February 26, 2015, has been a reminder of how fragile and unexpected life is. It was on this date that I was anxious and obsessing (all with a nice gloss of depression), and I couldn’t manage it any longer. So, I decided to voluntarily check myself into a psychiatric hospital, which changed my life in ways I never expected.
I’ve always been anxious. As a kid, I was terrified of being left at dance class or a friend’s house for a sleepover. It went beyond the normal skittishness that all kids feel in trying something new. Even in elementary school, I was planning ways to get out of moving away from my home and all that felt safe. And, this anxiety (often terror) followed me through my teens and into college. It was in college where it really became strange and was coupled with obsessive thoughts (What if God doesn’t exist? What if I fail my classes? What if I can’t find a job and become homeless? What if I turn into a murderer?). I knew my reaction of terror and ruminating wasn’t normal, but the fears felt so real that I had to spend as much time as I could researching them and doing the mental gymnastics to make sure something awful didn’t happen.
The pattern of my brain on fire and skipping like a record kept up in cycles until six years ago. At least twice a year, I could plan on losing a month or two to anxiety, panic, ruminations, and hopelessness, struggling just to seem normal in daily interactions at work and shutting myself out from others to get through my evening and night just to wake up and do it all over. Decades of struggling led me to February 26, 2015. The previous year I had decided to quit teaching religion and decided to go back to school for another teaching subject. Despite detailed planning for each of these decisions, nothing was working out. So, I gave up. I asked for help and let someone else sort out what I needed to do to get healthy.
And, what I learned was more than some psychological tools to cope or what medicine would work best with my diagnosis (it only took 20 years to get the diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I’ve always known I was stubborn and think I often know what’s best, but I was holding so tightly to such a strict way of being (“Don’t mess up and if you do self-flagellate and fold into yourself.”) and planning for every possible mistake or potential pain that I had become so desperately unhappy and bound up by unrealistic expectations that I didn’t know what I wanted or deserved.
I kept up with the “good girl” act through the hospital and outpatient, trying to prove that I was the best patient. I did all the homework, followed a schedule, was honest with doctors and counselors but my nerves were still glowing. Despite all my effort didn't seem to be enough to help my bruised brain feel free. One of the head doctors in the program, Dr. M, pulled me aside one day and told me he saw how hard I was working but that it didn’t have to be such a Sisyphean effort. Here was a man who only knew me in the context of a hospital and seeing me at my most vulnerable and his advice to me was to stop and rest. And, most profound was that I was loved and worthwhile and would get better.
This little kernel of hope became my mantra through the rest of the spring and into the new life that I had to create. I was no longer just defined by terms of being a good student, attentive daughter, thoughtful teacher, or caring girlfriend. I (fortunately) had a place to live and would have to make a new way for myself—and I could because I was worthy and loved and would be okay. That summer I took part-time work at a card shop. Then, I worked as a nanny and tutor. A year later, I re-entered corporate work.
Rebuilding a life is nothing new. We all must do it at some point—a relationship ends, we lose a job, we move, get married, have kids, experience the passing of loved ones—all of life is rebuilding in small and sometimes big ways. We muddle through and hopefully, don’t make it harder than it already is. And, with time and gradual acceptance, we learn that we are still worthy and loved and will (eventually) be okay again (even if it looks different).
Life six years later is so much bigger and nothing that I would have imagined. I still have episodes, but they are less intense and blips in a year. I am better able to shore up the quiet times to use as fuel for the expected tumult in life. And, if I can get out of my wonky brain and be present for a moment, I might catch a bit of happiness and remember that I am worthy and loved. We all deserve to hear that, and I hope that I can pay forward that nugget of hope from Dr. M to all of you.