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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mental Illness Isn't Funny

Hollywood has made a lot of money portaying the quirky side of mental illness, making it funny.  In fact, What About Bob? is one of my favorite comedies.  Bob is silly and strange and quirky, which makes him kind of cute and cuddly.

But what you usually don't see is how difficult mental illness is to live with.  I've experienced it from both sides of the coin.

My husband has more than moderate OCD.  Sorry to keep using that descriptor (more than moderate), but it's tough to place it on a scale.  People with severe OCD usually can't function in society or hold down a job.  And he has not been 100% on those fronts; he has lost employment because of his obsessions.

But for the most part he seems pretty normal, maybe a little quirky.  Unless you live with him.

We see the side that has to throw his dinner away, his favorite dinner, because someone breathed on it.  We see the side that won't eat the birthday cake at a party because the child blowing out the candles didn't seem clean.  We see the side that scalded his hand, scoured away more than a single layer of skin, and wouldn't touch anything or anyone for days because he'd accidentally touched a dead mouse.  He wanted to cut his finger off.  He really did.  It took a lot to keep him from doing it, including a call to a therapist.  He wore a glove for a few days so that it wouldn't touch anything.  To this day he says it still feels dirty.  It happened a few years ago.

His OCD also led to something that I just learned about, although it happened many years ago.

I was in the kitchen rinsing dishes in the sink.  My daughter reached toward the water as if to rinse her hand.  I warned her that it was very hot water.  In fact, it was steaming.  She told me that she had a very high tolerance for hot water since her dad had taught her to wash her hands.

I don't know how old she was when it happened.  She was in the bathroom washing her hands.  He came by and checked the water.  It was warm.  He told her that she would never get her hands clean that way.  Then he turned the knob almost all the way to the hot side, grabbed her hands, and proceeded to help her wash them.  She told him it was too hot.  She told him it hurt.  He told her that's how she knew they were getting clean.  She laughed as she told me this story.  She'd spent years thinking that if her hands were bright red after washing them it meant they were clean.  I did not laugh when I heard this story.  I did not know that it had happened.  All those years I thought I was protecting my kids and he hurt them in ways I couldn't imagine.  It turns out she was not the only child whose hands had first degree burns after their dad helped them wash.  It makes me so sad to even type this. 

OCD is only funny when it's not part of your life.  It takes over.  It controls.

The way I understand it, from observation and converations with my husband, the anxiety is intense.  There is intense fear that may not make sense.  Imagine a fear you have, not something small but something you're really afraid of, something that makes your heart beat faster just thinking of it.  Now imagine purposely experiencing this thing over and over.  You are afraid of snakes so you stand in a snake pit.  Will it cure you?  Maybe.  Does knowing this make you want to climb into that pit?  Not likely.  It depends on how crippling this fear has been for you and what the payoff will be.

OCD is like that.  Refusing to act out the compulsion is like facing your greatest fear over and over again.  All day.  Every day.  The anxiety climbs and climbs.  The only thing that brings it down is acting on the compulsion.  But as soon as you do the obsessions start again and the desire begins again.  Acting on it feeds it, makes it stronger, gives it power.

That's what I've watched from the outside.

From the inside I've had different experiences.  I've struggled with depression, as I've discussed on my other blog.  I've struggled with PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder, severe PMS), also discussed on my other blog.

But the one that I haven't written about is the PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder.  The abuses that I've talked about so far each have their own PTSD.  I also have PTSD from things I will discuss in the future.

PTSD as I understand it and experience it is when something happens that reminds me in some way of a traumatic experience from my past.  It's as if I am living it all over again.  All the emotion comes flooding back, my body tenses, and usually I shut down and withdraw from life.  There is so much fear.  Sometimes I can work through this quickly, sometimes it takes several days or weeks.  Especially if it brings back one of those memories that has been hidden.

A certain smell and I am back at that place in the canyon.  A certain phrase and I am cowering from my dad.  A touch on the shoulder and I am  . . . sorry, I can't finish that one yet.

When my PTSD is triggered my anxiety climbs.  I am flooded with adrenaline and fear.  I have an intense desire to run and hide.  It's not unusual for me to pace or rock.  It feels like all my nerves are on fire.  If someone touches me, even lightly, I am in physical pain.  I am in such a severe state of aggitation that it's tough for me to function at all.  I can't feed my family.  I can't go to my appointment.  And I can't explain it.

All I can do is stay in my room in my bed, hoping to be alone.  If someone comes into my room I may yell at them or snap at them that they need to stay at the threshold.  If they cross the threshold I am likely to back into my headboard like an animal trying to skitter away.  I beg and plead that they back off.

My family has learned to work around this.  My children don't get it.  They know I'm having a tough time and need to be alone and they try to respect that.  It has taken a long time but my husband has learned to recognize it sometimes.  Unless things are really bad he is very respectful of my need to be left alone.  He doesn't understand it.  Unless you feel it there's only so much you can understand.  But he tries and that means a lot.

Enough for now.  My anxiety is high just from writing this.  It's going to take me a while to calm down and feel safe enough to sleep.  But it needed to be written.


Bonnie said...

No. It isn't funny. And no, we aren't reading with morbid fascination either. You are safe. Articulate, process, and release. I believe in your ability to digest all of this.

Survivor said...


DarthBillgr said...

To all the people who might be reading this and thinking you can never recover from O.C.D. Let me just say that you can. With help from a good O.C.D. specialist, you can over come it. Will it be gone entirely? Nope. It will be a life long struggle but if you put in the extreme effort and face your fears, it can be controlled and you can be Master of your O.C.D. instead of it Mastering you. I know, easy for me to say but I know what I've been through and it isn't easy but it is doable even though you don't think it is.

The Bipolar Diva said...

I am so, so sorry that is something that you have to deal with. Writing and getting it out is such an incredible release.

HaveFaith said...

I can relate to the strong need, desire to be alone at times and when it comes on, give that gift to yourself. It helps me to function to be a better me, to be a better mom and wife.