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.

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.

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.

Two Years Ago

Two years ago this morning I woke up in my parents’ basement to an uncertain future. The day before, with my brain seemingly trying to sabotage my very existence, I walked away from my job and flew home to Toronto. What I’d hoped would be a week-long stay turned into two weeks, then four; by the time I made it back to Calgary I’d been gone for almost two months, and while I’d stabilized in the interim it took another two weeks before I was well enough to go back to work. Leaving was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made…toughest, but also best, because in the end I truly believe it saved my life. That sounds dramatic, and maybe it is, but by the time I left I literally felt as though I couldn’t be home alone anymore. Every hour felt like a lifetime; simply making it to the end of the day, to where I could crawl into bed and become unconscious, felt like a major victory. I couldn’t go on. I needed help.

I’m glad I asked for it.

It’s taken almost two years for me to get to a point where I’m beginning to feel totally “healed.” “Healed” is in quotation marks because one is never fully “healed” of a mental illness: one learns how to manage it, perhaps even to a point where it’s no longer a factor in their lives, but it’s never fully gone. As evidence, last week I had obsessions for the first time in over two months. They didn’t affect me, at least not really, but they were the same grotesque thoughts that forced me back to Toronto two Augusts ago. That they didn’t really affect me is evidence that things have gotten better. Their presence, on the other hand, suggests that OCD’s never fully going away and that it’s something I’ll have to manage the rest of my life. Strangely, I’m okay with that: the occasional obsession isn’t going to derail me again, but it might be enough to ensure continual care for my mental well-being. One day soon I’ll sit down and start writing about my life with OCD. This time last year I said I was going to write a book about “how family, friends, cute blonde doctors, overweight cocker spaniels, Rob Bell books, and rock n’ roll records can pull you out of the abyss and back into the light.” It’s time to get cracking.

Great, Big 33-for-33 Update!

33-for-33 wraps in exactly two weeks, which means I’m busily tying up loose ends while starting to jot down ideas for 34-for-34. 33-for-33’s going to end up being reasonably successful…but last week, in the midst of spending fourteen straight nights with first Sam (which also included a trip out to the West Coast) and then my parents, one of my big ticket items fell by the wayside.

I’m at the point where OCD’s barely part of my life. I still get the occasional flare-up, most recently in Toronto two months ago, but otherwise it’s almost  never there anymore. And after telling Doc Awesome (who I’ve only seen once so far in 2014!) she wrote the following message:

I am happy to hear how well you are doing. Let’s set up a time to meet in early Sept for a final assessment and where to go session.

I put four “Big Ticket Items” on 33-for-33. The three I didn’t complete are all going to re-appear in some form on 34-for-34. But the biggest item–the one I most wanted to complete, the one that could’ve comprised an entire goal list all on its own–will be finished, albeit three weeks after my birthday, and because that’s down to Doc Awesome’s schedule I’m giving it to myself. Needless to say I’m really, really excited about this being done.

My Commitment

Earlier this week I came across the journal in which I recorded the particulars of my OCD meltdown from April 2012. The first entry, dated April 27 and signed, somewhat puzzlingly, with “City of Blinding Lights” (I suspect it was what I was listening to at the time) was written during a flight from Washington Reagan to Montréal-Trudeau and still makes for painful reading. It’s like revisiting a nightmare–except this one actually happened.

Why is this happening to me? I don’t want this to be happening. […] Make it stop…please.

I wrote for several pages. At the time I felt terrified, but more than that I felt totally and utterly alone. Writing was the only way to put my mind at ease–yet the relief was only temporary, like slapping aloe on a third-degree burn. Much of what I churned out remains too deeply personal to share. I contextualized the meltdown, attempting to delineate just what it was that set me off. (I came up with six points, any one of which could’ve reasonably been the culprit. At the end I wrote RECIPE FOR DISASTER.) I listed some of the physical symptoms, at one point describing a “sweaty lip, clenched hands, wanted to scream (and then later did, silently).” I mused about possible fixes. New medications? Books? Yoga? Meditation? Other relaxation techniques? I didn’t have the foggiest. At the time I was somewhat familiar with exposure therapy, yet the work I’d done with my former psychologist had really only scraped the surface.

Still, writing felt like a good place to start. And somehow, in spite of the mental anguish, I was able to come up with a list that I entitled “My Commitment.” Two years later it’s still remarkably prescient:

My Commitment:
To fix this
To do the work
To be honest with myself, Dr. MacLean [the psychologist who preceded Dr. No], and (if necessary) Running Girl
To sweat
To palpitate
To cry
To break down
To rebuild
To overcome OCD. I’m ready now. It’s time.

In retrospect it seems nothing short of miraculous that this list could coexist with all the ranting and the raving, let alone that it came from the same hour-and-a-half-long outburst. Yet it’s clear I understood, at least on some level, the magnitude of what lay before me. Of course I couldn’t have known exactly how difficult it’d be: ERP would prove to be the most challenging thing I’ve undertaken. But on April 27, 2012, in the throes of my worst OCD meltdown in five-and-a-half years, I experienced a brief moment of clarity, like a ray of sunlight poking through a thunderstorm. It suggests that our minds are capable of working even when it feels as though they’re irretrievably broken and that the greatest insights sometimes occur when we least expect.