[Please note: If you struggle from Depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the following post may be triggering. Please only read further knowing that sensitive subjects will be discussed.]
I was a first year student in a College of Veterinary Medicine, I had just finished my first quarter and was getting ready for winter break. As a vet student you spend hours in an anatomy lab, learning every nerve, bone divot, muscle, and you come into contact with a chemical called Formalin. Formalin is a solution of Formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic; of course we use proper protective equipment, and the school would never put its students in danger, so this just became a normal aspect of my life. But as I was packing up my shoes for my trip back home, this tiny little thought snuck into my mind. I had worn these shoes in the lab, and like most people, I didn’t make it a habit to regularly clean my shoes. But I was heading home, and I would be walking into someone else’s house, and I would be hugging my family, including my cousin who had just gone into cancer remission. And this little thought came from a voice I didn’t fully recognize, and it said that I needed to be really careful. It said that if I wasn’t careful, I would get her sick, I would get someone sick.
I tried to push the thought out of my mind, and for the most part I was successful. I went back home and enjoyed Christmas with my family. But that little thought was still there in the back of my mind. I told myself that holidays are hard, that I’m exhausted from school, that this was just residual misplaced guilt from the loss of my mom, and the fear that I would feel that loss again. But then winter break was over, and I had to step back into that lab again.
This time when I went in, I double gloved. When I left, I washed my hands like I normally did, like everyone else did. But this time, when I grabbed my lunch, I was overly aware that I was touching the food, overly aware that while I could wash my hands, I couldn’t wash my clothes. I was overly aware that the shoes I wore in lab had slightly bumped my backpack under my desk where I always kept it on the floor, just like every other student in the room. The next day, I washed my hands twice. The next day, I made sure not to touch my food. The next day I took my shoes off at my front door instead of walking through the house. This new voice in my head kept getting louder and more demanding until I couldn’t eat at school. Until I couldn’t do anything at home until I had extensively showered. Until simple tasks like getting to bed, making food, doing laundry all became too much. Until I felt that no amount of care could keep me or my loved ones safe, until I felt like I would just keep failing. So I stopped trying. Eating was too hard, so I didn’t try. Sleeping was too hard, so I didn’t try. My world was closing in around me, making me feel claustrophobic and afraid to move. I focused on school because I could do that. I avoided going home, practically living in the school library. I studied, I ate when I could, mostly from the vending machine and with a painstakingly complex process from getting the food, to washing, to somehow eating the food without becoming “re-contaminated”.
I was surviving, but that was about it. And I still remember the first time I felt the urge to give up. I was standing in the shower, feeling like no amount of washing could make me safe. I was exhausted, and terrified, and I thought that I was literally going crazy. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, based on my limited understanding of it from the media, could not have explained the way my mind had turned on me. All I knew was that my mind didn’t function the way it used to; every movement I made felt like a life or death situation. All I knew was that there was a new voice in my head that was always scared, and that was becoming increasingly louder than my own. I thought I must be going insane. And I wanted to give up. I wanted to just curl up in that shower and slip away into nothingness. Because whatever this was, it was too hard, and it was too scary, and I was too tired.
It became harder and harder to hide the symptoms from my friends at school. Harder to hide the fact that I never ate or slept. My hands were starting to crack from all the washing, and it was getting harder to hide the fact that I kept going to the bathroom to wash them. The little lies I kept making up kept falling short. But I had no explanation to give them. I was sure if I said anything, I would be locked up, labeled crazy. All of my energy went into just passing my classes. I kept telling myself that I just had to make it through this quarter, just make it through and then I could breathe. So I continued to study and go to class, barely eating, barely sleeping. I lost 20 pounds and my features became so drained by this heavy depression that I didn’t even recognize myself.
Finally I googled some of my symptoms, some of the thoughts that had invaded my mind. All the results that came up referenced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My initial instinct was that this couldn’t be it, I was nothing like Monk from the television show, and my house had never been messier, as piles of things too scary to deal with began to take over my floors. But then I found a list of all the different compulsions and obsessions that can manifest for someone with OCD, and I realized that this illness was much more than liking things neat and organized. I sent the link to my sister and said “I think I have OCD”. She read the website and messaged back simply, “I think you do too.”
Second quarter finals were quickly approaching and I made an appointment with a school counselor. It became clear that it was no longer a choice between wanting to be in vet school or not, but instead a choice between wanting to be in vet school, or wanting to be alive. A choice between life or death. Because it was now clear that I was in crisis. I wasn’t sure I would survive another day; those thoughts of giving up became almost constant and much much louder. Everything would be so much easier if I just gave up, everything would be still and quiet if I just gave up.
In the middle of studying for finals, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was time for my family to intervene. I passed my first final of the second quarter, and then I had nothing left to give. I didn’t have it in me to take another step, to open another book. I was done.
It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. This had been my lifelong goal, yet somehow I was contemplating giving it up. Somehow I found it in me to choose myself over this dream I had. I left school, went back home, and then the real battle began.
Since then my life has changed drastically. I miss school, I miss studying, I miss the feeling of working towards something, feeling accomplished, and I do miss my dream. But that decision to leave saved my life so I cannot regret it. I fought like hell against that OCD and I conquered it. They told me that OCD is never truly gone, and the fear can change and adapt, that it would come and go throughout my life. But I was convinced I would be the exception, I was convinced I had beat it once and for all. I was wrong of course; it came back, this time a new fear, this time a new contaminant, and this time it felt a whole lot stronger than me. I’m still in the middle of that fight over two years later, but this time I at least know what it is I am fighting.