So, I got back from Vienna and finished the school year out back at BYU’s campus, still struggling. I had stopped taking anti-depressants. That summer I decided to join some of my friends who were going to rural Wisconsin to sell educational books for the summer. If you know me at all, this was a very odd choice for me to make. It just doesn’t quite fit with my personality. And I didn’t even need the money; I had a full-tuition scholarship to BYU and my parents helped me with everything else I needed. But I’d gotten it into my head that I been spoiled for most of my life and needed to do something hard. So I signed up. Well it sure turned out to be the hard experience I was looking for and then some. Our days looked like this: wake up at 5:30 am to get ready, meet your selling “team” at 6am at a specific restaurant to have breakfast and do a motivational cheer in the parking lot, leave by 7am to start selling in your area, stay out selling until 8pm, go home and report your numbers to your team leader, go to bed, repeat the next day. And did I mention that we sold all day by ourselves? So everyday I was out all day in an unfamiliar area by myself for over 12 hours, only to repeat it the next day, and the next, etc. This routine can be hard for anyone, but for me it bordered on traumatic. I was selling in a very rural area and I’d never really experienced rural America before. I am a born and bred city girl and had no idea how hard it would be for me to be in wide open spaces with no people for miles. It felt so claustrophobic. I know that sounds backwards, but that’s how it felt – like I couldn’t breathe and the sky was closing in on me. Then combine that with being basically alone all day (talking to random people here and there about books didn’t really count). I hadn’t known how badly I need real, social interaction to feel sane until I didn’t get hardly any. I started to have panic attacks for the first time in my life, although I had no idea that was what they were. I just thought I was going crazy.
I only endured this for six weeks. I made my decision to quit at the end of one horrific week where one bad thing after another kept happening. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that the final straw was me driving a rental car into a ditch and watching it fill with water. And then having to get help from guys with long hair and no teeth to tow it out. Fun stuff.
So I quit. On my drive back to Utah from Wisconsin, I knew something was wrong inside my head. A sort of quiet terror had come calling and seemed to have no intention of leaving. There were many times on that cross-country trip home that I needed to pull over because the panic was so overwhelming I thought I was going to crash. I felt so crazy. And so weak. Here was yet another thing that I wasn’t mentally strong enough to do. What was wrong with me? I didn’t feel the same as I usually did when I was depressed, so I didn’t quite know what was going on. When I finally arrived in Utah and started summer semester at BYU, the claustrophobia lifted and the panic subsided. I figured it must have just had something to do with being in a small town and I felt sure I’d be fine now that I was back to my normal life.
That fall I met Grant, my future hubby. Things were great and I actually even had a very spiritual experience where I knew he was the one I was supposed to marry. But when we got engaged in February the terror came back. Fears constantly raced through my mind. Was I really sure he was the guy I was supposed to marry? Was the experience I’d had really real? Had I interpreted it wrong? Had we known each other long enough to get married? Were we even compatible? Did I actually even love him? Were we just playing some silly game, like kids playing house? All of my friends who had been engaged described it as the happiest time of their lives. They were so in love and couldn’t wait to spend every waking second with their fiancee. My engagement was full of horror and fear. I couldn’t stop analyzing everything – my feelings, my racing thoughts – and trying to figure out if this was the right decision to make. And the panic attacks came back. But any time I thought of breaking off the engagement I felt even worse. So I went through with it. And surprisingly, my wedding day turned out to be the happiest day of my life. Truly. I felt so much peace and joy and knew that this was in fact the right decision. I loved this man next to me and knew God had led me to him.
But my psyche was sick and getting sicker, although I still didn’t realize it. That summer I was constantly breaking things because I was so jittery (Grant still makes comments about that “klutzy” summer). We watched a holocaust movie and for days afterwards I felt a deep terror inside because I just knew a war similar to WWII was going to break out and I would have to experience something like the Holocaust. Another night we watched some dinosaur movie and I couldn’t sleep afterwards because I was sure that something as ferocious as a dinosaur was outside our apartment. One day Grant was a little bit late getting home from school and I called his mom crying, certain he was dead. I lived in a state of irrational fear.
Then that fall I started to study about some things regarding our church and its doctrine that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The more I studied, the more confused I got. And that was when the true hell began. The terror came back but this time it wasn’t quiet, it wasn’t just in the back of mind. This time it was a raging force that tore through every thought and feeling I had. I felt like I was screaming inside day in and day out. I stopped sleeping because my mind was always racing. I stopped eating because my stomach was always in knots. I lost 25 pounds in two months. I had panic attacks almost daily. I remember sitting in a french class as the terror was building and building, and the scream was getting louder and louder. I was suffocating, I had to get out, I had to run and scream and get help. By the grace of God I was able to grip my desk and ride out the horror as my professor droned on, and I did not make a fool of myself by running into the hall, screaming like a mad woman even though every cell in my body wanted to.
I tried to explain to Grant what was going on. Poor guy. He was just a nice, normal boy who thought he’d married a nice, normal girl. But after he married said girl, she turns out to be a lunatic. He didn’t know anything about mental illness, he’d never even been exposed to it. He had no idea what to do with me. He tried his best to be loving and patient but I know it was hard for him. Most nights all he could do was just hold me while I cried.
The following is an excerpt I’ve written about a night when the searing fears were especially acute, while Grant and I were at a restaurant.
The lights are hot. Too hot. The people are laughing. They don’t know. They don’t know that the world is all wrong. That it’s a lie. She takes us to our table. Grant orders my drink for me. Did he just see that? Did he just see the world jolt off its axis, helter skelter? It’s not going back. Why isn’t it going back? I order enchiladas. Grant orders a burrito. We wait in silence. Suffocation. No one knows. They shouldn’t know. They should be happy and laugh and go to movies and play games and order pizza. Not suffocate. Not hear the scream inside. Grant can’t hear the scream inside. He wants too, but he can’t. Could he just hold me? Could we just go home and could he just hold me? I don’t want to eat, I’m not hungry. All the people are eating and laughing. They should, I want them to. I want someone to. I don’t want them to feel the scream, or the panic. The terror. The darkness. The suffocation. Why didn’t Grant see the earth shift? Or the oxygen leave the room? And all the light? Didn’t he feel the crazy set in? And the terror? Didn’t he hear the scream? Why didn’t he hear the scream? I want to go home. I can’t eat anything. God must be trying to tell me something. I think I need to have more faith. I must not be trying hard enough. I think I need to go home and read my scriptures some more. And pray again. The scream. It’s still screaming. Why can’t anybody hear the scream? God, please help me. I can’t breathe. The darkness is tightening. I need help. I really, really, really, really, really, need help. I’m not ok. Somebody please hear the scream. Somebody. It’s not stopping. I’m not ok.
As you can see, I was seriously. messed. up.
The whole time I thought that all of this had to do with my faith. It seemed so obvious to me that I was struggling with things regarding God and the church because I didn’t have enough faith, because I wasn’t trying hard enough. It never occurred to me that it was a symptom of mental illness. One day on campus I happened to see a childhood friend, Natalie. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we sat down on the grass near the library and chatted. It eventually came out that I was having a really hard time. I explained, to the best of my ability, the fears I was feeling. Natalie knew of my struggles with depression and after she listened to me for a while, lovingly said, “Do you think this has something to do with your depression?” I stared at her. I’d never thought of that. I told her I didn’t think so, that it sure seemed like this was a matter of faith. But it got me thinking and I kept thinking about it long after our conversation ended that day. I talked to Grant about it and he was all for me going to a Dr. to talk about the possibility that my depression was acting up (I’m sure he was about as desperate as I was for a solution!). Another reason I was skeptical about this being depression is because it felt so different from how I’d always felt before. This was fear and horror and screaming, not blues and depression and sadness. But I was so, so, so desperate for any help that I went in to see a psychiatrist again. After explaining everything to him he very quickly prescribed some anti-depressants (Effexor this time, although I’m still a little peeved that he didn’t give me some Xanax, but I didn’t know enough then). After about a month, the screaming finally, FINALLY, went away. I could breathe. The world shifted back to normal. And I decided I would never, ever, EVER get off anti-depressants again.
Taking anti-depressants was just part of the solution, though. I started seeing a psychologist (I learned the difference!) and she diagnosed me as not only having depression but also OCD. This threw me. I only knew of OCD as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. I didn’t have to turn the lights on and off five times before I went to bed or wear gloves because I didn’t want people to contaminate me. I didn’t quite get it. But as we talked more it started to become plain as day.
There is a type of OCD called Scrupulosity. Kevin Foss, a licensed psychotherapist at the OCD Center of Los Angeles, defines it as when “people of various religions across the world are haunted by feelings of doubt, guilt, and anxiety that torment them by attacking that which they find most dear – their faith. Scrupulosity is a form of OCD in which the sufferer’s primary anxiety is the fear of being guilty of religious, moral, or ethical failure. Those afflicted with Scrupulosity fear that their effort to live according to their spiritual values not only isn’t good enough, but is in direct violation of God.” Once I understood this, my symptoms of Scrupulosity became glaringly obvious. (You can read more about Scrupulosity on the web. I plan on doing a post about it in the future as well as adding some resources for it on my resources page.) Apparently my OCD/Scrupulosity had been spiraling out of control throughout my life until I finally had an “OCD breakdown” (not sure what the official term is, but you get the jist).
I signed up for an OCD therapy class on campus which helped a lot. It helped me to see that I wasn’t the only “crazy” one out there struggling with this. In fact, a lot of the people in the class seemed way crazier than me! 🙂 It also helped to invalidate my thoughts. I’d always taken my thoughts as fact, but this class showed me that our thoughts are often lies and we need to be able to step back and evaluate them.
I have been on Effexor ever since then (except for a couple times when I tried something else that didn’t work as well). I have gone to a therapist off and on since then too, as needed. These two treatments have changed my life.
Looking back, it feels like a had a pre-disposition to sense sadness and to be overwhelmed by it. I have no idea if this means I had a pre-disposition to depression (once again, I’m not a doctor, so I have no degree or education that would back this up) but it kinda feels like it to me. Taking anti-depressants has made that aspect of my depression almost completely go away, though. I am no longer overwhelmed by the sadness of life or want to swim in those feelings when I watch sad movies or read sad books, etc. I will say that there is a little voice in the back of my head that beckons to me to give into sadness every day, but I can usually ignore it now. Sometimes I don’t even hear it at all.
But that doesn’t mean I never give in; I do still get depressed every now and then. Staying at home with my kids, until very recently, has been very hard for me and that has thrown me into a depression many times. I also get depressed when it’s gloomy outside for too long (which is why Phoenix has been the PERFECT place for me!). But I’ve begun to realize (mostly from counseling) that when I feel myself getting depressed, it actually almost always is because my OCD is flaring up. It’s taken me a long time to realize this and to realize all of the ways that OCD affects my thoughts. I thought my OCD was only around religious ideas but I’ve learned that it affects so many other aspects of my thinking. Even just this year I’ve discovered new ways.
Overall, though, I am now a happy person who lives a happy life. I used to keep my depression and OCD a secret, but through the years I’ve become more and more open about it until now I am not ashamed of it at all. I now know it doesn’t mean I’m crazy or weak or selfish or lazy. It actually means quite the opposite. Everyone has a cross to bear, this just happens to be mine. And a lot of other people’s too. I strongly feel that we should be able to talk about mental illness just like we talk about other illnesses (broken arm, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, whatever) without any stigma attached to it. I know I am a strong, smart, beautiful and “normal” person who just happens to have a mental illness.
So there you have it. That’s my story. I would like to conclude by saying that I would not change what I have gone through or what I still have to struggle with. It has made me who I am. It has made me more empathetic and understanding towards others and their sufferings. It has given me an understanding of why we are all here and a strength to get me through it. It has added a depth and a goodness to my soul. It has also given me a rock-solid testimony of God’s reality and of His truth.** I know Him now, the real Him, and I am able to, mercifully, live within the arms of His love. There is a quote that I believe fully describes the beauty that can emerge from experiencing mental illness (and pain of any kind, really):
“The most beautiful people we have know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross)
I know that mental illness can make us into beautiful people if we choose to let it. I hope you will join me in helping the world to see this by talking openly about mental illness and letting go of the shame attached to it.
*To read more about my “Come to Jesus” moment in high school, go to the “Believe” link on my Homepage.
**To read about how my “breakdown” affected my faith in and testimony of God, go to the “Believe” link on my Homepage.