I don’t know who I am anymore. I think I haven’t known in a long time, I just didn’t want to admit it. I’m not a student anymore. I’m at a point in my life in which I take more than I can give, so I’m not a sister anymore and I’m not a partner. I have a mom, but I’m not a daughter anymore. Everything that used to define me has changed. When I see my reflection I don’t really see it, I don’t really look. But when I do, I don’t see someone I recognize. When I see the way they look at me, I don’t see me. Depression wore away at me until I felt empty and then OCD filled me up, only leaving space for me in the deepest recesses of my mind. I need to claw my way out, I need to fight. So I’m going to fight until I recognize that person staring back at me. Who am I now?
“I cannot imagine ever feeling safer anywhere else.”
It’s amazing how a smell, a sound or a little taste can conjure up vivid memories, sometimes ones you didn’t even know were still there, waiting just behind the veil of your mind. If I close my eyes right now the wonderful smell coming from my kitchen and the Bob Dylan coming from my headphones can transport me back to a little kitchen in Eastern Washington. I realized today that I haven’t thought about that kitchen in a really long time, yet somehow right now I can remember almost every little detail of it. No, I haven’t thought about that room in a long time. But last week I found a copy of my mom’s handwritten recipe for nuts and bolts. So today I poured all of the cereal and pretzels into all the big glass bowls I could find; and I remembered the gigantic metal bowl my mom would have me pour the cereal into while I stood on a kitchen chair. A bowl that magically fit every bag of cereal in it all at once. And then I started melting the butter in the microwave and I remembered my mom standing at the stove and stirring the butter and spices in a pot, mixing that heavenly smell as I sat next to her fighting our cat for the flower-cushioned chair. But it wasn’t until I started pouring the buttery sauce over the top of the cereal that I was completely transported back into the warm kitchen. My mom would pour the warm mixture scoop by scoop into the huge bowl while my sister and I would dig our little hands into the soon soggy bowl of cereal, pretzels and nuts, making sure that butter covered every last piece and sometimes sneaking a perfectly soaked chex. And then came the baking, when the smell would fill the entire house. That smell meant the holidays were near, that it was cold and sparkling outside but so warm and safe in that house. I can still picture the small flowers on the wallpaper in that kitchen, the light blue cupboards, the dark brown carpet that my mom always wanted to get rid of. I know that if I had bent down and peaked under the table that I would find crayon doodles on the hidden part of the wallpaper, that I am sure seemed like masterpieces to the little minds that had created them at the time. It was a small kitchen, definitely not fancy, and to many people’s standards it was probably quite ugly. But I cannot imagine ever feeling safer anywhere else than I did in the little square kitchen in the little old house on the corner of two little streets in a little town, with my little perfect family of three. As I started mixing the sauce into the cereal with a big rubber spatula instead of my hands I started to cry a little. But even as my chest ached, I felt a little happier, and a little more peaceful as I was transported back to that kitchen with the one person who could ever make me feel unconditionally safe and secure. I’m sad to know that just like in this moment, for the rest of my life I am going to realize more and more things that we will miss out on now that you’re gone, things I hadn’t thought of before. That little girl took for granted those moments with you, in that ugly kitchen making nuts and bolts. She enjoyed those moments, and looked forward to them every year even as she got older. But she didn’t think they would end, she didn’t know that you wouldn’t be pouring the buttery goodness into a bowl for your grandchildren one day, as they plunged their little hands into that same big bowl. My heart aches for these lost moments. But it’s nice to know that while I try to recreate them for myself and for my family one day, that I will remember that kitchen as if I were there yesterday. It’s comforting to know that in those moments I will feel you so close, so close that I can almost imagine you reaching out and touching my hand to help me stir. And from now on, though not quite the way we imagined, we will once again make nuts and bolts together every year. I love you, I miss you.
Where do we go when we’re done?
Do we know it’s over?
They say we live on
Never truly gone
Maybe I was gone long ago
That life ended but we weren’t ready
They say we live on
Never truly here
We weren’t ready to let go of that story
My life goes on in their words
They keep narrating unwilling to let go
Pulling me in two directions
Until I’m not here nor there
Never truly gone
But never really here
We can’t be whole if we don’t let go
My mind is tired from existing in two worlds
We can’t live spread so thin
Maybe I was gone long ago
Where do we go when we’re gone?
On to the next life
Time to move on
Time to say goodbye
I has her and she was me
But we parted ways and now I’m new
Where do we go when our story ends?
We have to start anew
They say we live on
Never truly gone
I feel like I’ve been hit by a semi truck and I didn’t see it coming, I couldn’t see it coming. Now I’m left trying to pick up all my broken pieces, but I can’t. I can’t put myself back together because I can’t move. I can’t move because I’m too afraid of all the other things that could come out of nowhere and hit me. All the things that could once again send my life crashing down around me. I can’t move because I got hurt too badly and I’m too afraid of getting hurt again. So I just stay in one place so that I can’t get hit. My life was on a path, one that I had thought out, that I wanted, that I worked so hard to get, one I had overcome impossible hurdles to reach. I thought I had seen the worst, I didn’t think anything else could break me. But then something came out of nowhere and it did break me. I can’t move. I can’t put my life back together, the pieces are scattered too far and shattered too small. I just need some time, I just need a chance to find all the missing pieces. I want a chance to mourn my losses, I haven’t been able to stop fighting long enough in the past 8 years to be able to mourn, to just be sad because sad things have happened. Instead I fought to appear happy, I fought to do well in school, that worked for a while, but then I got tired, so I fought to not let myself get more tired, I focused all my energy on one thing, getting to grad school, and then came the fight of my life; I’ve been fighting to save my life. By the time I was ready to step out of denial for one loss and start to mourn, it was too late, I was in the middle of another battle, another loss. I just need a chance to take a breath, to catch up. I need a chance to glue myself back together.
“I have an angel on the other shoulder, and she’s me, doing the best she can to be heard.”
I have an angel sitting on one shoulder. She has dull brown hair, blue eyes and glasses, and she’s not very tall. She’s barely visible, struggling to be seen, and when she talks her voice is soft, uncertain, she fights to be heard. She’s nothing magnificent but at least she’s there. Her look-alike is on my other shoulder. She’s bolder, her color brighter and her voice much louder. She easily overshadows the other, and often drowns out my own thoughts. She’s proud and always right. This is the one that tells me what to do, what to be afraid of. I have allowed myself to become controlled by her and by her fear. She interrupts my conversations to point out all the things I did wrong, all the possible things that could go badly. She’s the one that tells me not to touch something, or that I need to wash my hands, I need to wash them better, longer, more soap, again, missed a spot… She’s the one that feeds the spot in my brain that thrives off of doubt and what-if’s. The angel tries to tell me to stop. I can often see her trying to scream at me to stop washing, to stop avoiding, to stop listening to the lies. I see her mouth yelling, but I never hear her because the other one is drowning her out with a list of all the bad things that could happen if I do stop. All the bad things that would be my fault. And every time I listen to her instead of my angel, she gets stronger, a little taller, a little louder. While my angel disappears just a little more. Until she’s just a barely visible ghost of my old consciousness. Lately my angel has looked more tired than usual, a little less hopeful, and has started to give up on the possibility of ever being heard. But she’s still there. She never leaves no matter how much the other bullies her. Every once in a while her voice does get through. When it does, the other gets angrier and meaner and much louder. But if you look closely, that anger and loudness is just a cover up, it’s just a distraction in the hopes that the angel and I won’t notice that she got a little bit smaller while my angel got a little taller. But we do notice. And that’s why we won’t give up, because we know that we can shrink that fear and doubt back down to the size it’s meant to be. I have a devil on one shoulder, she’s my OCD doing the best it can to imitate me. But I have an angel on the other shoulder, and she’s me, doing the best she can to be heard.
It’s Christmas time again. It’s magical how everything changes this time of year; the day after Thanksgiving everything suddenly becomes cozy and beautiful. The streets you’ve been driving every day now look different. The houses you pass by every day, the ones that never looked like anything special amid all of the look-alike houses jammed together in this crowded world, those houses are now covered in cheery lights, they look cozy and now instead of just another building, they look like a home. You can imagine a family there. They’re full of warmth and anticipation for the holiday. The stores have a new energy, and the people have a different gleam in their eyes like they’re seeing the world as they did when they were children with less worries and more hope.
I love the lights, I love the energy. I know I should be happy when the trees and decorations go up. But I’m not. Instead my loneliness wraps tighter around me. The colored lights that aren’t the ones I used to have and the sparkling ornaments that aren’t mine, the stocking that doesn’t have my name on it anymore, they remind me of what I used to have. I miss you more this time of year, I miss home. Holidays don’t mean what they used to. They don’t fill me with anticipation. This will be my ninth Christmas without you, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Instead of spending the day at my cozy house on the corner, with the chipped paint and the ugly shag carpet, with my small but perfect family, I spend the day in a house I desperately try to make my home but can’t. And this year will be my second Christmas with my unwelcome guest, OCD, contaminating the last few pieces of joy I’ve been grasping onto.
Despite all of that, I am happy to know that I had those Christmases. When I was too excited to sleep, when I waited impatiently as the adults insisted on eating breakfast and drinking coffee before opening presents. The years when my sister and I would be the elves and pass out the gifts, and the magic lasted all day. Those memories are the only thing that OCD can’t take away from me this Christmas. Thank you for giving me those Christmases, thank you for filling them with warmth and magic. I wish we could have had more, and I wish you could see me create them for my own family some day.
“Maybe one day I’ll be happy and warm and safe.”
As I write this the ground outside is being covered in a sparkly dusting of snow, the fire is burning and the tree is surrounded by presents. Yet I’m not happy, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. But that’s ok, because I had those perfect Christmases, it’s ok because I was happy. And it’s ok because one day I’ll have that Christmas again. But right now I just miss you. I always will, but one day maybe that sadness will be more bittersweet. Maybe I’ll feel it, and it won’t be so crippling. Maybe I’ll think of you and I’ll smile, because I miss you, but I’m happy. Maybe one day I’ll be happy and warm and safe.
I’ve been saying it a lot lately. I hope you know that I mean it, that I feel it with my whole body. I am so sorry it hurts, the guilt sits heavy on my chest. I wish I could put into words how deeply I feel it. I cry because I’m scared, and I cry because I see what this is doing to you. I’m so sorry that I’ve let you down. I’m sorry that I’ve let it take me away from you. I hope that you can wait for me. I hope that you can see a glimmer of me buried underneath this fear and that it gives you hope for our future. I hope that it will be enough. And I hope you know that I’m angry for you. I’m angry for me and for you, so I am fighting. I’m fighting to remember to smile and to laugh. I’m fighting to be visible behind this fear that has become me. I’m fighting for us as best as I can. I may not be winning right now, but I’m still here, I promise I’ll win.
Mental illness isn’t just isolating to those of us suffering from it. The people that love us have to watch as we slowly disappear behind the depression, the anxiety, the fear and the anger, the whole while feeling helpless, not knowing how to fix the unfixable.
So I know you’re fighting too, and I know you’re tired too. And I hope you know that I am so desperately sorry for both of us. Please wait for me.
“OCD is a maniacally-laughing, uncontrollably disastrous imp bursting out of me.”
I have morphed into a black hole in the middle of the lives of those I love most, leaving a path of destruction and loss behind me. OCD is this maniacally-laughing, uncontrollably disastrous imp that bursts out of me and takes pleasure in knocking things over, pushing me down and controlling the people around me. OCD has lied and terrified me until there’s nothing left of me to give. It has taken away my sense of self, my sense of home, even taken away my belongings. It has told me to pack up my favorite copy of Wuthering Heights because it’s safer not to touch it. It has told me time and again that I can’t use those shoes, or those shoes, or those shoes… I don’t have things anymore. I don’t have place anymore. And it doesn’t just take from me. OCD took piece after piece of her house until she didn’t feel at home in it anymore. Until she could feel my OCD watching every move she made. Now it’s taking over our home, it took his favorite pair of shoes, and just last week it took his snacks for game night. It takes and takes and takes, and as it takes it just gets bigger. Until finally it takes me. It takes me away from them. OCD takes control of my mind and my body. It takes my sight and my sense of space. It can tell me I’ve touched something that I’m feet away from. It takes my reality. But worse of all it takes my connection to others. It took her sister. It took his girlfriend. It’s a black hole.
Even the areas that seem to have remained untouched by my mind are really scattered with OCD landmines. I can’t just walk down the hall, I have to dodge here, weave there, and turn sideways and scoot through a space that could truthfully fit two of me side by side, but somehow the walls have closed in so that now I can’t seem to fit. He looks at the house and sees a house. He has to get to the bedroom so he walks to the bedroom. I have to go to the bedroom so first I sit there and muster up the willpower just to get up out of my safe spot. I look at the path and I see the “narrow” space between the boots I can’t touch and the chair I can’t touch, and I see all the other previously harmless objects that OCD has taken from me. I see all the opportunities for OCD to take my reality and turn a simple walk to the bedroom into a draining trek that will usually end in frustrated tears and excess washing.
And after all of it’s taking, OCD continues to convince me that it’s me doing the taking. It’s me that’s slowly chipping away at their lives. All I do is take.
Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve come back from far far away. I can’t explain the feeling, but it feels like my mom is close to me; not how he is close to me lying next to me in the bed. I can’t reach out and touch her. But it’s a familiar feeling; like the whisper of something I used to know. In these rare moments I feel that if I just tried hard enough I could go back in time and fix everything. I could be home again if I just try hard enough. The feeling is so strong that I can feel it. It pulls on me. And maybe that’s what she is trying to tell me. Just not in the way I’ve been imagining it. Maybe she’s telling me that I am home; if I just try hard enough to let myself be home. And in my case, trying hard means I need to stop trying so hard, I need to just let myself be here.