Sometimes I wake up slowly, sloughing off layers of sleep one at a time. On those days, there’s a witching moment where I float, suspended, on the crest of consciousness. My thoughts and feelings run on as normal, but no one’s in the driver’s seat.
Then, half a second behind, comes the tickle in the back of my mind—the nagging sense of unease. The sense that something is wrong. And that’s when I remember who I am, and what I fear, and the dread settles in my veins like cement.
I get up, and the dread rises with me. I go running, and imagine sweating the anxiety out. I shower, and the fear still clings, thick and oily, to my skin.
I take 60mg of Prozac daily. Except when I forget, which happens more often than it should. This absentmindedness seems too much even for my psychiatrist to stomach: aren’t people with OCD supposed to be perfectionists?
I’d like to palm off my lapses on active dislike. Prozac has its downsides, of course, but I’ve been on one medication or another for nearly my entire adult life: I have no frame of reference for what my sex drive might look like untrammeled by SSRI’s.
And mostly, I’m indifferent to the Prozac. It’s an indifferent kind of pill—the psychiatric equivalent of giving someone with a severed limb a shot to dull the pain. The fear and depression are still there, but distantly, like they’re happening to another person. In fairness, this blunting seems to be exactly what my doctor ordered: a gap between me and my emotions that will allow me to put all the tips and tricks of cognitive-behavioral therapy to good use.
How can I say, then, that what I really want is something that will let me sink into myself fully and comfortably, not another layer of detachment? My psychiatrist thinks I’m doing better, and I am by any objective standard. No one ever seems to notice my incoherency, or the fact that I feel less like a person and more like the aftermath of a meteor strike—debris held vaguely together by gravity and neurotransmitters.
More detachment, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Grateful, definitely, that I “pass,” but still off-kilter, jaggedly cut off from the good opinions of others.
(Once, when I was upset about something as a teenager, my dad got angry and threatened to force me to go to the ER. “This is a disease, and it can be fixed” he said. “You need more serotonin.”)
“Normal” gets such a bad rap. Most people I know would probably balk if I said that that’s what I want, so saying it feels like a confession. My mom, though, scoffs and tells me that I am normal. Just the way a normal person would. She’s a bit of a traditionalist, after all. I roll the stem of my wine glass between my fingers, nervous and guilty.
But really, who wouldn’t want to be normal, when this is the alternative? Twenty-eight and living with my mom, working part-time from home. When I finished grad school without a job lined up, I talked a lot about teaching English overseas, or interning with a non-profit, or just moving somewhere new and taking whatever work I could find. It wasn’t a lie, either, or even an attempt at deflection. I wanted everything I talked about, desperately. But I also knew, as I chattered away, that nothing would come of it—knew that I’d recoil in fear the instant something threatened to come of it. “Anything could happen” is a promise to the adventurous but a threat to the anxious, and in my experience, anxiety always wins out.
So I got my shut-in-friendly job as a curriculum writer and then cocooned myself in it. The work is the perfect balance of creative and predictable—which is to say that it begins to bore me within a year, but not so horribly that I’d trade it in for runaway, suffocating uncertainty.
I don’t date—haven’t dated anyone seriously in five years—for much the same reason. When I think back on my last (painful but amicable) breakup and compare it to the last round of corrections I got back from my editor (like being flayed alive), I can’t quite imagine surviving romantic disappointment. I’ve clawed my way out from the misery of my last round of depression, but it’s left me more brittle than ever. Anything that veers too far away from my mundane baseline frightens me; even pleasure feels like something that could snap me in two.
Of fucking course I want to be normal.
My mom tries a different tack. Who cares what’s normal, she asks—what matters is what I want. Which I suppose might be true, if I knew what it meant. If only I could want things in some uncomplicated way. I’m tired—not only of mental illness, but of the way it chafes against my other thoughts and feelings. I want to feel what I haven’t felt since I was very young: that I know who I am.
Maybe then I could feel good about being that person.
That could be a lie too, of course. Or worse: another symptom—a pathological need to isolate and quarantine impure thoughts. I used to think that OCD was only part of me in the most biological of senses. That’s what they tell you about mental illness, isn’t it—that it has nothing to do with who you are as a person?
Which is bullshit. Everything that I enjoy, everything that I am—writing, running, dancing, reading, talking, eating, laughing—pulses with the same urgent, despairing energy I dedicate to my fears. It’s that screaming need, to do something now now now now or else or else or else or else, and it’s the backbeat to my whole life, not just a few scattered obsessions. I can barely remember what it’s like to act from a place of love rather than compulsion; even the best of me is no longer my own.
I think that’s one reason I’ve been drifting away from so many people I used to know—the progressive, accepting friends who constantly post and tweet and reblog all that “love yourself” claptrap. Facebook makes me want to scream. The incessant, syrupy reminders about self-care, the chirpy admonitions to “love yourself,” the widespread consensus that we’re all perfect the way we are—just demands, in pastel colors.
Because no one ever tells you how you’re supposed to love yourself when who you are always, always feels alien to you. I’ve felt more intimacy with one-night stands than I do in the recesses of my own head. Just once, I’d like someone to acknowledge that I am not even fucking okay, much less perfect, and that I don’t give a shit what you call me—”crazy,” “neurotic,” “unstable,” whatever—if you’re offering relief.
Not that the misconceptions aren’t annoying. There’s a thing that happens when you have OCD. Everyone always wants to know what your OCD is “about,” like it’s a movie they’re thinking of seeing. Still, it’s a formality you have to put up with, so here’s my (partial, always expanding) list:
- I’m afraid that I’m dying of (skin/cervical/colon/breast/lung) cancer.
- I’m afraid that I’m not dying now, but will be soon, because of that time I was sunburned/wore antiperspirant with aluminum in it/tried a hookah.
- I’m afraid that I’m a bad person, because of those two times I took the morning-after pill.
- I’m afraid that I’m a hypocrite, because I’m pro-choice and pro-reproductive rights in spite of that.
- I’m afraid that I’m a child abuser in the making, because I’ve yelled at my cat, and then there was that time I removed her from the table and oh God was I gentle enough or did I maybe toss her down on the floor?
- I’m afraid that I’m ugly, because my forehead is too curved and my lips are too thin and my chin is too pointy.
- I’m afraid that I’m afraid, because what if it’s not just OCD? What if it’s also borderline personality disorder/dependent personality disorder/avoidant personality disorder/autism/narcissism/schizophrenia/and so on, and I know I’ve seen about a thousand psychiatrists in my time and they’d have caught any other conditions, but I just can’t handle anymore, so please don’t judge me for buying into the stigma surrounding those diagnoses, etcetera etcetera etcetera?
Really, though, OCD isn’t “about” anything. That’s the problem, because what if you scratch away all the superficial worries, and you find there’s nothing, no bottom to any of it—just more of you, whoever that is, stretching down darkly for miles?
(I remember riding in the car once, as a little kid, staring at the back of my dad’s head, thinking how strange and sad it was that I could never know precisely what it was like to be him—a particular and utterly foreign constellation of memories and sensations and feelings all united, somehow, in the driver’s seat of a car.
It frightened me, even then.)
Lily Beaumont earned an MA in English and Gender Studies at Brandeis University (2014). She currently lives in the Texas Hill Country and freelances as a curriculum writer for Shmoop, where she gets to indulge her fondness for Victorian literature, Star Wars, and bad puns.