My Mental Health Improved When I Stopped Talking About it
I think there is a time to talk about your mental illness and a time to be quiet.
When I was in my twenties, I was at the mercy of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and dissociation.
Trying to work full time and raise children while you have a mental illness that is at full capacity, can feel like trying to walk up a mountain, in sandals, with a blindfold on and it’s snowing. For every step you take, you fall, and slip and go the wrong way. It’s a mess — I was a mess.
While I have always had OCD and dissociation issues, it really started to hit home after the birth of my daughter and the death of my grandmother. They happened so close together that I didn’t get a chance to breathe. Of course, the birth was expected, but the death was not.
I’ve had OCD since I was a child. I can trace it back to the weird things I would do, like needing to check the front door more times than I can count and still being convinced it was unlocked, or having to flick my light switch so many times until it felt ‘right.’
It was a frustrating thing that I lived with but never had a diagnosis. I just thought I was odd. I mean, everyone in my life told me I was odd or weird — my mother, my father. So, I kept the ideas like, if I throw rubbish on the ground my mother will die, or if I wear my red t-shirt on Tuesday, my brother will be kidnapped, to myself. It was easier that way. I knew these thoughts were illogical.
After my grandmother died, however, my OCD went into overdrive. I guess it found me in a vulnerable time of my life and snuck in when my defences were down. Little things started to happen. They were subtle. Like, suddenly I had to pour boiling water over anything I was going to use, a cup, a knife and fork, my toothbrush, even door handles. I began washing the dishes for hours at a time because they never ‘felt’ clean enough. Filling the kettle was a nightmare, and my brain liked to tell me I was going to kill one of my children, either by drowning them or throwing them out of a moving vehicle.
I Always Knew My Mind Was Strange
I’d had years of weird throughs — making associations that didn’t match. Things like, if I didn’t use a gift someone had bought me, they’d die. Because that is what OCD is. It isn’t a neat and tidy quirk. It isn’t a germaphobe or someone who likes order. It isn’t this need to have everything lined up and matched.
It is a misfiring in the brain.
OCD has two main things. It either tells the person if they don’t do something, something terrible will happen. I.e, if I don’t wash my hands three times, or until they ‘feel’ right, then someone in my family will die.
Or, it tells a person they did something terrible like they drove over a small child on their way home.
And OCD is very convincing. It shows you exactly what you did, or what will happen with the most graphic images; it is hard to fight.
And I was used to this. I thought it was a deep dark thing in my head. I thought there was something wrong with me and not in the sense that the wrong was I had a mental illness, but that the wrong way, I was inherently evil or a terrible person. I couldn’t tell anyone my secret. And I didn’t.
Mental Illness Often Starts as A Secret Abuser
Abuse always starts subtly, whether it is from another person, or yourself. Mental illness is like this. Those weird things don’t happen over night. You don’t wake up one day and have depression or anxiety, or OCD; they sneak up. Depression might start as not partaking in your hobbies, and progress to not wanting to go out with friends, and you don’t know why. OCD starts with little things. Like are you sure the door is locked? I mean, really sure? And that progresses to the time you’re at your front door sobbing, because yes, I locked the damn door, now let me go to work.
My increased OCD started this way. I’d be eating a meal, and it would whisper at me, are you sure that food is safe? Or I’d be getting ready to go to the gym with my friend, and it’d ask me, what if you get sick while you’re out and make everyone else sick? And so on. These questions went on and on, and like any abuser, OCD never relented. Not even when I was a mess from it all, questioning my sanity and not knowing what to do next. OCD had me down on the ground, and I had no one to turn to.
I Didn’t Tell Anyone
For years, I never shared my mental illness with people. In fact, it has only been in these last ten years where I have dared to speak out. Mental illness made me feel like it was all my fault, and if I just stopped thinking the way I do, then I’d feel better.
I’ve lost friends because they didn’t understand when I couldn’t go out with them that it was because depression was keeping me locked up in bed. Or they got sick of me always being late, but how did I tell them OCD stood at the door and kept making me check everything?
I became useless at work. I’d miss meetings, cancel appointments, get out of things and it’d look like I was lazy or didn’t really care. I did, I was just a prisoner to my mind.
It took me years to ask for help. When I went to the doctor, and my mental illness came out by accident, it was the greatest relief I could have had. He told me it was normal. That there was nothing wrong with me. I just had a mental illness.
I Did Therapy
It took me four years to get to the top of the list for therapy, but I got there and started a course of CBT with exposure therapy as well as talk therapy and we would talk, like really talk. For the first time in my life, I could talk about all the things my mind was telling me, and my therapist didn’t once make me feel stupid, didn’t once come across as casting judgment. Nothing seemed to spook her.
Therapy Gave Me Courage
It allowed me to see that having a mental illness wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad, and I was not alone.
This courage meant that I could talk to people about my mental illness and the therapy, and I did. I talked to my partner about it all the time. And therein lay the problem.
Talking Too Much Can Create a Co-dependency
And it did for me.
Before I started talking about my problems, I had been used to being alone with my mental illnesses. And it had been fine. I knew I had OCD and depression, and when they were really kicking into gear, I would deal with them. Sometimes that meant just going to bed and sleeping it off, and sometimes it meant reading to take my mind away. Other times, it meant giving in to whatever it was my brain wanted.
But it worked. It wasn’t ideal, but I got myself through the battlefield of my conditions and retained my sanity and my partner’s.
But Then We Started Talking About It. It Was the Worst Thing We Could Have Done
My partner became anxious about my mental health. She constantly worried that she’d either set me off, or something else would. And the more I’d tell her about my mental illness, the more it became the thing in the room with us.
Between us, we became obsessed with my mental health. She was always checking on me, and I was always giving her updates. Conversations started with, how are you today? And I know that’s a normal greeting, but her, how are you, meant, mentally. How is your mental illness? Have you self-harmed today? Did you manage to eat today? Have you got out of bed today? What’s the chance you might try to kill yourself today?
Have you ever had a pain, and when you forget about it, it goes away, but the moment you think about it, it starts up again?
I think too much talking was like that.
Talking about my mental illness became our thing. We obsessed and dissected everything and looked at ways to combat it. And I think the more we picked, the worse it got. I grew dependant on my partner in ways that weren’t healthy. Because she’d taken such an active role in my recovery, it had become easy for me to give her responsibility for my mental illness. After all, I was tired of carrying it around with me.
I needed her to be there for me constantly. I needed her to always consider my needs. We forgot about hers. My OCD and depression became the blanket that smothered us both until neither of us could breathe anymore.
I was like a burn’s victim, and everything she did was touching my seared flesh. She became a blind person walking through a minefield, only she was carrying a mine in her hands too, and it would go off at the slightest thing.
There were tears, lots of tears and arguments, lots of those too. I’d self-harm because I’d not know how to cope anymore, and she’d get upset because she just couldn’t deal with it.
We were a mess.
The Moment We Stopped Talking, I Felt Better
I don’t know how it happened or why. I can’t say there was a big thing that caused it, other than we both got tired. But we stopped talking about my mental illness. A lot was going on in our lives, the kids, work, and so on, that maybe there just wasn’t time. But the more we didn’t talk, the more I kept my mouth shut. And it was something amazing that happened in that silence. I learnt how to care for my needs again. I learnt how to be myself again.
In not talking about it all the time, we shook the shackles of mental illness off our relationship and started to talk about other things. The dark cloud that would sometimes follow me around didn’t settle over both of us, because by not talking about it, we didn’t invite it in all the time.
There is a danger I think, that when one partner is in the black hole of mental illness, the other partner gets in the hole with them and they both get stuck. That’s what we’d done.
When you make your relationship’s focus on your mental illness, there is a danger it becoming so big, neither of you can see around it. Neither of you can get past it. It’s the pain you both keep pointing at and causing a flare-up because you think doing that will make it better. But it doesn’t.
And really, there is more in life than mental illness. I am not my OCD or my depression. They’re just conditions I have.
I Can Talk When I Need To
It isn’t to say I don’t talk about my mental illness with my wife now. I do. And it isn’t to say she doesn’t help me, she does. But we only really talk about it when I have something to say, not because we think we should. And it helps.
My mental illness is always there. It doesn’t go away because I have a happy day. It doesn’t go into a box. It’s more like a shadow that follows me around. But now, my wife and I no longer focus on it. We accept it. Both of us, and I think that’s the key.
We don’t need to talk about it every minute of every day, because we’ve both realised, it can’t be fixed, it can’t be cured, and no amount of talking is going to change that. We just have to accept it’s there, and sometimes it needs attention, but most of the time it doesn’t.
I deal with my mental illness now, and on the days it gets too much, instead of asking me how do we fix this, my wife holds my hand instead and tells me, I’m here for you. You can get through this.
And we do. Quietly.