Tuesday, October 9, 2018

OCD and Processing Sexual Assault

It's OCD Awareness week 2018, and I wanted to write a post that would help bring to light a lesser-known impact of OCD.  

Given the recent discussions of sexual assault and violence against women, I thought it would make sense to share my small story and discuss how OCD can impact these already difficult experiences.  Whatever your political affiliation, I think we can all agree that any instance of sexual assault is a tragedy.

When I was in high school, I slept over at a friend's house one night- let's call her Tiffany.  That morning, I woke up to the feeling of someone's hand on my chest.

Groggy, only half-awake and disoriented from sleep, I opened my eyes to see Tiffany's brother standing over me.  He retracted his hand from under my shirt and backed away.  I watched confused and didn't scream or move...  I just fell back asleep.

When fully woke up later, the whole situation seemed so bizarre that I thought maybe it was a dream... but it felt so REAL.  

That is when the OCD part of me started to creep in with self-doubt.  My OCD started making me question the memory.  Did I REALLY feel something?  Was I SURE?  Wouldn't someone in that situation scream or grab the person's arm or shout? Was it possible it was just a particularly vivid dream?  

OCD craves definitive proof, and I had none.  

I told nobody - not even my mother, who I told everything.  I was not 100% positive.  My OCD had always given me an irrational, magnified fear of lying, and I didn't KNOW what the truth was.  

I also didn't want to lose Tiffany as a friend because she was really important to me.  I didn't want my mom to start a war.  I didn't want to be called a liar, and I really didn't want to be one: even today, I consider false accusations particularly heinous

I only knew two things for sure: I wasn't physically hurt and I wasn't traumatized. 

I came to a decision to just let it go.  Since I couldn't prove it happened, I figured I would be better off assuming it didn't.  I didn't treat Tiffany any differently afterward, and I carried on as if it was a dream.

I never even gave it that much thought until years later when he was arrested for a crime that validated my experience.  The day I learned was this weird relief.  I finally told my mom about what had happened. It made sense now, and I felt a very real sense of vindication.

But then the OCD guilt started to creep in.  What if I should have said something earlier?  Had something similar happened to any other girls? Had something worse happened to any of them? Had he gotten to anyone else because I didn't speak up?  

Please know that I do not assert dramatic victimhood: I consider myself very lucky that this incident was a relatively minor thing, and I do not feel like my experience is in the same category as most sexual assault cases.  Still, it has given me some perspective on how weird it is to process these kinds of incidents.  

Reading accounts from survivors of much more intense violations, I find that even people without anxiety disorders experience similar feelings to the ones my OCD amplified, from self-doubt to guilt.  I have also seen how weird it is to look back on it now.  All I have are the faintest glimpses of memory - mainly the sense of confusion and the strange unexpected feeling of someone's hand.  

I don't remember what Tiffany and I did that night or if anyone else was there.  I don't remember what I was wearing. I don't even remember exactly how old I was.  

Over a decade later, none of these details seem to matter.  I am fortunate that it was such a relatively insignificant moment in an otherwise extremely fortunate childhood.  

That being said, I know one question will always haunt me, "Why didn't you scream?"

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Midas Touch

My hubby recently had to get an oil change and it reminded me of this amazing situation that occurred right before our wedding. Amid all the wedding planning chaos, I didn't get to write about it then, but it is definitely worth sharing.

Wedding planning is stressful, and when you are trying to process the gravity of the step you're about to take, balance the emotions associated it, work three different jobs with three different schedules, and go about necessary errands... it isn't always easy to stay calm, cool and collected.

Healing cars and hearts.
Different needs tend to collide at once, and I found myself with a car that needed a check-up and very little time to do it.  After much stressing over scheduling, by some miracle I found a time to setup to check in at our local Midas.

And then I learned that I wasn't going to be able to make the appointment.

This was the moment I cracked.  Between stress and anxiety and a jam packed schedule, I had reached my overwhelm limit and started crying: drunk-sorority-girl-at-a-frat-party-who-just-got-dumped level crying.

So, naturally, I decided it was fine in this state to call and cancel my appointment with Midas.

I picked up my cell phone and dialed, letting the man at the end of the line know that I was extremely sorry, but I couldn't bring in my car today because something had come up.  It is unclear how much of this message really got across clearly because crying Laura is an incomprehensible hot mess.

I will never forget the way he reacted.

He let me know that it was no problem.  Then, with genuine concern in his voice, he asked me if everything was okay.  He said that I sounded really upset and if I needed to talk, I could feel free to stop by Midas and he would be happy to talk about whatever it was.

I reassured him that I would be fine, and as I hung up I already felt somewhat better from finding this unlikely ally.  

As women, we are generally taught that other women will be our strongest emotional support.  Whether we like it or not, in America women are raised to express emotions and empathy while we rear men for independence.   As a culture, men are taught to hold back their feelings: "Boys don't cry."  With this mindset, it is common to see men who have no idea how to react to a woman in tears and are very off-put by intense emotional displays. 

But, in that moment, here was this man...and this wasn't even just an average man.  This was a man's man: the kind who works on cars for a living.  And yet, here he was, recognizing suffering in a stranger and trying to offer some sort of comfort, not wanting to let me off of the phone until he felt sure that I was okay.

It was unexpected in the most refreshing way to see someone who was that traditionally masculine who still had developed emotional sensitivity.  It would be great if our culture moved more in this direction, not only for the sake of supporting women but also for the mental health of our men, who should feel free to explore their emotions and communicate about feelings without judgement or ridicule.

When I told my fiancĂ© (now husband) the story, we both had to laugh that I had become so hysterical that even the man at Midas was like, "Someone needs to help this person."  However, I hope that someday we live in a world where this is the norm, where both men and women can recognize strangers in crisis and try to do their little bit to help.  A world where mental health stigma has been replaced with understanding and empathy.  That would certainly be a triumph.

Meanwhile, I will remain a customer of Midas for life.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Death Tacos

I'm not much of a cook.
My chef when I'm away from home!


I just never really needed to be before.  But, now that I'm a married lady, I decided it was high time to learn.

The big problem is that at the moment I work long hours (like 9:30 am to 7:00 pm) and sometimes come home pretty late.  Enter the magic of the slow cooker.  I can prepare in the morning and it is ready to go when I get home.  Perfect.

Well, it should have been anyway.  But last week on Thursday morning while I was trying to put together a recipe for beef tacos, I realized we didn't have a can opener for the Roma tomatoes.  

I had to open the can with a juice can opener, stabbing around the edges.  I was horrified that there might be basically pieces of shrapnel metal in this beef.  What if somehow a piece fell in and then Nate's throat got sliced open?

I then told my mom about the recipe and she (the queen of all things OCD kitchen related) asked if I had put enough water in the slow cooker.

I hadn't put any water in.  I even poured the water out of the tomatoes can.  The recipe didn't ask for water.

My mom now informed me while I was on the way to work that I may burn the house down.

Great.  So now I have to worry about the metal and a fire.

At this point, mom put the icing on the OCD cake and asked, "Did you check the date on the beef?"

Of course, I hadn't.  My OCD has not developed well in the kitchen arena, mainly because I haven't been in the kitchen that much.  Now I was on alert though.  These tacos risked internal bleeding, fire, and food poisoning.

Should we even eat them?

Mom, too horrified to hold back and without being asked, actually came to my house and put water in the slow cooker.  So, when I arrived home that night, our house was very much not on fire.  At this point, I had to make a choice about the other risks.  

Do we eat the tacos or not?

I warned Nate about the metal, but (in what I consider a triumph) we decided to go forward with the meal.  

And you know what?  Those tacos were so good, we each had three.

I am happy to report that we have both survived the incident and I feel a step closer to tackling OCD in the kitchen.  Small victories are still worth celebrating.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Anxiety and Sleep Paralysis

When bedtime gets real.
The other day I was in the family room on our big comfy blue chair watching TV with my father and sister during a lazy afternoon when I comfortably dozed off. 

After some time, I dazedly awoke and could hear the two of them talking.  I had curled up in a weird way and was having a little trouble breathing, so I decided I needed to shift my position.

But I couldn't do it... I couldn't move at all.  

My brain was telling my body to move, repeatedly, but there was no response.  My body just laid there. I wanted to scream for help.... wiggle my fingers at least so maybe someone would see I was in distress... but I could do nothing

I had been here before.  This was good old sleep paralysis.  

For those who don't have total jerk bodies, this is a fancy term for a weird situation when your brain is awake while your body is sleeping.  It's a real medical thing.

It can happen to anyone.  A few years ago it started happening to me relatively often.  When I asked the doctor about this strange sleep problem, I was told there wasn't really anything I could do when it happens and to just try to relax until it passes.

HA!  Relax?!  Look, even when you know what sleep paralysis is, any time it strikes you wonder if this will be the time you don't escape.  How are you supposed to relax when you feel trapped inside your body?  

I've tried to learn more about it, especially since this recent episode which hit after months if not years of peace.  I thought it had gone away, but now it has happened twice within a few weeks.  

So I watched The Nightmare on Netflix, a documentary about sleep paralysis that I quickly learned only focuses on horror and myth without getting into the scientific aspects of it.  Most of their scenes and stories are based on the fact that many people all over the world who experience sleep paralysis also describe seeing a shadowy intruder while they cannot move.  

My friend Megan says she has seen and even physically felt the shadow guy, but I have not.  I have had many instances of sleep paralysis and he has never visited me... I always just feel like I'm struggling to breathe and worry I might suffocate before I can move.  

With The Nightmare leaving me clueless, I have done my fair share of googling, and I was not surprised to learn that sleep paralysis is considered tied to my friend Anxiety (To learn more, you can check out this interesting January article from The Washington Post.)

How typical of Anxiety.  Seriously.  Anxiety loves to put people on edge and plays mind games all the time.  It can steal sleep or haunt your nightmares.  Anxiety loves to get clever: Why not take people who are already constant worry machines and make them think they just woke up paralyzed?

Anxiety is the Hannibal Lecter of mental illnesses - clever, sadistic and ruthless.

To be clear, sleep paralysis isn't just tied to anxiety... For example, I never take Nyquil anymore for colds because I more consistently get sleep paralysis if I've had it.  Recently I also discovered that trying to take a nap after two drinks contributed to an episode.  

But sleep paralysis has come for me plenty of times without any medicine or alcohol to help it along, and in these cases I'm sure it's just Anxiety up to its high jinks again.  For the episodes that happen without any substances... the ones based simply on living in my anxious mind... I guess I'll just have to consider them opportunities to practice relaxation under extreme circumstances. And who knows? Maybe one day I'll even get to meet the famous shadow guy.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"So, what's your OCD thing?"

We're not just switch flippers.
You tell someone that you have OCD, and often that person's response is, "Oh, so what do you OCD about?" 

Please stop casually asking this question.

Don't feel bad if you have done it before... it seriously happens all the time.  I get it actually, and it's kind of sweet in a way.

Based on a basic understanding of OCD, you think I'm a little quirky.  Expecting that my answer will be related to hand washing or checking the toaster three times, why not ask? 

What you don't realize is that based on the reality of OCD what you have really just asked me is, "What are your biggest and most shameful worries and fears and how are you irrationally coping with them?"

Compulsions like hand-washing are performed in response to obsessions - major worries and fears that incessantly taunt their victims.  Some people with OCD do not even have observable compulsions and are mainly plagued by the obsessive thought aspect.  These issues do not make for light, casual conversation.

The "What's your OCD thing?" question reveals how little the average person knows about what OCD really is.  To be fair to the average person, even doctors don't always know.  Yesterday at my annual physical when I mentioned OCD to my new doctor she asked a similar question.  This is an educated woman with a degree in medicine, and her question showed me how surface-level psych training must be for family doctors. 

It's a tragedy that there is so little general knowledge on OCD, but there are still ways to be supportive to someone who reveals this part of their mental health history to you.  Here are four quick tips:

1.  If a coworker or acquaintance mentions that his OCD is bothering him, try asking how you can support him. 

2.  If a good friend tells you that she has OCD in private, admit that you do not know much about it but that you are there to listen to whatever she wants to share.  Try to let her control the conversation and what she reveals.

3.  In serious discussions of mental health with anyone, try to respond intentionally without casually brushing it off, making assumptions or cracking jokes.

4. Remember that it is okay to realize that you are in over your head.  Even therapists aren't experts on every mental health problem!  If a friend reveals something to you that you think may be a sign that this person is losing control and could be in danger or dangerous, admit that you are not an expert and try to get help from someone who is!

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Letter on How Not to Break Up With Someone With Anxiety


To Whom it May Concern:
Here's my Dear John letter...
Dating and relationships are hard.  When one of the partners has a mental illness, it can complicate things even further.

Just because the person you're seeing has anxiety does not mean that you have to stay with that partner for the rest of your life.  However, it does mean that there are certain moves you should absolutely avoid during the breakup process.  

Here are my top four tips of what NOT to do when breaking things off with a person who has anxiety.  (Please note that these apply whether you are dating men or women, but just so I can stay grammatically correct without repeating "him or her," I'm just going to refer to the anxious person as her.  I am a lady after all!)

1. Do not ghost the person.  Ghosting is when you just stop replying to someone with no explanation rather than break things off.  To avoid an uncomfortable discussion, you just go AWOL.  This is cruel and selfish to do to anyone, but it is especially horrible to do to an anxious person.  One of the worst parts of having anxiety is the worrying about uncertain outcomes.  It may seem silly, but the pain and discomfort of worrying can be ten times worse than just knowing the worst is true!  Don't let her sit there restlessly waiting for a text, holding on to smaller and smaller slivers of hope as the time passes...Just let her down gently.  It's not that she wouldn't ultimately connect the dots, it's that you are prolonging the suffering.

2. Do not tell the person it is because of the anxiety. I am sure it took a lot for this person to share this aspect of life you.  If you bring it up in the breakup, it means you either completely lack sympathy or have not even taken the time to consider the implications.  You literally just gave someone who you already feel is too anxious one more thing to be anxious about.  Stop and think!  When you say this you are also basically admitting to breaking up with someone for an illness, so you are making yourself sound terrible.

3. Do not postpone the breakup while insisting everything is fine.  More likely than not, your partner knows that your feelings have changed and can sense that something is different.  She likely struggles with differentiating between her own intuition and her anxiety, and she may be particularly sensitive to changes in behavior as she is prone to considering worst case scenarios.  This lady often suspects the worst when it isn't there, so don't let her feel "crazy" for a time when she's actually right.

4. Do not tell everyone your ex was "nuts" or "crazy".  Most mental health struggles are very personal and likely did not really harm you in any major way, so there is no need to try and trash her name when she is just trying her best to work through her own stuff.  She shared personal details with you that should neither be ridiculed or gossiped about.  Now, if she tried to burn down your house or get you fired from your job... I'm not going to blame you for needing to talk and handle that.  However, even in these rare, severe cases, it is better to phrase the issues with empathy, recognizing that she was unstable and really needed help, rather than summing her up as a "lunatic."  

The breakup part of dating is often very painful, and remembering to treat other people with respect in the process is critical.  It is actually kind to follow these four tips even when your partner doesn't have anxiety.  Whatever that person's struggle, while you are breaking a heart try your best not to pour salt in the wound.  Avoid carelessness and choose compassion.


Sincerely,

Laura


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Poetry & Mental Health

As an English major, I always enjoyed poetry - the way wordplay and rhythm can come together to make you smile, hurt, laugh and cry. Poetry often focuses on emotion, giving it a natural connection to mental health. Poems are such a unique way to connect with the experiences of the poet, and they can articulate feelings you may have trouble expressing yourself.  It can also be cathartic for the authors, as writing poetry becomes a type of therapy. (For more information on the therapeutic benefits of writing, check out this article from the American Psychological Association.)  

Recently, I came across two poetry books by Cleveland authors that delve into the gamut of human emotions: Angeline Walsh's Bad Psychiatry: and Other Aptly Themed Poems and Eric Dettelbach's Lyrics for Lucid Dreamers.  As a disclaimer, I am not being paid by either author to discuss these books.

Walsh is a young woman who contacted me after finding my OCD blog on Facebook.  Many of her poems touch on the pain of mental illness, but she also has poems that focus on hope and happiness.  Written over years (she told me that one of my favorite pieces, "Weathering it All," was written when she was just seventeen), her poems reflect the ups and downs of life.  While some were clearly written from a dark place, others reflect a joy of spirit.  

Dettelbach's book is not directly focused on mental health, but like Walsh's touches on the emotional highs and lows that come with moving through life.  He is actually a coworker of mine, and I helped him type up years of notes to put together his book.  It was interesting to see the different tones from poem to poem, again ranging from despair to delight.  His focus on relationships - from romantic encounters to the experience of adopting a dog - highlighted just how much our connections with others can impact how we feel and who we become.

Though these authors lead very different lives (different genders, ages, marital statuses), they share so much.  It's easy when we are going through a tough time or having a mental health issue to feel so alone.  I'm so glad there are writers out there putting their feelings into words and sharing these experiences that show how alike we all are.  We see their pain, but we also see their perseverance and growth.

Publishing a book - especially a collection of personal poems - takes guts. Letting yourself be vulnerable isn't easy, and I applaud them both for the triumph of putting themselves out there.