The Final Meltdown
A Tale of Depression, Anxiety and OCD
“I can’t do this.”
I closed my eyes hoping I could will myself into disappearing. I pictured the old Nickelodeon show where a teenage Alex Mack could morph into a puddle and escape unnoticed. I wanted to be that puddle. My heart pounded deafeningly. I reached deep for air and managed only a shallow gasp. Then another, and another. With each short breath my mouth became drier, my hands more prickly. There was nothing I could do now. It was coming.
I looked around the office. Ariana Grande whined lightly from the speakers above. My coworkers typed quietly. They were fine. They could do this. I couldn’t. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just go to work like a normal person? Acid raced through my body. The knot in my throat rose upwards. And the spinning. So much spinning.
“Nothing is okay. You can’t do this. You’re alone.”
The walls closed around me. I closed my eyes and felt an elephant plant his giant, wrinkly gray foot on my chest, crushing my ribs and popping my heart.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I’m going to explode.”
I rose from my chair, rushed to the elevator and pushed the button. I waited. Nothing. Certain my sobs were imminent, I ran to the bathroom. Locked. Shit. Back to the elevator. Still no movement. Witnessing my insane dance from one locked door to another, the receptionist called out to me. I couldn’t look at her, the tears were already falling. She jumped from her desk without further question and threw open the door to the emergency staircase. “Here! Go here!!” Once down the stairs, I burst out of the exit onto the street. From there I kept running, past the stores and happy people, desperate for an empty corner. Soon I was surrounded by quiet row houses. An old man throwing birdseed to pigeons smiled at me, strangely unconcerned by the mascara raining down my cheeks and the insanity in my eyes. Shaky fingers fished for my phone and found their way to the most familiar name. At the sound of my mother’s voice I wailed, “Mama, I’m dying. I can’t do it.”
— — —
When I got the diagnosis for depression, anxiety and OCD I didn’t feel better, I felt pathetic. I took it hard. Honestly, I’m shocked I didn’t cause a flood in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t unusual for me to cry — quite the opposite, actually — but this time it was different. It was like I was mourning the death of the person I thought I was. Smart, funny, ambitious. I was finally forced to accept a fear about myself and about what I couldn’t control. But, strangely, I was also relieved. I’d exhausted the ways to explain to my family why work was so hard or why I couldn’t deal with problems. In a few teary words, Doctor Wonderful — as I have come to think of him — understood entirely. He nodded gently, asking questions no one knew to ask before. I wanted to sit on his lap and hug him tightly. Thankfully, I resisted (I wanted to keep seeing him). He said we’d figure this out together. I’d never heard sweeter words. Though I was terrified to go on meds, for the first time in a long time I kinda believed there might be a chance I’d be okay.
For over 10 years I had tried to manage my feelings on my own. I suffered brutal panic attacks and self-defeating thoughts. I gave up every hobby that had ever brought me joy due to an abusive relationship with perfectionism. I slept later and later, pushing the limits of how little time it could take me to get ready for work. Getting out of bed each day, only to go to a job I should have been happy to have but couldn’t stand both filled me with intense dread and guilt. I obsessed over the locks to our house, checking and rechecking them several times each morning and night. I had a deep sense of wanting something that I could never put my finger on, like contentment was out of reach and always would be. I wanted so much out of life, but was too overwhelmed to reach for it. Every day I’d wonder if this was it. If this was as good as it got. And if so, what the hell was the point?
To the outside world I was bubbly. I laughed, cracked jokes and danced. I mean, really, I could tear up a dance floor. I knew I had so much to be happy for: an amazingly supportive husband and a relationship with my mother that rivals the Gilmore Girls. If you had asked me, I would have told you I absolutely wasn’t depressed. Anxious with a side of obsessive tendencies, sure. Overwhelmed and agitated? Okay, I’ll give you that too. But depressed? No. A bubbly person can’t be sad…right? I had a picture in my head of depression and OCD, and shamefully, it wasn’t pretty. Granted, this picture was shaped by sluggish anti-depressant commercials and indie films, but to me depressed people were unable to get out bed and play with their kids. People with OCD were noticeably neurotic and counted a lot. The media creates a narrow view of mental illness, and everyone else just seems to keep it hidden inside. I didn’t know it could be more gray than that.
I’m an excruciatingly worried person. In my world there is no “letting things go.” There is no “don’t worry about it,” or “just relax.” That doesn’t exist for me. When people tell you to do those things, in the variety of ways they do, it makes it worse because then you feel awful that you can’t. I live in a head flooded with a constant stream of thoughts and I don’t control the off-switch. I’ve looked around for it, but it doesn’t seem to exist. I’m convinced I’m missing a part and there’s no place to order it.
It wasn’t always so bad. It’d gotten worse over the last 5 years when I realized I’d chosen a career I despised after spending a fortune on a Master’s Degree. The more miserable I felt at work, the more I’d obsess outside of it. I became anxious over the state of our locks, plugs and appliances. I knew it was crazy, but I had to check again. I’d dwell on presentations and social interactions for days, unable to fall asleep as they’d play on a loop in my head. I became ashamed and embarrassed around my mom and husband when obsessing over issues that I’d already beaten like a dead horse. I could hear them sigh when I’d bring it back up, so I’d stop. But it was always with me. No one could stop my thoughts. I was always spinning on something. They would replay over and over and over and over and over and over. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t let it go. I’d try so hard to clear my head. I’d try to use logic. My brain wouldn’t let me.
I’d spent years rationalizing the way I felt. I decided I was just overly-analytical and felt things too deeply. But the depth was scary. Suffocating. Lonely. I went to therapy. I learned “feelings aren’t facts.” I did the mental exercises. But depression, anxiety and obsession still won. Now I was just tired. I couldn’t do it on my own anymore.
About 3 weeks after starting anti-depressants, I woke up and things didn’t feel so bad. The world felt lighter, easier. I turned to my husband and asked, “Is this what life is like for you? You just feel ‘okay’ all the time?” “Yeah, pretty much,” he replied. “Holy shit. I didn’t know this existed.” I’d been living in worry and stress for so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like not to. There was no lightning bolt moment. There was no high. I simply felt fine. It was the greatest feeling on earth.
One of the hardest things for me was explaining depression, anxiety and OCD to the people who love me. Training them to shift from advice-giving (which feels natural) to just listening and being there. When my mother found out the extent of my feelings, it upset her deeply. Learning I’d been suffering to a degree she didn’t understand was a hard pill for her to swallow. “But I was always with you,” she told me. “No one was with me, Mom. That was the hardest part. I wanted you there, but I was alone.”
I have been terrified to share this story. I was afraid I’d look weak or crazy. Honestly, I still am. My mother swears that I’m brave and resilient. But, she’s my mom so take that with a grain of salt. Even so, I’m working on feeling that way about myself, too. I know not everyone’s experiences with these demons are the same, but I hope hearing mine will help just one person who’s on the edge, looking for someone who understands them. If there’s only one thing I can offer, it’s to tell you that you aren’t alone, I promise you that.