Editor’s Note: The beauty of womanhood is twofold: our diversity and unity. Each woman’s mind, soul, and body is unique and at the same time we all yearn for the connection to know we are not alone. Our In Her Shoes (Stories) column hopes to give some transparency to personal life experiences and perspectives that you or friends may be living with.
Her Story: Meredith opened up to us about the challenges of living with a mental illness. She is married with two toddlers, a stay-at-home mom, and enjoys to write and run in her free time.
Verily: The cultural conversation about mental illness is focused a lot on destigmatizing it. It seems a huge part of destigmatizing is helping the culture understand mental illness. In that vein, what is your diagnosis and what are some cultural misunderstandings about it?
Meredith: I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) about four years ago, after years of seeking to understand why I was having so many troubling thoughts and negative emotions like guilt and fear associated with those thoughts.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is largely misunderstood by people. Unfortunately, because of how OCD has been portrayed in movies and other entertainment venues, many people see it as a cleaning or sorting disorder, or as an excessive fear of germs, etc. People even make jokes: "I wish someone with OCD would come over and clean my house." Or, "I am so OCD about this or that." These statements, besides being insensitive to those who actually have OCD, show a lack of understanding about what OCD really is.
OCD is an anxiety disorder where a small part of your brain—called the amygdala—is not functioning correctly and misfires. The misfiring is characterized by unpleasant thoughts which are then paired with strong, painful emotional signals in order to get the sufferer's attention. So although the thought the brain is sending you isn't real and therefore should be dismissed, it feels so real. Compulsions are then performed to escape the intense emotional pain the body is producing to get your attention. Compulsions are not always external though.
There is a form of OCD called "Purely-Obsessional," where all the compulsions are interior, and they can come in the form of ruminating, worrying, doubting, and problem-solving. "For example, Purely-Obsessional" OCD can manifest in the "what if" questions your brain poses, like: "what if I have harmed someone?" or "What if I have done something wrong? With OCD, your brain desperately wants you to find the answer to this question. Living with uncertainty, leaving a question unanswered in your mind and becoming comfortable with that, is the way to healing. These compulsions are just as real as any compulsion preformed externally, and they perpetuate the condition of OCD if not treated in a very specific way. This is the type of OCD I suffer from, and I think if more people knew it existed or were familiar with it, it would be easier to talk about and explain myself.
Verily: A diagnosis of mental illness is deeply personal to each individual. How can we address this paradox of needing to talk more about mental illness but respecting the personal nature of it?
Meredith: The stigma against mental illness is so pervasive that a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about it. But we heal through talking. We heal through telling our story. The more each of us share about what mental illness really is, the more approachable it will become.
I think with mental illness it is so easy to define yourself by it. This is because, unlike a broken arm or leg that you can point to on the outside of yourself, mental illness resides on the inside of the person. This makes it difficult to separate yourself from it. This is where a lot of the stigma against mental illness comes from, I believe.
When I am going through the pain of my mental illness, I try to think of it as if I had a terrible migraine and therefore couldn’t function at my best, or a broken toe and therefore couldn’t walk as quickly or normally as before. This helps me to see the illness for what it is—something that is affecting me, but not something that has to control me or define who I am.
Verily: When you are not feeling at your best, how do you cope with the compulsions and worrying that accompanies your illness?
Meredith: “Choosing well” verses “feeling well” is at the heart of the therapy that I underwent to treat my form of OCD. My doctor always encouraged me to focus on how I was choosing and not on how I was feeling. When you choose to put yourself under feelings of anxiety or guilt and then choose not to escape these feelings in order to show your brain they are meaningless, you are choosing well but feeling horrible. This is what makes exposure and ritual prevention (ERP) therapy so difficult. Most people think you go to therapy to “feel better,” but with ERP it is, in a way, the opposite.
The goal is to choose well so that your brain can be re-trained not to pay attention to the false warning signals it is sending you. Of course, the end result is that you do eventually feel better, but this comes only after countless times of choosing well. For example, when I am under the discomfort that OCD causes, the goal is to ask myself: "How would I act or what would I do right now if I wasn't feeling uncomfortable or anxious?" Then, I must do whatever the answer to that question is. If I had made plans, I must keep them. If I would treat my husband and children better when I am at ease, I must do that now even though I don't feel at ease. If I need to make dinner, I need to do that.
When I don't change my plans because of the anxiety, it shows the brain its signals are meaningless. It shows the brain you aren't going to listen to the voice of anxiety; you are going to listen to your own voice.
Verily: As women, we are constantly doubting ourselves, and I am sure this is only exacerbated by mental illness. How do you deal with doubt in the decisions you make?
Meredith: In France, OCD is called the “doubting disease,” so yes the battle with doubt is very real. In order to treat OCD properly, the patient needs to become comfortable with uncertainty—to accept it, to embrace it. One can learn how to do this by distinguishing one’s own voice—namely, one's autonomy—from the voice of the illness. Whenever my brain goes down the road of doubt—second guessing my decisions and bringing up things that I could have done wrong—the goal is to thank my brain for these reminders and tidbits and then to move on with my own autonomous goals and decisions. “What would I do if I wasn’t anxious or feeling guilty right now?” This is a good question to ask yourself and then proceed in that path, even if you feel doubtful.
Verily: We all have questions we would like others to ask us but that are left unsaid. What question do you wish friends would ask you and how would you answer?
Meredith: The question would probably be: “What is the nature of your burden?” A lot of times I feel like I can’t do as much as others who are my age or in my stage of life. OCD is like having a bully in your brain that takes a lot of work to tame and that process is tiring. I often feel this tiredness is what people don’t understand, and it is what I would like to explain to others.
I once remembered OCD being explained as missing a filter in your brain that most people have. When most people get a thought that upsets them, they filter it out. The OCD mind doesn’t have this filter, so you need to work hard to create it yourself. And in my experience, this uses up a great deal of energy that I wouldn’t be using up if I already had this mental filter.
Verily: Even well meaning friends can say the wrong thing or give unsolicited advice. What would you not like to be asked about your illness?
Meredith: Everyone has times when they feel anxiety and fear over things. One is diagnosed with OCD when the thoughts and anxiety start to alter and disrupt a person's life on a daily basis. Equating the normal amount of worry and anxiety one can experience with this life-alternating pattern is not helpful. Suggestions like: "Oh just don't worry about that," or "Maybe you are just tired and need some rest" are not helpful to someone with OCD. While statements like this can and may be helpful and encouraging to the non-OCD person, they often belittle the issue for someone with OCD.
Verily: Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that helps you to see the light on the dark days?
Meredith: I would say my personal mantra is: "Love yourself first." OCD is a critical bully in your brain, and you would tell anyone else not to listen to or pay attention to such a monster. But if you tell this to an OCD sufferer, they would say: "But it is very difficult to be dismissive of it because it feels so real." At this point, the sufferer needs to take the advice they would give someone else, and this act would be loving themselves correctly. For example, What type of things do you enjoy doing? Do those things. What type of person do you want to be? Be that person. When you affirm yourself by pursuing your interests and commit yourself to becoming the type of person you want to be, you are loving, valuing, and respecting yourself.