Nothing Left to Give
A Tale of Depression, Anxiety and OCD
“Shit. I can’t do this.”
I closed my eyes to stop the room from spinning, willing myself to morph into a puddle and escape my office unnoticed.
I pulled in a giant breath, desperate 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 as 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?
The walls inched closer and closer. Acid raced up from my belly into my throat as the room spun wildly. My heart pounded, my ears rang. I closed my eyes and waited for the elephant to plant his massive gray foot on my chest, like he always did, crushing my ribs slowly so that I felt the last breath leave my body for good.
“No one is coming to save you.”
I sprang from my chair, rushed to the elevator and pushed the button. Nothing. Certain my sobs were imminent, I ran to the bathroom. Locked. Shit. Back to the elevator. Fuck, still no movement.
Witnessing my frantic dance from one locked door to another, the receptionist jumped from her desk 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, past the new moms cooing at their babies and couples swinging hands, desperate to find an empty corner.
“Everyone can do this but you.”
Soon I was surrounded by quiet row houses. An old man throwing birdseed to pigeons smiled at me, strangely unphased 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. Help me. I can’t do it.”
When I got the diagnosis for depression, anxiety and OCD I didn’t feel better, I felt pathetic.
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. My words turned into incomprehensible sobs as I was forced to accept my deepest fears about myself and what I couldn’t control.
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 came to think of him — understood entirely. He nodded gently, asking questions no one knew to ask before. He said we’d figure this out together. I wanted to sit on his lap and hug him tightly. He was the first person to ever see me for what I was and allowed me be exactly that.
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, shame and guilt.
For years I had held onto dreams that I couldn’t bring myself to pursue. Eventually those dreams were replaced with 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 to be so many things, but was terrified to reach for them.
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?
No one actually knew my secret. To the outside world I was considered bubbly. I laughed, cracked jokes, laughed at the jokes I cracked. To boot, I could really tear up a dance floor.
I knew I had so much to be happy for: an incredibly 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. 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.
What no one understands is that 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 ashamed that you can’t.
It hadn’t always been this bad. It’d gotten progressively worse over the last 8 years as I realized I’d chosen a career I despised after spending a fortune on a Master’s Degree. The more suffocated I felt at work, the more I’d obsess outside of it.
I grew to be obsessed with the locks to our house, checking and rechecking them several times each morning and night. 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 played on a loop inside 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. 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 was always spinning. I’d try so hard to clear my head, I’d try to use logic, but my brain wouldn’t let me let go.
I’d spent years rationalizing the way I felt. I decided I was just overly-analytical. I felt too many things and I felt them too deeply. But the depth had become scary. Suffocating. Lonely.
I went to therapy. I learned that “feelings aren’t facts.” I did the mental exercises. But depression, anxiety and obsession still won. Now I was too tired to do anything. 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. And 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.
My mother, devastated to learn the extent of my inner battle, struggled coming to terms with the fact she couldn’t fix it for me. She repeated something she used to tell me as a child.
“But I was with you. I am always with you,” she told me.
“No one was with me, Mama. That was the hardest part. I wanted you there, but I was alone.”
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 — standing on the corner deciding how much more they can take — desperately looking for someone who can understand them.
If there’s only one thing I can offer, it’s to tell you that you aren’t alone.
I promise you that.