Shiny Rocks; OCD is Always in My Pocket, Even all Grown Up
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
When I was eight years old, I liked to hunt for rocks—jagged rocks, round rocks, but especially shiny rocks. Grasping these earthly treasures in my tiny hands, I felt grounded and calm. I focused on the angular edges, the smooth faces, the shiny reflections. Lugging the cumbersome rocks in my sagging sweatshirt pocket, I delivered them to my woodsy fort, where my glimmering collection grew. The use of these rocks was unimportant; perhaps they would appear in my dad’s stocking as an ill-planned Christmas present, or serve as a key ingredient in a mudpie, or simply be tossed back into nature. These finds, and the act of hunting for them, represented something important for me; the rocks were real, and they reminded me of the world that spun outside of my creatively chaotic mind.
As a child with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, I tended to grasp on to anything real that could yank me away from my thoughts and back into the world. These efforts varied from tap dancing to cooking to cuddling my dog to making some of those aforementioned mudpies. I was a thriving, happy kid with loving parents, the best sisters, and terrifying thoughts that riddled my brain. I could make an origami crane, win any wheelbarrow race, list all twenty-three helping verbs, and knock on my leg seventeen times to keep my mom alive. I was basically a superhero.
It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that I finally disclosed my superhero powers to a pediatric psychiatrist, who, instead of festooning me with a cape, diagnosed me with obsessive-compulsive disorder. You see, among the tap dancing, cooking, dog-cuddling, and mudpie-making, it was becoming quite difficult to find time in the day to keep my mom alive. I was relieved to find out that my massive responsibilities to protect the world were in fact compulsions that manifested from my disorder. However, I harbored shame for my untamed mind and did not share the diagnosis with anyone outside of my family—not until adulthood, when I began to notice, surprised, that others were seemingly imperfect as well.
Upon first sharing my experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder publicly at the age of twenty-six, I have received an array of messages, conveying shock and disbelief that someone with such optimism had once been riddled with dark, intrusive thoughts. While I have found the praise surrounding my writing to be uplifting, I am left wondering how my story may have been received differently had I told it in the present tense. What if my tale of pediatric knee-knocking had instead focused on my current struggles with OCD?
It feels natural for readers to empathize with a young daughter who worries about her mom, a child who knocks on her knee to save the world, a girl who cries a little too often. As a child with OCD, I played the role of each of these characters. Now, as an adult still living with the disorder, I share stories from my past to reduce the stigma toward mental illness. And yet, I cannot help but emphasize the happy endings of the stories I tell.
“Don’t worry,” I say reassuringly, noticing that my dad’s face has fallen after reading my most recent piece. “That was a long time ago. I’m totally fine now!”
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I notice the wave of relief, passing over his and everyone’s faces. They all care. They love me. They hate the thought that I might still struggle with the monsters in my stories and my mind. To reassure them, I present eight-year-old Megan as a martyr, distancing myself from the obsessions and compulsions that once ruled that young girl’s life. In doing so, I am able to discuss my mental illness, without discrediting my current quality of life. If there is one lesson that I have learned from living with OCD, it is that our collective definition of happiness is oftentimes quite fixed and limited in its scope. In our society, there is no space to be broken, content, anxious, and thriving, all at the same time. There is no space to be human.
We are either cured or sick.
Thriving or failing.
Held or alone.
Rational or neurotic.
Content or anxious.
Fixed or broken.
I am either a thriving graduate student, who is independent and happy and free of OCD, or I am an anxious eight-year-old, knocking on my leg seventeen times to keep my mother alive. Is there space for me to be both?
The truth is, I am thriving, and I am currently experimenting with a medication to treat the intrusive thoughts that addle my brain. I am thriving, and I sometimes cry when I think about my parents aging. I am thriving, and I read the safety brochure every time I fly, for fear that the flight’s safe arrival depends on it. I am thriving, and I had a panic attack on a tugboat in Cambodia, during which I sobbed into the dreadlocks of a backpacking stranger. I am thriving, and I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Apparently, all of these statements can be true.
Sometimes, we seem to forget that in rays of sunshine, shadows are found. You laugh at my silly jokes, but did you know that my sense of humor arose as a coping mechanism? You value my empathy, but did you consider the experiences that have allowed me to feel your pain? You appreciate my childhood stories, the ones that begin with salty, tear-stained pillows and end with a liberating diagnosis. Did you know that, when I write stories now, I am writing to my eight-year-old self?
Stones do not become shiny from resting in a wading pool, but rather from the thrashes and gnashes of a turbulent river, and yet, we carefully select the shiniest rocks for our collections. They are beautiful and worn, and we see ourselves in their glossy reflections.
My question then is, what made you so shiny?
Because you, my friend, you are radiant.