My Thirteen Month-Long Hell

Thirteen months ago–on Thursday, November 2, 2006, to be precise–I got up and went to work as usual. I made two school visits; while I was driving, I was listening to the new Who record. Later that night, I played dodgeball.

And after getting home from dodgeball, as I was sitting on the living room couch watching hockey highlights, I snapped.

Thus began my thirteen month-long hell, a battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which I’m only just beginning to get under control. On that night, suddenly and without warning, my head became filled with awful, unspeakable thoughts–and nothing I did could get rid of them. The precise details aren’t important; what matters is that these thoughts had taken over my brain. I tried sleeping, but couldn’t: as soon as I lay down, they attacked full-forced. At 11:30 that night I called Bri Monster, then drove across Toronto, picked her up and brought her back to my place. She didn’t leave for the better part of a week–which is good, because without her sleeping next to me (not to mention supporting me ever since), I can’t imagine how I’d have survived.

As it was, I was barely functioning. Since I wasn’t really sleeping, it took a Herculean effort for me just to wake up in the morning, and the only way I was making it through work was with copious amounts of caffeine…which was problematic, since caffeine exacerbates the symptoms of OCD. All I wanted to do was sleep, because when I was sleeping I wasn’t thinking; whenever I was doing that, the obsesive thoughts were taking over. I couldn’t eat: food made me nauseous. Whenever I did eat, there was a 50% chance I’d be throwing it back up. I was, in every sense of the word, a wreck.

Something needed to be done, and quickly. The next week I made a first, tentative visit to a doctor’s office to talk about what was happening to me. He figured I was suffering from some form of general anxiety, or GAD, but couldn’t give me a firm diagnosis; his advice, essentially, was to “get out and run”. Unsatisfied with his answer, I went to the hospital where I’m part of a long-term follow-up clinic and scheduled an appointment with one of their in-house psychiatrists–and together, we started getting to the root of the problem. I was diagnosed with OCD, albeit without the compulsives (apparently, simply having the obssessive thoughts is enough to constitute “obsessive-compulsive” disorder). There wasn’t a specific cause, although genetics certainly played a huge part. And I learned a lot of facts about the illness itself, including the strange correlation between OCD and incidents of strep throat growing up (a disease I had all the time when I was a child). I also began taking antidepressants.

While this was happening, I began to understand how backwards a lot of people’s attitudes are where mental health is concerned. It’s ironic, since 10.4% of the Canadian population suffers from mental illness to varying degrees. I’m also baffled by people’s resistance to antidepressants, which makes about as much as sense as refusing chemotherapy while undergoing treatment for cancer. There’s a widespread belief that antidepressents don’t actually do anything–that they simply “mask” people’s problems instead of helping solve them. That’s simply not true, because while antidepressents aren’t (or rather shouldn’t be) a “quick fix”, they nonetheless stimulate an actual physiological response in the brain. They are, in short, vital to the recovery process; in my case, while they didn’t make me feel better right away, they certainly helped with short-term coping. It’s amazing how people continue to stigmatize mental illness. It’s also sad, because those attitudes are likely preventing certain people from getting better.

I was lucky: not only did I have a psychiatrist, I also had the world’s greatest support network which was there for me every step of the way. No one should have to deal with what I was going through alone, and I consider myself to be the luckiest man alive for having that kind of help. Moreover, I figured out what needed to happen in order for me to function while the medication was kicking in. I stopped going out as much; I rediscovered the simple joy of reading, of spending an evening curled up on the couch (or, better yet, in bed) with a book in front of me. I started working out again, albeit not as vigorously as I’d intended. I cut out alcohol almost altogether. And I did my best to sleep eight hours every night, because the more I slept the better I functioned. If I’ve ever “bailed” on you during the last thirteen months…well, there’s probably been a pretty good reason for doing it. Hopefully now you’ll understand.

Despite this, I didn’t start feeling “better” until a few weeks ago. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but it’s like a spark went off which allowed me to function again. I honestly don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said it was the first time since grade ten that I felt “right” about myself. That, to me, is the ultimate tragedy: that I’ve essentially wasted an entire decade of my life battling an illness I didn’t even know I had. Sure, there were warning signs along the way–my well-documented inability to use the letter “y”, for instance–but nothing was concrete until that night last November. People tend to think of OCD as this quirkly little illness which makes you wash your hands a lot. Let me assure you that this isn’t the case: it completely and utterly destroys you, and forces you to rebuild your entire life from the ground up.

In a way, it hasn’t been a thirteen month-long hell: it’s been going on for well over a decade. In retrospect, that explains a lot about me–including my inability to cope with grad school. Sadly, I never knew it was something over which I had absolutely no control until last year. (Also, this is the “thing” I kept alluding to during and after the second LSAT writing last year. So now you know.) I’m going to spend the rest of my life regretting this fact; had I known sooner rather than later, I could’ve starting fixing things right away, instead of letting them fester.

And having said that: now that I’ve identified the problem, I’m going to kick its ass. Thus, when I get back to Calgary in the new year, I’m going to become a lot more proactive about defeating OCD once and for all. I’ve seen a counsellor, who I’ll be visiting as soon as I get back. Together, we’re going to find an actual CBT specialist who can perform the psychiatric component of the treatment. I’m going to see a nutritionist; I’m going to start working out again, instead of just talking about doing it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m well enough to, well, “get better”. I know it seems counterintuitive, having to feel better in order to start getting better, but it’s just one of the curious ways this illness operates. Thirteen months after the symptoms attacked, I’m finally feeling well enough to fight back.

And that, more that anything else, is what I’m grateful for this holiday season: that my thirteen month-long hell might finally be coming to an end. Not that something like OCD will ever completely go away–but with a lot of work, I’ll be able to control it so that it no longer affects my ability to lead a normal life. Thanks for reading…and today, more than ever, thanks for being a friend.

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