I was lying on the floor of our living room, my body paralyzed. I had thought of the name “Dominique,” the name of a kid in my class who was failing biology. My hands were contaminated and had touched my leg because I had an itch. Damn itch. I had stayed hunched over trying not to think of “Dominique,” or “Mo,” or “Waleed.” It's hard when you’re trying not to think of something, however.
Just the thought of trying not to think of something causes your mind to think of it. I was trying to say the names of people I thought were successful to myself. I did this in order to cancel out the “bad.” I had to say a pattern of four names three times and then that pattern three times, without thinking of names of unsuccessful people. I had to say four names because my mom’s name has four letters, and three times because my dad’s favorite number is three. If the name of an unsuccessful person came up during the pattern, I had to start all over again. After about an hour of trying to complete the sequence, my body gave out, and I lowered to the floor, lying on my side but still holding my leg. If I let go of my leg, my leg would become contaminated and the unsuccessful names would spread throughout my body and cause me to become unsuccessful.
My mom came into the living room and rushed to where I was lying. Through long, heavy sobs asked me if I was ok. I wanted so desperately to answer her, to nod my head, to do something, anything, to help calm her down. I wanted to assure her that I would be ok. But I wasn’t. I was trapped. I was perfectly capable of moving yet my OCD made me paralyzed. I couldn’t even look at her because I couldn’t move my head so all I did was stare at the wall I was facing. In some ways I think this was a good thing because if I saw her face I would have probably felt even more like a monster. All I could do was think, breathe, blink, and cry.
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at around the beginning of 8th grade. My OCD revolved primarily around success. I always felt like in order for me to be successful I had to get straight A’s, I had to get into an Ivy League college, and all of these very radical things. I grew up in the Bay Area, an area where there was a lot of pressure on kids to achieve academically and get into highly acclaimed schools. I was influenced by this societal pressure, and sought out to achieve like the majority of students in my classes.
In the very beginning, my OCD started out as sort of a betting game. I would make bets with myself constantly. Before every test in middle school I would secretly hold my breath for thirty seconds or roll my pencil and try to get it into an indentation at the top of my desk. If I was successful at these bets, then I felt like I would perform successfully on the tests. When I received a good grade on a test, I associated my grade with the bets I had made, as opposed to the fact that I had studied. This positive feedback loop was dangerous and I began to make more and more bets throughout the day in order to deal with anxiety from school. In some ways, I feel that my OCD was my mind’s way of trying to make sense and gain control over the uncertainty I was feeling and still feel today. It was at this stage where I knew something was off about how many bets I was making, however I thought I was just overly superstitious. It wasn’t until my OCD symptoms started to affect my day-to-day functioning that I knew something was wrong.
I continued to reject the idea that my bets were dangerous because I didn’t want to admit to being “abnormal.” As I transitioned into high school, and the pressure I put on myself to succeed increased, my OCD symptoms also continued to get worse. Homework assignments that should have taken me 30 minutes were taking up to three hours to complete. It became difficult to eat, sleep, and the worst- to walk.
When I got my first “B” ever as a course grade during my sophomore year in high school, I was devastated. I felt like this straight-A identity that I had built up for myself was shattered and there ultimately wasn’t a reason to go on. After three scary weeks I was hospitalized and my parents and I realized that we needed to do something else because clearly what we had been doing wasn’t enough. We found our way to a program called the Aspire Program. The Aspire Program is a group resiliency training program that teaches mindfulness skills to teens suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. This program was not only educational, it also served as exposure and response prevention training. Throughout Aspire, I worked with kids who I thought to be unsuccessful in school. At first it was extremely difficult, but as the program progressed, and I got to know each of my peers in the program, I became less afraid of them and my image of success began to reshape. I started to view success less in terms of grades and achievements, and more in terms of happiness.
Outside of the Aspire program, I was also seeking help from a psychiatrist and community based therapist. With my therapist we focused on exposure and response prevention exercises. Exposure and response prevention is one of the hardest things I have had to endure, however it is also one of the most rewarding. Through exposure and response prevention I was able to face my fears directly and see that my thoughts were irrational.
Today I am glad to say that I have practically no symptoms of OCD. OCD is a chronic illness, and I will have it for the rest of my life, however I now have the tools to better manage it. I now know that it doesn’t matter what letter grade you get on your report card, or what school you go to, all that matters is that you try your hardest.
So many people today struggle with some sort of mental illness, but nobody talks about it. There is a stigma around mental illness and the only way to break the stigma is if we all break the silence. The more open people are about mental illnesses and their struggles, the more normalized having a mental illness becomes. We need more mental health services, especially in the education system. It would be great to get to a point where mindfulness and other mental health tools are a standard part of middle school and high school education curriculums. Everyone, whether they have a mental illness or not, can benefit from emotion regulation and other mindfulness lessons.
If there is one piece of advice that I can give to families struggling with similar issues it is to be open about your struggles. There are so many people who struggle with a mental illness and the more open you are, the more it will help others who are suffering with similar issues, and the less isolated you will feel.
When I was first diagnosed with OCD I felt so ashamed. I felt alone, isolated, and crazy. Because I felt this way I tried so hard to hide my symptoms and even try to convince myself that I did not have a mental illness. As I look back on on my life and the period of time where my struggles were at their highest, it would have been much easier working through my dark times if I knew other people were going through similar struggles and experiences. I have been thinking a lot about my life and how everyone has their story. We are told constantly to always be ourselves. Since a young age, people are always saying to stay true to yourself and that it doesn't matter what other people think. If this is true, then why was I so ashamed and afraid of having OCD? Why did I spend so much time feeling bad for myself for having a mental illness. People cover themselves up everyday, whether it be with makeup, a certain group of friends, clothing, etc, in order to "fit" into a societal norm. If nobody cared about what other people thought then people wouldn't take these measures to try and conform. I used to care so much about trying to conform. No matter how many times people told me to be myself, I still tried everything to be someone else. I didn't want to have acne, glasses, or thin hair. I didn't want to have my family's nose or body type. But most of all, I didn't want to have OCD. Throughout my journey I have come to understand that by trying to hide my OCD, I was in a way, trying to hide my real self from others. This is the first time that I am really going transparent in order to show people that it is absolutely ok to be "different". It is so ok to have acne, or braces, or thin hair. It is so ok to expose your differences. Because even though I know they may feel like differences I can guarantee you that someone else out there has those "differences" too. There are approximately 7.5 billion people on this earth. Out of those 7.5 billion people I assure you that someone out there is going through similar experiences you are, and can relate to whatever struggle you may be experiencing.
Opening up about my struggles has enabled me to find other people who are going through very similar experiences, and has helped me to no longer feel isolated. Opening up is hard, uncomfortable and scary. Even though exposing your differences is very hard, I promise you that once you open up, it will connect you to other people and help you and others feel less isolated.
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