Updated: Dec 12, 2020
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
When you are born in America, most people assume you are free. I felt as though I was for a long time, but how can anyone be free when they are bound to the confines of their own mind? I was born with mental illnesses, but I did not discover their presence until I was 15. Specifically, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has ruled my life for years, and it has only been in the last few that I have decided to stand up and start my own revolution against my inner demons.
Most of my teen years were spent in fearful agony. I was under the rule of compulsions, obsessions and intrusive thoughts. The National Institute of Mental Health defines Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” I have always had the constant fear that the people closest to me were going to die and it would be my fault, so I have performed several compulsions as an act to keep the people I love safe. I used to spend hours getting ready because I had to complete my routine in a precise order. It was crucial that I washed my face first and then brushed my teeth. After, I would rinse with mouthwash, but it was never that simple. I had to spit out the mouthwash and then rinse my mouth out with water five times because five was a ‘safe’ number. If I messed up, then I would rinse seven times because seven was also ‘safe.’ I could not rinse six times because six was an ‘unsafe’ number. It felt as though my mom would encounter misfortune or we would get into a car accident on the way to school if I rinsed my mouth with water six times, or four, or three, or two, or one.
These actions sound irrational. Believe me, I am aware. But when your loved ones' lives possibly hang in the balance, you are willing to do whatever it takes.
I would spend hours of my time fighting with my own brain, telling myself it was okay to only rinse my mouth out with water once. I would believe it for a brief moment, and then the what if’s would start. What if you do get in a car accident this morning? What if your mom dies and you live? What if this one action defines your whole life? Teenhood is already hard as it is, so it felt easier to just give in to these compulsions rather than to fight them.
As a teenage girl from a southern baptist family, having a mental illness was hard to express. Most people expect girls to be more emotional than boys, so sudden outbursts of emotions are often seen as the norm for young girls. As for my southern baptist family, certain members felt I was having these issues as a result of not being closer to God. My experiences were often denied as many thought my obsessions and compulsions were just ‘ticks.’ I was also told to pray more, go to church more, and trust in God more as a way to escape my mental state. These statements led me to wonder if God hated me-maybe I was too horrible to live a ‘normal’ life, so he was punishing me with this disorder.
When I was 19, I hit rock bottom. I was experiencing major breakdowns every other day, had panic attacks in public and did poorly in my college courses. I kept telling myself that I was fine, that I did not need help, but I knew it was a lie. I did not belong to myself; I belonged to a mental illness that had taken over completely. I performed thousands of compulsions throughout the day-both mental and physical. I could not wear jeans anymore because they made me feel contaminated, and I was taking multiple showers in a day in order to feel clean. I would avoid certain places and things for the sake of feeling ‘safe.’ I stopped going to places outside of school, I could not walk my dog in the dark and I did not feel safe to be alone anymore. In many ways, I was not living at all. I was simply trying to survive one day to the next.
It was April 26, 2016-the day after my 20th birthday- when I decided to go to therapy for the first time. I did not go because I wanted to but because my husband (then, boyfriend) asked me to go. I loved him and saw the toll my mental health was taking on him, so I decided I needed to make some changes. It has been a journey since that day and I’m not completely free of all my old behaviours, but with time I am learning. I have learned to accept my diagnosis, which creates freedom in and of itself. I am no longer bogged down by the shame and guilt of it all but instead use my experience to help others. I’ve also made peace with God. I believe there is purpose in my pain, which has led me to seek a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I still see a therapist bi-weekly which has allowed me to assess my past traumas, admit to past mistakes and work hard to create a beautiful future for myself.
I do not exactly know if one can reach complete freedom, but if my experience within the last four years has taught me anything, it is that freedom--especially from yourself--is worth fighting for.
Caysea is a passionate mental health advocate from the state of Georgia inside the United States. You can find her on Instagram @__caml.b