It’s been 8 months, y’all. And I have to tell you I have enjoyed getting to know all of you and this beautiful town. I guess since we’re through the introductory part of our relationship, I can share with you some more intimate details about myself and who I am.
One of the reasons for our move was a change of pace for our oldest daughter who was diagnosed with severe OCD at the early age of 12 during her 1st semester of 7th grade. It seems the genetic apple does not fall too far from the tree. It’s a terrible anxiety disorder. I try and explain it using the flight or fight system we all have built in our brains. Think about driving down the road and a car swerves in your lane – your palms sweat, your heart beats out of your chest, your body feels numb but you react quickly and avoid disaster though you remain skittish and shaky for the next hour, aware of how scary and fragile life can be and that something terrible could happen at any minute. This is what it is like without an actual stimulus (a present, real danger like a swerving car) for a person with an anxiety disorder – ALL the time. It is not something you “get over.” It’s also not something you should ever have to “suck up and learn to live with.” I guess you can say from my journey – and now my daughter’s – education about mental disorders has become a passion of mine. Here is my story:
I’ll tell you a secret.
Actually, it’s not really a secret. It’s just something personal only those close to me know…..or more correctly, understand.
Why tell over 13,000 of you then, you’re probably wondering . . . or much like the MadHatter asked Alice in the Wonderland, “Have I gone mad?”
See, that’s the thing. I am totally bonkers.
I suffer from a really bad case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. I have done so for the first half of my life and will continue to deal with the diagnosis for the rest of it. It’s curious, though, how most people don’t really understand it. I bet you are imagining my clothes neatly lined and color-coded in my closet; that there isn’t one dust bunny on any of my floors; that my hands are cracked from washing and my day planner is lined with detailed notes and dates and times.
Not at all, because let’s just say I’m the furthest thing from Type A. My closet looks like the aftermath of a buy one/ get one free tag sale; walking on my hardwoods feels like you have on a pair of cat fur slippers; and my nail beds are cracked from obsessive nervous picking and I haven’t seen my day planner since 2005.
Who has time to remember to load the dryer from the washer when you’re constantly worried something very bad can happen at any minute? You know, like the world could end.
My memories of feeling off – not quite right – go back to when I was 9 or
10 years old. It was the early 80s and though we were in the midst of an economic recovery, the Cold War loomed large and with it, the ever present threat of nuclear devastation. I remember watching a commercial, or was it a TV series? I can’t remember. All I do remember is a group of families playing on a playground. Next thing, a plum of atomic particles incinerates everyone in a big wave and all that is left is a swing still swinging – back and forth – empty. Everyone is gone. I guess it was right then and there that I realized we are quite simply lucky to be alive and that life as we know it could be gone – poof – at any moment.
Now, most kids would have been scared witless but would soon shrug it off and head out the door to play kick the can down the street. Me, I locked myself in my room and hid under my bed worrying any minute I could lose everyone I loved. Was life really that fragile that it can be obliterated in mere seconds? Well, yes, it was… it still is. But it didn’t seem fair. Weren’t we supposed to have some, at least a little tiny bit, of control over it?
So that’s when I began to try and manage the terrifying world around me with rituals and obsessive thoughts. My lucky number was three, so everything had to follow in that pattern; turning the door knob three times; closing the kitchen cabinet; saying my nightly prayers. Three times. And if I walked into a room one way, I had to walk out the exact same way. Crazy, right?
Yes. And I knew it. But it didn’t matter how irrational the behavior because I was convinced if I didn’t follow my rituals, my patterns, to the “T” something terrible would happen to me or someone I loved. Talk about pressure.
This carried on into my adult life, only the rituals – my behavior – became more compulsive, more obsessive.
If my leg muscle twitched, I had Lou Gehrig’s. I would shove my toothbrush down my throat before bed – 3 TIMES – because the first sign is losing your gag reflex. My foot would fall asleep. Well, I had multiple sclerosis. I would then spend my evening poking my toes – 3 TIMES – just to convince myself I could feel them so I could sleep at night. I spent hours after hours on Web MD and found out I was pregnant, not from my ob/gyn, but my internist who had to convince me –THREE times – the peanut on my ultrasound was not a tumor but in fact our daughter.
It got worse after I had both my babies. I hated being around groups of people. Surely, they would figure me out. The jig would be up. They would know just by the sight of me . . . I was a seriously flawed human being.
And then there were days I didn’t want to get out of bed because I was sick – not physically, but mentally and emotionally I was sick, so sick and tired of the daily battle I picked with my brain. I would laugh it off. I would tell myself you’re a rational irrational. I mean only really crazy people don’t know something is wrong with them. Right? So I thought . . . and I blew it off.
Until one day nine years ago, I didn’t want to any longer. I remember calling my mom, crying, telling her ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ She said what she always says. It’s in your head. Think happy thoughts. You have two healthy, happy children and a husband who adores you. Let it go. You’re fine. You are more than fine. You’re terrific.
But I wasn’t.
I described to her how I knew I had a so-called perfect, beautiful, blessed life. I could see it. Clearly. Bright as day. It was all right there right in front of me. Mine for the taking. But I felt on the outside looking in, as if there was a piece of glass separating me from it. I could place my hands on the glass, knock furiously, cry and beat on it, but it wouldn’t give. I just didn’t want to be on the outside looking through anymore.
I wanted in.
Thank goodness for my husband, Charlie.
When you finally go see someone and they tell you what’s wrong with you, it’s liberating. Like, that’s it. You get it. That’s ME. You are describing ME. You figure out slowly but then with increasing speed and comforting sincerity that you’re not really crazy or different, after all. If you have high blood pressure, you see a doctor. If your brain is a little wonky or wobbles a bit off balance more times than not? Well okay, you go see a doctor, too.
I have been on medication for OCD for 9 years now. It still surprises me to this day how I can go weeks and even months without one single obsessive/compulsive thought. I honestly never thought that would be possible. My life is so much more focused on the “living life to the fullest” parts than the “bury your head in the sand and try to pretend nothing bad will ever happen” gig I used to subscribe to. I am lucky, too, for my incredible support system – like my best friend Alicia, who can tell within 5 minutes flat if I haven’t been taking my meds and won’t let up until I prove otherwise. (She’s even given me my own “nut case” – a silver acorn that’s attached to my key chain which holds a few of my pills. This way I can never use the excuse that I forgot to take them with me and then get the evil eye and the “I told you so.” Gotta love her.)
See, I have come to learn that my OCD is just part of me, like my hair color and my cracked heels and creaky knees. I look at it like I’m missing a bridge in my brain that processes information. Most people have a thought, ponder it, then file it away. I don’t have a direct route to my filing system. Without my meds, it’s like a rush hour traffic jam – my thoughts just ping back and forth in the front part of my brain, never moving far, never really going anywhere. It’s a 20- car pile-up without 24-7 towing or an easy re-route off a major highway. It’s exhausting
I still go back sometimes and think of myself as that little girl . . . hiding under her bed, counting over and over and over again. I think of myself like our Alice, a girl who is growing up but feels uncomfortable in her own skin… who gets frustrated when she finds out that nothing really makes sense in life. And probably never will.
So why? Why am I telling you all of this now? There is a lot of dialogue out there about medicating our children, even ourselves. As if it’s just commonplace. The whole idea out there is that if we have a problem, we don’t solve it. We medicate it. And it’s wrong . . . it’s a cop out. Leave well enough alone – it’s just part of growing up.
I don’t buy into this. I am not a mental health practitioner but I can talk from experience. A lot of moms have asked me about this very subject and it’s a legit and necessary problem that needs honest discourse. But let’s face it; there is a stigma to it. Just as there are no easy answers.
But there are young people out there – ones you know – who are cutters, bulimics, anorexics, drug abusers because they – like me – have to find some way, any way, to get rid of the pain they feel in being part of a world they don’t understand . . . and conversely, doesn’t fully understand them.
The National Mental Health Association reports that:
1 in 5 adolescents suffer anxiety disorders.
2/3rds don’t receive the help they need.
1 out of 33 young people (and some reports site 1-8) are clinically depressed.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the US for young people between the ages of 15-24.
An estimated 118,700- 186,600 youths in the juvenile justice system have mental health issues.
So I think we do them all a disservice to tell them over and over again:
“You’ll grow out of it.”
“We all have our own problems.”
“Suck it up.”
“Get over it & move on.”
“Life is tough.”
So instead, think about Alice in her dream Wonderland and how frustrated she was getting small, then bigger, her body changing all the time. And just remember how our kid’s cognitive skills, along with puberty, do the very same thing. They are stretched and challenged and expected to do things at an early age (college prep courses, SATs, sports, workloads) that their brains might not be truly ready for yet. Some can handle it seamlessly, some cannot.
Alice asked herself this very question: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
We might not be able to figure out the puzzle for everyone.
But we can listen to the clues.
And maybe help shatter, or make the smallest of cracks, in the glass.
Laura Packard recently moved to Beaufort from Saint Simons Island, GA where she still pens a humor column for Coastal Illustrated/Brunswick News. She has brought along her 2 daughters, 3 dogs, 4 cats and one husband. They sometimes let her write. You can learn more about Laura and her writing at www.lauraleighpackard.com. And don’t forget, if you can’t make fun of yourself, someone else will surely do it for you. For Laura, someone else is usually her kids… and her dog, Atlas who she swears is John Candy reincarnate, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.