30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness Challenge–Day 3

MIA challenge

Day 3: What treatment or coping skills are most effective for you?

Medication: I struggle to fight any of my illnesses with Prozac. Medication isn’t for everyone, but Prozac really helps me. I tried Luvox for my OCD, but it had horrible side effects and made my anxiety worse, so I was glad when a new doctor switched me back to my tried-and-true Prozac. Prozac helps me stay calm and blocks some of the obsessions and anxiety. This keeps me from engaging in compulsions and feeling so down all the time. Right now, I’m not taking my Prozac because I’m between school and jobs and have no medical insurance, thus rendering me unable to afford a visit to my psychiatrist. I’m out of refills on my meds. I stopped taking them before I ran out so I would have them on hand if I absolutely could not manage anymore. Thankfully, I’ve been staying better than the previous times I went off meds, but that’s because so far, nothing huge and dramatic has happened in my life to trigger the anxiety that throws my OCD into overdrive. I’m not doing as well as I was on the meds, but I’m doing okay.

I also occasionally take Klonopin for anxiety attacks. I’m terrified by all the things I’ve read about how easy it is to become addicted to that type of med, so I work really hard to only take it if other methods won’t calm a serious anxiety attack (read: hysterically crying and shaking, unable to concentrate, total freakout meltdown mode).

ERP (exposure and response prevention): This has been key to fighting my OCD. I previously tried talk therapy (it did nothing for me) and a combination of medication management and talk therapy (only the meds made much of a difference). Once I knew I had OCD, I knew I would need to use practical measures to get better. I’m just that kind of person: theory doesn’t do much for me, but practice makes a huge difference. For OCD, this is a highly effective treatment because it forces you to live with the obsession without engaging in the compulsion. As you are able to live with the obsession without the compulsion, the obsession’s hold on you weakens, until it becomes more of a whisper or nag than something you feel has taken control of you.

I used this for contamination, checking, and perfectionism. My therapist and I used the SUDS scale (subjective units of distress). I talk more about that in detail here. We set up a hierarchy, and I completed the tasks starting with what would cause the least amount of anxiety, increasing to tasks that caused more anxiety once I had a handle on the lower items. This made a huge difference, but I still have to work on some areas.

Exercise: I have a hard time relaxing. I often don’t feel like I have time to relax, and even when I do, it’s hard to shut my thoughts off. I always want to be thinking about something. Doing something. Exercise is one of the things that helps me relax. I do want to lose weight, but I use exercise to keep my mental health good. It really does work. I go out for a power walk (well, now I can jog for part of that, something I couldn’t do before) and turn on my music, or I do some dancing with my Dance Central game. When I walk, I’m able to just focus on what songs I’m listening to, the environment around me, and my body. Sometimes I use that time to think through an issue without the pressure of other people around. Exercise is sort of a natural medication–it helps regulate the chemicals in the brain. (Read more in this post.)

Talking about it: I didn’t always talk openly about OCD. I hid it for a long time. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to think I was “crazy.” Trying to keep it secret caused me even more anxiety. My heart would race if someone walked into the public restroom while I was washing my hands, because I knew they might speak to me about my hand washing (and sometimes they did–hello, more anxiety). I was terrified coworkers thought I was doing icky things in the bathroom because I spent so much time in there, when in reality I was washing my hands about 10 times a go. I didn’t want to admit that the raw redness of my hands was caused by me, not some allergy. But when I finally just started telling everyone, I felt free of that anxiety. Not everyone understands OCD. Not everyone will be accepting. But it still helps me so much to just be open. It alleviates the pressure caused by trying to hide. The less anxiety I have, the better, because if I don’t have much anxiety, my OCD can’t be fed.

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The IOCDF Annual Conference–A Changed Life

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Helen Keller

Dr. Grayson used this quote prior to the camping trip. I’ve never heard the full thing, always just the last line. But it’s so appropriate for those of us with OCD.

After the camping trip, I was weirdly excited about the next day’s contamination session. I was feeling more confident than I had felt in years. I had no idea what to expect, except that I knew Dr. Grayson would push my OCD boundaries.

Boy, did he. He gave those of us with contamination OCD a worksheet. This worksheet was called an E&RP (exposure and response prevention) motivator. On this first side, we were supposed to list the things we’d lost out on because of OCD. Rather than having us fill out the worksheet there, he asked us to share specific stories with each other. I didn’t get a chance to share mine, but I had a few.

I missed out on my husband’s surprise 30th birthday party. I was there physically, but my mind was consumed with thoughts of contamination. I don’t know how many times I abandoned the party in favor of the bathroom sink that night. I washed my hands so many times. I missed time with my friends. I missed my husband’s happiness. I barely remember who came. All I remember is the anxiety I felt.

I missed my own birthday less than a month later. My in-laws were kind enough to invite my husband and me and any friends who could make it to their home for the weekend for festivities. Parts of that weekend I remember as being wonderful. My father-in-law made me a special birthday dinner, and we sat by the fire, and we played games and drank good champagne and ate cake. There were some beautiful moments. But sadly, that weekend was full of terrible moments, most of which only my husband has known about. My contamination issues were so bad that I literally couldn’t shower on my own. I stayed in the bedroom most of the time, paralyzed by fear. And then I became so depressed because I felt like such a failure to all the people around me that I contemplated overdosing. My husband stopped me. I don’t think I would have done it. I just needed someone to understand how badly I was hurting. Do you know what it’s like to not even be able to function?

I put on a good show. Most of the time, you wouldn’t know I was struggling. But there is a war in my brain.

I’ve missed much more. Trips with friends. Times with my mom. Activities in New York City. So much of my life, I’ve given to this damn disorder.

On the other side of the worksheet, we were supposed to list how we had hurt others with our OCD. My husband immediately came to mind. I’ve engaged him in so many rituals and used him to avoid so much. I’m really blessed by his love. I know not everyone would stick around for this. I’ve yelled, I’ve screamed, I’ve cried. I’ve been shaky and nervous and unable to live in the moment. As Dr. Grayson talked to one of the others in the group, he brought up the idea that we were putting our OCD first.

I had never thought of my OCD as something outside myself that I could prioritize. I just thought of it as part of me, something everyone would just have to accept. Thinking of it as something outside me totally changed my perception. He was right. I’ve putting my OCD first in everything, including my relationship. I even did that with my ex. OCD has been number one for such a long time. It’s so hard to not give in to the compulsions to ease the anxiety. Anxiety hurts. Like physically hurts. I can feel it tightening my chest and pulling me in and making me sick and  dragging me down until I can’t take it. I miss everything special when I feel this way, which totally goes against my nature. I believe so strongly in living in the moment and treasuring every day. OCD has kept me from that.

I cried. I didn’t share my story there, but I cried, because I knew what I had lost. And I knew it was time to stop.

Those of us with contamination OCD went to the front of the room. We sat on the floor. We rubbed our hands on the floor then licked them. We ate Tic Tacs that had been spilled on the floor. And then, the ultimate: he offered up pieces of ABC (already been chewed) gum.

Yep, sounds gross. But he brought up a good point. He asked who had French kissed someone they barely knew or didn’t know in college. Yeah, that happened to me. He pointed out that chewing a piece of gum isn’t that different. And it’s really not. So I took the gum. And I chewed that gum until I was in my hotel room, when I gave it up only because I hate chewing that long.

Afterward, he answered questions. I heard him tell people to take showers wrong, to do things wrong on purpose. If it feels wrong, you’re doing right. And it all just clicked for me.

The next morning, I got the in the shower without washing my hands. I washed everything once and was done in about 10 minutes. I did not wash my hands before dressing. I did not wash my hands after dressing. I did not wash my hands after doing my hair or putting on jewelry or brushing my teeth. On top of that, each time I have washed my hands, it’s been one time. It’s a freaking struggle. I leave the bathroom, and obsessive thoughts start creeping in, trying to convince me I need to wash more. I haven’t been asking for reassurance from my husband, and goodness gracious, have I wanted to.

But I feel

FREE

STRONG

HAPPY

LIKE I’M THE PRIORITY

WELL

INSPIRED

MOTIVATED

IN CONTROL.

Every day is a struggle. But I am not alone. I heard the fears of others at that conference. I heard my own fears. And I heard hope and recovery and happiness and freedom. And now more than ever, I feel those things are achievable. I didn’t think two days could have that effect on my contamination OCD; my issues run deep. But these workshops taught me so much. We’re all in it together, and we can do it. People care. People want me to get better for me. And I can be free and happy and live life to the fullest.

I feel like everything has changed. I’m not saying this will be easy. It’s going to be freaking hard. Every day I will fight. But I will fight, because I know I can do it. And I know there is something beautiful and wonderful around the corner. And I know I can use this to help others.