I have been overthinking the perfect way to start this for entirely too long, so I am going to push through and just keep typing. My mental health journey. It feels strange telling a story when you know you're still in the middle of it, but I don't think there's another option in life so here's my messy attempt.
For a long time, I thought it started when I was 11 years old when one day I woke up and felt like an entirely different person. The thought of doing anything besides sob at my mother’s side became unbearably terrifying. I would see people do horrible things to me in my mind on repeat and it would not let up. It felt like it would never end and that this was now who I was. I feared never being able to go to college, get married, get a job, but that I was doomed to this anguish forever, I had seen a doctor who was medicating me for ADD and my mother told her what had been going on. By some miracle, she was able to diagnose me with PANDAS. It was something most doctors were unaware existed and if they had was often a topic of debate at the time. It’s a lot to go into, but basically it was a pediatric disorder where if I got strep, my brain was triggered to attack itself. This explained my overnight symptoms, which included severe anxiety, obsessions, compulsions, and tics. So I started taking penicillin... to treat my anxiety? And to everyone’s surprise, it worked. She also had me do a little bit of exposure therapy at home with my mom, and in time, life went more or less back to normal.
Everything seemed manageable until I moved across the country and started college. I started having panic attacks. Something would happen and all the sudden I was hyperventilating, my hands would feel all tingly, any breath I got in would quickly be expelled with a choking cy, and everything seemed to blur out. When things would finally calm down, a numbness would overcome me and it would take a day or so for it to fade. This would happen over and over again. I was not a kid anymore, so it took awhile for me to think it may be my PANDAS coming back. I got antibiotics and they helped, but not as much as they did before. The panic attacks eased up but my brain still went to scary places. It was like my brain got used to certain pathways of thinking and started taking them more often.
It was at this point where I started to really define myself as a victim. Emotional pain became my comfort zone. This was who I was now and I sort of found comfort in the fact that it made me interesting. Who was I if not a complicated mess of emotions? I sought ways to share my experiences in my art and in conversations with others who were struggling, and that helped me cope. For the next few years, I ping ponged between functional and not. Things got good, I felt healthy enough to go on an LDS mission to serve and teach people, then I started having panic attacks again. I started taking medication (an SSRI), and I improved This is when I decided to change majors and study Psychology. I felt that I had life experiences and an understanding that would lend itself well to helping others who were also suffering. I had started to piece together that it was no longer looking like PANDAS, but that the OCD symptoms were sticking around more permanently. As I studied more, I realized it had been there long before I had ever known. Oh, THAT'S why I would put myself in timeout as a six year old. Cool, cool, cool. I stopped being consistent with taking my meds and things took a turn again. It was around that time that I started dating my now husband. I was actually really open with him about what I was experiencing and at the time and though he didn’t really get it, he didn’t give up on me. He helped me start being more consistent with taking my meds and that changed a lot for me. Though I have had plenty of anxiety and pain since then, I haven't really experienced full blown panic attacks. To this day I am still ping ponging, but now between quite functional and barely functional, and though that seems like a simple change, it has opened up a whole new world to me.
I graduated with my Psychology degree and most professors would tell me that unless I went to grad school, I probably won’t get to work in mental health and if I did, the pay would suck. I found myself in that “what do I do now?” phase and my OCD took over. My mind would catastrophize of how I would fail at every job I thought of applying for. These obsessions kept me from applying to work in mental health for a while, but eventually I decided to take the leap. I finally accepted a job at The OCD and Anxiety Treatment center as a clinical assistant. Easily one of the best decisions of my life. I learned the intricacies of OCD and how there really is hope in treatment through Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP). My job was to facilitate the client’s exposures, which meant I was the one by their side as they faced their fears. It’s hard to explain how comforting it was to finally understand what was going on with me, how to treat it and start it in my own life, and then to get an up close view of what others were also going through. Over the years I had seen my OCD fears shift from a variety of topics. I feared not being perfect or honest, being sexually assaulted, being a bad person, hurting others, damaging my relationships, and more. It was so eye opening to see so many people come through with similar, if not identical, fears to mine. I even got to work with kids who were diagnosed with PANDAs. I was not alone. I thought that my struggles would be a barrier for me in my effort to help others, but it was because of them that I was able to hold their hand and say “I know this is hard” with real conviction. It made it easier to push them to keep going when they wanted to give up because I knew the transformation that was possible. The pain now had purpose.
Work became my therapy, in a way, and for over a year I was the happiest I had been since I could remember. I had always wanted to have children but was scared that because of my struggles that I wouldn’t be healthy enough to be a good parent. OCD fears often shift to things that are most important to you, and I knew that if I got pregnant that my they would be about the baby. I also knew that it was a possibility I would have to leave work to care for the baby and that would leave me much more isolated and at risk of relapse. If I had learned anything from my work, it was to not let my fears keep me from living. Freedom was on the other side of my fear. I decided to take the leap and well, a tiny human eventually made an entrance. I ended up putting a pause on working to stay home to raise said human. OCD exasperated the fears I felt as a new mom like I thought, but I navigated it. I still am. I still ping pong day to day, especially being quarantined with a little one and everything that is happening in the world right now. I now know that I can do it. I am still learning so much about myself, but no matter how long the darkness feels like it is lasting, it does let up eventually and the light of living life between the dark moments is absolutely worth it.
Christina is willing to support you on your mental health journey. Email her at email@example.com, make a friend today, and ask for additional support!