Your Bell Let’s Talk Challenge

I have a Bell Let’s Talk challenge for you:

Stop saying “I’m so OCD.”

Lots of people do, but speaking as someone who actually has OCD I have an important message. You’re not OCD. And you almost certainly don’t have OCD, either, because if you did you’d never describe yourself as being “so OCD.” (Unless you were being ironic. And even then.)

OCD isn’t something you are. It’s not a quirk, a transient personality trait, or a general appreciation of fastidiousness (regardless of what Monica Geller taught you). It’s a mental illness, and it ruins lives. OCD traps people inside their own worse nightmares and makes escape virtually impossible. It takes, on average, seventeen years to be diagnosed. And it increases risk of suicide by a factor of ten.

I’ve written a lot about OCD over the years. I’m subclinical these days, meaning OCD’s essentially a non-factor in my everyday life. I haven’t had a flare-up since July. These are very good things! But I’ll never stop advocating for mental health. Today, while you’re trying to bankrupt Bell Canada, challenge yourself to change the way you talk about mental health. Stop using OCD as an adjective. You are not OCD.

Lapse Into Now

I haven’t brain-blogged in ages, which is a good thing: it used to be the more I blogged about OCD, the worse it was (and, conversely, the worst it was making me feel). Prior to Sunday I’d been symptom-free for months. Like, completely symptom-free. It was glorious.

And then, on Sunday, I lapsed.

What happened? A bunch of things, actually. Consider this:

  1. I got engaged. It was pretty much the greatest day of my life; it was also the culmination of over six months’ planning, none of which Sam had an inkling about until the morning we left for Calgary. Hey, speaking of Calgary…
  2. I went back to Calgary for the first time since moving away. The weirdest part is how it didn’t feel weird at all.
  3. I’ve been going non-stop since April. Since April 7 I’ve flown around the world; gone to Nashville for a bachelor party; seen Pearl Jam three times, including once as part of a weekend in Ottawa; planned a surprise anniversary party for my parents; stood up for my cousin at his wedding; finished the Ride to Conquer Cancer; gotten engaged; and, just this past weekend, gone to Stratford and Buffalo.
  4. I didn’t sleep well Saturday.
  5. I gorged on sugar candy last week.

Et voila!

A lapse isn’t the same thing as a relapse, which can happen when a OC sufferer lapses and immediately discounts all the gains they’d been making. I don’t think I’m at risk of doing that…but that knowledge doesn’t make me feel better right now, which of course is what I want.

And so now I’m taking evasive action, starting with two of the pillars of any successful recovery: I’m going to bed earlier* and eating better. (* – this will absolutely not apply Saturday when I see Guns N’ Roses.) I’m also aware I’ve been slacking in the personal fitness department since crossing the finish line in Niagara Falls, and so it’s back on a regime of biking (and biking to work, if the TTC could deign to reopen the College bike lanes) and running with Sam. (I’m going to fail spectacularly at my goal of running a half-marathon this year; I’m willing to blame my knees for one more year, and in fairness they still do get sore really quickly after I run.) And I’m going to write. I don’t know what I’m going to write about: music? Mental health? Wedding planning? (God help me.) It’s therapeutic. And it’s something I realize now I need to make time for, as opposed to just sitting back and waiting for inspiration to hit. I’m chasing after inspiration now–chasing after it for its own sake, but also because it makes me feel a lot better during times like these.

10 for 2016

Greetings from Coffee and All That Jazz, already firmly entrenched as my favourite Toronto coffee shop. I’m drinking a nuclear-strength dark roast, listening to X’s More Fun in the New World record, and basking in the early-morning sun. The sun hates Toronto during the wintertime; one of the hardest things about moving here was simultaneously abandoning Canada’s sunniest city, although it’s a bit easier to stomach cloudy and grey when it’s +6 in February.

Anyway. This is an updated version of an entry from 2013. It’s a list of health goals, mostly centred around mental wellness, that I’ve committed to this coming year! Leave some of your own suggestions in the comments, why don’t ya?

  1. Resume mental health blogging. I used to blog about mental health so often I started a separate blog, Brain of SNJ (awkward Pearl Jam references FTW!). My output slowed as OCD became little more than a dull roar in my day-to-day life. But it got loud again last summer–long story, and an overdue one–and that, combined with some of the inspiring personal mental health accounts I read during Bell Let’s Talk day, convinced me to start telling my story again. Stay tuned.
  2. Re-commit to Partners for Mental Health…and commit to #SickNotWeak. A follow-up to point #1. In the meantime, I’ve also signed up to volunteer with Michael Landsberg’s #SickNotWeak initiative. Together, these organizations are helping blow up the stigma surrounding mental illness. I can think of no cause more important.
  3. Fully commit myself to my exposure therapy. That means no shortcuts, no stepping down from challenges, and not skipping any days unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. And it means being honest with myself. That’s one of the hardest things about exposure: it isn’t pleasurable, at all, and the temptation to slack off is high. Being honest means calling myself out when I’m showing signs of slackening commitment.
  4. Wake up in the morning. I should clarify: not “wake up” in the literal sense, since I quite clearly do that, but rather “wake up earlier.” Last year I dabbled briefly with getting up at 6am and getting my day started earlier. And I loved it! I was waking up to start my day, not simply waking up so I could go to work, and that subtle paradigm shift made a world of difference. It’s been harder since I’ve been looking for work. In that vein, here are sixteen tips for getting up early.
  5. Develop my Go Hard Idiot Gene. Yesterday I ran 5km for the first time since injuring my knee three years ago. Together, the run comprised several small, tentative steps towards accomplishing my two main running goals for my thirty-fifth year. I’m excited to report I’m relatively pain-free this morning. On a related note, I’m currently reading a book called Spark, which delineates the staggering relationship between exercise and good mental health. Check it out!
  6. Write. Self-explanatory.
  7. Go to the movies. Among the many benefits of no longer being in a long-distance relationship is having a steady +1 during Oscar season. Plus, there’s an independent cinema around the corner from our new place (moving in March 1, same day as the first of two Who concerts in Toronto!). I think I’ve seen more movies in the past two months than the entire eight years I lived in Calgary.
  8. Perform. I want to play the drums again. I want to keep learning guitar; I want to pick the piano up again. And I want to perform in front of an audience. Performing galavanizes me like few other things.
  9. Socialize. OCD loves cancelled plans almost as much as it hates rational thought. Yet getting out and socializing can be as important to recovery as any form of medication or therapy. Socializing can be as basic as reading in a coffee shop instead of in a living room or as complex as hearing The River live in its entirety…which I’ll be doing tomorrow evening, by the way!
  10. Explore Toronto. It’s funny: I spent most of the past eight years clamouring to move back to Toronto, yet now that I’m here I’m feeling profoundly discombobulated. And while it’s perfectly understandle why I feel like this, getting out and exploring my “new” city–fully inhabiting it, as opposed to merely living here–will both help me adjust and reduce the anxiety surrounding the move.

So? What do you think??

Quack

I just got back from Eugene, Oregon, where I was attending an international recruiter conference with which some of you are doubtlessly familiar. The wrap-up was held at Autzen Stadium, home of the Oregon Ducks football team; imagine my delight when I discovered they’d opened the field for conference attendees, and I spent an hour playing catch and shanking field goal attempts in front of 54,000 mostly empty seats.

Anyway: ducks, quack, bad doctor story! As I mentioned, I started taking medication again a couple weeks ago. (I’ve since stopped, albeit temporarily; that’s another story, however.) The new psychiatrist, who we’ll refer to as Psychiatrist #1a, was perfectly alright. But it took almost a year, and possibly longer, to get a referral, so when a second one came in shortly thereafter I decided to take it, figuring I’d compare the two doctors before picking one to move forward with. So last week, after an especially productive (and necessary) visit with Doc Awesome, I met Psychiatrist #2b.

Quack.

First, the good: nice office, nice vibe, nice receptionist, and (if I’m being honest) nice doctor. Next, the weird: Psychiatrist #2b stayed seated when I walked into the room, then indicated a seat from which I couldn’t quite see him because his gigantic computer monitor was blocking my view. Lastly, the ugly: he misdiagnosed me. I’m not saying I think he misdiagnosed me: he straight-up misdiagnosed me, a suspicion that Doc Awesome later confirmed. I have something called Pure Obsessional OCD, which is a well-established condition. Or so I thought. Psychiatrist #2b diagnosed it as–drumroll, please–borderline delusion. His reasoning? OCD compels someone to act…so, for instance, the well-known stereotype of the chronic hand-washer. But in my case, he said, I wasn’t acting, but rather thinking, which suggested to him a second, concomitant cause. According to WebMD, delusional disorder is “a type of serious mental illness called a ‘psychosis’ in which a person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined.” That’s as similar to Pure O OCD as an apple is to an A380 jet. They’re both “things,” but that’s effectively where the similarities end. Not to Psychiatrist #2b, who diagnosed me with both OCD and borderline delusional disorder. He then prescribed me an antipsychotic. I listened to his diagnosis trying not to let my jaw drop to the floor. Doc Awesome’s assessment was wonderfully succinct: “I take it you will not be continuing with him.” She’s got that one right.

This points to the exact same problem I once encountered with Dr. No: specialists making fundamental mistakes. I don’t think I know more than either of these two men. But I do think they’ve got gaps in their knowledge, and that in both cases the results could’ve compromised my mental health. Dr. No, you may recall, once finished an appointment by laying me face-down on his office couch and running a magnet up my spine. Psychiatrist #2b didn’t go to such overt extremes. His mistake was much more covert–kind of like how Pure O OCD’s an internal disorder, not an external one. Maybe he’s the one who’s borderline delusional.

Back to the Shack

I don’t think I’ve even so much as mentioned the once-mighty Weezer on Stuff and Nonsense since the infamous puffy vest incident of May 2005. But I’m mentioning them now, partly because “Back to the Shack” is a pretty good song but mostly because it’s an appropriate title. Sorry, guys, I didn’t realize that I needed you so much.

Some of you know I went off antidepressants last fall. It’d been a long-standing goal of mine; I even made it a 34-for-34 list item. Going off antidepressants was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The withdrawal symptoms were hellish. I figured insomnia would be one of them, and it was, and it was severe. But what I didn’t reckon for was the nausea, dizziness, obsessive thoughts, or general sense of dread–not to mention some of the weirder side effects, like an itchy scalp or the apparent inability to consume yogurt. Once the withdrawal symptoms abated, OCD returned. It wasn’t unbearable, but it nonetheless wreaked pretty significant havoc on my holidays.

But then it didn’t stop. It got better, but I’ve spent most of the last eight months operating below my potential–in some cases well below. You probably didn’t notice…but I did. I noticed it almost every single day. I need to stress this point: I’m not opposed to taking antidepressants. Not at all. I mean, I’d rather not take them–but I’d rather not a lot of things, like having OCD or cheering for a hockey team that hasn’t won a championship since 1967 (it’s less I wish I weren’t a Leafs fan than I wish the Leafs had won a Stanley Cup in the last fifty years…and yet I digress). Antidepressants work; they’re not cure-alls, but they’re also vital to most people’s effective management of their mental illness.

And so today, after consulting with a new psychiatrist (my previous one retired at the end of February), I decided to go back on medication. Just a small dose. But I’m back on as of tomorrow.

I’m okay with this. I wasn’t; for a while I felt like I was quitting on something I’d wanted for a long time. But I now know the alternative is a better life. I don’t want OCD compromising my quality of life one little bit, and certainly not for the sake of something as arbitrary as “I want to be finished with antidepressants by my thirty-fifth year.” And so I’ll go back on antidepressants for the time being. Is it permanent? I don’t know. I hope not–but if it is, and I’ve accepted that it might be, it won’t be the end of the world. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, nothing more. But a puzzle’s not finished if a piece is missing, and even a small one’s important in the grander scheme.

I’ll let you know how this develops.

 

The Anxious Jet-Setter

I’ve flown a lot lately. Today’s flights, from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg and then from Winnipeg to Calgary, were my twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth of 2015–but they were also my eleventh and twelfth in the past three weeks, which is a pace I haven’t set since the first heady days of my international recruitment career. The younger me, who dreamed of becoming a pilot and whose first word was “jet,” would’ve been thrilled by the way his life’s developed. Thirty-four year-old me is, too. Mostly.

I’m not afraid of flying. I know people who genuinely are; I’m not at all like them, and if I were it’d literally be impossible to do my job. As a kid I was a great flier. But then the more I learned about planes, the more I’d think about all that might possibly go wrong once I boarded an airplane, the worse I got. Remember, airplanes were my first obsession. Pilot. “Jet.” Hours spent at airports as exotic as London Heathrow and as mundane as Thunder Bay International watching planes. Family trips to airshows. Visiting the Air and Space Museum instead of going to Disneyworld. I did all these things. Yet the more I learned about planes the more anxious I seemingly became. The closest I think I ever got to being an actual “bad” flier was in 2011. I vividly remember white-knuckling a turbulent flight from Calgary to Toronto as an electrical storm raged off in the distance. I detest turbulence; in fact, this morning’s 5:35 puddle-hopper from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg was so rough I almost threw up on the connecting flight (and vomiting in the washroom of a CRJ-705 would be a feat, lemme tell ya). Prior to that, the takeoff of a flight from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires was so unbelievably rough that two things happened I’ve never experienced before or since: one, a deathly silence, a silence so thick you could feel it weighing you down, washed over the entire cabin; two, I very deliberately chose the album I wanted to be listening to when I died (Funeral by Arcade Fire, since you were wondering). In the event the plane obviously did not crash–obviously–but the experience left me shaken. Upon arrival in Buenos Aires half the cabin burst into tears. True story. (I didn’t cry; I did, however, exhale very, very deeply.)

Sam’s friend, whose husband’s a pilot, likens turbulence to bumps on the road, and that’s all well and good…except that roads aren’t 30,000 feet above ground and most of us aren’t pilots. That, I think, explains why so many people (upwards of 25%, apparently) are afraid to fly: it’s the ultimate relinquishing of control, and to a group of people you likely don’t know who operate a metallic cylinder that hurtles you from one part of the world to another. The next time you’re on an airplane spend a few minutes pondering exactly what you’re about to do. You’ll quickly come to the conclusion it’s both the greatest and the most ridiculous thing imaginable. Now add OCD into the mix. OCD loves uncertainty; conversely, OCD sufferers need certainty, which is a fancy way of saying we hate not being in control. My life often gets consumed by “what if?” type questions, which can be particularly problematic when they settle on things like…

What if an engine fails?

What if the landing gear won’t go down?

What if a wing rips off?

What if? What if? What if?

I understand that’s mostly irrational. Moreover, I understand logically that aviation’s the surest mode of transportation conceived by humans. For instance, according to the Am I Going Down? app, this morning’s Thunder Bay to Winnipeg flight has about a 1 in 4,903,351 chance of crashing; I can assure you the odds of dying in a car accident on Highway 17 are much better. But anxiety in general and OCD in particular thrive on uncertainty. I cannot be absolutely, 100% certain the plane’s wing won’t rip off, which means it absolutely, 100% certainly will happen. 1 in 4,903,351? So you’re telling me there’s a chance! My brain isn’t like this every time I fly. Just…some of the time.

As ever, habituation helps; ditto mini exposure sessions, which tend to revolve around the notion that yes, this feared thing absolutely will happen. Honestly, you’d never know I was an anxious flier by flying with me: I spend most flights with my nose buried in a book. But occasionally my mind wanders, and sometimes when that happens you’ll notice me quietly gripping the seat handle and gazing off into space. If you see me doing that, reign me in. Bring me back to the here and now. Honestly, flying’s still mostly thrilling to me. The split second during take-off when the plane’s wheels are still on the ground but its nose is in the air’s one of my favourite things about being alive. The challenge, with flying as with virtually every facet of my existence, is not letting my mind get in the way of things I love.

This is Your Brain Off Drugs

I went off antidepressants October 3. It’d been a long-standing goal of mine, not because there’s anything wrong with taking them–quite the contrary, in fact–but because I thought, or at least hoped, I’d gotten to a point where I no longer needed them.

I’d like to say this story has a happy ending, and maybe it does–but not yet. Maybe that’s because, in the eight weeks since going off antidepressants, I haven’t stopped moving, and I think I need some actual downtime in order for my brain to fully finish resetting. Or maybe it’s because I shouldn’t have gone off them; maybe I’ll need to be on antidepressants, at least in some form, for the rest of my life. I’ve been grappling with that possibility lately.

Here’s how we got to this point.

I started taking antidepressants in 2007, and together with cognitive behaviour therapy they’ve formed one of my first lines of defense against OCD. Earlier this year my friend Graham introduced me to a company called USANA, whose products had an immediate galvanizing effect on my mental health: within days my anxiety symptoms were completely gone. I was also eating better than ever, an unexpected benefit of dating a vegetarian. I’d been toying with the idea of halving my dosages by the end of 2014, but these twin developments convinced me to push further, that total withdrawal from antidepressants was within reach. I began tapering my dosage in mid-June under the watchful eye of my psychiatrist, who told me to monitor my symptoms for three months and then, if I was still feeling good, to stop completely. By early October I was feeling great, and when a long weekend cropped up during a work trip to Toronto I decided to go for it.

Day one was fine. Day two was okay. Day three was bad. Day four? Day four was hellish. Day four was when the withdrawal symptoms really kicked in. Strangely enough I hadn’t really anticipated the possibility of negative side effects, yet they were myriad and surprisingly aggressive. I figured insomnia would be one of them, since one of my antidepressants was a sleeping aid, and it was. But what I didn’t reckon for was the nausea, dizziness, obsessive thoughts, or general sense of dread (not to mention some of the weirder side effects, like the inability to eat dairy or an itchy scalp; no, the latter wasn’t actually dandruff). I think I was so focused on the end goal I never really stopped to consider the potential pitfalls. It took the better part of two weeks for the worst symptoms to abate. All the while I was working full-time, planning a three-week international work trip, and spending as much time as possible with Sam who, in case you didn’t know, lives in Toronto.

I was fine in the Middle East, which surprised me given I worked over a hundred hours’ overtime in less than three weeks. But then, when I landed in Canada, I started to experience anxiety for the first time in months. These symptoms have likely been exacerbated by jetlag: I’ve been back for two weeks and I’m still waking up at all hours of the night. Or maybe–likely, even–they’re happening because I stopped taking medication. Maybe my body’s still adjusting.

Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped. Maybe I’ll have to reverse course; maybe I’ll be on antidepressants forever. In truth, I don’t know what’ll happen next.

But here’s what I do know: I’m giving myself til April–six months–to see if I can get back to where I was in October. If, at that point, I’m not feeling markedly better I’ll consider going back on medication. I’ve fought too hard to reverse course after a few rough weeks. But I’m not going to be an idiot about it, either. As ever with OCD–as ever with life, really–it’s all about taking things one day at a time.