November 19, 2012

OCD and Paying it Forward....

Now that I’m “on the other side” of the hell of OCD (at least for this moment), I can see the positive aspects of having such a horrible disorder.  The biggest thing about struggling with a chronic problem – be it physically or emotionally – is that it helps to develop compassion and empathy for human suffering.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons in my life, which – in my opinion is the “juicy” part of living.  Even though many of the lessons have been difficult and learned the hard way (I seem to be one of those people!), I thrive on learning and being challenged and growing.  It makes me feel alive. 

Since starting to really face my struggle with OCD a few years ago, I have been passionate about doing what I can to help others who are challenged with mental illness.  I seem to be able to see those people a mile away.  I can sniff them out.  The “crazies”.  (LOL – I say that with all love and affection.  I embrace it now!)  I guess the old adage “it takes one to know one” really works here.  But – in all honesty – I find “the crazies” the most interesting people.  We’re the ones who have struggled.  We have depth.  We have stories.  We get it.  I even find myself dismissing those who claim to never have struggled in life.  (Very judgemental!  I am working on that.) I chalk that up to either extreme denial, miracle genes, or well......just plain boring. 

Anyway, one of my friends Rachel has issues with anxiety.  I’ve known Rachel for about five years.  She’s struggles with perfectionism, combined with Panic Disorder (my diagnosis).  You see, Rachel is like many of us who have lived most of our lives in denial that we have an anxiety disorder.  So in the past, Rachel and I haven’t really related on that level.  In fact, I rarely spoke with her about my OCD. I don’t think she wanted to be able to relate – that would’ve made her crazy like me.  :o)

Until now.

About a month ago, Rachel started breaking down.  All of us can relate.  She started having panic attacks.  The thoughts in her head started ramping up.  EVERYTHING seemed like an impending catastrophe.  She and her family were on holiday in Hawaii and they had to come home early.  For Rachel, one of the side effects of her panic is to violently vomit.  She’s lost about fifteen pounds on an already very small body frame.   Things have spiralled downwards quickly. 

Initially, she wasn’t talking to me about it at all.  I work with her husband, and he would mention some things to me at work.  Then finally, last week it hit me.  She’s really bad.  She’s not coping.  I asked Michael – he confirmed my suspicions.  First, I texted her and just casually asked her.  She confirmed that things weren’t going well.  I just let her know that I was there for her if she needed anything. 

Since then, I have become Rachel’s “sponsor”.  She called me on Friday night to ask me some questions.  On Saturday, we walked the dogs, and then I went with her inside the house, where she proceeded to have a full blown panic attack.  She cried.  I cried with her.  I sat with her for four hours while she talked, and cried and talked some more.  Yesterday we went for tea.  And this morning as I was on my way to work I got a phone call: "Can you come over?  I need you.”  Luckily I was able to arrange my day so that I could be there for her. 

It’s amazing the pain I feel for my friend.  Unless you have suffered with mental illness, it is impossible to understand. It’s amazing how watching her brought me right back to those days....the days when I couldn’t sleep without having the TV on all night.....the days when I would panic if I had to be left alone.....the days where just making a simple decision about what to eat for lunch seemed impossible.  I feel incredible compassion for Rachel, but also a lot of hope.  She will get through it, and I keep telling her that.  She will figure it out in her own time, and in her own way.  She’s on the path. 

As for myself – I am so, so, so grateful.  Grateful for the path that I am on....grateful for my amazing therapist...grateful for the support of our little blogging community....grateful for having the courage, every moment of every day to keep going, despite anxiety....grateful that I am now far enough on the other side of it all that I am starting to figure out what I am passionate about – and actually see some of these dreams become reality...and grateful for the love and acceptance that I seem to have developed for myself.  It really all is OK. 

November 12, 2012

OCD and my Identity Crisis....

I remember my therapist saying to me over a year ago – maybe it was even when we first started working together, that when I started to recover from my OCD, I would most likely go through some sort of identity crisis.  His thinking is that OCD takes up so much of our time.....so much of our lives, that when that “space” starts to open up – we aren’t sure what to do with it. 

I’ve been feeling this way lately. 

I’m not sure if it is directly related to feeling “recovered” from OCD, because I don’t think there is such thing.  Some of it has to do with the events that have occurred in the last year.  Either way, my life has taken a major departure from how I was living it before.  For the most part, I LOVE where I’m going.  But there are some days when I am scared to death, because I don’t have all the answers laid out right in front of me. 

I had a session with my therapist the other day and we briefly discussed this notion.  In some ways I think I am going through a “mid-life-crisis”.  Or, maybe it’s more like a “post-OCD-crisis”?  Who knows.  No, I haven’t gone out and bought a fancy new car.  (But I did have a bit of a crazy “affair” this summer.  LOL.)  I explained to him that for my whole life, I have always been responsible.  I’ve always over-thought everything.  (Of course, being a perfectionist, I still didn’t think that what I was doing was enough!)  I did my best to make choices that were “safe”.  And the result was to make me a bit of a china doll....suceptible to a lot of emotional distress should anything not turn out exactly as I wanted it to.   

In the last six months, I have grown tremendously.  I have made so many changes....for the better.  One of the biggies is that I am exercising regularly.  I can’t express enough how helpful this has been for me....for my OCD, for my PMS, and generally for my overall self-confidence.  Exercise (and new sport activities) has opened up my life.  I have a new friend that I run with twice/week.  I have a whole other group of friends that I mountain bike with.  And yoga has helped with my meditation and living in the moment. 

For those of you who follow my posts, you will know that about two years ago, I quit my “career job”.  I was burnt out, and my Mom was starting to get very sick.  At the time, the main reason I quit was because I wanted to be able to care for my mom in her last days.  But I also hated my job, and I was ready for a career change.  The problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. 

This past summer was “The Summer of YES” for me.  I’ve had so many new experiences – some good and some not-so-good.  But my skin is thickening.  And the OCD voice is diminishing, which is leaving room for my true, inner voice to speak up. 

I’ve spoken before about my plan to go to Africa next fall.  I’ve always wanted to go to Africa – it’s been a dream of mine for many years.  Now, with my new motto “What are you waiting for?”, I have made it my goal to go for six weeks next year.  I am passionate about this trip.  I feel drawn to Africa.  I have already made contact with the orphanage that I plan on volunteering at.  I wish I could go now!! I am hoping that my trip will open up doors for me.  I feel so strongly that I need to follow this path, and see where it takes me. 

Some days it’s very scary though.  It’s scary for lots of reasons.....and the “what ifs” start flying around my head like crazy.  Part of what’s scary is that I really do believe that being in Africa for that period of time will give me some answers regarding where to go next in my life.  For the last two years, my career life has been on hold, and I really have no idea what I want to do.....other than go to Africa and see what happens.  Perhaps I will get down there and love it so much that I will want to stay?  Perhaps I will get down there and come into contact with an organization that I can work at?  Or – What if I go there, it’s a great experience, but I come home with nothing other than some great memories – what then? 

Then there’s the scary notion that I might just not be able to go for financial reasons.  Lots can happen in a year.  What if my car dies and I have to buy a new one?  What if something major happens to my house?  What if, what if, what if.  In the last few weeks, this is where my mind has been going (See? We never really do “recover”!).  And suddenly, something that has been motivating me and making me feel alive, began to feel out of reach.  Impossible.  Unrealistic.  All the voices that used to fly around in my head...the ones talking me out of taking risks savouring life were back.  I felt so deflated. 

One of the things I’ve really learned in the last few months is “just do it – you’ll figure the rest out later”.  This is not to suggest being irresponsible.  However I would assert that many of us with OCD are OVERLY responsible – so it might not be such a bad thing to move to the other side a little bit.  :o)

I’ve adopted this motto with many things, quitting my job, getting a roommate etc etc.  And so far, it’s all worked out.  These challenges and experiences have also helped build my confidence.  And, I believe, helped me to keep OCD at bay. 

During my therapy session, as I was explaining to my therapist what I was struggling with, he said to me: “Jo-Ann – why don’t you just tell yourself that you’re going to Africa no matter what and you’ll figure it out along the way.  You’re not an irresponsible person.  You might have to take a bit of a financial hit.  So be it......”.  It made sense.  It was exactly how I had been living life since May.  Suddenly I felt so much better. 

I was speaking with my cousin about this theme the other day – telling her what he said to me.  She agreed.  She said that two years before she left her husband, she remembered being in therapy and despite her incredible unhappiness in her marriage, she said to her therapist that there was no way she could leave her husband.  For various reasons – moral, financial etc etc.  Well, she did it.  And you know what?  She’s doing just fine. 

I have one year to prepare myself to go to Africa.  During this year I will continue to learn how to take good care of myself, I will continue to have many, many growth experiences.  I will continue to have fun, and make smart financial decisions.  But nothing will stop me from going.  I really do hope that my time there presents new opportunities for me, because if not, I'm not sure what my next step will be.  But you know what?  I'm sure I'll figure it out along the way.