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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I’ll Tell Everyone I Have OCD

I’m pretty ticked off.

There’s an article on Huffington Post today about what you shouldn’t say to someone who has OCD (http://huff.to/1gkNN0Y). Essentially, it talks about how you shouldn’t say things like, “Oh, I’m so OCD too because I have to color-code everything!” Now, I’ll admit: it’s not my favorite article. I do think people get a little oversensitive these days. As I’ve said before, when people say things like that to me, I know they don’t mean to diminish my disorder. They just usually don’t know much about it.

What’s disturbing are the comments in reaction to this article. Many commenters are saying the author is self-centered, among other insulting things. The author didn’t represent her points well; I’ll give you that. But that’s no reason to attack someone. There are many more upsetting comments that have to do with ignorance about OCD, and I can’t sit by without addressing them.

THE TWO COMMENTS THAT ARE DRIVING ME MAD

1.) “OCD isn’t real, because it’s just… [eccentric quirks] [habits we all have–I double check my locks at night too] [made up so pharmaceutical companies can make money] [some label psychologists pick out of a box].”

NO. OCD is a real psychological and biological disorder. It is not a series of eccentric quirks. Yes, there are people who are neurotic about certain things. My husband has to make sure the dishes are done a specific way; he doesn’t like anyone else doing them because they will “mess something up.” But he doesn’t have OCD. He doesn’t like it when other people do the dishes, and he can get upset, but hours later, he won’t still be thinking about it. That is something you could call a quirk or being anal retentive. But it is not OCD.

Some people think that having a habit similar to that of someone with OCD means we all just have habits. I wish it were that simple. But it’s not. A normal person (and I say normal to mean a person without OCD, just so we’re clear) may double check their locks at night. They may use hand sanitizer or wash their hands before a meal after a day of touring somewhere. They might worry about salmonella while handling raw meat. That’s fine. But that’s not OCD.

Here’s the difference: When you have OCD, you obsess over things that are just habits to other people. You might double check your locks. But a person with checking OCD might check their locks twice, then three more times, then walk away and instantly start questioning whether they locked the door. And they will keep asking themselves that question. They might not be able to leave their home because they’re so terrified they won’t remember to lock the door, which could result in someone walking in and stealing things or waiting for them to come home before attacking them or [fill in other worst-case scenarios]. Or if they leave, they might be out for thirty minutes, an hour, a day, and still be obsessing over whether the door was locked. I’ve done this. Even on vacation, I’ve found myself asking my husband, “Did we lock the door? Are you sure? You really remember doing it? Did you check to make sure you did it?”

This can ruin a person’s life. I have been unable to enjoy myself or get work done more times than I can count because my obsessions took hold of my mind. Those of us with OCD don’t WANT these obsessions. Trust me, I wish I could just make my brain stop thinking in obsessions. Especially when violent thoughts come (these are obsessions about harming myself or others, where I envision something terrible being caused by me despite knowing I would never actually harm someone or myself).  Those thoughts horrify me, and I would give anything to stop them completely. But I can’t. I know it’s not logical to think like this. I have a ton of illogical thoughts on a daily basis. Hearing my cat using her litter box across the room can make me start obsessing about a need to wash my hands. That’s a part of OCD I can’t explain–because I just don’t know why my brain thinks like that. I know the thought doesn’t make sense, but I can’t stop it coming and sticking. The compulsions are something I can stop. But stopping compulsions is not easy. I’ve heard many people say, “Just stop doing it.” It’s not that simple. A compulsion is a release, which in an ironic twist actually increases anxiety and the obsessive process. For me, I feel like I cannot move on until I complete my compulsion. With therapy and sometimes medication, the compulsions can be stopped. But I have to be open to the work, and not everyone with OCD is ready for that. You can’t force a person to get better. I had to want it for the therapy to work.

And sidenote–not everyone uses medication. Medication can be very helpful because it reduces the anxiety that feeds OCD. I take medication for a better quality of life–so I can be present in moments and in my work instead of stuck in my head. Exercise helps too. Even if you personally don’t agree with medication, don’t knock someone for using it. Yes, meds can be abused, but so can any number of things. For those of us who choose meds and don’t abuse them, the meds help to give us our lives back. It’s a personal choice; don’t hate on someone for theirs. I don’t care if you don’t use medication; that’s your choice, and if it works for you, great! But I like taking my meds.

2.) “Why does anyone need to know you have OCD? Why are you even talking about it?”

We talk to educate. We talk to reduce the stigma. We talk to help others who might be too afraid to seek help because they feel alone.

Why does anyone need to know anything about anyone? I honestly found this comment the most nonsensical. If we didn’t talk about ourselves, how would others get to know us? And what’s so wrong with admitting we have a disorder? I used to be afraid to reveal I have OCD. But when I started just being open about it, I felt free. It feels so good to not hide in fear. By not saying it, I was treating the disorder like something to be ashamed of. But I am not ashamed. I have OCD. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow less than everyone else. I’m not better than anyone else because I have it either. I’m just me. I have a disorder. I fight it. I educate others. I will not stop telling people I have OCD.

And you know what I’ve found? The more I tell people I have OCD, the more I find out that so many people are affected by mental illnesses and disorders. OCD is more common than you would think. Some people have talked me about suffering depression or other mental health issues. I love it because it’s getting the word out and reducing the stigma. Before I started talking, I felt very alone. I felt like my disorder wasn’t very common and that I would be hard-pressed to find others with the disorder. How wrong I was. And I hope that because I talk about it, someone else will no longer feel alone. I guess you could say I’m looking for attention–but not because I’m self-absorbed or want everyone to think I’m just so special. I want to bring attention to the disorder and education. I want the stigma to go away. And that doesn’t happen unless we’re talking about it.

I want to point out that OCD comes in various degrees and types. It’s not all just checking doors and washing a lot. To go into the list would take too much time in this post. There are many types. Some people suffer mild symptoms that don’t interfere with their lives. Some people suffer moderate symptoms that interfere with life to enough of a degree that treatment is needed. And some people suffer extreme symptoms that keep them from living their lives. I’ve met people people suffering all these degrees. I’ve seen the effects firsthand. And I can attest that OCD is real, and it can be a major problem for some.

OCD Awareness Week is coming up, and I plan to help spread awareness. Please let me know if you have any questions about OCD. I’m more than happy to share my experience and what I know.