When I was 4 years old, our apartment caught fire. At the time, I was very brave. All my fire safety protocols from pre-kindergarten flooded into my brain and I got out of the apartment the moment I saw the fire. I stood barefoot in the snow, clad only in a summer dress, and watched my home go up in smoke.
I pinpoint that event as a turning point in my life, the time where I became someone who is constantly afraid. At first I feared only stoves, ovens, or any sort of flame. I would beg my mother not to cook with the stove because I believed that it could simply burst into flame. When I was 8, I was frightened that a plastic bag would strangle me if I touched one (it’s okay to laugh at that one, it’s absurd!). I feared being on a balcony in case I spontaneously threw myself off it. I was obsessed with cancer, death, and illness. Worst of all, I was terrified of being away from my mother.
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder & Anxiety Disorder when I was 9. I attended a 12-week group with other kids like me. For the first time, I felt understood, but my life was still very difficult.
School was a minefield. Every time the in-class phone rang, every time the teacher had an announcement for us, every time I heard sirens coming from the street, I became convinced something terrible had happened to my mother. Simply walking down the hallway was a chore as I negotiated which door was "good" and which was "bad," how many times to lock and unlock my locker, and which washroom stall to use.
The school knew about my issues but always fought with me when I asked to call my mother. I once came to the office in a panic and said I needed to call my mom right away. They insisted that I did not need to call her. They told me that calling home was for “emergencies only.”
At that point in my life, I had very little control over my issues and the only thing that would fix it (albeit temporarily) was calling my mother. They refused and instead stuck me in some room to freak out by myself.
I used to fantasize about sprouting wings and flying away, high up over the school, and out into the city, to a place where I could control my own life. Because of my emotional problems, I was placed in the special needs class. I had no trouble with the academic material in my classes before, but I was labeled and shunted away because it was easier.
In my adult life, I have learned to keep my issues hidden and rarely offer any disclosure unless it’s specifically asked. I was taught that I should persevere and attempt to carry on as much as possible. I was told, over and over, “You control your mind, and your mind does not control you.”
As the years went on, I have learned to control my anxiety and obsessive impulses in ways I never thought possible. I make every effort not to give in, or have my over-anxious brain make decisions. Another mantra, hammered into my head was: “You can’t think about two things at once.” So, when I am idle and begin feeling anxious, I play a word game on my phone, or engage myself in some other physical or mental activity.
My strategies were once put to an impossible test. I was working as a nanny at the time, and a random panic struck me at work. The little girl’s mom wasn’t going to be home for hours and I didn’t know what to do. I desperately wanted to leave, to go home where it was safe, but that was impossible. I was terrified of going to pieces. I knew that couldn’t happen. The kid was my responsibility and she needed a competent adult.
I tried to do some deep breathing but being still was not working. I decided my first task was to find something to occupy the kid. I set up a little painting space on the floor and brought her paints, a jar of water, and a length of canvas. While she, happy and oblivious, painted away, I set about to cleaning the apartment until my panic subsided.
It worked. I was saved. That experience taught me, unequivocally, that I had final say in how I felt.
When I say I don’t want to talk about my mental illness, what I mean is that I don’t want it to be part of what defines my actions or my life. I don’t want to join a support group or discuss my most intimate fears with people. I don’t want it to be the reason I cancel plans with friends, or why I won’t go somewhere.
I’m often conflicted over whether or not talking about my issues gives them more power. In a lot of ways, I have not figured out how to talk about them constructively. When I bring the subject up to my partner, it is often to ask reassurance. I’ve internalized these things to such an extent that I have effectively blocked myself from working through my stuff via discussion. It’s more like a constant siege at the gates of my mind, but I feel in control.
The idea of talking to my friends about my mental illness makes me cringe. It’s hard for me to see the point in revealing that aspect of myself, even though they have often been very open with me.
As my friends entered the real world after graduation, in all its unpredictability, many of them experienced a spiral of anxiety they had no idea how to handle. Every time one of them expressed such things to me, I was flummoxed.
It’s not that I was unsupportive. I offered them what I had: my strategies, my mantras... but I also internally judged them for their "weak" minds and inability to deal with it. Rather than feeling like I had supportive people who had an idea of what I go through, I judged them the way I had been judged. I felt as though I had suffered in silence, and their attempt to communicate with me was somehow taboo.
I don’t like that part of myself, the part that feels she has some sort of monopoly on having anxiety and OCD, like I’m "better" at it. For me to participate in the stigma of mental illness is total hypocrisy.
It’s not like I have it all figured out. I’m very good at managing my issues but I have not made them go away, I have simply put certain mandates in place so they don’t consume my life. A typical action, like making a cup of tea, still sounds like this in my head: “Should I pick this tea bag? No, something bad will happen if I pick that one. No, it won’t, that tea bag is fine, put it in the cup.” The only difference is it doesn’t bother me as much. I follow through, I put the bag in the cup, and I move on with my day.
And I guess I am still conflicted, because even when I say I don't want to talk about my mental illness, I am doing it right now. Perhaps the key is that there are certain ways I don’t want to discuss my issues: I don’t want to commiserate, I don’t want to people to coddle me, feel pity, or change their behavior because they’re afraid of triggering me.
I did not grow up in a world that accommodated me; I have always viewed the world as something that must be accommodated. I learned early that few people are interested in making sure you have what you need.
In a lot of ways, I am writing this to test the waters. I want to see if I really feel this way, and if keeping my issues close to my heart is really the best way to live. I’ve never written about this before and it has felt freeing, in a way. Maybe one day I’ll want to talk about it more.