On Being Mentally Ill

I’ve written a whole book trying to come to terms with my mother’s mental illness. But it is only in passing that I reference my own struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and severe depression. It’s obviously a difficult (and taboo) topic of conversation, but after reading author Kevin Wilson’s heartfelt and candid essay about his personal battles with what he calls “bad thoughts,” and the legacy he’s worried about leaving behind for his children, I felt compelled to write about my own experiences here. So bear with me for a minute. I’ll understand if you don’t want to hear about this, though. No hard feelings if you stop reading now. I promise.

Anyway. First thing: I have severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The kind I have is one in which almost everything in my life is completely eclipsed by persistent, nagging thoughts and anxieties that last for hours, sometimes days, sometimes forever. Remember Howard Hughes? There was a movie, The Aviator, which was about him, in which Leornardo DiCaprio portrayed that man’s dreadful suffering. That’s the kind of OCD I’m talking about. A need to control even the tiniest detail of my environment: which way my wallet faces, for example, when I set it down after I get home from work. God forbid if you move it. I’ll notice, you bet I will, and if I don’t fix it back, my anxiety level goes through the roof. That’s just one small example. It would take too much space to make a laundry list of them all here. Who has the time for that anyway?

Just imagine having to check everything you do over and over, never getting the satisfying feeling of having completed something correctly, thus walking back into a room ten, sometimes twenty times, until that feeling of anxiety goes away—if it ever does at all. Then imagine applying that need to nearly everything you do in life: checking the mailbox, loading the dishwasher, putting away clothes, checking your email, flipping the same page fifteen or twenty times in a book you’re reading just to be sure you didn’t accidentally skip over a word or a sentence. I mean everything.

Think about how that would affect your family—that feeling of knowing they’re watching hopelessly from the idling car as you go back into the house again and again to make sure the stove (which you hadn’t even used that day) is turned off, that the door is locked, the windows are shut. Would you feel guilty about the time wasted, about the poor example you’re setting for your kids? Yes, you probably would. I know I do. Then imagine that guilt causing even more anxiety, which in turn results in more checking, more rituals, then settling into a deep depression. It’s an endless cycle, I’m telling you.

Now can you imagine knowing why you exhibit all this odd behavior—that you need to control some aspect of your life, over which you otherwise have little-to-no control (because, let’s face it, none of us really do)—but you are still unable to stop? Imagine seeing therapists, reading books, doing everything you can short of checking in to a mental institution, and still having this horrible illness, one that permeates your life so deeply and for so long that it even exists in your dreams. I’m serious: I literally dream about checking things, running down lists in my head. Not every night, thankfully, but sometimes the OCD seeps in. The disease has definitely been a part of my life long enough for that to happen (I’ve had it since I was around ten or eleven years old, more than twenty-five years). I don’t know. Maybe it’s just in my DNA.

So, yes, obsessive-compulsive disorder is incredibly painful and difficult to live with. For several years, I was on medication for it, but the side effects were too much so I decided to quit taking it. It’s been over a year since I did that, and while I’m functional (even if it’s to an extreme), my life is a daily battle. I still take Xanax occasionally if the symptoms get really bad, but that drug is not without its own side effects: headaches and drowsiness, to name several. So I try to suffer through the anxiety, the checking rituals, and the resulting depression without any medication at all. I go for walks, breathe. Sometimes those things help.

But the thing is this: I’ve been successful, in some ways, because of my OCD. And that’s also part of the problem. I have a work ethic that is driven by this anxiety, forcing me to work on my creative endeavors as though it’s a matter of life or death. So it’s a disease that has helped me to be productive and successful. Thankfully, this has paid off for me, but it also causes a great fear that if I were somehow “cured” of this illness, my art would suffer in some way, that I would somehow be less creative, less driven (less of me) if I gave it up. And it’s this fear (and that healthy dose of guilt that goes with it) that keeps me sick. Even though I know that fear is irrational.

So what does one do? I really don’t know. But I think talking about it like this (as scary as it is) helps. Starting the conversation. Letting people know what lurks beneath the surface. I have to say, though, that despite all of these things I just mentioned, I am pretty happy. I have a beautiful family, a life that is consistent and stable and predictable (in a good way). I can’t really complain. And I hope that’s not how this little missive is taken.

I’d rather think of this as a confession: Look. Here’s what’s wrong with me. Now tell me what’s wrong with you. OK, now let’s talk about it. I promise that in the end we’ll both feel a little bit better.