I performed as a backup dancer whilst dressed as a Disney princess. I learned how to glue rhinestones to things, which I adored because the thousands of tiny sparkly things kept my mind and hands so preoccupied. It is hard to kill someone with a rhinestone. I took trips to see friends during which I found a welcome distraction from my own mind, only to find myself lying in the dark of guest rooms or curled up on living room couches just feeling glad that somehow my love for these people wasn’t letting me give into these violent thoughts and shove whatever nearest sharp thing that was available into their fleshy bodies.
Nothing, no matter how fascinating or cheerful could mitigate or allay the thought that I was losing my mind. I could only stand to be around anyone for so long. One of the manifestations of my OCD is an extreme perfectionism. I don’t like anyone to perceive my weakness or see me as somehow flawed. All of this I counted as decidedly flawed. For all my pride, I’d rather appear the indulgent bum mooching off her parents than the out of her mind potential murderer. I cried constantly. In the shower as I tried to wash off the stain of bloody thoughts, my hair tangled into tree roots before my eyes, trapping me in tulgey woods of my own design as I sat on the cold tile floor, wracked with sobs.
I slept as much as possible, my favorite refuge from reality. I read the same book about a charming Jewish family in the early 20th century over and over and over again. I couldn’t manage an interest in any other book. The library, which had always been my sanctuary, became a hell, an endless sea of books I wished I could get my brain to read. I listened to the same albums and watched the same tv shows over and over. I sat very still and stared at walls. I felt incapable of productivity. Any attempt I made to write, to job hunt, to do anything, ended with me in a full blown panic attack, feeling like a waking nightmare. I was unable to move, unable to calm down, unable to escape. There was no waking up. There was only waiting. My heart pounded as I struggled to breathe. A heaviness overcame my body refusing to let me move. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. Everywhere I turned I felt I ran into a wall, and every offer of help anyone made made me all the more frustrated for my inability to successfully accomplish what they wanted of me, be it a job application or a hangout session or a phone call.
I wasn’t ok, and I didn’t know how to tell people exactly how not ok I was. Or rather, I didn’t want to tell anyone how not okay I was. I was scared. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy or dangerous, even as I considered myself crazy and dangerous. I didn’t want to scare anyone away any more than I already had by being a ball of mopey tears and general incompetence.
Thanks to a handy article online, I finally started to realize that most people aren’t anxious about everything all the time. It felt like a revelation. I’ve spent my entire life overwhelmed by things like kindergarten picnics with teddy bears (would my teddy bear get lost? What if I spilled juice on my teddy’s dress? What if my teddy got mad? What happens when teddies get angry? What if another kid took my teddy bear?) and missed questions on middle school social studies tests (early humans wove clothing out of plant fibers, -2 points). Failed social moments, rules broken, and people disappointed overwhelm and haunt me all too frequently. Most people don’t head to the grocery store, make a wrong turn, and become so overwhelmed by their own failure that they just drive home. Most people don’t beat their heads against walls when they do something naughty and get punished, which at one point was two-year-old me’s modus opperandi.
Slowly I started talking to people in my life about anxiety and depression. Some were helpful. Others were not. When someone tells you they think they’re dealing with a psychological issue, that isn’t license to spout the wonders yoga has done for your anxiety and maybe if they just tried that and then kept busy they’d be fine. It doesn’t mean that sharing about that one time you felt sad and you journaled it out so maybe they should do that is relevant or helpful. That’s like telling someone with two broken arms to play the violin. It doesn’t work. In spite of these sweet people’s good intentions, it was infuriating, and more than that, saddening to have people list things I should do and yet somehow could not. All it did was make me feel more like a failure that I couldn’t just kick this on my own somehow, especially since people who were close to me seemed convinced I should be able to do so. I’d always been a pull yourself up by the bootstraps and just get it done kind of gal, looking down on people who couldn’t seem to just pick themselves up and move on when life got them down. And now here I was, stuck, no bootstraps in sight. It was humbling and mortifying all at once.
But so many people rose to the occasion. I didn’t need to be told it was going to be okay; my brain couldn’t begin to process the idea of being ok, let alone accept it. To the many people who offered countless reassurances, who listened to me bemoan how I couldn’t stop crying or how I couldn’t seem to manage to get my life together, who just let me sit and be, who let me cancel plans because the thought of leaving the house made me too stressed to move, thank you. So often all I needed was someone to sit with me. To feel less alone in body, because in my mind I remained utterly alone, a crazed island unto myself.
My mother finally insisted I seek professional help. At that point, I was so overcome by social anxiety that I couldn’t even dial the phone myself. I would stare on it for hours on end, knowing help was at the other end, but afraid to admit the things I would have to in order to get help. She pressed the buttons and shoved the phone into my hands. And then there was the wait. Finally, four months after requesting an appointment, I got in to see a psychiatrist.
When she started asking me if I ever have thoughts about violence that don’t feel like me, I hesitantly said yes. When she said “that’s OCD,” I stared at her in shock. Then she asked the most important question: “do you want to hurt anyone?” I immediately replied “of course not!” What she said next changed everything. She said “then you won’t. That’s all there is to it.”
It felt like Christmas. No, better than Christmas. It was Valentine’s Day and every birthday party and confetti and the smell of really good frosting and the feel of holding a puppy and the view of the ocean from a sand dune in Maine and your favorite song coming on the radio and a sweater fresh out of the dryer all rolled into one. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my entire life. My psychiatrist explained that my brain fixates on something I don’t want to happen ever. It’s like a hiccup in my mind. It just goes a little out of control, contrary to my desires, contrary to my actual self. These are called “ego dystonic thoughts.” I’m not dangerous. I’m not crazy. I’m just obsessive compulsive. It turns out people with what’s called harm OCD frequently have these thoughts because in fact we have such a strong moral compass that the idea of violating it plagues us. I’m not evil. I’m just extra super moral.
I sat in the car after that first appointment and wept. I was okay. I am okay. And from there on out, there was the possibility of getting better. I am not a failure. I am not lacking in some way. My brain is just wired differently, and I’m slowly but surely learning to navigate that and strengthen more positive, helpful neural pathways, and to dismiss the thoughts that don’t align with who I am.
What does align with who I am is that I can’t live my life without sharing this any longer. People need to know this can happen. I seemed really happy. I seemed highly functional. Part of my diagnosis involves my extreme perfectionism. I don’t like anyone knowing something is wrong with me. My OCD kept me from getting help for my OCD for far too long as I kept up a facade. It was easier to appear a between jobs mooch than sick out of my mind. We don’t know what lies under the surface of people’s exteriors. But we can offer opportunities for people to open up and make vulnerability feel ok.
Be with people. Be willing to hear. Be willing to speak. Forge real connections with people who will hold your hand even when you don’t understand what’s going on, even when you’re terrified, and for whom you would gladly do the same. These people will ground you, they will hold you, they will wait with you until you can begin to rescue yourself. We can’t save each other. We can’t fix each other. It robs us of our own agency and of the power that so often helps remedy the sense of helplessness mental illness causes.
And honestly, I’ll never be “fixed.” “Fixed” suggests an end point. There’s not one. This is a part of my life, the same way I have a freckle between my fingers and a retainer for my crooked teeth. It’s a continuous stream of good days and bad days, of hard moments and easy ones, though at the moment, I’m fortunate that I’ve got techniques and medication to help keep the bad days at bay. I’m so lucky. I’m so happy.
And through all this, we can be together. We can listen for the little signals. We can avoid judgment passed off as advice and instead relish the power of presence, creating safe spaces for honesty. We can end the idea of “crazy” and switch to “different,” to “atypical,” and to “struggling.” We can stop alienating people who already find their own minds alienating them.
We can make it safe not only to be our genuine selves but to learn to love who we are, mental illness and treatments and symptoms and all. My OCD is a part of me. There’s a lot about it that’s hard, but it’s made me who I am. I love it for that. As I piece out what is illness driven, what is my genuine self, and what is a combination thereof, I increasingly find myself grateful for this experience.
If you know anyone this might help please feel free to pass this on. The more people read articles about mental illness, the more there’s a chance someone will realize that dissonance in their mind is atypical, but not at all abnormal. There’s more of a chance people will find hope and help.
If you’re just looking for someone to talk to about mental illness, if you have any questions at all, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me. After so much time hiding all of this and resisting the urge to share, feeling embarrassed by what I’ve for too long considered to be a year and a half of failure, I am happy to speak to anyone about any of this.
I want to live in a world where mental health is something we can talk about openly, where it isn’t looked down upon or viewed as a failure or shortcoming. I firmly believe the only way to make that world happen is to act as if it’s already here. To that end, I promised myself that I would be open about my diagnosis, though it’s admittedly taken me a while to find the courage and the words. I’d rather look like a self-involved loon for this and hope that it helps one person than keep this to myself any longer. Or, in the words of J.D.:
Be a dreamer. Use your words in pursuit of a better world. In words there is power. There is freedom. There is hope. Be unafraid to share your fear. The burden gets lighter. I promise.