By: Noureen Benhalim, Psychologist
The first time I hear the words Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I am twelve years old.
I’m too young to understand what anxiety is- but I’m old enough to comprehend the dilemma that’s about to unfold and define the next part of my life. I am too young to understand, but I understand what its like to touch anything and panic about diseases, to close my eyes and see vivid images of germs swimming through my skin, making their way into my heart, lungs, and stomach. I am too young to understand, but I understand not being able to tolerate the uncertainty.
You see, it’s never quiet when you’re anxious. The loud and intrusive thoughts just don’t stop. And even though there’s a big part of your brain that understands just how irrational you’re being, the other part of your brain convinces you that this time, something awful is going to happen.
But the truth was, my struggle did not come from scrubbing my palms profusely until they bled. It did not come from hiding my discolored hands, which elicited questions and revealed that something must have been terribly wrong.
The struggle was in the shame that was born out of years of hiding how much fear sometimes took over my life as a child. It was in trying to control everything happening around me, to clean up everything and fit it into a neat box, because like a lot of people, I truly believed that’s what life should look like on the outside.
The struggle was allowing myself to sink into a silent yet functional depression because I thought that nobody should see, nobody could understand, and no one could really help.
In many ways, I was able to cope with the OCD- to find a way to decrease the intrusive thoughts and cope with the symptoms. But while I had let go of most of my obsessions, my anxiety became more generalized and continuously presented itself in many other forms of doubt and fear.
I grew older and began to take comfort in shifting the focus away from myself and taking care of other people. I had always been drawn to other people’s stories and to shared human connection in general. Being a therapist means being given a unique window into the very personal and often incredibly fascinating corners of the human mind. So I decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling.
But in the years I spent studying, I struggled between being authentically myself, someone who was at times opinionated, a little anxious and fearful, and clinging to an image of vague perfectionism. On the one hand, I couldn’t let go of any control. I left no room for error. On the other; I just wanted to let my guard all the way down. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t.
In those years, I scared myself. I’d become skilled at hiding my true feelings. I’d become an expert at putting on my best face to meet the world.
I was tormented by the same unresolved questions. How could I have this knowledge, these tools, how could I be in graduate school studying to be a therapist- and still feel like I couldn’t beat this once and for all? How could I have helped other people- and failed to find answers for myself?
Then in one of my meetings with a professor, I confide in him.
He stops me. “You’re so focused on keeping it together all the time, fixing everything all the time. You’ve spent so much time being angry at yourself, and no time forgiving yourself for not feeling ok. You have all this compassion and empathy for other people, but you aren’t compassionate with yourself. When you need to support yourself- you become aggressive, critical, and very hard on yourself. I wonder what it would feel like to speak to everyone in the same critical voice you speak to yourself in?”
My heart sinks. He looks me straight in the eye, but I avoid meeting his gaze because I understand too well what he is trying to do. I feel the burn rise in my throat. I try to swallow but can’t. I cross my arms. The room feels like it’s getting smaller and smaller. I feel the pain sitting on my chest and making its way down my entire body until finally..
My face gives me away without my consent. I’ve known and trusted this person for several years, and yet, this is the first time I’ve allowed myself to cry in front of him. Actually, this is the first time I have cried in front of anyone in years. Shit. I think to myself-now he’s really seeing me. Quick. Damage Control. But a second later- I let the thought go completely. Because really, at this point, who cares? He’s said something that’s so accurate that it shakes my core. I finally look at him and and nod because I have no words. He hands me a tissue box and repeats, “It’s ok.”
And like any therapist knows, he’s said something that’s hit home for me. For what seems like hours, we sit in the loudest silence, and his words make their way into my heart.
I already had all the tools to fight my anxiety, but I hadn’t learned to accept it as a part of who I was. Like so many people, I had constantly judged every symptom, every relapse, and every setback as a failure on my part as a person. I had learned to push down the neurotic, anxious, and more sensitive part of me, instead of realizing that it was that very same part that made me all the more emotionally attuned to everything and everyone around me.
Suffering from any problem is hard enough, but choosing to suffer alone is experiencing a whole other level of pain. Here’s the thing: when you close yourself off from others, you protect yourself from feelings of shame. But by closing yourself off, you also fence yourself in. You are more isolated, more misunderstood than ever.
May happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s the reason I’m choosing to share this message. But the thing about mental health is- you can’t always see it, you can’t touch it, and so it often goes unnoticed. So it’s easier to stigmatize. But if we want to empower other people, advocate wellness, we have to be willing to speak up about the things that are below the surface.
Know this: There is absolutely no shame in seeking help.
Resilience happens when you chose to consciously accept and embrace the parts of yourself that you normally turn away from. It happens each time you recognize and learn to drown out the critical voice in your head. It happens when you realize that you must let go of some control and let life unfold as it should. When you accept the inevitability of failure but understand that you do have the capacity to pick yourself up and move forward. And finally, it happens when you are able to accept help. When you understand that we are not meant to do it all alone.
When you’re able to let someone, one person- all the way in.
Putting yourself first in order to be stronger, whole, and healthy so you can support and give back to the people in your life, that’s not being selfish. It’s called self-compassion.
Three years after that conversation, I graduated with my MA in counseling psychology.
Since then I’ve realized that when you work as a therapist, there is this unrealistic idea that you’re supposed to have all your own issues sorted simply because you have all the tools. As therapists, it is crucial to work on our own personal problems, to self-reflect, to go to supervision, therapy, and to keep our own issues in check so they don’t interfere with the well being of others. But to project an image of the therapist as all-knowing or one that has it all put together all the time is unrealistic. We are all human beings who are hardwired for struggle. And we are all trying our very best.
It’s been sixteen years since I first read the words obsessive-compulsive disorder, and this is the first time I’ve spoken out about it. In a lot of ways, I was still ashamed. Those who know me well know I’ve always been the person who clings to an image of “strong”, “put together”, “composed”. For a very long time, I was more comfortable hiding under that image because it felt safer, less exposed.
Over the past few years, I’ve been able to come to terms with my anxiety. Today I can finally talk about it without the same shame I felt growing up. There are times when I am still fearful, but I am no longer afraid of using my voice. I have a much clearer perspective and a better understanding of anxiety that allows me to maintain professional objectivity when working with clients who have anxiety disorders similar to my own. I try to use my knowledge when helping. But more importantly, I can understand, empathize, and connect with them. I hear fragments of my story embedded within theirs. I recognize the fear in the voice of someone who asked recently me, “Is there hope for me?” I am familiar with all these narratives of pain.
Too often we are told to keep quiet, to hide, to make ourselves smaller because the world feels threatened by the things it does not understand. Too often I hear stories of shame rather than stories of recovery, resilience, and celebration.
This is for those who feel like they have to keep it together all the time. For every single person whose been told time and time again that they can’t use their setbacks as stepping stones. For all the people who have to find excuses for all their symptoms, who spend hours ruminating, contemplating, wondering without any relief. For those who are stuck in their own minds, trying to get out, but feeling trapped.
For the people who deserve more open, honest, unapologetic conversation,
This is for you.