I can remember the first time I realized something wasn’t right. I couldn’t have been any older than seven or eight. I couldn’t sleep, and I was panicking and seething with guilt, though I don’t remember why.
What I do remember is that I’d gotten into a habit of holding my breath and counting when I felt stressed like this. More specifically, I’d hold my breath and count to ten. Sometimes it would help for a moment, until the anxiety started to pummel me again, my thoughts racing like a runaway train.
I’d repeat the process, then, until I fell asleep or couldn’t hold my breath anymore.
1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
6… 7… 8… 9… 10.
(I always loved the number five and multiples of five.)
I remember how it struck me that, no matter how many sets of ten that I cycled through, it never seemed to truly help me. And I wondered why my efforts were failing. Take deep breaths, right? That’s what they said.
I didn’t understand my emotions, because my emotions didn’t behave the way I was told they would.
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, then, when I was nine and planning the details of my funeral like I was assembling a grocery list (I distinctly remember wanting my stuffed animals to be in my casket, until I later thought it punishingly unfair to bury them with me, as I explained in my diary).
It wasn’t a surprise that when I was ten, I was so jarred by the attacks on 9/11 that I started reciting the pledge of allegiance every time it was 9:11 PM, just in case, to make sure that nothing bad would happen.
And it wasn’t a surprise, either, when I was thirteen and contemplating suicide. It wasn’t a surprise anymore, because I knew from a young age that my emotions had always had a mind of their own, one that I was helpless in the face of.
For as long as I could remember, my body — and my life, really — was just a vessel for some kind of unspeakable anxiety and, at times, depression. This has been a constant. And for something so constant, you’d think I would never question it.
But I’ve still spent the last month in a tailspin anyway, persistently worrying that I’ve invented all of this somehow.
Disbelief and invalidation were my first experiences when I shared my pain, and those first experiences have never left me. It’s a voice of doubt that I’ve internalized after years of practice, after plenty of time to rehearse and learn the role.
It was the well-meaning parent that said, “We all get sad sometimes.”
It was the so-called friend that said, “He’s just doing this for attention.”
It was the school counselor that looked at my self-inflicted wounds and said, “Oh, that’s not so bad.”
It was the uncaring psychiatrist that said, “If your grades are good, why are you here?”
It was the teacher that said, “You don’t seem depressed to me.”
That seed of doubt was planted long before I had any defenses against it.
When I first started sharing my pain, it was often followed by someone else’s doubts. Those doubts almost acted like an electric shock, training my brain to question myself whenever I was hurting. The outside world interrogated my reality often enough that I had eventually learned to do it myself.
My obsessive-compulsive disorder, of course, latched onto this persistent self-doubt like a parasite, thriving off of it.
I have OCD… or don’t I? What if it’s an excuse, a way to disguise my evil nature? What if it’s all fabricated? What if it’s a manipulative ploy, a way of harming the people I love by eliciting their concern? How would I know if I’m lying? What if it’s all unconscious? What if I don’t even realize it’s happening?
And then I’d desperately search for reassurance.
I’d repeatedly ask my friends and clinicians to tell me I wasn’t imagining it, I’d research my diagnoses to death, I’d take every quiz, I’d google every variation on “did I make up my mental illness.” And if you know a thing or two about OCD, you’d know that the compulsion to be reassured only makes the obsession worse.
I became obsessed with the idea that I might have some kind of factitious disorder, despite how little sense that really made.
This last week, I spent upwards of ten or more hours of my day, drowning in the fear that I could be unconsciously hurting other people, lying to them. That I was somehow dishonest. And because factitious disorders are largely unconscious, it would be impossible to prove the existence of something that, by nature, I wouldn’t be aware of.
In other words, it’s a total mindfuck.
I’ve often explained my OCD to people as being fixated on “the unicorn in the other room.” I can’t definitively prove there isn’t a unicorn in the other room, and the mountain of evidence to the contrary doesn’t offer total certainty. And for OCD, 99% certainty will never be enough; OCD thrives in the 1%.
OCD introduced an ethical dilemma that, at the time, felt very real to me: Every time I reached out for help, I questioned if it was an attempt to manipulate someone, or if it was “proof” that I only wanted attention.
The simple act of needing help became evidence of the very thing I feared most.
But the more I suffered, the more I desperately wanted to ask for help, fueling the anxiety. It got to the point where I was refusing to go to support groups, because I was afraid I would be “found out.”
That anxiety fed the compulsion to research (which is, in fact, a real compulsion), to repeatedly ask if friends believed I was ill or lying, or to ask my clinicians to remind me of my diagnoses (and some were totally unwilling to play this game, knowing it was a compulsion).
At one point, I was opening up my healthcare provider’s app dozens of times per day, just to look at my list of diagnoses in an attempt to self-soothe.
These mental compulsions, though subtle at first, started to escalate in frequency, until it eclipsed most, if not all of my day. I’m talking, thirty-texts-in-one-week-asking-my-friend-if-I-have-OCD kind of frequency (sorry about that, Chris). And the more I tried to stop thinking about it? The worse it got.
It took me far too long to recognize that these were behaviors stemming from OCD. Even now as I’m writing, there’s this compulsion to research just a little more, to take another OCD quiz (knowing that the results will always, always be the same), or to ask my partner for the millionth time, “Are you sure I have OCD?”
You know, just to be sure.
(And even now, there’s the fear that I’ll put this article out into the world, only to discover later that I’m not mentally ill at all. It’s not logical… but OCD isn’t logical, either.)
But given what I know about OCD, I’m probably not the only person that has been consumed by this fear.
And I’m definitely not the only mentally ill person to ever worry myself sick over whether or not I’m mentally ill enough, traumatized enough, suffering enough.
The very existence of this fear (which is so common, obviously to varying degrees) speaks to the kind of invalidating world we live in. Mentally ill people are practically groomed to gaslight themselves, and that kind of doubt doesn’t help or serve anyone.
So if you’re out there, maybe repeatedly googling “Am I making my mental illness up?” (like I have about five hundred times this week), I hope that this came up on your search results — and I’m glad that you’re here.
Because I’m going to say to you what I think is most important to hear right now:
No matter what you label your suffering, that pain is valid.
Mental illness or not, whatever framework you use to interpret or make sense of your pain… it’s still valid, and you deserve to be supported as you work through it.
If you are struggling, you deserve compassion and care. And as you struggle, you need to take care of yourself.
You have value. All people do. And you, just like anyone else, are worthy of happiness, health, and wholeness.
I’m giving you permission to create the circumstances needed for you to be well and thrive.
If that means asking for help, ask for help. No one should have to suffer alone, including you.
…And if you think about it, the nature of this whole “existence” thing is that there’s never complete certainty of anything — just hopefully enough certainty to get by.
My brain still isn’t satisfied with the quizzes, or the research, or the reminders from friends, or the diagnoses. I realize that now. The more I seek out the reassurance, the worse I feel.
And while I’m (mostly) okay right now, I might obsess about this all over again tomorrow, because that’s what this disorder does.
(Or maybe my mind will latch onto another fear, convincing me of some other way I might hurt someone or do something that I don’t actually want to do, inspiring the next great moral crisis for me to spend hours and hours consumed by. This is a very tedious, persistent disorder.)
So rather than resisting the doubt, I’m choosing to live with it. I’m choosing to do my very best to accept it — to accept doubt as one of the preconditions to being human in this very messy, confusing world.
I don’t know much for certain, but I do know this: I can take care of myself today. I can try my best to be kind to myself.
That’s what I’m going to do tonight. And I hope you will, too.
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