I had originally assembled interviews from different individuals for a single article about attending school while living with a mental illness; the responses I got were so beautifully thoughtful that I couldn’t bear to divide them into sound bites and quotes. The below, written by a writer and author named Miriam, is the first of that series. Enjoy.
I’ve had OCD since I was sixteen, although I didn’t identify it as such until I was in my twenties, but throughout high school and college my symptoms were pretty mild; when I was 23 and living in Boston and teaching at an artsy high school and applying to MFA programs was when my symptoms started to get worse, and after I moved to Michigan and started graduate school they steadily became more stressful to live with and interfered with my life more and more.
Throughout my time in grad school, my brain besieged me with compulsions. I always felt like objects had to be arranged in a certain way. I couldn’t just put a book down on my desk; it had to be in a particular position or at a particular angle, and if it wasn’t I felt like as a result either my parents and my brother would get in some kind of horrible accident or get sick and die, or someone would steal my idea for the novel I was working on or plagiarize from it. And once I put the object down I’d feel like I had to keep moving and repositioning it to make sure it was in the right position.
And I developed a fear of the number 3, which I think grew out of the idea that 13 is considered to be an unlucky number, so to be safe it was best to avoid the number 3 in all of its forms. If I did encounter a 3, I’d have to look at something with a different number on it to counteract it, and I’d have to think repeatedly about particular phrases, usually quotes from movies or lyrics from songs, in order to protect myself, or I’d feel like I had to do some particular action to protect myself, like bite my lower lip or blink repeatedly. On days with the number 3 in them, there were certain things I’d avoid — I tried not to work on my novel on those days because it felt risky, and if I read a particular book or went to a particular bar or something on one of those days I’d feel like it was tainted and somehow dangerous and only if I returned to it on a day that didn’t contain a 3 and did a bunch of rituals would it then be safe again.
When I was by myself, I did compulsions and rituals all the time. In public, in class and at coffee shops and stuff, I would still do them but I’d try to do them more quickly or be more subtle about them. As the years passed, the compulsions felt more and more urgent, the potential consequences of a failure to do them more and more dire. I tried to behave as “normally” as I could, but I was frequently consumed with stress and worry about whether I was doing all the things I needed to be doing in order to protect my family and myself. In my heart of hearts I knew that my compulsions had no basis in reality, but I cannot emphasis enough how very real and threatening they felt. Telling myself that they had no basis in reality did no good. When I finally sought help and described my symptoms to my therapist, she said it sounded like I was living most of life with the feeling you get the moment you just barely dodge the path of an oncoming car, which is one of the most deft descriptions of what OCD and anxiety feel like I’ve ever heard.
Struggling with compulsions added a lot of extra stress to my life at a time when there was already a lot of extra stress in my life because I was in a challenging and rigorous graduate school program. With every assignment and deadline, there was the garden-variety stress that came with wanting to get the work in on time and wanting the work to be good, and then there was an extra level of stress because in addition to getting the work in on time and making it good, I had to maintain all my compulsions and rituals while I did it.
The other big challenge that came with having OCD in grad school is that OCD is, among other things, a major time-suck. It took me a million years to do anything because every task had a bunch of compulsions attached to it. It would take me almost an hour to change into pajamas and brush my teeth and wash my face and take my contacts out, so I was always getting less sleep than I might’ve. I was frequently late for things or stressing out about potentially being late for things. I would’ve been much better-rested and efficient if I hadn’t been dealing with OCD. It was like the OCD was my part-time job, only my boss was unreasonable, demanding, and harsh, always making me stay really late and giving me tons of extra work and constantly criticizing me. And my boss was my own brain.
[What would you tell your twenty-five-year-old self?]
Oh, my twenty-five-year-old self! I’d give her a big hug. She was so anxious about everything. I would tell her that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. I would tell her she didn’t have to shoulder her OCD without therapy and medication and help and support. I would tell her that the fact that she could do this–that she was living with a bazillion compulsions and somehow miraculously getting her fiction writing and schoolwork done and reading books and making new friends and dating rather than opting not to ever leave her apartment — didn’t mean that she had to. I would tell her that there is a very fine line between courage and unnecessary suffering and she was on the wrong side of it. I would tell her she didn’t have to keep her OCD a secret and that, were she to tell her parents and brother and friends about it, they wouldn’t look at her differently or think she was weird; rather, their reaction would be something along of the lines of, “Oh, sweetie, you’ve been limping around with a broken ankle for almost four years, it’s high time you saw a doctor for that so it can heal.”
When I ultimately did talk to my parents and my brother and friends about my OCD, this is pretty much exactly what happened. I told my parents I thought I needed to see a therapist when I’d reached a point where it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to live with compulsions anymore, as that it was getting to be close to impossible to do anything because the compulsions got in the way; and they were supportive and empathetic and kind and I started doing talk therapy and taking Prozac, and I still experience symptoms, but I can ignore and override them for the most part now. I’m so very grateful to be doing so much better.
I would tell my twenty-five-year-old self, if you knew how dramatically things are going to improve once you seek help, you’d be dizzy with relief and gratitude. I would tell my twenty-five-year-old self, I promise that you will not have to live like this forever, I promise.
When I was in graduate school, in terms of self-care, I pretty much did everything wrong in that the notion of self-care eluded me and I thought of my OCD more like another assignment for school — this is stressful but you have to do it — rather than what it was, an illness, something you can heal and ameliorate. The one thing I did that was good for my mental health in grad school was this: I made friends. For the first half of my first semester of school I kept to myself because I was shy and I was overwhelmed with how much work I had to do. Then one particular afternoon — I had just turned in a portion of my novel to be workshopped, which meant it was the first time since I’d moved to Ann Arbor that I wasn’t, in some form, on deadline — one of the poets in my program approached me after a reading and we got to talking, and she invited me to the Fleetwood Diner with her and a bunch of other poets. If I’d had schoolwork I would’ve declined and said I had schoolwork, partially because I was pretty anxious about keeping up with my schoolwork and partially because I was hiding my shyness behind that anxiety. But I didn’t have schoolwork that night, which meant I had no reason to say no, so I said yes. We went to the diner and drank coffee and ate tempeh hash and talked and I felt happy in a way I remembered feeling before but hadn’t felt since September. I thought, Oh, this is what I’ve been missing since I moved here: friends. So from then on I made more of an effort to get to know people, and when people tried to draw me out I allowed myself to be drawn out. I made friends who continue to be some of my closest and dearest friends to this day. And even though I was suffering when I was in graduate school, there were so many times when I’d spend time with and talk with the other people in my MFA program in their studio apartments and in coffee shops and cozy college-town bars and in the town Arboretum under the trees and I would feel such warm kinship, and I am so grateful and glad for all of that. As often as I felt alone in grad school, more often I felt loved, and this saved me.