Your heart races. You’re shaking and sweating, but you’re freezing cold. You can’t breathe and your palms are sweaty. And you can’t figure out why. But it doesn’t matter why, because you are 100% sure you are about to die.
Welcome to a panic attack.
It’s simply normal human emotions to sometimes feel anxious, to feel sad, or even to feel panicked. We’ve all experienced that. But generally, there’s a cause. These things become mental illnesses when they dominate your life and seem to occur at random. While I have dealt with general anxiety, depression, and panic attacks for a good portion of my adult life, my mind has always, since childhood, been controlled by a mental illness that is far worse for me: obsessive compulsive disorder.
Imagine you have a song in your head. You don’t even like it, you only remember half the words or a single chorus, and no matter what you do--listening to another song, listening to the offending song, trying mind tricks to distract your thoughts--it won’t go away. Again, this is pretty typical. There’s even a rather disgusting word to describe the phenomenon: earworm. But that’s not OCD. OCD is when you have a metaphorical earworm, drilled into your brain, inescapable, and the only way to get rid of it is to, say, knock seven times on a table. Or put a row of books in order. Or scrub a countertop for the eighth time that day. And if you don’t? Someone you love will die. Or your pet will get sick. Or your house will burn down. And here’s the clincher: ignoring the thoughts or compulsions is not only mentally torturous, but can be literally physically painful. That is the wonderful world of OCD. Intrusive thought leads to nonsensical behavior because the consequences are too dire to imagine...even though the consequences are completely imagined.
I have my own special brand of OCD--everyone with it does. For me, it’s things needing to be in certain orders, things needing to happen in a specific way or I have to restart, weird physical tics that help to fulfill the compulsion when the other tasks are not possible (if you ever see me shaking my hand at my side, it’s actually a complex series of finger motions that I need to do to keep my brain from exploding). You’ll notice I didn’t mention flipping light switches, or tapping a certain number, or only being able to eat grapes in multiples of seven. That’s because I’m not a movie character. This is not to say that some people don’t experience “movie OCD,” just that it is far more nuanced a disease than stage and screen would have you believe. I know someone who has no compulsions, simply obsessive thoughts that hint at dire consequences. I know someone who has only compulsions and, for the longest time, thought she had Tourette syndrome instead. And me? I do my things and they’re specific to my form of OCD.
But I also need to mention two amazing friends I’ve made along the way: One of them is CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. And the other is my friend, Lexi (full name: Lexapro). CBT helped me to get control of my compulsions through a series of incredibly stressful, but ultimately worthwhile, delay exercises. I have actually completely dominated two of my trickier OCD tics to the point where I don’t do them anymore at all (there are several others left to kill, but two of them are long since buried and their graves overgrown). And Lexi? She’s my ride-or-die. I tried many many other medications with unbelievable side effects (that’s a whole other story), but when Lexi entered my life? I knew we’d be BFFs. She helps with the anxiety, the panic attacks, and even does a number on the OCD. I still deal with depression pretty often, but in the long run, I’d rather fight one battle myself while my teammates knock out the other opponents than take on an entire crew of brain ninjas by myself.
We all have our battles. Some are physical, some are mental, some are emotional, but the important part is to get yourself a team that can help you carry the load. There is no shame in therapy. There is no shame in medication. There is no shame in being mentally ill. There is merely a stigma, and it’s well past time to bury that with my dead compulsions, relegated to the far corner of a graveyard never to be visited or tended again.