It's time the world was more open about mental illness, don't you think? It's time we stopped letting others define us by popular fictional caricatures or publicly ill criminals. It's time we spoke up for ourselves and told the world who we really are.
I am not TV's Monk, and I am not Howie Mandel. I am not a terrorist or serial killer.
I'm Melissa, a mother, an author, a wife, a business owner, and a person who lives with–not suffers from–Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Did the title of this blog post confuse you? Did you wonder how living with a mental illness could be not just bad and ugly, but also good? Then hopefully sharing my story will help you see mental illness in a whole new way. Let's get to it.
Most people think of Monk or Jack Nicholson's character from As Good As It Gets. They think that people with OCD can't stop washing their hands or flipping a light switch. But that's not how I am at all. My OCD lives and dies with the O. O for obsessive, O for organized, O for odd, overwhelming, obdurate, omnipresent.
I can't function in the morning until I have less than ten emails in my inbox, preferably 5–but never less than that. I can't work if an item is out of place on my desk or not aligned appropriately. I keep 7 to do lists, all vital to my survival. I need schedules and order. I need control.
I live in a constant state of anxiety, but I've also learned to harness it for good (more on that later). When I find myself overwhelmed, I freeze like a deer in headlights in the middle of a busy expressway. I fixate on my goals and fears, live in a perpetual state of what-if and know exactly how every possible scenario could play out. OCD is no small part of my life, that's for sure.
I've lived with anxiety pretty much forever and some of the traits of OCD have always been there, but I wasn't formally diagnosed nor did I develop full-blown OCD until 2013 when I became pregnant. Post-partum depression gets all the buzz, but a lot of women actually develop mental health issues during pregnancy. I did. Your hormones get wacky, your body chemistry changes, and you have lots of major changes to anticipate with a baby on the way.
That's where I got stuck: the anticipating. I anticipated everything. Including my own death. I became obsessed with all that could go wrong with the pregnancy and with having an infant in the house. Suddenly everything was a danger to both of us. I spent hours each day glued to my iPad reading medical articles. I made my husband move furniture back and forth, back and forth, until it was just right.
I got stuck in a big way.
And my mental health wasn't the only thing to go downhill. I did get sick. I did develop a number of complications. I did almost die. (If you want to read more about that and how I dealt with it, check out Diving for Pearls, which was inspired by all of this).
And once I gave birth to my gorgeous, little girl, things didn't get better. They didn't get worse either. OCD had come to stay. It took me another year and a half to agree to medication. Because, as you'll see, I was worried about losing the good.
Most of the time, I like my OCD. I also tell pretty much everyone I meet about it, because I think it makes understanding my quirks much easier. The best part of my OCD is that I owe so much of my success in business to it. I can juggle enormous amounts of work with ease, thanks to my manic organization skills. I can anticipate and prepare for big shifts in the industry and jump on new tactics immediately, thanks to my constant planning and intense urge to know as much as possible about literally everything. I work extremely well under pressure, because I'm used to living in a constant state of anxiety and I know how to turn that anxiety into energy. I make decisions that are both informed and fast, which means I rarely miss out on a good opportunity and a very large majority of the time I make the right decision. Those times I don't, I'm able to analyze every misstep and file that knowledge away to help me improve my decision-making process in the future. My OCD brain is kind of like a computer, and luckily I love computers.
As stated above, I live in a constant state of anxiety. I don't really know how to relax. I don't know how to put work aside and go on vacation (and even when I agree to take a vacation, I work through it anyway). I don't know how to casually choose between A and B. I only know how to go into heavy computation and manic research mode. I only know how to treat decisions with extreme gravity, because everything is life or death, black or white, riches or rags. Everything.
My need to understand everything makes dealing with other people hard, because sometimes they don't act logically which kind of shatters my world. Sometimes I can't tell what they're actually thinking and assume to know it, then I get paranoid and think everyone hates me or thinks X when really they've never thought X a day in their lives. I do much better on my own or with safe people whom I can understand easily, like my husband or my mom.
As long as I'm driving, it's a good journey, but I honestly cannot surrender control and sometimes it's a pretty major problem. If I'm not in charge of something that affects me, I will spend hours worrying about it and thinking about what I would do were I actually in control, then I will panic because I can't take action despite having thought out a plan. Then I will try to find a way to take over anyway, then I may alienate people or create more work for everyone. Then I'll break down crying or be unable to sleep or be unable to leave bed or something like that.
Because when I become unhinged, I trigger a beautiful, little depressive episode. It's what happens when my anxiety well fills up, it creates a depression flood and then nothing is right but also nothing matters anymore. My OCD makes everything matter too much, but my depression goes the other way and it makes all things inconsequential. This happens 4-6 times per year, and I usually need a couple days to recover, but then my well is empty and I can start again, managing the good and the bad while waiting for the ugly to resurface.
For me, the good outweighs the bad and even the ugly. I'm proud of my quirks and I love my organizational strategies, my efficiency tools, my elegant, streamlined processes–none of which I'd have without my OCD.
And all the time people tell me how much they admire what I've accomplished, that they can't figure out how I get so much done, that they love whatever little strategy or tool I casually shared on social media and are now using it themselves. This all made me think, what if I could share the good with others while sparing them the bad and ugly?
Thus my new blog series, the OCDiva, came to life. At least once per week, I'll be sharing my favorite tips and tricks in an actionable advice column. And I'll tell you exactly what I do, which will of course be a little–maybe even a lot–over the top. But the beauty of you NOT having OCD is that you can pick and choose which strategies you want to implement without feeling compelled to tackle them all.
So tomorrow when I share my advice about my 7 to do lists, you may choose 1 or 2 that you love and want to put into action for yourself. Then you'll be more productive and organized, and still not crazy, and I'll have done a little more to help the world understand that I'm not Monk. I'm just Melissa.
P.S. Just in case it's not insanely obvious, I'm very open about my OCD so feel free to ask questions.