Content Warning: Self-harm
This letter is written in the spirit of full transparency. As a young adult who has found a way to navigate the throes of my own mental illness, I want to share the unadulterated, messy truth of what it means to be “recovered.”
I can’t remember life without anxiety. From my earliest memories, I remember feeling as though I would be forgotten, unloved, or—perhaps worst of all—a disappointment to my family. Like many of you, my “normal” mental state was anything but. I found temporary comfort in an ever-lengthening list of obsessive compulsions (which had also existed pretty much as long as I can remember).
But high school was different. There were no excuses anymore, no safety nets. My therapy for anxiety and OCD no longer felt effective. The number of compulsions I had to perform within a day, an hour, a minute, became so immense, it was suffocating. When I look back at my freshman year of high school, there’s no first kisses, awkward parties, or embarrassingly short mini-skirts. There are only hours upon hours of soul-crushing studying, scores of hastily covered bruises I used to “recompense,” and a world so difficult to live in that I wished I could disappear from it altogether.
That Mother’s Day, I reacted so poorly to mis-graphing a parabola that I had to be restrained by my parents. Within two weeks, I was placed in an outpatient mental health facility for children with OCD. After three months of exposure therapy, the world seemed to open up to me in a way it never had before. I honestly felt reborn; for the first time in as long as I could remember, I could smile, listen to music, and see friends without feeling a crushing sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing anything productive. I was even more productive: I volunteered at a Teen Crisis Hotline counseling my peers, earned a 4.0 GPA, and managed to balance a bunch of fun, interesting extracurriculars.
And that’s where the story usually ends. Uplifting, inspiring, and perfect for college applications. I was successfully discharged, compulsion-free, and–for all intents and purposes–“cured.” And yes, my quality of life is far better than it used to be. That doesn’t mean my anxiety is gone.
I wish I could say I don’t still have panic attacks when a test goes wrong. That I don’t seek validation from family, teachers, boyfriends. That the urge to “recompense” for a mistake doesn’t occasionally become so overwhelming that I give in to the toxic thoughts that still linger in the corners of my psyche.
So for anyone at a different step in their journey than me, I want you to know this: your struggle will never totally end. You will always need to fight your demons, even if you’re declared “recovered” or “asymptomatic.” But you are still here precisely because you are a fighter. The skills you have or will develop to keep the darkness at bay will help you in every facet of your life. If you can get through this, you can get through anything.
There will never be a more powerful force in your life than your own mind. So take care of it, nurture the beauty in it, and drive away anything else. If you can learn how to do that, you’ve already won.
I know you’ve suffered, and you’ll feel that pain again. But pain cannot last forever, and you are built of stronger stuff than the dark thoughts that plague you. You will outlast them, and with those skills, you’ll outlast every obstacle in your path.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder