Two summers ago, I took four hours to get home when it should’ve taken minutes. The constant dread of running someone over regurgitated in my head and forced me to make continuous left turns, hoping that if I went back the way I came I’d settle the nervous tick inside my brain. Little did I know that only made it worse. So much worse. However, at the time I was undiagnosed and left dazed and confused as to why my head betrayed me. During that four-hour circuit, I stopped in the parking lot of a cardiology center and cried. The windows fogged, and my shirt clung to the skin underneath as I sobbed, unaware that this was only the beginning. What started out as a glitch in my internal system turned into a catastrophized volcano, erupted twice. It took five months of ignorance and fleeting relationships before I got help and found a coping method that helped ease the pain.
Over the course of that summer, I went to the emergency room twice for panic attacks outside my control. My mother, father, boyfriend – they were little help as they watched the nurse dose me with medication. I watched on, hopeful someone would have an answer other than the vague medical terms they’d used since I arrived. The phrase “panic attack” frightened me. This wasn’t who I was, and definitely wasn’t the person I wanted to become. And yet, instead of seeking help after the second attack I continued on with life hoping those two trips to the emergency room were hiccups, that I’d be fine with a little meditation and self-care. A couple doses of green tea, a bath bomb or two, and a face mask would surely fix the problems with my serotonin levels.
My sudden fear of driving turned into aquaphobia, and that in turn forced me to give away my beloved fish. Several thousand dollars later, the pond in my backyard was ripped up by the roots and hauled off leaving nothing but a bare patch of dirt in its place. My phone filled up with videos of me walking around outside. The message “storage full” became a friendly reminder that something was wrong with me but I simply went through the oldest and deleted them, leaving me gigabytes to fill back up again. At that time, I didn’t know these destructive behaviors and rituals wouldn’t help but instead make things much worse. I got a dash cam to curb my driving fears but it did little to calm my nerves. Instead, my computer memory suffered the same fate as my phone: a never-ending balance between full storage and emptying useless videos of my daily life into the trash folder. I rarely looked at the videos, and even when I did they provided little reassurance. What went from a novel idea to impede my fears turned into a daily ritual I couldn’t get out of; I left the house with my finger over the record button and finished my day clicking end. I wasn’t living. I was surviving based on how many minutes I could fit in a video.
Hit-and-Run OCD is classified as a fear of accidentally hitting someone while driving and, as the consequences come surging in, going to prison because of it. It consumes the person afflicted, and they are overcome with dread every time they get behind the wheel. I didn’t learn about this easily forgotten subcategory until a year and a half after my initial diagnosis. Any bump, lump, stone, or crack in the road sent my brain into overdrive as I catastrophized going to prison and succumbing to a life as a murderer. Driving back and forth, around in circles, and through an endless loop was the only thing that worked. That and furiously checking local news sites for any news of accidents in the general vicinity in which I lived. I waited for red and blue lights to brighten my neighborhood, a firework display signaling the end of my life of freedom. I waited to be hauled off in the back of a cop car, guilty of a crime I didn’t remember committing. Every night the refresh button on my screen submitted to the incessant push of my thumb. One more refresh and my name would show up in big bold letters. Wanted.
What does therapy mean to you? To me, it was a place for the weak to go in order to find their place in life again. It wasn’t that I looked down on it my entire life; I didn’t have any exposure minus the single session I attended after my parents divorced. As my only experience with therapists, it’s fair to say I wasn’t keen on exposing my inner demons to strangers, thoroughly studied in the art of listening. After 20 harsh discussions with concerned family members, I gave in and scheduled. I resisted medication at first. Spending my entire life prescribed an antidepressant hell-bent on mellowing my brain out (or so I thought) didn’t appeal to me. Instead, I went the natural route. Valerian Root, breathing exercises, yoga, getting out in nature, and a steady supply of water gave me nothing but happy lungs and more trips to the bathroom. And yet, my resistance to medication strengthened. I wanted nothing to do with it, thinking Sertraline would lead me to something worse, down a path I feared.
The anxiety got worse, and the OCD kept me from class and friends. My relationships suffered and I was alone in a world swirling with storm clouds made up of my own catastrophized thoughts. On my final straw, I caved. After two months of suffering through worsening everything I gave in and found a nurse. 50 milligrams of Sertraline: the starter dose that would hopefully change my life for the better.
Being prescribed an antidepressant remains one of the best decisions made for me at the time. I feared the side-effects but trusted my therapist, knowing that unless I gave medication a chance I’d never get better. The headaches, sleepless nights, and weight gain needed to be worth it. The first pill went down harder than the rest. I spent my life without daily medication and to be prescribed something I would most likely be on for the rest of my life terrified me. If I took a daily dose of “happy” how would I ever find peace and learn to cope? If stuck in a continuous loop of medication, how would I ever learn to be myself again? The truth is, allowing the medication to do its job and slow my brain down did more for my mental health than any coping or self-care ever would. I think part of me at the beginning wanted the self-care to fail. Breathing while my head wandered into a dark, untouched forest full of ways to kill me off didn’t help, and I made sure it didn’t. My brain, even though otherwise preoccupied, found a way to deny any help. The meds quieted that part of my head and allowed the help to do its job. If anything, the sertraline made the self-care work better than it ever would had I not ever swallowed the first one in the first place. Sometimes accepting the kind of help we’re the most afraid of is the best route to take even if it terrifies us. I definitely was, but after so many failed attempts to stop my brain from its million mile sprint through fear-world I had nowhere else to turn.
I reached the top dosage, capping out at 200 milligrams, about a year after starting the antidepressant in the first place. A switch went off in my head and all of the horrifying things I grew to fear and recoil from suddenly didn’t seem so monstrous for the first time in over a year and a half. On the first day of my senior year at Ohio University, I walked back home from class without my phone held between my breasts, a video recording taping every second that I walked. Instead, I checked Facebook, Instagram, sent ecstatic text messages to friends and listened to music for the first time in almost two years. I browsed Amazon and watched cat videos. I looked at the world around me not out of fear but love. The trees were greener, and the grass smelled a little less like danger and more like it used to: when I lounged across the bristles, arms splayed while I took in the sun.
Getting a therapist, receiving a diagnosis, and finding the right treatment path brought meaning back into my life. Accepting the kind of help I was fearful of not only gave me a reason to step outside but allowed me to take back control over my life. After a year and a half of living behind the protective glass of windows, I stepped outside and took in a breath of the air I spent so long being afraid of. I realized what self-care really meant, and it had nothing to do with mental health when what I really needed was a pill. Those rose-scented bath bombs did nothing for my brain, but at least my skin smelled good. The face masks most likely broke my skin out in a dry patchy mess, and the yoga made my muscles sore. Now? I found a reason to swallow those pills.