finding our way

I used to say every sentence twice. I didn’t realize I was doing it until I was about 8. I had gotten into a fight with my little sister when she noticed and taunted me, as little sisters do. I’m fairly certain that I was winning the fight, and she wanted to distract me. My face went warm and red and this revelation shut me up quick. That moment opened my ears to it, and I realized I was doing it all of the time, asking for toast twice, asking permission to use the restroom twice. I got busy working to suppress it, and, for the most part, have done so successfully. Yet even now, when I am really upset, particularly during an argument, I’ll catch myself whispering a sentence a second time.

I did not realize what I have is called obsessive compulsive disorder until I was in college and had access to free therapy sessions. I knew I was a little unusual—I started projects at 2 a.m. that I absolutely had to do at that moment and couldn’t stop doing until I was finished. A Cheerio on the floor or a wayward scrap of fabric would make me unreasonably upset. The worst was the way it interfaced with my temper. If a person cut me off on the freeway, my brain could not release the memory of it, or the unreasonable anger attached to it. Days after a minor incident, the memory would cut through me.

You wouldn’t know it from visiting my home, but I have a constant desire to clean, to organize, to order. Organizing helps me feel in control and there is so much around us that we can’t control. I do not wash my hands excessively. I do not hoard. I do not count. I do not, like Howard Hughes, urinate in glass bottles that I store throughout the house. I simply have an inordinate need to control things and, when I can’t, I cannot shut my brain off. I am fortunate. In the past, I was able to manage the O.C.D. when external events were not extreme. I could be intense and I’d compulsively exercise, but I could still leave the house and function in society. When there were day-to-day disruptions, I’d clean underneath the refrigerator or do a couple of sets of push-ups. Sure, I’d do it in the middle of the night, but I wasn’t bothering anybody.

Then I had children. My boys are amazing and have opened up my heart and have made me grow more than I ever could have predicted. But children equal disorder. My floor became a graveyard of screaming toys. I’d find partially dried carrot puree on the bottom of my work bag. Both of the kids had developmental delays and there were things I could do, yes, there were therapists and doctors, but there was no guarantee that everything would be okay, and everything was decidedly not okay. I was having panic attacks several times a week, one so intense that I saw spiders crawling over my legs. I would try my old coping mechanisms. I bought a label maker and diligently organized the toys by size, category, and corresponding bin. But two kids under four will swiftly dismantle any organizational design. Elliott got diagnosed with autism. We lost our house. A former student began threatening me, and even emailed me a decapitation video. There was too much that I couldn’t control, and my old methods were failing me. I finally got some help.

The first medication made me feel electric zaps in my limbs. I switched. The next one seemingly had no effect. Then one day, a couple of weeks into taking it, a truck advertising dog grooming services spilled over into my lane on the freeway, nearly hitting my car. I swerved out of the way, had my moment of anger and outrage, and then felt the emotion just…dissipate. Like I imagine it does for a “normal” person. I was stubborn and didn’t like the idea of being medicated, but I was beginning to accept it. The psychiatrist experimented with my dosage. It was too low—panic attacks ensued. It was too high—I couldn’t cry when I felt like it. In addition to the medication, I went to cognitive behavioral therapy with a room full of people and coffee in sad little cups. Learning what I have and how to deal with it, and coupling that with medication, helped me pull through a really difficult time.

I have been off of my medication for seven weeks. And I have a confession: I did not consult with my psychiatrist before weaning myself from it. As I said, I am stubborn. But I meticulously planned. Running, the single greatest non-pharmaceutical therapy for me, has become an integral part of my life. I am eating well. I have taken additional steps to manage my stress and help control my reactions to it, and everything is working. Seven weeks into ending my medication, I feel relatively similar to how I felt on the medication. That is, I am still fairly annoying to myself and others, but it is manageable.

I don’t have any major conclusions. I might need to go back on medication one day, and I don’t judge anyone who uses or chooses not to use medication, unless they are harming other people. I think diet and exercise help to a degree, but I also believe in the power of pharmaceuticals coupled with therapy. My biological mother lived a short, miserable life with untreated, severe mental illness. I often wonder what would have happened if she’d gotten help. I have many family members, friends, and acquaintances who suffer from mental illness to varying degrees, and we all have to find our own way.

I am satisfied that, at least for now, I am finding my way.

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