People throw around the term OCD a lot. They use it to describe the reason they are so tidy or why they need to have their DVD collection in order so it doesn’t look odd. OCD is often an off-handed comment people make for dramatic flair, so when my therapist told me I’d been suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder for the past 14 years, it didn’t seem right. I’m not all that tidy of a person. My desk, house, car, its all a mess. I don’t obsess over washing my hands or counting steps like Jack Nicholson did in As Good As It Gets, although I shouldn’t be surprised that Hollywood got it wrong, or that when someone says OCD, they mean something very different than the actual disorder.
And so I suppose this is why when I tried to explain the actual disorder to my wife, I struggled. I came at it with a bunch of false starts and a few ums. I told Mel how OCD has a lot to do with anxiety and control. I reminded her of my problems with sleep — how if I don’t get to bed at the right time, or if there’s too much going on, I get anxious.
If you think this doesn’t sound like much, you are right. It isn’t. It took me a long time to get to this point though. Fifteen years earlier, if I didn’t go to bed at the same time, get up at the same time, and do a very particular exercise routine that lasted four hours, I’d have a full-blown panic attack. I went almost three years never missing a day of my routine. I was miserable. I thought a lot about suicide.
I got fearful of Mel’s response, but she didn’t look at me like I was bonkers. Mel leaned back a bit. She crossed her legs, and she shrugged. But it wasn’t an “I don’t really care” shrug or an “I’m over this” shrug or “that’s your problem” shrug. It was more of a “we are in this together” shrug. It was a “this doesn’t change the way I feel about you” shrug. And although she didn’t really say anything, in so many ways it was exactly what I needed.
And as we finished up our discussion, I couldn’t help but think of all the ways Mel had supported me over the decade plus we’d been together. Now, keep in mind, I do a pretty good job of managing my anxiety. Most of the time, I’m just fine. But when I start to get anxious, when I need to shut my self off for a bit to keep myself from having a full blow attack, Mel gives me that time. She watches the kids while I step away. And most importantly, she doesn’t judge me. I cannot fully explain how valuable that is.
The thing is, mental illness isn’t something that goes away. It’s not something that you get over, or move on from, or you can take a pill and not have to worry about it anymore. It’s always with you. And while I’d been living with this disorder for the duration of our marriage, I often feel scared that Mel would leave me because this is something that has no clear end.
I don’t know how normal this feeling is. Perhaps a lot of people with mental illness have this same fear. The hardest part about all of it is that anxiety is so misunderstood and realizing that can make you feel isolated. I’d love to get to the point where people view mental illness like diabetes or some other long-term but physical illness. But that still isn’t the case. In so many ways it feels like the expectation is for you to just buck up and be happy — to not obsess but to move on and live a normal life because obviously all of it’s in your head, or just some pathetic cry for attention, or an excuse to mope.
Sometimes it feels like the world is against you when you have mental illness, and that’s why, when you finally find an ally, they become so valuable. To have someone in your life who tries to understand and who loves you despite your mental illness is so wonderful and so unique. In so many ways, the way my wife supports me, loves me, encourages me, builds me up, even when my anxiety is at 11 makes her the most wonderful and valuable person in my life. And it doesn’t only have to be your spouse. It could be a parent, sibling, co-worker, boss, friend, neighbor, child, boyfriend, girlfriend, really anyone who is there for you when you need them most.
So, if you love someone who suffers with anxiety, take a moment and realize just that you are a huge blessing in the person’s life. You are making a difference. And I know there are times that living with an anxiety suffer can be stressful, but please don’t give up on them. All of us suffering from mental illness need more people like you.