When I was old enough to toddle around on the kiddie playground, I always felt like a part of the gang. I learned to read, eat, walk, and talk at a normal rate. I was social and, quite happily, played with my peers during scheduled social hours. I was what you would call a “good kid.” I followed the rules, rarely got in trouble, and was blissfully happy with my life.
But, during every second of every day, something followed me around. It was this tense feeling that could be felt in every last one of my body’s muscles. This feeling would whisper, at moments of self-introspection, “You’re different, Anna.”
As I child, I did not know what being different meant, since I had always felt quite normal. But, somewhere inside my brain, I always knew that something was coming. I always knew that, one day soon, my feelings of normalcy would come to an abrupt end. Even if I forgot that this was to be true, that feeling was always there to prod my young mind and remind me that it was so. Now that I’m older, I realize that feeling to be akin to “foreshadowing.”
The change happened gradually. Not abruptly, like I had expected. And no, I did not wake up with the ability to shoot webs out of my fingers. Nor did I gain super strength or X-Ray vision (although that would have been quite an experience). Instead, I began to feel different toward my surroundings. I began to look at the world and want everything to be unblemished. I thought that perfection was attainable and I was ready to make it a reality. I was ready to die trying.
My earliest memory of “the change” is when I would come home from kindergarten and tape all of my papers to my wall. I would carry my heavy, magenta-colored backpack into my room, unload all of my papers from the school day, organize them, and develop a pile of papers that were no longer needed at school. Then, I would locate some clear tape and tape each and every single unneeded paper onto my lilac purple bedroom walls. The papers had to be in neat rows, side by side, or they would not pass my nightly inspection.
Even at that point in my existence, what I was going through wasn’t that bad. It was simply a minor inconvenience. I would have to organize every object that entered my room and keep it that way, which, truly, wasn’t exactly a curse. At least it saved me from hearing the typical “Anna, clean your room” instructions.
In third grade, my life completely changed (once again). This time, it was distinctively abrupt. It was the first time that my compulsiveness kicked it up a notch. And it was all because of Ms. Smith.
Ms. Smith was a strict teacher. Actually, “teacher” is a nice way of putting it. Ms. Smith was more of a drill sergeant. She was extremely cold and demanding toward her pint-sized students. A clear example of this is what she would do, every morning, to greet her students.
Ms. Smith would make her students line up, in a flawless straight line, against the wall outside of her classroom. Right in front of the door, there would be an ominous-looking whiteboard. On the board was a math problem. Something challenging. Without even saying a quick “Hello,” one by one, Ms. Smith would instruct her students to solve the math problem, with no hints or help. If the student got it wrong, they were sent to the back of the line. This was repeated until a majority of the students were inside of the classroom.
If a student could not solve the problem, they would stay outside of the classroom until they could. It was Ms. Smith’s way of shaming her students for not being as smart as the rest of the bunch. It was humiliating.
For the rest of the year, Ms. Smith continued her torture. She made us write essays that were graded in a “life or death” manner. We did countless presentations, backbreaking projects, and more work than any of the other third graders in the building.
As a young girl, I did not know how to cope with this new level of pressure. As a result, my brain went into overdrive. I became an insane perfectionist. It felt like I could not control my brain, which was an entirely new, and scary, sensation.
The worst part was that Ms. Smith’s tactics followed me home. It was like a dark shadow was following me all day, every day.
I would come home and, compulsively, tell my Mom countless details about my day. If I forgot something, I would start crying and was forced to start over. I did not want to, but I could not stop. I had to do it and, if it was not done impeccably, I had to do it again. And again. And again.
I was the same way about my room. Everything had a place. Everything had to be absolutely straight and tidy. Everything had to be clean. If these requirements were not met, my brain and I would battle each other. I would try to stop myself from obsessing over the world’s imperfections, but I couldn’t. It was almost as if I was reaching for something that was somewhere out in space.
In order to cope with my feelings, when perfection was not an option, I developed a way of counting in my head. It went something like, “One, two, three, five, seven, nine, ten.” Looking back, it made no sense; but this unstoppable way of counting eased my mind. I used this coping mechanism so much that I temporarily forgot how to actually count like a normal person.
Now, you are probably wondering, “Why didn’t your Mom take you to a therapist?” The thing is, both of us thought it was a phase. Plus, neither of us knew that children could have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So, instead of taking care of it, we laughed about it. We joked about my weird behavior and tried not to let it ruin our lives. It was the best that we could do at the time.
Then, one day, I heard the term “OCD” in passing. It was completely new to me, but, deep down, I knew that it was important. I did my research and found solace in what I read. My life and the world around me started to make sense. All of the numbers that I would repeat in my head started to add up. I did not even need to go to a doctor because, without a doubt, I knew that I was suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The thing is, I never did end up going to a therapist. I don’t remember why. I think that I thought that I would be able to handle it all by myself. Sigh.
I was inspired to put an end to my OCD ways because of an article that I read during my research. I do not remember the article’s title or who wrote it, but it said something along the lines of “I remembered being such a happy little girl, without OCD looking over my shoulder. I want to get rid of my OCD. I want to do it for that little, smiling girl that I used to be.”
As a young girl myself, this article made complete and utter sense. I did not want to become an unhappy adult in a suit. To make this dream a reality, I would push any compulsive thoughts and actions away. Doing this felt like I was forcing myself to swallow gross-tasting medicine. It was hard, but doable.
A few years later, my OCD was almost gone. There would be occasional moments where I would have a tendency to go into “OCD mode,” but it was more like I was being a perfectionist, rather than someone that was walking, hand-in-hand, with their Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Unfortunately, my OCD transformed into a severe anxiety disorder, which I dealt with for many, many years. I guess that there are consequences when you try to change the chemistry of your brain.
Then, I remembered the article that I read and realized that my younger self would not be happy seeing me in this dejected state. My younger self would want me to fearlessly seek help. And that is exactly what I did.
For the past year, I have been seeing a therapist. Doing so has helped me learn to cope with the occasional pangs that I feel when my old friends, anxiety and OCD, come to visit.
Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for having a mental illness. It has made me stronger. It has made me feel less alone and, at times, unique. And it has made me realize the importance of helping others by sharing one’s story. By being honest and living up to my faults, I feel that I have been able to spread awareness about mental illness and to inspire others to seek help.
I will never forget the day that one of my friends came up to me, out of nowhere, and said, “Anna, because of you, I have been seeing a psychologist to help with my anxiety. Thank you.” Now, I may not have Spiderman powers, super strength, or X-ray vision, but at least I have something to stand for.