This Is the Most Important Thing I’ve Ever Written
This might just be the most important thing I’ve ever written. More important than the journals that comforted me through the angst of my teenage years. More important than the 2,000-word late-night essays that got me through college and grad school. More important than the blogs, press releases, letters, and op-eds I’ve drafted over my decade-long animal advocacy career to spread compassion for other beings. More important, even, than the novel I poured my soul into crafting and perfecting over the last four years–along with the dreaded accompanying query letter that will make the difference between its publication and its burial in the depths of my hard drive.
This, here, is so important because it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever written. And it’s the most freeing. Its contents describe the single greatest obstacle–a mountain, really–to the success of all of these other writings. The shadow over every achievement. The black veil shrouding my every move.
I’m talking about fear-based anxiety coupled with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
We throw that term–OCD–around so much in our society that it’s sort of lost its impact. “Oh, I’m so OCD about my record collection,” you may tell your friends at your monthly potluck, giggling a little. “It’s totally alphabetized by band AND album title.”
“Aren’t we all a little OCD?” they may grin back at you.
If it were all that simple, psychiatrists wouldn’t be churning out anti-depressant prescriptions for OCD sufferers like PEZ Dispensers. Cognitive behavioral therapy wouldn’t be the next big thing. We’d all be meditating on beaches and sipping lemonade with a Cheshire Cat grin on our faces.
But they are real–anxiety and OCD, as well as a slew of other debilitating mental illnesses–for far too many of us.
And if you ever witness someone with OCD trying to get ready to leave the house for a small outing and struggling to pry themselves away from straightening the pillows or picking up crumbs off the floor while an exasperated partner taps their foot, you’ll quickly grasp how debilitating of an illness I’m really talking about.
But let’s back up to my beginnings. I probably wasn’t born with anxiety. And I don’t really know where it started. I spent many years going to therapists and analyzing that. Describing my roots, how I was so loved, an only child, gifted with everything I seemed to need to excel. Yes, expectations were high in my family–but I seemed to have no problem shattering them. Near-perfect grades, talented in most things I attempted (with the exception of most sports), headed for a career in the sciences, passionate about writing, gifted in playing the clarinet, self-taught from the age of 12 in web design, and even progressing toward fluency in Spanish.
But something in me longed, screamed, for acceptance. And my perceived lack of it was suffocating, always.
In seventh grade I was bubbly, outgoing, adventurous. But in eighth–something changed. One day, a group of kids was commenting about the atrocious odor that was emanating from the rats our class was about to dissect (I disagreed with the whole concept entirely, but the activist in me hadn’t yet emerged–I’ll save that for another day).
For whatever reason, I couldn’t smell that stench. And for some other reason, my brain decided that I, the un-smelling person, must have been the source of the foul odor. Because if you can’t smell it, that means it’s you, right?
And so, just like that, I became hyper-focused on my own hygeine. I brushed my teeth and showered as much as I could. I applied deodorant five, six, seven times throughout the day. It was never enough, though. I would sweat anytime I was in public, which would intensify my fear about body odor. It became so deep of a fear, in fact, that for my eighth grade year I rarely left the house apart from attending school or going somewhere else my parents made me go. And I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I suffered alone, in isolation. I thought there was something so wrong with my entire being, and I soon fell into depression.
For that, I was ashamed, and I was content with telling no one. The revelation only came to my family a couple years later when I clearly needed help. From the age of 15, I began going to therapy and taking medication–and have done so pretty consistently for this latter half of my life.
Yet for all those years of Lexapro and talk therapy, of exploring my past in great depth and receiving reassurance from counselor after counselor that I was valuable and talented and an OK human being, I didn’t really improve.
And at 16, I found a new way to deal with the fear and worry. Enter obsessive compulsive disorder. This disease allowed me to seize control. When I felt like I was spiraling, all I had to do was straighten a blanket–or three–and suddenly a sense of calm overtook me. But it began to take more and more fixing, arranging, and checking to achieve that calm.
And eventually it became unachievable. For half my life, I’ve not known the sound of silence within my own mind.
The worries center around a fear of rejection. And that fear has led me to jump to extreme conclusions. My wife and I briefly rented a house and kept our potbellied pig a secret until we could afford to buy our own place. I worried every day that the landlord would come by unannounced, see our sweet Peppercorn, and kick us out on the streets. I had a career, a family, a life–but just like that, I’d be homeless. So homelessness, or the prospect of it, which seemed so real and viable, ate away at me like rust on an old nail.
Nearly every worry had a similar fateful end attached to it. If I didn’t keep the house clean at all times, even when it was time to leave the house or spend time with my wife, a friend might pop in, see our mess, and disassociate themselves from me.
And when your partner would rather pull the folds out of a chair cover with such urgency that the house might as well be on fire than spend time relaxing with you, the tension is real. And that can make you feel unwelcome, unsafe in your own home. Because heaven forbid that you might leave a crumb on the counter and be caught red-handed by the OCD police.
That is how she felt. Frustrated, angry–but patient all the while. Patient for years and years until it seemed I would rather risk losing her than risk the perceived life-threatening consequences of not straightening the shoe bin. And, at times, it seemed I would actually rather lose her because the prospect of letting go of my anxiety, my OCD, my sense of control–it was unfathomable.
And when I say “life-threatening,” I’m not speaking in hyperbole. My body–specifically, my amygdala–literally had been conditioned to react with a fight-or-flight response to every perceived trigger. And according to Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind by Jennifer Shannon, every time I reached for a pile of papers to rearrange in response to that fear, I was reassuring my brain that it had judged this threat correctly–and that my “fixing” was the appropriate move to protect my life.
And so walking away from an unmade bed was like walking into a den of fire, at least with regard to the chemical activity inside my body. And such extreme responses, day in and day out, can wreak havoc on your body. I felt exhausted, strained, and always stressed.
I wasn’t happy. We weren’t happy together. She was kind, understanding, patient–but one can only be pushed so far.
I obsessed over people who weren’t healthy friends for me. I focused intently on impossible outcomes. I texted friends ravenously for advice because I thought I just couldn’t stop. Everything was painted in my mind as one extreme or the other. “Can’t,” “always,” “huge,” and other strong words filled my mind’s dictionary. There was no middle ground, no grey area. Fights with my wife always meant that something was wrong deep inside me–and she seemed to always “win.” I was always wrong. I always needed to seek to do better.
And so I felt that I was never enough. That, in itself, is a heavy burden to carry–and one that would surprise many people, coming from me: a talented writer, a dedicated friend, a compassionate animal lover, an excellent student, a successful animal activist leading powerful nationwide campaigns, the first person to start an advocacy program against hermit crab captivity, a founding organizer of Hampton Roads VegFest, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a Johns Hopkins graduate, and the list goes on.
Sure, sometimes I strayed from expectations. I turned out gay–and coming out has always been, and probably always will be, a struggle. But it was more than a struggle when I refused to hold my wife’s hand in public for fear of ridicule. And I chose to tattoo my body with animals and plants–yet I feared exposing them in certain settings, as the possibility of judgment, of banishment from society, seemed so very vivid. And I chose a career in non-profits, kicked off at PETA, every self-proclaimed American carnivore’s favorite entity to bash over a round of happy hour. Yet, there I was, proud of who I’d become–but hiding it all behind a wall of anxiety. And then managing that anxiety by visiting every room once, twice, even three times, before I dared set foot outside the house–just to make sure that everything was presentable for the visitor who wouldn’t be coming over.
It might be surprising, after all that I’ve revealed, that I’ve always been so high-functioning. I’ve written a book. I run campaigns. I have to talk to real people — even after that year of middle school spent holed up in my room. Those things don’t come without fear–fear of sharing my ideas, of stepping out of line, of being bold. Those things require intense self-coaching to achieve. But imagine where I’d be had that fear not held me back. A novel already published, because of the lack of years it sat while I avoided editing it and critiquing myself so intimately? More campaigns won, because of the missing fear to plow forward with some of my most cutting-edge ideas? Years of strife with my life partner avoided, because fixing the house took a backseat to living in the little moments, laughing under the stars without worrying about the wrong things I said in a meeting 7 hours earlier?
Yet, instead, living inside a prison of anxiety was taking its toll on my overall well-being. My wife often joked that I’d die early from stress. And she was probably right, had I continued down this road.
This year, in 2018, I felt that I was finally ready to address the OCD. I’d reached a point of no return in my life, in my professional development, in my relationships, in which existing this way, trapped by my own brain, was no longer an option.
That was the first step. It was the first time I decided I would truly work to heal. All other previous attempts–medications, talk therapy, meditation, yoga–had been temporary patches. If I can just get to a slightly more functional place, or if I can just fix the blanket on the couch when she’s not home, I reasoned, things would be OK. OCD could continue to be my silent friend.
I was wrong.
I found a therapist who began to push and challenge me in ways that, at first, were quite unsettling. The homework assignments–talking out my fears, like how a friend not texting me back would lead to me being un-friended forever or how making a decision at work would get me fired and then I’d soon become homeless (there it was again!)–was excruciating. The realization of how deep my fears ran, and how visible they were with every bathroom towel I straightened, was shocking. I sat in her office sweating profusely week after week as we pored over it all.
And it started to become clear that while my past, the development of these fears, was all quite interesting, what mattered in the end was how I chose to move forward.
When my wife and I got into a fight, I’d come in saying, “She made me feel–”
“No one can make you feel anything,” my therapist would respond matter-of-factly.
And it was true. I chose it all, and my amygdala backed me up. I had to re-program my reactions if I hoped at all to change.
Once I let go of the reluctance, a wave of changes began washing over me. It wasn’t easy at all. Forcing myself to stop straightening and checking for just an hour–a little pause–was petrifying. The discomfort was all-consuming. But I pushed on because getting better was my choice, and I was the only one in control of that.
I also started group therapy. Exposing myself, making myself vulnerable, to a room full of strangers was a new experience entirely. But I started to share ghosts from my past, and no one batted an eye. And when they shared theirs, I saw that we were all trudging our way through this same journey called life. Whether we’re math teachers, punk rockers, musicians, or still figuring it all out–we have vulnerabilities. No one is immune. And that realization brought me comfort.
Once I learned that I could be vulnerable in front of a group–that I didn’t have to put on a perfect front, or be an unwavering machine–that I could expose my humanity for what it was, real, raw, breakable–that’s what was freeing.
So I started to seize control of my journey instead of letting it control me. I set small goals at first. Designate certain areas of the house not to touch or fix–those are my wife’s areas. Prioritize cleaning tasks, giving myself an allowance for each item based on its true importance to our health and hygeine. Cleaning up the pig’s mess can be a daily chore for his own safety, but straightening a towel–that can only happen once a week. And each time I felt an urge, I forced myself to stop and talk myself through the possible consequences. To see that I would not end up homeless if a lone crumb hung out on our counter for half a day.
I also began to pause in interactions with others, carefully examining my responses and how I chose to present myself and my ideals. I set goals to make eye contact with certain people around whom I felt generally uncomfortable. And I focused intently in those interactions on doing so. I didn’t move on to the next goal until I’d achieved the one before it. I decided before a meeting that I would present a single idea I had without apologizing for it or degrading my proposal. And I pushed myself to do so. I didn’t get carried away, though. I didn’t have to do 10 ideas at once. One would suffice.
I am not healed. Anxiety and OCD are lifetime struggles. I am simply on a conscious path to do better. To stop using these diseases as excuses, as safety blankets, to avoid the uncomfortable. Because sometimes the uncomfortable is what stands between me and success. Between me and happiness.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Mine happens to involve cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Yours may look very different.
But yours will not just fall into your lap. If you spend day after day thinking you’ll never get better, that the sun won’t come out, well, it won’t. We don’t all win the lottery, we don’t get book deals thrown into our laps, we don’t get the people we admire groveling at our feet. We work for it.
Choosing to take the first step whole-heartedly, without hesitation, is the most important decision you can make. Even if you don’t believe it will work. Honestly, in January of this year, I never thought it was possible for me to be OK with leaving socks sprawled out on the floor for a full day. I thought that if I ever reached that point, I wouldn’t be me any longer. That my house would turn into an episode of one of those hoarder shows and I’d be banished from society forever. And I fully believed that with every fiber in me, despite knowing that I’m a rational, smart, functional human who achieves real, concrete things.
But I am not broken for believing those irrational stories. They were distortions that my body thought were protecting me from harm. No matter how much I outwardly laughed at their absurdity, I would never fully let go of them without starting the first step. And the first step was small. I didn’t walk out of that first session with my new therapist with my road map for success. All I had were a few sheets of paper instructing me to write out my triggers and to follow my train of thoughts to those ultimate fears.
But here I am, just a few months later, typing this with the bed completely unmade upstairs. And I haven’t lost any friends. I haven’t lost a home. I havent lost my wife or my family.
For me, committing myself to that first step simply meant no more feeble attempts at improving. No more sweeping of my compulsions under the rug when no one was looking. It meant confronting the scariest things, tearing off the band-aid, and lots and lots of tears. It meant choosing the hard road.
But I only have one life to live, and now, on the verge of 30, I am choosing to live it. And that’s why this is the most important set of words I’ve ever written.
Originally published at www.lauraleecascada.com on April 17, 2018.