Sitting at the top of the stairs of what is best described as a row house in a dusty edge of Prescott, AZ, I knew I couldn't go outside. The thoughts and voices were banging away inside my head, the world outside was ready to swallow me up, and the rising weight of anxiety on my chest was crushing. The staff at the facility I was in all thought I was conjuring this as some form of manipulation. Pressing my palms against my temples and then thinking, "If I rip my face off, maybe this will all go away."
The above wasn't the beginning of intrusive thoughts, crushing anxiety, and a desire to die. I'm not even certain it was the apex. Earlier traces of OCD can be found in my intense anxiety during back to school shopping when I didn't purchase every single color of the polo that had become a self-imposed uniform. (I once arrived home with nearly 50 different colors, and although my mother appreciated my allegiance to the prep aesthetic, the credit card bill was concerning).
Growing up, I don't know that anyone thought something was "wrong." Neither did I, although my behavior was a bit progressive for the era I grew up in. ADD, ADHD, depression, and auditory processing issues were all labels I grew accustomed to as I descended into adolescence and early adulthood. The descent was accompanied by alcohol, marijuana, opium, Ritalin, Paxil, LSD, pain killers, cocaine, morphine and anything else that was either prescribed by a doctor or myself to mask the feelings and sometimes light the way on the long spiral staircase to the bottom of my mind.
So there I was, at the top of the stairs, peeling my face off with my fingers, afraid to face what was inside my mind and what was waiting outside the front door. They told me I wouldn't make it, and frankly, I didn't want to. During lucid moments before bed, while I arranged every soda can to face the same direction in my cupboard, I prayed that if I fell asleep (difficult to do with the cacophony of thoughts echoing at ever-increasing volume) that I would not wake up and it would all be over.
It would be a year before I left that facility again. I was finally introduced to a doctor. The staff was tired of my "manipulation" and agreed to let another professional examine me. The diagnosis was swift, and I found myself on medication later that day. After about a week of awful side effects, it all leveled out, and my mind was empty for the first time in my life. If I looked inside, I saw beautiful blue skies with wisps of clouds tracing patterns. The facility I was in drug tested me immediately believing I had copped drugs in town and was very, very high.
I wish I could tell you that was it, that I've been cloud surfing that beautiful sky in my mind for the last 16 years. The truth is more complicated and painful than just a pill a day to keep the black clouds away.
After nearly a decade of medication, my good friend committed suicide, and it devastated me. Sleepless nights returned, the repetitive thoughts gained strength, and a voice that began as a whisper crescendoed into a guttural scream: "I am going to kill myself."
The pain needed it to stop all over again and more urgently this time. Instead of following through with my plan, I told my doctor and parents about my plan. After a quick intervention, I was stabilized and had a different idea about how I would survive. I decided to begin the long trip to a medication-free life.
My doctor slowly backed off the impossibly high dosage I had gotten to (I am somewhat surprised I could form sentences based on what I needed to stay level). I imposed breathing exercises, meditation, talk therapy, and exercise as tools to manage my illness. I also imposed food in an unhealthy way but am working on that as well.
So what's it like today? Some days I reach that place of blue skies and faint clouds. Other days the storm rages and I breathe my way through it. When I hear a song I like, I listen to it a hundred or so times the first day. When I'm alone, I talk out loud to the walls and shuffle around in hotel slippers (a reason I like to go into the office late at night by myself to work). I am fixated on a number: tv volumes, stereo volumes all must be a multiple of this number. If this article finished with a character count divisible by that number, I would be thrilled.
So the blue sky is there with lightning storms in the distant corners. Storms roll through. But contrary to what the staff at that facility said, I made it.
There are countless others caught in the storm who haven't been able to raise the flag for help. Their voices are stifled, and I believe it is every survivor's and every person's duty to send help. You may not see the storm clouds or forest fires we are battling. But the flames are just as real and so are the casualties. Health care providers offer awful coverage. Lobby against that. Societal stigma keeps people silent. Fight those norms. If you or someone you know is struggling, find a resource, any resource and help someone else make it.