Have you ever broken a bone? I mean like speeding to the ER, X-rays and casts…. really broken? If you have, then you know the drill. Crutches and pain medicine, physical therapy and work limitations… it’s all part of the healing. People understand bone breaks, because they are tangible. No one expects you to just “walk it off” when the foundation of your body is, quite literally, cracked. You need help, you need time to mend… and you need time to adjust to your new normal.
If you know the subject of this post, then you know where I’m going with this. The brain is an organ. Organs are known to malfunction. When you have Diabetes, your pancreas will not create and/or secrete insulin in response to glucose. The pancreas is malfunctioning. During a heart attack, there is a block or injury to the heart, preventing adequate blood flow. The heart is malfunctioning. We both understand and accept these various ailments as needing medical attention. So let me ask the most logical next question in my mind: Why is the brain any different? Why do we assume those who suffer from brain malfunctions can simply “get over it”?
I think the answer is pretty complex, but it all stems from one basic principle: mental illness is not tangible. That’s not entirely true, as we could do various tests to assess the interworking of the brain… but for the lay person, we simply cannot see the malfunction. We look at a person, who appears completely “normal” through our eyes, and we just can’t understand that someone who seems perfectly healthy, could be so riddled with illness. To be honest, I didn’t understand it either. I did my psych rotations in nursing school, took all the required psychology courses, but walked away with very little true understanding. I truly thought mental illness could be overcome by enough will power.
Before I jump into my story, let me start with what OCD is. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), followed by actions that one feels they must do in order to prevent something bad from happening (compulsions). Essentially, my brain is over-firing, stuck in “fight or flight” mode. OCD takes a small, seemingly insignificant thought or event, and puts it on a never-ending loop in my mind. Any one thought can get stuck for days or weeks, and I cannot move on regardless of how irrational I know it is. I will link a video at the bottom of this post, and I encourage you to watch it. It seems silly, but its one of the realest depictions of MY illness that I’ve seen.
The best way I know how to explain such a broad topic is with personal experience. This is incredibly hard for me, as I still feel the stigma associated with my struggles; However, I am committed to a transparent account of my life, and that means getting real. Even through the dark stuff. So, here it is.
I graduated from nursing school in 2014, and started a medical-surgical job in a hospital shortly after. If you know any hospital nurses, you understand that the shifts are long and incredibly physically demanding. There are many times too many patients and too few nurses. In addition, there is an added level of stress when your job is literally to keep people alive. I’ve always been a perfectionist, and this job was no different. I wanted each shift to be predictable and smooth. No surprises. I learned very quickly that even with the best time management skills, you cannot plan for human inconsistency.
Around March of 2015, something in me changed. I was floating back and forth between two different floors and patient populations. I was picking up overtime shifts, and often times staying late. Most importantly, I wasn’t taking care of myself or my soul. It was gradual at first, and then all at once. First, I started staying an hour after my shift had ended, reviewing patient charts and certain that I had made a mistake. I would scour medication lists until my brain was fried.. and still left feeling unsettled. Next, I got this feeling that something was “not right” whenever I gave a medication or finished a procedure. Like my hands didn’t move exactly how I wanted them to. That maybe I missed a step, or worse, did one wrong. Now, let it be known that I didn’t actually do anything life altering; But, each feeling of impending doom was building on each other. Gearing up for the perfect storm.
I remember the day so clearly. It was May, and I had just walked in for a 12 hour shift. I hadn’t slept or eaten in three days, and could barely even manage sips of water. Something in me was so wound up, just waiting to snap. I was learning about each of my patients for that day, when the other nurse mentioned a procedure she had done for a particular patient. The issue was so minor, but I quickly realized she did something different than I would have. That was all it took. In a matter of seconds, my heart was pounding in my throat, and my lungs were in a choke hold. Up until this point I had a panic attack every few months, at most. I knew what to expect… but this time was different. My heart was beating so fast that I was dizzy, and I couldn’t take in even the smallest breath. I started crying, and hyperventilating, right there in the hallway. That panic attack didn’t stop until well after I was at home in bed. And even then, my life was changed forever.
I didn’t go back to work for two weeks after that. My manager gave me a break, and I thought I would just clear my head and come back renewed. Then the compulsions started. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I must have some disease or illness, and that I was unconsciously spreading it to anyone and everyone I came into contact with. It didn’t make sense to me, but I couldn’t stop myself from researching, avoiding, and cleaning myself into delirium. I would spend hours searching the internet for the chances of passing a virus or disease to another person. I wouldn’t shake hands, touch doorknobs, or use public bathrooms. At my worst, I cleaned each pen or pencil before I would use it. At the end of the two weeks, the mere thought of stepping foot in the hospital shook me to my core. I tried to come back, even just to shadow other nurses for a while, and was crippled by panic attacks bad enough to put me down for the rest of the day. And the worst part? I had no idea what was wrong with me.
I had to quit my job at the hospital. I thought about working at a boutique for a while, but couldn’t shake the thought that if I touched the clothes, and then somebody bought them, they would get sick. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’m just trying to give you a view into my mind. I was living with my parents, and spent most of my time in my room staring at the ceiling. That, or cleaning in order to provide even the smallest relief for my mind. I saw a psychiatrist, and he quickly diagnosed me with OCD. I didn’t know there was such a thing as contamination OCD, but when I read about it, it was a perfect fit. They say mine was trauma-induced… a result of many stressful situations without time to recover. Whatever it was, medication was only barely taking the edge off. After a month of trying to “get over it” on my own, my mom found a treatment center for OCD. (Who knew they had rehabs dedicated specifically to this?) I was put on a wait list, but when they assessed my condition, I was accepted. I was in OCD rehab.
One of the ways to “treat” OCD is called Exposure Response Prevention. It’s exactly what its name implies: you come face to face with your biggest fears, and are allowed to panic. Each time the panic attacks are less severe, until your body finally understands there isn’t a threat. Each day I spent 8 hours in a small room, panicking until I wasn’t. The worst part? They say it gets worse before it gets better. They’re right. The more you focus on the OCD, the more of your brain it has control over.
I had been in treatment for one month, when the suicidal thoughts started. I wasn’t getting better, worse actually, and this illness had drained virtually all of my hope. Why would I want to continue to live, when my mind was so tormented each day that I could hardly get out of bed? I hit my low in the summer of 2015. I had completely stopped communicating with any of my friends, rarely left the house, and was drowning in fear. I will spare you the details, but at one point I was lying on the bathroom floor for hours, unable to move, because of the thought that I may have touched someone else’s blood. My mom had to put me in the shower, dress me, and put me in the bed. The word that comes to mind here? Helpless. My brain was malfunctioning so intensely, and no one seemed to understand or be able to help.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. When I finally forced myself to go to church, attend therapy, and reach out to friends, I started to improve. Medication and treatment were life savers, and I eventually graduated from rehab. I pressed in to Jesus as close as I could get, and found out He never left my side. It’s funny how we have to get knocked to our knees before we realize that’s where we should have been all along.
Breaking the Stigma
I know what people think, because it has crossed my mind before too: The mentally ill are scary, unstable, and unpredictable. Looking back, I don’t think this statement could be farther from true. Those of use who know our quirks and “malfunctions” are more sane, and safe, than those who do not. I would fear those people more.
With all of the heartbreaking, inexcusable shootings happening far too often in our world, I understand the gun debates. I don’t have a comment on them, because I don’t think that’s the central issue, but I understand the desire for change. It’s just a little misguided. Let’s go back to the broken bone analogy. If you wouldn’t expect a bone to heal itself, how can you expect a brain to? When I think about the change I hope to see in the world, it’s for the response to mental illness. More empathy, less judgement, and many more resources. I want more counselors in school, faculty to be trained on mental illness and warning signs. But most of all, I wan’t people to understand that they aren’t the only one. They aren’t alone, isolated, or an oddity. Throughout my journey I have met doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and children with OCD. You see, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. We shouldn’t either.
The treatment for mental illness is often medication and therapy, but let me brave to add one more ingredient: understanding. Everybody has their stuff. Most people have at least one organ that acts up or doesn’t work properly…So is life. And if we know this to be true, then we have no choice except to offer an open mind. I’m not saying that simple empathy will eradicate mental illness all together, but I feel confident it will help. If you don’t understand what someone is going through, ask. Read about it. But most importantly: take a look at your own heart. If you have feelings of superiority over people who seem a little “off”, or who do bizarre things from time to time… then you’ve missed it. We are all made in the image of our Savior, so look for Him in them. Mental illnesses aren’t shortcomings: they’re just quirks. Be a safe place for someone whose mind is withered, and watch them bloom. You’ll be glad you did.