I ran into a friend at the salon the other day and she mentioned to the hair colorist we share that my life is an “open book.” I laughed and agreed, but when I thought about it a bit later…I realized, it’s really not completely open. Yes, I share the difficulties of parenting children battling mental illness and disordered eating (really two sides of the same coin), but I haven’t been completely open about myself, and my own battles with anxiety. I know, I’ve shared my eating disorder battle in Hungry. But, I have never owned this truth…
After my youngest son, Aidan’s, therapy session several months ago, his therapist asked to speak with me alone for a moment. As she closed the door, I thought perhaps she would offer some insight into Aidan that she didn’t feel he was ready to hear…instead, she offered insight into me. She is the sweetest person and hesitated for a moment before speaking. When she did, she spoke quietly. “I believe you have OCD, as well. I’ll try to treat you both, because it will help him too.” I breathed out a sigh of relief. That was all? I had known that for almost a decade. When my middle son, Joshua was diagnosed at the age of eight, I finally had a name for my own torment.
It started when I was twenty-seven years old, right after I had an anaphylactic reaction to an antibiotic. It felt like my brain chemistry changed, leaving me with waves of dizziness and anxiety while I sat at my desk at work. Some of that could be attributed to the sulfite allergy I developed after the anaphylactic reaction (and the sulfite-laden tuna or turkey sandwich I would down at lunch, but I can clearly remember my first actual obsessive compulsive moment (for me, it was only the obsessive part, a subset of OCD).
I was waiting for my then-boyfriend (future husband), Jeff, to come out of a rest stop on our way from Boston to visit my family on Long Island. I remember thinking, If I drive away, he’ll be stuck here at a rest stop in Connecticut. For some reason, the fact that I even thought that completely freaked me out. It didn’t matter that I would never act on it…I knew that I must be a horrible person. Why would I even entertain the though of leaving my boyfriend, whom I loved, in Connecticut? It never crossed my mind that thoughts like that flit through people’s heads all the time, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll follow through on it…nor did it mean that I would either. It never even occurred to me that perhaps the reason that popped into my head was that it seemed to me that he was dragging his feet to get engaged after we had been together for over two years already (and I knew my mom would ask me if he was going to “shit or get off the pot” when we arrived for our visit).
That one episode snowballed into continuing invasive thoughts and worries for the next four or five months. I’d have panic attacks, worrying that I was a bad person. I’d feel like I was living my life in a fog. I went back to my therapist from a few years earlier when I was battling the eating disorder, and she told me that I was simply giving my thoughts too much power. I knew she was right. And then…it all disappeared. Around the time we got engaged (not a coincidence, I’m sure), the fear and crazy thoughts just evaporated. I felt myself again. I relished planning my wedding and honeymoon. Four months before our wedding we moved into a charming apartment in a hundred year old house, with a window seat, front porch and fire place with beautiful mantle…all the things I dreamed of in a first home. I was happy.
At my wedding, though I had chest pains and was short of breath while dancing the hora. I panicked that I’d have a heart attack at my wedding (now I know that it was an asthma attack). On my honeymoon I got stabbed by a cactus, and my leg swelled up. I was sure that it was poisonous. My health worries took over my worries that I was a psycho. The background to that: my sister fell ill on her honeymoon and ended up having heart and brain surgery not long after. I’m sure subconsciously, I thought of that. But, here’s the thing – the health worries weren’t so bad, because they made me realize how much I appreciated everything I had. You only worry about losing what’s important when you have something important to lose.
There were even times that I’d be out, and I’d pay attention to where the nearest hospital was, in case I needed to be rushed there. And here’s the background on that: I did have to get rushed to the hospital not long after we returned from our honeymoon, because I didn’t eat enough during the day, and fainted while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I had an inner ear infection, almost constant vertigo, and couldn’t bring myself to eat. Even after that cleared up (6 weeks later), I still felt very sick.
Looking back on that time, I understand why I felt like that – it was one part psychological yes, but it was also a big part physical. My sister had been diagnosed with cancer (psychological), and there was a tiny gas leak in my apartment from the stove the entire year we lived there (physical). We found out the day we moved out. It wasn’t enough to kill us, and my husband wasn’t affected at all, but it was enough to plague me with headaches, dizziness and fatigue. I weighed about ninety pounds, which didn’t help matters at all. I still remember a lot of happy moments, though.
And moving out of that beloved apartment (gas leak and all), actually ushered in a new stretch of bliss. I felt better, even though I had a car accident that left me with neck pain and forced me to quit a job I loved. I got pregnant, and I LOVED it. I did not have anxiety. I relished every moment. My next pregnancy was plagued by anxiety and to this day, I wonder if that’s why my oldest does not battle mental illness, but his brothers do – the cortisol coursing through my veins and into the placentas of his younger brothers leaving them with lifelong issues.
The next two decades unspooled with moments of joy and moments of darkness. I have risen above anxiety, and I have let it cripple me in my head…though outwardly, I don’t think anyone could tell (aside from a trained professional, like my son’s therapist). The OCD (or rather “Pure O”) has reared its ugly head in various forms. It was worse post-partum, especially whenever I dropped a feeding. I could go into all the details, but that would entail thousands and thousands of words…that may work for a book, but not a blog post. When I started taking inhaled steroids for asthma, it spiked again. I have tapered myself down to every other day, against the advice of my asthma doctor, simply to save my sanity.
So, what type of OCD do I have now? Well, there’s the one that led my son’s therapist to diagnose me…I don’t eat without cleaning my hands, and I always have hand sanitizer with me. That habit started when I was thirty-five, and had a seemingly endless case of strep. My doctor told me that I must never eat without cleaning my hands, after I admitted that a week before getting sick I ate a slice of pizza at a gymnastics birthday party and did not wash my hands first. He said, “All you need is to do that once and a week later, you’ll have strep.” Then he suggested I get my tonsils out. No, thank you…hand sanitizer became my constant companion. I also wash my hands for twenty to thirty seconds when I’m home before I eat or unload the dishwasher. But, to be honest, while that may annoy others (like my husband), it doesn’t really affect me that much.
The one that affects me the most is probably what I call “clothing OCD” (and no, I don’t think that’s an official term…it’s probably a subset of “just right” OCD). I often feel as if I’m wearing the wrong thing (and therefore, people may judge me). I have had that worry for as long as I remember, but it was not as overwhelming as it is now…and I blame that on social media. Usually, I feel okay in what I’m wearing until later on when I look at photos and decide I look “hippy” (as in wide hips, not as in a flower-child…); or maybe my hair is a mess; or perhaps my shirt is bunched up in a weird way.
Sometimes, I’ll realize in looking at photos that my cleavage was a bit too, um…cleavagey (not a word, I know). I’m very short and wear a D or DD, everything that fits in the chest ends up being low-cut. I try to fix it by wearing camisoles under everything to cover up what a low neckline doesn’t, but sometimes they slip down, and I don’t realize until I look at a photo. If it’s a date night, I don’t really care, but if it’s a school event that I looked busty at…let’s just say I’ll be wracked by anxiety that I looked like a fifty-one year old tart. Not very becoming…
Sometimes, my anxiety comes from my feeling under-dressed for an event or even over-dressed. I tell myself that blending in means that my unique self will never shine, but OCD (or maybe it’s more social anxiety) doesn’t care. For instance, the last night of a work trip with my husband in the Bahamas there was an awards banquet. I had one outfit left – two skinny ribbed tanks layered (black over white), a silky, black wrap miniskirt with a white blooms splashed across it and a three-quarter sleeve plain, black bolero sweater. I wore black and gold interwoven flat sandals to finish the outfit (because I can’t wear heels). Sounds pretty cute, right? Only, I was horrified when I showed up and most of the women were in gowns or at least cocktail dresses. The dress code for evening events was listed as resort casual. Where gowns fit in a resort casual dress code, I have no idea. That didn’t make it better.
I still remember the outfit, because I while I had fun that night (Matchbox Twenty was the entertainment for the private concert…of course I had a blast), afterward I ruminated over what people must have thought of me dressing so casually. (No one probably thought twice – they were all too busy having fun.) The next day I bought a pretty, floral, strapless maxi dress on the beach before we left and wished that I had seen it the day before. I came home and a few days later bought a beautiful, pink silk wrap dress on sale and wondered why I didn’t hit the store I found it at before taking off for the beach.
And this is the crux of my “clothing OCD” and what separates it from the run of the mill anxiety many people have about how they look in photos on social media. (Who hasn’t been quick to click “untag,” praying none of your friends have seen a post yet, upon discovering an unflattering photo in which you’re tagged? I would guess only people without social media or those with amazing self-confidence, whom I admire more than I can say…) I ruminate. I think about what else I could have worn that would have looked better. I zoom in on photos of myself, picking apart my appearance.
This is not normal, and I’m not proud of it. It’s especially not normal, because I weigh less than one hundred pounds. Or at least I do again now. Over the winter I put on some weight after fracturing both feet a few months apart (I’m still in a surgical shoe after stepping down from a boot) and having complications after surgery that left me prone on the couch for weeks. (In the past month I have discovered health conditions that led to both of those things, but that’s another blog post…)
During that time, I was hypercritical of my appearance in Facebook photos that others posted of me. I was sure I looked fat. Mind you, I gained five pounds and weighed about one hundred and two to one hundred and three pounds in most of them. Typing this out, I know how stupid it sounds. But, five pounds when you’re not even five feet tall feels like a lot. And, I’m ashamed to admit this, but lately I have found myself thinking, I’ve been under a ton of stress, but at least I’m back to my regular weight. Again, not normal.
My son, Joshua, who has spent a lot of time in eating disorder programs, both residential and outpatient of varying degrees, told me that I sound anorexic or at least like I have body dysmorphic disorder. To which he adds that “All girls are like that.” I don’t disagree with him about myself. I know I’m not anorexic at all. I don’t limit my calorie intake, that’s not how I lost weight. I just don’t have as much of an appetite when I’m stressed, so I naturally lose weight. I eat a Greek yogurt or a bowl of cereal for dinner a few nights a week when I make my kids something that I don’t like or can’t eat due to allergies. I’m not starving myself. I’ll still eat ice cream, but maybe just a spoonful or two on a graham cracker sandwich, rather than a half cup, when I’m stressed. I’ve also been going up an down my stairs A LOT, trying to catch up on the laundry that swelled during my injuries and post-surgery rest.
The body dysmorphic thing…that’s probably true. I tried on a dress while shopping with my mom. I told her it made me look “hippy.” She told me I was crazy and should buy it. So, I did. I figure that’s a step in the right direction. If I can wear it and not zoom in on a photo of myself and decide that she was wrong…now, that will be a victory.
We all have something…and I decided that it was not fair for me to share my kids’ issues and not my own, simply because it’s scary peering into the dark corners of your psyche and then spilling out what you find onto the page for everyone to read. But, if I’m going to wear the mantle of being an “open book” as a writer and a person…I need to earn it.
Postscript: It took me about four days to write this. A big part of that was a health crisis my son has been having that I’ve been focused on, but when he’s been out, I’ve been working on it, and it still took me a long time…I’ll admit it’s nerve wracking to post it, now that it’s finally done. But, if you’re reading this, I got over that and hit “publish.” Thank you for taking the time to read this longer than usual essay…