My brain was a vortex. Thousands of thoughts, like drops of water, flowed together in a harsh rush of unwelcome emotions. They crashed together, circling down toward an uncertain conclusion, a dark place deep inside of me, from which I believed I could never come up for air. But I was wrong. As real as my feelings of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and hopelessness were, the reality that I could overcome them, that I could control them rather than them controlling me, was much stronger than my personal storms. This is the story of how I struggled throughout my life with four mental illnesses and, in so doing, learned how to swim out of, rather than sink into, the vortex in my brain.
I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder when I was nineteen, and in the years that followed, attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and chronic depression were added to the list. However, I had felt the effects of them long before I had ever heard their names. Starting when I was seven, I had a hard time ignoring persistent, unwelcome thoughts in my mind: what if it’s wrong for you to give your doll that name? What if that name means something evil and you just don’t know it? You’re a bad person if you give that doll your name. Don’t ask your mom about it! You’ll look ridiculous if you ask a question like that.
This was the beginning for me and, since it was what I was used to, it was hard for me to think of it as anything but normal, though very unpleasant. In time, I learned that my mom had OCD like I did, and I learned a few things about it, but the notion kept to itself somewhere at the back of my mind. In the meantime, the thoughts continued to pop up in my head. Eventually, I noticed a pattern. OCD manifests differently in every person. Some people are very concerned about germs, others like to keep everything as neat as possible, and still others have their own thoughts and feelings toward a variety of subjects. For me, everything centered around my relationship with God. As a devout Christian, the idea of making Jesus sad by choosing to do something wrong caused me great pain. My parents noticed that I was afraid to do certain things that they knew I enjoyed, found out about my fear of sinning and its obsessive patterns, and did their best to encourage me to live free of fear. They even cited passages in the Bible on subjects such as knowing that God loves me no matter what, trusting that He forgives people who are truly sorry for their wrongdoing, and not putting myself in bondage in an attempt to please God. For a while it worked but, like a mutating virus, the voice in my mind changed to fit into my newly learned coping skills. Then, a traumatic event in my life shattered whatever stability I had.
When my mom left my dad, my immediate family unit held tightly to each other, fighting to preserve whatever was left to us after we had been broken. That’s when my mind started to spin in a completely different direction. OCD persisted, but it was covered by a flood of tears. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that I was sad, nor did it shock anyone that I cried as much as I did. From childhood, my parents had noticed that I was unusually sensitive and that it didn’t take much for me to start crying. Though it went unnamed for roughly a decade after that, this was the beginning of chronic depression taking over me.
Time passed. My mom and dad both remarried. My sister kept careful watch over me in my mom’s absence, concerned as she saw me fumble with my social skills and ability to manage my emotions. Unbeknownst to me, my whole family began to notice that I was demonstrating strange behaviors. I was crying a lot and trying desperately to hide my tears, only feeling safe to open up around my sister. Not only that, but the obsessive thoughts over the fear that I was sinning had grown stronger than they had ever been, bringing me to the point where I couldn’t focus at work, carrying anxiety around as a physical lump in my stomach.
When this started happening to me, I tried to soothe my fears by praying, but I never seemed able to pray enough. In addition to this, having attention deficit disorder, I had trouble focusing on my prayers and budgeting my time spent praying. Thinking that this was a result of laziness and apathy toward God, I forced myself to pray more. During that time, I prayed at least four hours every day. Doing this in addition to work and college left me sleep deprived. The frustration that I felt as a result of abusing my body and forcing myself to work harder than I needed to left me feeling guilty. After all, pursuing a relationship with God should have left me feeling peaceful, not frustrated. I decided that I wasn’t trying hard enough and start to force myself to fast. If I didn’t fast well enough, I would cry myself to sleep from frustration. Sometimes, I forced myself to repeat it. This worried my family. I remember my dad telling me outright to stop fasting and start eating. Then, after a woman at my church warned me about letting my personal interests distract me from God, I acted on the fear that had been lying inside me all this time: that I had to get rid of things that pleased me because they distracted me from God. When my family saw me throwing out all of my favorite books and jewelry, among other things, and heard me talking about giving up my dream of becoming an author because it would distract me from putting God first in my life, they knew that they had to act. I had started seeing a therapist some time ago, showed improvement, and stopped going. My family coaxed me to go back.
Seeing a therapist was very helpful to me, but I’ll admit that I went grudgingly and, in the beginning, I really didn’t like going. It was very unpleasant to go to therapy for my family’s sake rather than my own will. I felt like I had lost a war and had to pay reparations. It was also very embarrassing to admit to things I had done. My compulsive actions sounded so irrational when I verbalized the thoughts that had started them. Furthermore, having Asperger’s syndrome made it difficult for me to understand what I was feeling and how to explain it. Many times over the course of my life and then in therapy, I felt like I was trying to share something I couldn’t understand and accidently communicating the opposite of how I felt!
Going to therapy started out as a difficult thing, but it didn’t stay that way. Many things changed on my side, and even on my therapist’s side. I learned that she was a caring person who wanted to help me rather than some paid professional who saw me as some weird object that had to be fixed. As she learned more about me, she adjusted her suggestions, wording, and strategies to meet my needs more effectively. In other words, we developed a partnership. She heard me out and made suggestions, I followed them and told her the results, and she would respond accordingly. It was a long journey, but I’m so grateful for my relationship with my therapist. She’s always there for me and she doesn’t make me feel stupid. Having struggled with her own mental illness, she knows how to relate to people with mental illness without being judgmental, and her life experience left her with a treasure trove of great advice.
When I look back on the most difficult parts of my struggle with mental illness, I remember the pain, but I feel so good that those times are behind me. Of course, I still have my battles, but I’ve learned so many positive coping skills. I can recognize negative thoughts and combat them much more easily than I used to. It’s refreshing and liberating. I’m finally able to enjoy praying to God without feeling that I didn’t do well enough, and I’m able to look back and see how peaceful I felt when I really pursued him because I love Him, not because I felt like I had to. I’m also able to cope with other disorders that I didn’t know I had.
It’s funny. When my OCD and depression ran very high, I felt caught in an endless storm, but that storm didn’t last. When I look back on my healing process, I remember the pain vividly, but my struggles have relaxed their hold on me, and the peace that I learned to feel in the healing process has remained. Mental disorders can scream in your ear all they want. There is help out there. Voices can be quieted. Worries and anxiety can cease to exist. Peace and victory over seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be found. It will be a long journey and there will be bumps in the road, but the strength you find on the other side, usually through the help of a therapist, medication, and, in my case, seeking a higher power, is completely worth it.
By: Rebekah Soumakis, AiT Contributor