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.
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.