Something occurred to me recently, and I’ve really struggled with facing it head on. I’ve spoken out frequently about the need for the mentally ill to share their stories both as a way for others to understand and for themselves to be understood, but I’ve been somewhat dishonest with myself.
All this time I’ve spent asking for you, dear reader, to share your stories with me, and I’ve been hiding my own story.
I believe that sharing stories and experiences with others are one of the key things that make us human. No other creature spends so much time creating, sharing, and giving stories to others, and the stories of our past build the present of our future. So it’s important that I share my story. It’s important that I talk openly about the mental illness in my life and how it effects me and changes me.
I’ve written out a dozen stories contributed by others; each one unique, special, and beautiful in their own way. And now that I start my own, I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose that’s fair….
I would say that I didn’t have an unusual childhood, though many people might disagree. I had a stable father, a stable mother, what seemed like dozens of brothers and sisters (only 8 to tell the truth), and we even had a dog at one point. We were a military family, and we spent childhood dodging around the globe on various assignments, but that wasn’t unusual because everyone around us did the same. So why the mental illness?
Mental illness has plagued my family: I have a sibling with severe bi-polar and social anxiety, another with severe OCD, and yet another with social anxiety. All three of them first exhibited signs of mental illness in their early 20s when a life event forced a significant change in the status quo. For one it was moving away from home, and for the other two it was probably getting married.
And then there’s me.
I can’t trigger where or when it started, but I’ve suspected it was during college. I wouldn’t say I was ever depressed during my teenage years, especially since depression seems to be part of life for many teenagers. I can even say that depression in its clinical definition hasn’t been part of my life. Sure there were the blues, but we all get that in some form or another. But somewhere along the road of life, I realized I was different, and it took a long time before I recognized and faced the fact that I am OCD.
OCD is not funny even though many jokes and social norms today would make it out to seem that way. But in a way, I was one of those funny OCD guys. In college, I would count the steps it would take me to walk from my apartment to my class to work and back to my apartment. That eventually progressed to the point where I counted both my individual steps and my paces simultaneously. Not bad for a guy who never really got into math. To this day, I consciously force myself not to count my steps, but I still know that it is 114 (give or take five) steps to the conference room at work from my cubicle and that my lunch walk is fairly close to 3,000 steps.
Courtney often loves to tease me about my obsession with numbers, and perhaps she’s right to do so. I certainly don’t begrudge her the mild teasing because she does it gently and, in a way, it’s how she makes it okay. One that made her roll her eyes and laugh was the time I built a spreadsheet that calculates and displays rates of return, balance, tax burden, and withdrawals for a retirement plan out to the year 2229. Why 2229? That’s when I turn 250. And while odd and maybe even humorous, let me emphasize that because the thought hit me one day, I had to figure it out. Imagine a typical day, everything is going well until someone says something or you see something or someone does something…. Anything. And then everything in your life narrows and closes down to a single pinpoint of “I must do this!” and you can’t move on until it’s done because… because something will happen. Something bad. It’s not as funny any more, is it?
Welcome to OCD.
My OCD seems to come and go depending on the events around me. I’d even say I’m mild compared to most. The biggest trigger for me is chaos and filth. Along with numbers, I need organization and order, and a dirty room will, after a short time, launch me into a crusade that Courtney has learned is best handled by evacuating the house. In fact, again probably funny but not really, we’ve both been known to purposefully leave something in a manner that we know will cause a reaction in me so that it will get done.
But it does have its downsides. Before Courtney and I understood what was happening, we would have some incredible arguments. Before I understood why things needed to happen, I’d often force decisions and actions with no way of explaining why. It just had to happen. With our first kid, I struggled changing diapers (filth and germs). I did it because I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t, but each time was followed by long minutes talking myself into believing that it was okay. With our second child, we’re both aware enough to be able to talk about it and work together on balancing our labors.
For my part, I consciously argue with the compulsions I feel. They are not common or frequent, but when they occur I make an honest effort to recognize what they are, where they are coming from, and if the response I’m making is valid. Often it is not. Often it is, but I need to tone down the energy behind it. Often Courtney puts me in time out so that I can “reset” my brain while she tries to resolve the issue.
Being OCD is difficult, but I’ve found that I can use the relatively mild nature of my illness as a benefit to me and those around me. I know few people who are as organized as I am or capable of organizing things, especially people and concepts, as well as I can. My OCD is a great benefit in my work where I spend my time writing, editing, and designing procedural and technical documents for corporations. And I’m an incredible indexer, an editing skill that, unfortunately, seems to be turning into a lost art. We also keep an extremely clean house because, frankly, anything less is unacceptable.
But the biggest benefit I see from my OCD is understanding. I’ve often wondered the probably common question of why mental illness? What purpose does it have? I’ve wondered why God allows it, especially since it is so painful and potentially destructive. It helps to understand that God does allow it, and that there are things to learn from the experience. For me, I’ve learned an overwhelming compassion for those who suffer from mental illness because I’ve seen, in my own limited way, that side of their life. I’ll never fully understand depression or bi-polar or anything else but OCD, but I do understand the overwhelming forces and feelings that a mentally ill person faces. I do know what it is like to feel like your life has no self-control. And I have a testimony of the role of the Atonement in mental illness.
I think I still probably frustrate Courtney with the randomness and energy I exhibit, but we are constantly careful to balance what must be done with what can be done. And we’ve learned to take a moment and honestly talk before allowing things to get out of hand. The biggest help for me is that when faced with a situation I cannot handle like, embarrassing as it is, a diaper change, I can look at her and she knows.
She knows to save me.
Administrator: If you have a story to share, let me know. Sharing our experiences with mental illness is an important part of understanding and working towards resolutions, and I’d be honored to provide an anonymous platform for you to post your story.