Oh, The Crazy: Navigating an Anxiety Disorder and Finding Peace
And so, it remained unwritten, unspoken until one day when a coworker callously, casually ascribed her habitually unemployed, controlling husband’s actions to “his OCD.” That did it. I wanted to scream, to explain. Then I thought I’d finally blog about it. Instead, I wrote it into the book I was working on. One of the main characters in my third novel, In His Eyes, became a stand in for me, told the story I could not.
Dinner was full of grace, exhibiting a chef’s finesse, subtly seasoned. Calvin raised his glass. “Here’s to our chefs—Micah and Skye—you’ve done it again. Every year, just as we think you couldn’t top last year’s meal, you do it again.”
“Cheers.” They clinked glasses all around, except Skye, who’d consumed so much wine he was a bit unsteady.
“You have a lovely home,” Odessa said, looking around the dining room. “It’s so neat and clean.”
Micah shrugged, “It’s my OCD—”
“You do not have OCD,” Skye snapped. “What you are is obsessive, controlling, and annoying in your quest for perfection. Also, you have too much time on your hands.”
Micah winced. Everyone else just stared at Skye, open-mouthed.
“I know because I have OCD, and you know what? It’s depressing. It’s debilitating. As a kid, I had a ritual which required me to touch my headboard, hands crossed thirty-two times before I could go to sleep. If I messed up, touched the wrong side with the wrong hand, or got distracted by the train rumbling past our window or my father coming to tuck us in and lost count, I had to start over.
“Later, I couldn’t even walk down the street without avoiding every crack in the pavement because someone had once told me ‘step on a crack and break your mother’s back.’ I became obsessed with the idea that if I stepped on a crack, my mother’s back would break—she was always accusing me of trying to kill her as it was. I remember my second-grade teacher keeping me from lunch so I could practice walking with one foot on a step. I had to put both feet on every step or I would die—I was convinced of it.
“But you know what the worst is? The worst is the awful, unstoppable, obsessive thoughts that crowd my mind every second of every day. Thoughts of murder and suicide, and death and disease and torture and grotesque accidents. If I was walking and I had a bad thought, say seeing my father on a ladder, I’d imagine him falling and lying irreparably broken in a pool of blood, his dead eyes accusing me; I’d have to stop and walk backward to undo the thought and prevent it from coming true.”
Skye stopped speaking abruptly as if he’d run out of words.
“They have medications now—have you tried them?”
“Yes. They don’t really have any medications to treat OCD. There are drugs to treat the underlying anxiety and make the obsessive thoughts a little less intense, but there is no cure. Most people, like me, learn coping mechanisms—like walking backwards to undo a bad thought and keep it from coming true. It’s better now. Since Elie died, I don’t feel the intense worry—the bad thoughts come and go, but the worst has already happened, you know?”
Without saying another word, Skye got up and, laying his napkin on the table, walked out of the dining room. A few seconds later, they heard the front door open and close.
—from “In His Eyes”
And just like that, there it was on the page, all the pain, all the rage, all the fear and despair, all the things I had longed to say for so long. I thought that was the end of it but it wasn’t.
Fast forward two years to a visit with a new doctor. She asked me about alcohol consumption. She seemed appalled by my drinking—a cocktail before dinner and a couple of glasses with dinner. No big deal, I thought. After a series of probing questions she decided my drinking was a form of “self-medication,” and proposed a trial of Lexapro to help reduce my anxiety level. I agreed. After two weeks I noticed something surprising—I was drinking slightly less but also my head was quieter. Another two weeks went by and I had a follow up appointment with my doctor. This is what I told her:
I’ve been on Xanax—it’s great. It makes me feel bullet proof; nothing and no one bothers me, but I also experience peaks and valleys. Then I was on Klonopin and it made things less intense. I could drive and get on an elevator without panic and a racing heart. The Klonopin smoothed the jagged edges of people, of experiences so that I was not left at the end of every day lying on a bed of nails, pained and bleeding. But I was still battered by thoughts of tragedy, of imminent destruction, of violence, of sex.
But Lexapro silenced all the negative thought racing through my head. I no longer feel compelled to carry out rituals negating actions to calm my anxiety. I could go to bed and only turn out the light once instead of eight or ten times depending on the thoughts racing through my head. I was surprised by how quiet the world was. I could drive at 80 miles an hour; I could change lanes; I could get on an elevator.
She did a bit of questioning and said most likely my OCD wasn’t true OCD but likely an offshoot of an extreme anxiety disorder. At last there were words, a language to describe and identify the…crazy. I wanted to cry. I was 60 years old and have lived with this my whole life, had never even thought that something could be done about what I thought was a part of me.
It’s been five months since that conversation, six since I started Lexapro. I will confess that sometimes I feel like I’ve lost a piece of myself; I feel everything, including sex and affection, less intensely but nothing could compel me to stop taking my medication. I’ve told this to a few people and some have criticized me for relying on a pill, the implication being that I’m using a crutch, or that I should be strong enough to overcome this on my own, or worst of all that this isn’t a real illness. Generally, I shake my head and walk away from those conversations but once or twice I’ve snapped back, would you tell me not to take insulin if I was diabetic? Would you advise a friend with cancer to skip chemo?
The after me is better than the before me. I am so grateful I finally found the help I didn’t know was there. I would ask anyone with a friend or relative battling any kid of mental illness t be as supportive of them as you would be if they had a physical illness.
Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash