I started telling my story a little over a year ago in the form of a blog. It was a good way to get my feet wet with publicly discussing some of the things I’ve struggled with, but it was really only accessible to people who know me. I’ve been pretty active in the mental health community, and a piece I wrote is actually being published next week in Project Semicolon’s book “Your Story Isn’t Over”. I wrote the piece in question close to 2 years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then. Maybe that’s where I’ll start today — with some background.
On February 9, 2015 I voluntarily checked myself into a psychiatric hospital in San Francisco. I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as a kid and always felt like that wasn’t ok — that there was something inherently wrong with me, something that needed to be fixed and if it couldn’t be fixed, it needed to be denied. My dad was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years before my diagnosis, and because of his health, he wasn’t very involved as a parent. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and essentially did all of the parenting. I had pretty typical obsessions and compulsions as a kid — fear of germs/compulsive hand-washing, fear of drugs, obsession with morality and a compulsion to confess my ‘sins’ (some completely innocuous and fabricated by my mind) to my mom. Standard behavioral therapy really just taught me ways to deal with feelings that weren’t real or valid and only made me hate myself more when I couldn’t put any of the strategies into practice.
All of those things were unpleasant, but as I got older, the intrusive thoughts became more about my sense of self-worth. I was convinced that no one could ever love me as I was, that I needed to be someone else — someone who didn’t struggle with acute anxiety and compulsions — in order to be accepted. The more I tried to be someone else and deny my emotions, the worse my anxiety and sense of wrongness became. I hated that I had OCD and it felt like my entire identity, and I felt like I had no control over on my own mind. So I sought other ways to exert control. I cut myself. I would hit myself with a hammer over and over again. I starved myself, over-exercised, and was anorexic. I’ve jumped off roofs and balconies trying to break my own bones. And I hid all of it pretty successfully.
My self-esteem was so low that I depended on others for validation and sought that out through relationships which were always unhealthy. I couldn’t have a healthy relationship when I was putting such a great burden onto someone else — the burden to constantly assure me that I was loved and that they weren’t leaving. Especially when I tended to be attracted to men who were selfish and self-assured while simultaneously not being self-aware.
I had been thinking about hospitalizing myself for a long time, but what finally pushed me to it was a particularly volatile relationship. I was in love with a man who seemed to have it all together on the surface, and that’s probably what initially drew me to him. As time went on in our relationship, cracks began to show. It was clear that I needed more from him than he could give me, but that didn’t matter to me. I was so afraid of him leaving, and whenever my anxiety came out, that’s exactly what he’d threaten. He’d withhold for a period of time and shut me out for a few days and then call or text when he was lonely and I’d run right back and we’d do it all over again. He had me wrapped around his finger and he knew what it was doing to me, but he was too cruel and selfish to end the relationship when I couldn’t. I was used to being the one who didn’t have it together and being told that I was crazy, so it felt pretty normal to me. I thought I deserved his coldness and that if only I could change, he’d really love me and want to stay. But the more I tried to be “normal” and okay with his treatment of me, the more anxiety attacks I’d have. In the middle of all this, he accepted a job in San Francisco and asked me to move up there to be near him, so I left my friends and family and did exactly that. Our cycle only got worse after I moved up there, because he was my only connection in a new city.
I vividly remember the day I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore, but I didn’t know how to get out or change or get the help I needed. He and I had a particularly charged IM exchange that morning after he broke our plans from the previous evening with no explanation. My anxiety was super high and I was at work, crying at my desk and I just thought “there has to be more than this for me”. I knew that if I didn’t get help, I’d end up dead because the pain I felt every day wasn’t worth living through anymore. I only told 2 people what I was doing — my HR person so that she could get the LOA paperwork started, and my one friend in a new city. I called an Uber asked him to drive me first to the flat I shared with 2 roommates so that I could pick up some things (sweatpants, a couple of books, etc.) and then drive me to the local ER. I was admitted to their psychiatric ward a couple of hours later and spent about a week. I only discharged myself after having firm plans for what came next — a 4-week partial hospitalization program, appointments for medication management, and referrals for local psychologists.
That was the beginning of my true journey. I’ll speak more to that later, but hospitalizing myself was by far the wisest decision I’ve ever made. At the time, it felt like the systems I had worked so hard to create and keep me functioning were breaking down around me and burying me. It just required so much effort for me to get through each day, and I couldn’t do it anymore. But what that experience taught me is that everything I thought about myself up to that point was based on a story that I told myself, and that the story wasn’t true.
I had been raised to think that I was crazy, that the thoughts and feelings I had were wrong and condemnation-worthy. I had never experienced compassion or understanding about the mental reality that I lived with, and because of that I thought I was irreparably broken. The staff at the hospital helped me find the therapist that I still see today, even though I’m no longer in San Francisco. I remember the first time I met her. She told me that she wasn’t going to put my diagnosis as OCD and that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I remember feeling just… angry. How could she deny something that was fundamental to my identity? Why would I hospitalize myself if there was nothing wrong with me? But within the first six months of our work together, I started to come around and see that what led me to the hospital wasn’t OCD or a guy. It was shame, shame that was my day-to-day reality but that didn’t have to be because it was all based around other people’s expectations. I realized that I didn’t know who I really was if I stripped that all away, but that’s what we worked to do — gradually change my thinking patterns. As I’ve done that work (by far the hardest work I’ve ever done) I’ve seen how much damage shame did to my life, and I’ve also seen how beautiful my life is without it. It’s full of possibilities, not limited or constrained or defined by self-doubt.
I went from a barely functioning 24 year old with a long history of psychiatric problems and frequent suicidal thoughts/behaviors to a now 28 year old who is… SECURE. And that’s what I always wanted — to feel strong and rooted and capable. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m generally happy. What a miracle.