OCD and Me: Tales of an Anxious Life
Anxiety and me go way back, but we’re not old friends.
I was always a high-strung kid. My mom likes to tell stories about how, when I was three years old, I would go into full panic attacks every time I heard the sound of a helicopter. If I was outside, I would run back in the house and then get even more upset when the rest of my family failed to recognize their impending doom. I was scared of Santa Claus, too, so you can imagine my reaction when we were in a store parking lot and the big man was dropped off in a helicopter. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t have the world’s first fear-induced toddler heart-attack. I was scared of escalators and bees and rain. Despite the occasional, embarrassing public meltdown I was able to live with this anxiety until, when I was eight years old, something changed.
My memories of that time are filtered through a shadowy veil. I can remember times when I would feel an overwhelming sense of impending doom which, strangely, had no obvious explanation. It would start with seeing some random image on television or dark clouds in the sky. This would trigger the feeling that something terrible was going to happen, and the sensation would stick with me for hours afterwards. Images from television would get stuck in my head, and I there was nothing I could do to get rid of them. My only recourse was to grit my teeth and try to hold myself together until the feeling passed on its own. Then, in the summer of 1983, the formless anxiety that had been looming over my world found something absolutely perfect to latch onto: nuclear war.
People born after Generation X cannot appreciate what it was like to live through the period in history. The Cold War, which had been idling through the 1970’s, flared up into a nerve-wracking test of wills between Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov. Tensions started to run hot, and the movie, music, and television industries all took notice. Suddenly, the topic of nuclear war was popping up everywhere you looked, and the goal of many activists was to wake up the American public to the threat of global annihilation. “The Day After” was aired in November of that year, but the hype and publicity that surrounded it started much earlier. My hair-trigger anxiety disorder gleefully latched onto this new source of terror and, for the next five months, I lived in hell.
This is the first time, in my memory, that the now-familiar rhythms of OCD settled into place. First, there would be some sort of triggering mechanism to start the ball rolling. In 1983, there were references to nuclear war on countless magazine covers, television shows, music videos, and nightly news programs. It was a target-rich environment. This initial trigger would often result in an immediate panic attack which, unfortunately, could occur in very public places. I had them at friend’s houses, at school, in grocery stores, and even in the middle of the night after dreaming about mushroom clouds. This would be followed by a long period of lingering fear where I would have to exert every ounce of my will to think about anything besides nuclear war. The terrible images and anxieties would lurk in the back of my mind, and eventually my defenses would break down and I would have another meltdown. At one point, I very seriously considered taking my own life to escape from the relentless terror. I thought I was crazy, and was deeply ashamed every time somebody had to witness me having a panic attack. Eventually, with my breakdowns getting more frequent and severe, my parents talked to our family doctor about what was going on. In no time at all, I was admitted into the hospital.
I was there for a week and went through about a thousand different physical and psychological tests, which says something about the quality of my family’s health insurance at that time. In the end, the psychiatrist in charge of my case told my parents that the whole affair was due to “hormones” and that I was to take this little green pill every night before I went to bed. To this day, I have no idea what that pill actually was, but it seemed to do the trick. All of a sudden, the cycle of anxiety seemed to stopped dead in its tracks. The fact that this medication caused me to lose my appetite, and an alarming amount of weight, seemed like small price to pay. After a year, I stopped taking the pills and my life went on.
Fast forward now to the year 1999, and I have just gotten married to my first wife. I had just moved into a house after living in apartments for several years, and money was tight. The woman I married had just lost her job, could not get along with my family, and I was starting to realize that marrying her had been a terrible mistake. I had just heard that a former student of mine had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and one of my colleagues had been diagnosed with lymphoma. I was being battered by stress both at work and at home. It was at this time that I noticed a small, hard lump under the skin on my leg. Suddenly, the anxiety disorder that had been lying dormant for so many years woke up.
All hell broke loose.
I could not get my mind off that little lump. It was a very small, and there were no tell-tale signs of skin cancer. The internet existed at this time, so I started spending a lot of time looking up pictures of various skin cancers to try and diagnose myself. Nothing I found indicated that I had cancer, but the thoughts would not go away. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep at night. I would be at work, trying to teach kids physics, and part of my mind would be going over symptoms of melanoma. I started spending my prep-periods at work looking up information about skin cancer online, and could lose hours at home doing the same thing. All of the information I found on websites made me feel better, because this stupid little lump was obviously not a deadly tumor. The only problem was that, after a period of relief, the fear would come charging right back in again. I knew I didn’t have cancer, but part of my brain never seemed to get the memo. It was like living in a house with the smoke-detectors going off every five minutes. You might not have an actual fire, but the alarms are going to make your life absolutely miserable.
Fortunately, I had not forgotten my experiences as a kid dealing with those nuclear-war fears. I had gotten a lot of comfort out of my school’s counselor during that awful time, so I got on the phone and tried to find a counselor that I could talk to as an adult. The mental-health insurance I had through my school district was, evidently, terrible. Most offices I called did not accept it, or could not get me in for six weeks. I remember standing in my living room, clinging white-knuckled to the phone, and asking if it would be possible to just check myself into the psych ward at a hospital. Thankfully, I did not have to take such drastic actions, and I eventually managed to get a therapist near me to squeeze me in right away. To his credit, the first thing he told me was that I needed to start seeing a psychiatrist because, based on my symptoms, I was clearly in need of drugs that he could not prescribe. I went back to the phone book and made an appointment with a shrink.
For people suffering from mental illness, the period between accepting that help is needed and actually getting help that works is agonizing. First you have to find a good doctor which, fortunately, I managed on the first try. Then the doctor has to figure out what you are dealing with, which in the field of mental health is as much an art as a science. Mental illnesses rarely fit neatly into boxes like physical ones, and there is always an annoying amount of overlap. My doctor, understandably, initially thought that I had a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and started me on a drug called Serzone. This, unfortunately, did not work, and by this time my anxiety had switched from worrying about skin cancer to colon cancer after a bout of stomach flu. She then told me that, based on things I had been telling her, there was some strong indicators that I was actually suffering from OCD. I was surprised to hear this, as I had always associated OCD with those people who wash their hands all the time and count things. It turns out that I was dealing with the obsession part of the disorder much more than the compulsion part, but the treatment was the same. I started taking Prozac.
Prozac gets a bad rap these days, and, after taking it, I can understand why. The side-effects hit me immediately, causing me to endure terrible heartburn and lose my appetite. My hands were shaking all the time, and I actually felt like my anxiety was getting worse rather than better. I can remember being at work, during my planning period, talking to my doctor on the phone and begging her to give me something else. She told me to give it time, as drugs like Prozac can take up to a month before it starts to help. That’s right, kids, even if you respond to these medications, you’ve got about four weeks before things start getting better. I can tell you, it was a very difficult four weeks. Just as I was about to give up, something amazing happened that I still can’t quite get over. I woke up one morning and felt normal. Waking up and, for the first time in months, not thinking about cancer was absolutely wonderful. The day went by, and I continued to feel delightfully normal.
My OCD was in check. Thank you, Prozac.
I eventually divorced my first wife and, in the chaos, went off my meds for a while. This caused my symptoms to come roaring back before, sheepishly, I went back to my doctor to get my prescriptions renewed. She changed me over to Zoloft which, thankfully, had less side effects. She also got me off Serzone before it caused my liver to shut down, which was nice of her. Once again, after a miserable month, my symptoms disappeared like somebody had flipped a switch, and I have been “normal” ever since. Needless to say, I don’t go off my medications for any reason these days.
As a teacher, I have been seeing a surge of students who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression. A few of these students have OCD, and I have shared my own experiences with them to give them hope. The stigma and shame of mental illness is, thankfully, starting to diminish in our society, but teenagers are prone to hiding things that make them stand out from the crowd. There may not be a cure for most mental illnesses, but I am proof that a diagnosis of OCD does not have to stand in the way of living your life.