Once Blessed; Still Strong: My Life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
by Jamaal Zarti
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I used to feel blessed. I used to. I am sure that many of you still do and, for that, I am grateful. It is heartwarming to see that in the world. I am a humanitarian and care for every single soul out there. But I myself cannot, and after one let down after the other, I do not believe I ought to. I used to be happy, carefree, and had abundant interests, but now I am nothing but a vessel of worry. If you look close sometimes, you can see me shake from the anxiety. I have been put through matters that not many others can understand and how could they? I see people every day living their carefree lives oblivious to what others with my plight must endure. The envy and jealousy those individuals give me will be something I will forever feel. That might seem unfair but for someone who has been through what I have and feels as jaded as I do, this is the only possible way to think. This plight does not discriminate, does not care if you are rich or poor, or bad or good at heart, it will find you when you least expect it. You might have guessed that I am of course discussing the topic of worldwide mental health issues. Thankfully, our society has made progress in this arena and the guidance we need is becoming more prevalent. Nonetheless, the problems we experience are hard to digest and even more difficult to explain to the non-afflicted. How can you really discuss your own personal torture to someone when you do not fully understand it yourself? Hopefully, this piece will help.
It’s Christmas Eve 2019, I sit at my parent’s dining room table laptop wide open. I am trying to find an outlet for my pain, and I decide to display it in 12-size font. I have always preferred to let my feelings bleed out through ink and paper, but I suppose a digital platform embodies the same notions. Twinkling red and green lights shine behind me but the light that shines the brightest this Christmas Eve is the one inside of me. Is this light one that will eventually illuminate a happy path forward and result in a better life? Or will it be a light that burns out forever never to resurface again? This light is of course a reference and metaphor to my soul. The latter scenario will result in myself staring in a mirror and finding that the person that looks back is unrecognizable. This stranger sees in a shadowy haze complied with murky visions, his head spins and he is a shell of his former self. He is thinking about what he has become and what went wrong? How did these thoughts and feelings control me for all of these years, until I eventually look in that same mirror withered and gray wondering where my life went? Please do not let it be this picture. But the light burns nevertheless, just like it always does. An unwanted unkempt part of me that can never settle.
The pain on this Christmas Eve is one I have felt many times, it is now my identity. Most people across the country rejoice and celebrate on this happy day. This sentiment is something I showcase with every fiber of my being for my family’s sake, there is no need to ruin their happiness. The pain. I cannot rejoice, my disability will not allow me to, and unfortunately it shines brightest this evening. It is encompassed by anxiety and worry. What if this is the last Christmas I am here on this earth? Even worse what if this is the last Christmas for my mother or father? These thoughts are the only ones that run through my mind. Not Santa Claus, not the presents I bought for my family, and not the meal I smell cooking three feet away from me. Horror is what I think, and horror is what I feel. To no longer have these precious holidays the way that they have always been is incomprehensible. Is this normal? Is this something that many people think of on Christmas? Or is this my disease-riddled and anxious mind? This obsession has bothered me for weeks and it is a feeling that I have thought about every second of every day since its induction. Ever since Christmas cheer has crept its way into our lives this season, this fear has immersed me and confined me to nothing but panic. Panic is here now because my life is nothing but anxiety and obsessions. Tears roll down my eyes and drop on the gray keys of my laptop now resembling a Manhattan sidewalk on a rainy day. A rainy day seem apropos as it is exactly how I imagine the world every day. The thought of the two people that I love the most in the entire world not being here next Christmas is my worst nightmare. It is an unfathomable notion that irks me to a pulp and leaves me feeling like a child again wanting nothing more than to be in his mother’s arms. The pain. Is this an irrational fear or something normal? It cannot be normal because a fear is simple, logical, and controllable. Fear is a normal part of everyone’s life, but not mine, mine are different. My fears are obsessive, a monster that wants to play with you before it devours you. And, my goodness does it play with you, it toys with you and scares you until it defines you. I am a victim of the disease called obsessive compulsive disorder.
Although this Christmas scene I just recounted was two years ago, and I have come a long way since that night, I still struggle with these issues. Sometimes I feel that it is worse than ever, but I have to remind myself that I am making progress even if it does not feel that way. I can tell you that I have enjoyed both Christmases since. This story is not only for people living with OCD but any mental health disease. It feels good to write out those three words: obsessive compulsive disorder. It is as if I am standing up to my demons, fists clenched, and not afraid for the first time. The fears I wrote about in this story are mild compared to every other day of my life. I feel as if I must explain in more detail. OCD is an anxiety disorder; the gist is that someone like myself generates an excessive amount of anxiety that they cannot control. I feel an enormous amount of anxiety every second of every day and for no reason at all. That anxiety has to be targeted to something and it hits a bullseye directly onto my worst fears. This turns into an obsession over those fears, and these fears are completely irrational. As my therapist puts it; you would never worry about something that does not matter to you. For example, you do not have a fear of having untied shoelaces, so you do not obsess about it. Your thought is who cares about my shoes being untied?
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On the other hand, this might be someone else’s saddest nightmare. For me, an obsession or thought of having cancer or losing someone would completely break me. This disorder will only manifest itself in your own darkest nightmares, things that bother you to your core. The real nightmare is that you believe that these irrational fears are undoubtedly real and true. These beliefs take over your life and affect everything around you. It can hinder your sleep, your appetite, your work, erupt and damage your personal relationships, cause depression, self-worth issues, mood swings, and trigger substance abuse concerns. My OCD has caused issues with every single one of these hindrances. Additionally, I have had these irrational fears about anything you could think of my health, my family, my friends, my future, diseases, and much more. Much more terrifying things, things I cannot bring myself to type. My mind can only harp on negative occurrences, it is my plight it is my world. I live in a world of what if? My therapist blames part of it on my intellect something he says he has not seen much of in his other patients. That my mind is too complex for everyday monotony, I simply cannot go to work, come home, eat my vegetables, and go to sleep. That my mind wonders in a fashion that is the exact opposite of frivolity.
This quandary mixed with a bad chemical imbalance is the reason I am constantly uneasy. I say back, “is this truly OCD, or am I now an existentialism philosopher? Am I the reincarnation of Kierkegaard”? He laughs and says “no”. There is nothing funny about this. At all. Not to me anyway. I look back at my statement and realize that I truly was making a joke after all, even if I could not tell in that moment. It pleases me that I still have the ability to joke. Many people like me appear to have it together from the outside, it is our nature to look composed and put together even if we feel the exact parallel. For me it is to keep my loved ones from worrying about me, a sense of protecting them. That is always my goal. Loved ones always come first. I firmly believe that intelligence has nothing to do with it. I believe that I am just an unlucky man burdened with an uncontrollable disorder. The questions are will you learn to control these thoughts, and can you effectively overcome them to lead a fulfilling life?
I want to leave you with optimism and tell you that, if you are like me everything is going to be alright. I am sorry to say that I can not tell you that for certain. As I mentioned previously, I try to demonstrate a put-together demeanor, and as far I know that is how I appear. This notion is actually quite the contrary and this disorder has broken me, I have cried, I have blamed God, I have contemplated ending it all, and I have literally felt darkness all around me. Why did this happen to me and what did I do to deserve this I scream out loud. I have thought on numerous occasions that I would never beat this foe, that it had won, and that I had unequivocally lost never to be the same person again. This is a feeling that I know my words cannot do justice, and I hope no one has ever felt this way before but sadly I know that is not true. I have often said to myself that I would trade places in a heartbeat with someone else who has a different disease because maybe then I could win. Just like cancer some win and some lose, the same can be said for mental health issues. Some survive and some vanish. How can you heal your mind? Subsequently, please trust me that there are some encouraging words coming. What I can tell you is that there are practices that can help you. I have not mastered them, but they can be extremely helpful.
Firstly, know and understand that these thoughts are not real, they are just there to frighten you. The sooner you understand and accept them the better off you will be. The less you care about these obsessions the less they can hurt you. One day you will be able to manage them so masterfully that they will pop in your head, and you won’t give them the time of day. Secondly, be open about the problems you have. If you keep them hidden you can never really face them. Write about them, discuss them, and do not be afraid to confront them. Thirdly, keep your self busy. The more you occupy your mind the less time you have to obsess about thoughts. Read a book, go to the gym, or work on projects that interest you. Lastly, lean on your family and friends. No one will think differently of you because you have these issues. Most likely, some of them have them as well. This will provide an opportunity for you to have someone to discuss things with and lean on. There is no comfort like the one you get from the ones you love.
All of these practices have been immensely beneficial for myself, except here I am still constantly being eroded with obsessions. I have learned that it is not a sprint it is a marathon, but I cannot help but wonder how much longer I must keep running. My mind and body cannot take this pain much longer, it simply will not hold up. Even after all the dark images I must have conjured up inside of my readers’ minds, I am still hopeful. Even within all of the darkness I still get a glimpse of the world’s beauty. A friend’s smile, my mother’s laugh, a particularly beautiful sunrise, a wonderful garden, or best of all humans selflessly helping one another. Before I conclude this hopefully helpful article, I want to leave you with a few words of positivity. I am ten years into this ordeal and can promise you that if you keep fighting, it will be worth it. I have bad days just like anyone else, but the good days are coming more frequently, and there is nothing in this world that I would trade those good days for. If it was not for these days, I would not have the ability to spend time with my family. I hope that reading this does actually help someone out there as much as it has helped me flesh these words out. Even if I do not believe it, I will always remain true to who I am. I will always be a good son, good friend, hard worker, and give as much as I can to others. I feel as if I am cleansed in this moment in time, and I can only hope that this feeling helps me remain strong and to continuously keep fighting.