I was in my therapist’s office with the print outs of the poem I wrote as my suicide note and the online journals I had posted about my suicidal thoughts.
My therapist looked at me with concern etched into her features and stated how I was identifying as the OCD, as the depression, and as someone who was suicidal.
“It’s as though the OCD has become your identity, as though you are nothing more than a blob of suicidal ideation just passing through the halls. It’s as though you are a suicide waiting to happen.”
I blinked and thought, well of course, what else was I?
And the answer, of course, is a whole lot more.
Identity is a concept we all come to terms with through adolescence, our twenties and beyond. It can interrelate with our values, those items we hold close to our core self. Identity is described as the adjectives that make up who we are. They are not our roles per se, so not words like student, friend, or son. They are more like: creative, artistic, musically inclined, talented, rock climber, etc. What activities we enjoy to our favorite color to our preference over polka dots versus stripes all makes up our identity.
For anyone struggling with an illness, physical or mental, identity can play a vital role in how a person understands themselves and the perception of their world. Such illnesses can be viewed separately from the individual or as an integral part of one’s identity–it depends on whether the person feels empowered or trapped. I know of friends who have struggled with mental health issues during their teenage years, and as they grew older, weren’t sure who they were without their diagnosis. This type of identity crisis can be damaging.
That’s also the type of dysfunctional identity I struggled with in terms of the OCD. My symptoms began slowly and gradually from the time I entered college at nineteen. They peaked briefly in the fall of 2013, but for a year, I didn’t know that that experience had any deeper meaning attached to it. Having hit a wall that semester with crippling procrastination, I began 2014 as a new me: better, stronger, and capable of organizing all the things!
By fall 2014 the layout of the OCD was anxiety provoking: I’d have an intrusive or obsessive thought about killing myself, which would lead me to reassurance seeking online about the differences between suicide obsessions and genuine suicidal thoughts, which would make me feel better temporarily until the doubt inevitably came back and I’d have to repeat the process all over again. Either that, or sometimes I’d be so convinced I’d hurt myself that I’d have to pull over from driving home and call a suicide prevention hotline because I couldn’t be sure I’d keep myself safe (and at this point in time I was not a danger to myself). I slowly withdrew into my mind, preferring to hang out with the OCD because of its seemingly innocent and comforting presence. I lost interest in photography and my management of the Photography Club deeply suffered as a result from my lack of appearance.
I initially turned to self-harm for the first time in my life as a way of punishing myself for having the OCD. This got worse over the winter break. Myself and many others around me both thought the break would be good for me, no more deadlines and less stress, but it turned out that secondary depression had a whole other idea in store for me.
When the depression kicked in, I no longer had that anxiety loop on repeat. This sounds spectacular except I only ever felt apathetic, numb or severely sad. And because I no longer felt the anxiety at the thought of suicide, and I couldn’t feel much of anything at all, I found my risk barometer was broken. I could do anything! No longer was there anxiety about whether I’d be possibly injured or not. Instead, everything in life was game for me. This created the compulsion of acting on my thoughts of self-harm and suicide, where my brain would tell me that if I just did what the OCD said everything would be better.
By this point in time, I became a genuine danger to myself. The OCD gave me so many ideas of ways to hurt myself that instead of being afraid of them I felt excited. I felt powerful to be the person having the answers to whether or not I’d kill myself. I could control how much I told my treatment providers and that power felt very good. My mind glorified suicide to a degree of fantasy, leading me to become a suicidal blob guided by the taunts of the OCD that the only way I could prove I was serious about my thoughts were to act on them.
Luckily, this stark error in my thinking became clearer to me as I moved through treatment. With time, I began to understand that I didn’t need to prove anything, and no one certainly wanted me to kill myself. I began to understand when my experiences were serious and required immediate medical intervention. I cataloged dozens of positive, effective coping strategies as I moved through hospitalizations and medications began taking effect. I began having less crises and the reshaping of my identity opened up my world to the idea of recovery and forging meaning from my experience.
The world became brighter and returned gradually to its casual appearance. Over the course of many months, I stopped seeing the world as potential means to my death. Campus became just campus again. I can walk by train tracks, maybe with the intrusive image of jumping on them, but without the desire (most days) of all of me to act on that thought. I’m becoming safer and kinder to myself, reaching for pens to draw with rather than hurting myself.
It is still mind boggling that I’ve undergone such a transformation in my identity from where I had been in the first six months of 2015. The beginning excerpt of me in my therapist’s office occurred at the very start of June 2015.
It was the first time I was told I was identifying as the OCD that was plaguing my life. This new revelation continued to follow me into my third hospitalization.
There, in the black composition notebook they had given me, they instructed me to write the sentence I was so used to expressing: “My OCD.”
Next, they said, cross out “my.”
Now write “the.”
What a metamorphosis a word makes.
From that seedling of thought I went on a journey from identifying as my experiences to separating who I am (really and truly) from any diagnosis I may have.
When this new information about identity settled into me over the course of a couple of days, I was able to connect the experience to one in my adolescence of identifying as scoliosis. It became clearer then, that when I was diagnosed with the OCD that I took that diagnosis on as my identity, just as I had done with the scoliosis years prior.
Nowadays, my identity is shaping farther from the OCD. I remind myself that I’m a junior year psychology major. I’m in love with gazebos, the woods, nature of all kinds (I don’t enjoy all the bugs though). The bugs I do like include butterflies, dragonflies, lady bugs, Western conifer seed bugs and tan jumping spiders. I love concepts about time, pocket watches, clocks in general and eternity. Snow, raindrops, bokeh, and ice are life, by the way. My soul is the color of a sparkling rainbow with a bright white light that causes traffic accidents worldwide. I love creating such a variety of artwork that one day I’ll run out of fingers to count them all on!
I still acknowledge the OCD as a small part of myself, and I still have to watch out for my motivations about discussing it (because talking about it and expressing it through artwork I came to be told is a compulsion). I even struggled with writing this article, believe it or not! This final installment came around only by the fourth attempt. With more time I imagine the process will get easier. And now I’m finding that I can feel powerful by telling my story, which feels far better than before. After all, my life is too interesting of a story to end in the middle of it.
Mass Media Article #3. Written March 30, 31 and April 1.2016