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.

No One Said It Was Gonna Be Easy

I wish getting my life back was simple. But it’s not. I have to fight so hard. Some days, it’s worse than others. Some days, the obsessions take hold, and I give in more because I can’t handle it. Some days are good and I’m fine. But on the bad days, it’s so hard to keep fighting.

I’m writing this on a Sunday. It’s been one week since I left the conference. I haven’t taken my Prozac in a few days because I keep forgetting and because I’m running low and hate to go to the pharmacy for a refill. I’m really not supposed to miss any doses of Prozac because my anxiety starts to soar again and the obsessions become harder to fight. Today is a hard day.

I know today is hard in part because the Prozac isn’t running as strong in my system anymore. It’s hard because I’m not around all the other people with OCD who are fighting alongside me. But it’s also hard because my OCD habits are so ingrained.

I’ve been washing my hands more than once at each wash since I was eighteen. I’m twenty-eight now. Ten years of intense washing. A week will not break that habit completely. I’ve been doing much better. But I’ve also given in a few times. And today, my brain won’t stop trying to convince me I have not washed my hands, even though logic says I did.

It sucks. I sit here and try to focus on relaxing. I play a game, read a book. Flip through a magazine. Look at articles online. Text friends. And all my mind will come back to is, “Did you wash your hands after using the restroom? We know you went back and washed again, but what about that first time? And you’re still touching stuff. It could all be contaminated. You’re disgusting. Can you remember washing?” I try to replay the image of me washing, but the obsession blocks it out. It doesn’t want me to remember. Then it would lose its power.

But damn it, I keep trying to remember. The more I try, the more the obsession takes hold. The angrier I get. The sadder I get. I can’t focus. All I want to do is remember so I can shut the obsession up, even though I know that won’t really work.

I keep telling myself to just sit with it. It’s okay to be anxious. It will go away. But my mind doesn’t want to. It’s like I can feel my brain wriggling in discomfort. It doesn’t like this. My brain just wants to give in. It looks easier.

But I know giving in is not easier. It just causes more pain.

I don’t want to go back to where I was. I want to get better. These hard days make it difficult to keep fighting.

It’s hard to accept that the obsessions will never completely go away. Right now, I can’t even begin to picture what the future would be like. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how to fight later. I hear others’ stories and know it’s possible, and that gives me hope, but when I’m in the depths of despair (if you catch my reference, you should know I think you’re awesome), it’s hard to hold on to hope. It’s such an intangible thing.

I’m a Christian, so I understand faith. Faith and patience have never been easy for me. Remarkably, I’ve had people tell me I am patient. And perhaps I am better at being patient with others. But I suck at being patient for myself. I always want to know. Dr. Grayson said there is no such thing as certainty. And that’s true. Everything is in God’s hands. I have no control. If God wants something to happen to me, it will happen to me. But right now, I am wrestling with faith, with believing that someday I will know how to fight the obsessions that creep back in.

All I know is that today is hard. Maybe tomorrow will be easier. Maybe tomorrow will still be hard. I’ll keep using exposure therapy. I will not stop. I will push forward. I will not let momentary setbacks derail me. I will embrace my anger at OCD, and I will keep trying.

How do you push through on those hard days? If you’re willing, share your advice!