Coming to Terms With Mental Illness

How to live with a hurt so big it swallowed four-fifths of your life

Posted Jun 20, 2013

I was born in 2007, at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.  And it’s the darndest thing -- I was 20 years old when it happened. 

See, for some reason, I have twenty years worth of terrible memories from the years leading up to that, memories of life as an entirely different person: a young boy whose life was dominated by a terrible mental illness, who was convinced everyone he met despised him, who was haunted by obscene and apocalyptic images he couldn’t escape.  Who was this kid?  Are these memories from a past life spent in karmic suffering?  Prenatal dreams from history’s longest and most traumatic pregnancy?

I’m talking nonsense, but honestly, there are moments when it feels like I was a different person before my OCD diagnosis and treatment in 2007.  As a child and teenager, the OCD permeated every aspect of my life: every birthday and Christmas and graduation, every conversation, every kiss and argument and laugh.  Every decision I made, every thought that passed through my head, was tainted by it.  I can’t remember a period of time longer than a week when OCD did not find some way to hurt me.

And, even today, visiting my parent’s home, returning to the places where I spent my childhood, can sometimes be especially hard.  My years with OCD haunt me.  I’ll visit the wrong spot, I’ll see the wrong sign, I’ll overhear a snippet of conversation that will put me in a frame of mind that will bring back a vivid memory - and all of a sudden I’m there again, as a child or a young man, writhing in the grasp of my illness.

How do you live with that?

How do you live with a hurt so big it swallowed four-fifths of your life?

The first step is learning to confront the bad stuff, or at least live alongside it, instead of hiding from it.  I spent a very long time shunning any piece of my past that still hurt – declining invitations from friends, avoiding old haunts like they were cursed.  And there is something to be said for taking care of yourself like that, for only enduring as much discomfort as you’re sure you can stand. 

But sooner or later you’ll need to retrace your footsteps and take back those parts of your life.  It’s an ongoing process, and to be honest it never really ends; these days I might walk down the same street four times and feel fine, but on the fifth something will click in my mind, and I have to relive vivid memories of something awful that happened there.  But the end result is that, eventually, the trauma of those memories begins to fade, and larger parts of your history feel like they’re yours again.  It’s a good feeling.  It gives you room to breathe.

While it’s tough returning to places that bring back memories of mental illness, it’s even more uncomfortable trying reconnect with people.  One of the most difficult aspects of growing up with an undiagnosed mental illness was that I was permanently damaged whenever someone as much as brushed against me, like the fragile wings of a butterfly.  It couldn’t be helped.  My OCD made me hypersensitive to criticism, and brutally self-deprecating, and inclined to read significance into encounters other people would have just shrugged off.  This means that pretty much everyone I’ve ever met, even my closest friends and loved ones, have said or done something over the years that set off my symptoms.

As I worked with this in therapy, I found myself resenting the people whose innocent mistakes caused me so much pain.  Now, that kind of anger can be exhilarating, but I don’t recommend it – it’s very rarely productive, and often deepens the wound it promises to cauterize.  It took me a long to time to figure that out.  But eventually, instead of nursing grudges against people I still cared about or ones who had long since left my life, I learned to resent the anger itself instead.

 When I find myself fuming about some long-ago slight I remind myself, “It’s a shame I still get upset about something that happened so long ago.  I wish I didn’t have to deal with this feeling.  But it’s here, so I’ll just have to live with it, and carry on in spite of it.”  I treat the anger like a headache or an overcast sky: bothersome, but not enough to ruin my day.  And paradoxically, once I started to accept my anger over old hurts and carry on in spite of it, I found that the anger began to fade.

That said, there is one person in particular who I had particular trouble forgiving: a guy who was deliberately and consistently cruel to me, who without question caused me more misery over the years than everyone else put together.  That guy is me, of course.  Remembering my worst moments, it’s tough not to fume at the kid I used to be: look at that obnoxious little brat, or that self-obsessed teenager, or that stuck-up college kid.  What a jerk he was.  If only he’d been a little smarter, I wouldn’t have to deal with all of these terrible memories.

I can see how crazy that looks – but when you have as much experience as I do hating myself, it’s easy to redirect that hate from the person you are to the person you used to be.  However, the truth is that all of this blaming and name-calling isn’t really fair.  When I was younger, I didn’t invent OCD rituals because I wanted to miserable; I invented them because I wanted to make sure my family and I were safe, that other people liked me, that I was the best person I could be.  I slipped into mental illness with the best of intentions.  Once I realized that, it was much easier to look at my younger self with compassion, even as I recognize in retrospect how misguided and often self-destructive his efforts were.  The young me was doing the best he could.  It’s not his fault the deck was stacked against him.

Those months at the McLean OCD Institute, fighting to take back control of my life from my OCD, were long and painful.  But learning to live with my memories of mental illness in the years since then has been almost as much of an ordeal.  Returning to places with painful associations, letting go of grudges against friends and loved ones, and finding compassion for my younger self – all of these have been crucial in helping me come to terms with my past. 

It’s my story, and though the early parts were painful, it’s too late to change them.  For all of us with similar stories, better to make peace with them, and focus on the next chapter.

Image:  ©iStockphoto.com/sokolovsky

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.

Author of Triggered:  A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”.

Visit my website:  http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/ 

Read my Psychology Today blog:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered

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