Month: October 2013

This Is Your Brain on OCD


I marched my little feet down the road, ready to catch the bus to school. I was five years old, probably dressed in one of those terrible 90′s outfits my mom seemed to love so much, probably angry because I’d had to stop reading whatever book my nose was currently stuck in. I don’t remember a lot about being five, but I do remember that day. The beginning of the war in my brain.

There was a broken beer bottle lying on the ground, shards of glass decorating the pavement, light reflecting from the warm brown bits that were strewn through the neighbors’ grass. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop staring, and I didn’t know why.

And then suddenly, I knew. The terror I would come to know so well began to bubble in my stomach, closing my throat and stopping my breath in its tracks. It felt like my esophagus had been slashed in half. I pressed my hand to my chest in disbelief, the image of the shattered glass dancing across my vision. Tears blurred the already unfocused picture. This was it. I was going to pick up one of those jagged-edged shards, and I was going to swallow it. And I was going to die.

It sounds so silly, looking back on it now. Clearly, I was aware that swallowing broken glass was a dangerous thing to do. I knew exactly what would happen if I did, and those consequences were unbelievably undesirable. But I was so sure that I was going to do it. Video clips of that very incident played loudly in my head, over and over, mocking my fear with their vivid and terrifying pictures.

My parents didn’t understand. Neither did my friends. It would be fifteen years before a psychologist would actually tell me what it was, why I was plagued with such terrifying thoughts and visions. Years of having to close my eyes in cars because I was so afraid I would open the door and launch myself onto the highway. Years of being too scared to pick up a knife because I was certain I would purposely slice open my own arm. Years of the unspeakable things I was terrified I would do to the people I loved.

Sometimes, OCD does have to do with washing your hands a lot or keeping things perfectly organized. Those are manifestations of the disorder, and they are valid and serious. But there are so many dark thoughts and emotions that the common vernacular seems to gloss over, so much time spent hating yourself for the peace your brain will never let you have. Every day is a battle, and the hardest part is that you have to wake up and fight yourself.



Confessions of a Chronic Third Wheel

Today I was riding my bike home from class, as usual, when I was suddenly struck by a disturbing revelation.

I have gotten WAY too good at third-wheeling.


Me, every day

It wasn’t always this way…I don’t think. I think I used to have single friends, or at least I sometimes hung out with one person instead of two. And on the rare occasions that I did find myself alone with a couple of lovebirds, I remember feeling awkward. That’s a normal reaction, right? It’s supposed to be awkward?

I mean, I guess I technically spent the first two years of my life third-wheeling my parents, so that could be what set me up for a lifetime of sitting alone on one side of the dinner table. Maybe it’s hereditary. When my mom was in high school, her best friend dated her older brother, so she probably spent her fair share of nights buying her own drinks at bars. Or maybe it developed out of my timid nature and sarcastic self-loathing. People in relationships probably like having me around because I make them glad they’re no longer single and depressing. Something like that.

I was doing homework at one of my good friend’s houses this afternoon, and her boyfriend came by (like he always does, they’re adorable, yada yada yada), and they invited me to join them at the Art Institute on Thursday. At first I was a little taken aback, you know, because I didn’t want to crash their date, so I politely declined. Turns out I can’t go anyway because I have class, but even before I realized that, I had this moment of clarity where I thought, wow, this is actually my life. I live in half of a two-bedroom apartment, the remainder of which is occupied by two people who have been in a relationship for a solid four years. I am actually a voluntary, residential, rent-paying third wheel.

I don’t get it. Am I so desensitized to human affection that it doesn’t even faze me anymore? Am I masochistic? Do I get sick pleasure out of constantly being reminded that I am destined to die alone? WHY did the universe curse me with such a high tolerance for people who like to just couple off like Kit-Kat bars?!

I tell myself that eventually it will be my turn. Someday, I will get to nurture a third wheel of my very own, to tell him or her to enjoy it while it lasts, because before you know it there are sappy pet names and stressful birthdays and (ugh) accountability. It’s not so bad for a while. You get to watch relationships ebb and flow, and you learn valuable lessons without having to get hurt. You just never get to feel the giddy melty butterflies either. But it’s okay, because someday you will.

And in the meantime, couple friends, there will always be someone around to take your picture when you look too cute to resist. Just be warned that this single girl is the queen of photobombing.

My Paper Anniversary

A year can change a lot.

Exactly 365 days ago, I was completing my first full day of residential treatment. I remember a lot about that day. I passed out twice in the morning while the poor night counselors were trying to take my vital signs. By one o’clock I was wearing yoga pants and hadn’t bothered to put my contacts in. I’d already struggled through 48 ounces of Gatorade when my parents showed up for visiting hours.

I mean, it definitely wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had.

That morning, my case manager sat down with me in the room that would become my bedroom in just two short weeks. She told me that I was about to fight one of the most difficult battles I would ever face. She told me that yes, I was sick, but I was also strong. And she was right.

Appropriately, my dad came to visit me this weekend and, upon my request, brought the huge three-inch binder of paperwork I accumulated during treatment. I spent a few minutes this afternoon flipping through the hundreds of pages I barely remembered, paying homage to the journey that began one year ago and continues to this day.

I have so many vivid memories. Puzzle pieces. I don’t think of those three months linearly at all. I think in chunks, sometimes remembering how hard I laughed when my friends tried to teach me the art of the “booty pop,” sometimes remembering the miserable taste of Ensure out of a coffee mug on the days I just couldn’t get through. None of it went in a straight line, because, well, nothing ever really does.

Today isn’t the best day I’ve ever had either. I’ve felt tired and sick all day, I’ve done hours upon hours of homework, and I didn’t do a very good job of following my meal plan. But a year ago, I wasn’t even allowed to flush my own toilet. That’s progress, no matter how stupid and ridiculous it sounds.

Recovering from an eating disorder is a wild ride. It’s challenging, it’s frustrating, it’s painful, it’s rewarding, it’s funny, it’s chaotic in all the best and worst possible ways. Sometimes I look at myself and I see the same scared, stubborn girl that spent every second trying to disappear. But sometimes I look at myself and see a warrior. It’s for that warrior that I keep fighting, even when none of the odds seem to be in my favor.

So I say, happy one-year anniversary to my recovery. How fitting that I honor it with writing, the best paper gift I know how to give. A year of fighting, laughing, crying, loathing, and loving. A year of figuring out who I am and accepting the pieces that aren’t so perfect.

A year can change a lot.

When I Knew You Wouldn’t Love Me

This is a really hard post for me to publish. But if this blog is all about baring my soul, then it needs to be said. 

To the person about whom this was written: if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

I met you at a coffee shop when I was eighteen. You were shy and kind of awkward and so was I. You walked me back to my dorm even though it was out of your way and told me it was nice that we finally got to meet. I smiled because I already kind of knew that one day I could love you.

You used to come into the gym while I was working and even though you always had a workout to do, you would stop and stand by the lifeguard chair, sometimes for my whole half-hour shift, and make me laugh. You told me crazy stories about your time spent abroad in exciting places, and listened while I made bad jokes about my own boring life. For months I thought about telling you how easy it was to talk to you and how much I looked forward to the Monday night shifts when I knew you would be there, but I never did.

You left my life, but you were always there. You ran through my mind when I least expected it. I thought about your big goofy smile and the way your arms moved kind of funny when you were doing the crawl stroke. I watched enviously as you went on adventure after adventure, never afraid of anything, eager to take chances. I thought about you and how scared I was and how much I wished I could borrow some of your bravery. I hoped maybe one day you’d be able to show me how to be fearless.

In those moments, I knew you could never love me. You were so far beyond anyone I’d ever comprehended before. I had nothing to offer someone who already had the world.

But then you came speeding back into my world like a roller coaster and you stopped to let me on and I didn’t even bother buckling my seat belt. I was more afraid than ever, but you were there and you were so close and I thought maybe it was finally time for my adventure.

You said all the right things. I heard you and I believed you and I tricked myself into thinking that maybe one day you could love me after all. And every minute of time I let myself be with you made everything feel less scary.

One day you were sitting sideways on your bed, plucking your guitar strings with your fingers and talking enthusiastically about your mythology book, when it hit me. I could love you. I didn’t right then, not yet. But I thought about the way you elbowed me in the ribs after you told a bad joke and the way your eyes lit up when you explained to me why sugar cubes spark when you hit them with a hammer, and I knew for sure that it would be incredibly easy for me to fall in love with you.

And I knew you wouldn’t love me. Maybe you thought someday you might be able to, just like I had, but I knew better. I knew you would love someone who gave you that same “Oh, shit” realization I’d just had. I knew you would love someone whose wanderlust was on par with your own, who thrived off of passion and adventure just like you. Someone whose hand you wouldn’t have to hold every time she was afraid.

I could love you, I thought, because with you I am falling in love with myself. You make me feel stronger and braver and wiser and more beautiful. You’ve helped me break down a lot of walls that were holding me back.

But I never did anything for you.

And the second I realized I could love you, I decided you could never know. Because I knew you wouldn’t love me, and you had to realize that on your own.

Love, Loss, and the Boston Globe Daily Crossword Puzzle

Chad McDermott

I set my alarm for 6:10, before we were technically “allowed” to be up. Stealthily, I walked over to the office where the night counselor sat clicking monotonously at her computer screen.

“Is the paper here?”

“Not yet,” she replied, narrowing her eyes in an attempt to figure out what I was up to.

“Well, can you unlock my bathroom?”

“Again?!” she sighed exasperatedly as she picked her keys up from the desk. I was notorious among the night counselors for my overactive bladder. Once, one of them told me that between my roommate and I, the bathroom had been unlocked eleven times in a span of eight hours.

While we walked down the hallway to my room, I peered surreptitiously down the hallway. No paper. Not yet.

So I showered, and I brushed my teeth, and I probably didn’t shave because I couldn’t be bothered to check out my razor. By 7, I was hovering around the entrance to the apartment like a helicopter. One of the counselors poked her head out of the office to ask me if I needed anything, to which I politely said “no thank you” and retreated across the hall to a more secluded spot.

Being the first one to get the morning paper was a competition of unspeakable seriousness. You see, the crossword and the horoscopes were always on the same page, and while everybody else was going gaga over their star-supposed future, I wanted to get my puzzle on. I depended on my daily word challenge to get me through an otherwise maddeningly meaningless day.

I always started the crossword at breakfast, when everyone else was too exhausted to think. Early in the week, I could usually finish it before breakfast was over. By the time I reached Saturday or Sunday, however, sometimes it took me all six meals to fill in the last few boxes. I would ask for help from other people at the table, but mostly they just laughed and said things like, “how would I know?” or “there’s a reason you have a 4.0 in college and I don’t.” Like that has anything to do with knowing obscure 80’s TV references…they should have taken pity on me in my youth. The point is, nobody really understood why I was so into these silly newspaper puzzles, and most of them weren’t shy about telling me so.

When we had goal-setting group in the morning, one of the goals I wrote down every single day was “finish the crossword puzzle.” And I always did. No matter what else happened that day, I would have that. I would set lots of goals, usually 5 or 6, ranging from “eat 100% of my meal plan” to “participate at least three times in groups.” I worked on those goals too, sometimes meeting success and sometimes failure, but I always, always finished the crossword puzzle.

It’s a little silly now to think about how obsessed I was with something so mundane. But treatment was hard, and there were a lot of days where nothing seemed to go well and I felt like everything around me was crumbling into pieces. The shred of constancy, the thing I always had, was the Boston Globe and its big square grid on the back page. It wasn’t always easy to figure out; some days I would get frustrated because it would be afternoon snack and I still hadn’t solved even half the clues. But for every day that I felt like it was impossible, I knew there was a day coming when the crossword wouldn’t be quite so hard. Somehow, that made it easier to bear.

If it’s true for the Boston Globe (and the New York Times) crossword puzzle, then shouldn’t it be true for all of us? Maybe our lives don’t run in such a predictable pattern, with the struggles getting harder at the end of the week and restarting afresh on Mondays, but they oscillate just as frequently. For every day that feels completely insufferable and unconquerable, there’s a day sometime in the future when it won’t feel so difficult. Well, and then things will get harder again. There’s no easy way around it. Unfortunately, there isn’t a solution on the opposite side of the page that we can peek at when we feel like giving up.

But it always gets easier. And if you can finish a Sunday crossword puzzle, imagine the relief you’ll feel when Monday comes around.

We Are All Flawed Heroes

The Little Bookworm

Ever since I can remember, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” has been one of my favorite books. I mean, that’s where I learned everything I know about time travel, a topic which still fascinates me today. But the main reason I loved it was because the heroine wasn’t beautiful or brave or brilliant. Meg had a wild adventure, sure, but she didn’t mean to. She was lost, overshadowed by literally everyone else in her family, stubborn and insociable. She messed up a lot. She accidentally put people in danger. She was self-deprecating and mousy and a little slow on the uptake. But my God, in a book full of mad science and fantasy, she was so real.

I’ve been devouring books for a long time (read: since age three #sorrynotsorry), and I say devouring because my love of reading is probably borderline carnivorous. From the time I entered school until my life became a giant supernova of chaos, I flipped through every novel, poem, and short story I could get my hands on. I came in contact with a huge number of characters – many with whom I sympathized, several I hated, a few with whom I fell in love. I can trace periods of my childhood to which one was my favorite at the time; for example, my “Harriet the Spy” phase resulted in some very mean journals about my classmates and a deeply rooted misunderstanding of the word “dumbwaiter.” But no one ever stuck with me the way Meg Murry did. No literary love of mine has lasted so far into adulthood.

There’s something special about the kind of heroes that don’t realize they’re heroes. The ones that don’t realize they’re part of an adventure until it’s halfway over. The ones that defy every stereotype of heroism because it would never occur to them that they could be important. Their lack of faith in their own magic is what makes us believe in them, because every one of us could just as easily become a hero without realizing it. We believe in them because it reaffirms a belief in ourselves.

At the moment of truth, when Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are presenting Meg with what she needs to fight for her father on Camazotz (if none of those words make sense, go read the book), she is dumbstruck by what they tell her.

“Meg, I give you your faults.”
“My faults?” Meg cried.
“Your faults.”
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “But I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.”

What makes Meg different, for me, is that she never needed to overcome her faults in order to succeed. She never had a sudden burst of self-confidence or a rapid transformation of personality. All she needed to do was realize that it was her faults that made her different from everyone else, and it was her faults that made her strong. A little change in perspective, and suddenly her flaws could be strengths, strengths beyond anything she’d ever dreamed.

There is value in being imperfect. You don’t have to be sure of yourself every step of the way, or love everything about yourself all the time. You don’t have to be beautiful and brave and brilliant to matter.

For every Superman, for every Doctor, for every Harry Potter, there are thousands of Meg Murrys. And their stories are just as important, if not more so, than the comic book sagas of saving the world. They teach us that we are enough, exactly as we are, with all of our idiosyncrasies and blemishes and cynicisms. We are more powerful than we will ever realize.

Confessions from Chaos

Hi, I’m Gwen, and I don’t have my shit together.

The past month since I’ve been back at school has been a roller coaster of extreme highs and devastating lows. There have been moments when the world seemed to open up in front of me, like anything and everything was suddenly possible. There have been moments when it was everything I could do just to pull myself out from under the blankets. In less than 30 days, I had my heart broken and my hopes defeated, but I also had meaningful conversations and laughing fits that lasted for hours.

I don’t understand how I can be so sure of things one minute and so overwhelmed the next. Nothing ever registers as just “okay”; it’s either a day where I feel motivated and incredible and confident or a day where I wish I could melt into the floor. It seems that every aspect of my world is rewinding back into the silent-film era when everything was black and white.

Being a senior in college is hard for everyone. We’re bombarded on all sides by career fairs and grad school applications and incredibly challenging courses, all the while trying to enjoy the last taste of college life before we enter the real world. It’s exhausting, and it’s scary. And I’m doing all of those things while also trying to keep a whole slew of mental illnesses in check. It’s like running a marathon and making lasagna while also juggling a bunch of really breakable plates. If I take my eyes off the plates for one second, any one of them could hit the ground and shatter.

That’s kind of why I haven’t written in a while. This is a blog which I have dedicated tirelessly to my recovery, and it’s hard for me to write things that are meaningful when my moods are so unpredictable and my behaviors so erratic. I’m being slowly eroded by the effects of the insomnia that comes with my compulsions and the lethargy that comes with my depression, and I’ve been avoiding self-reflection because it hurts too much to look inside.

I dropped a class because I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t get any of the jobs I applied for. I tried to have a fun night out with my friends and ended up in the hospital with a nearly lethal BAC. I’m not going to be able to graduate on time. I spent two entire days in bed. I grew out of my favorite pair of jeans.

There, I said it. I admit it.

I don’t have my shit together.

But I’ve fought before, and I’ll fight again.

7 Little Ways To Be Brave

1. Get out of bed. On the days when all you can think about is pulling the covers back over your head and escaping once more into dreamland, get up. Take a shower. Say hi to your roommates or your family, make yourself a delicious breakfast, and don’t crawl back into the cave. Recognize that it takes guts to face the world sometimes, but you’re strong enough to do it.

2. Go to a dance class or out to dinner or to a meeting by yourself. People will look at you funny, because that’s what people do. But mostly they will be admiring you for having the courage to try something new on your own.

3. Tell someone you love them. Not necessarily romantically, although that works too. But make it someone who doesn’t get to hear that from you very often. Maybe you feel like you’re losing them. Maybe they’re going through a hard time. Maybe you’re scared that they’ll leave you because people usually do. Tell them anyway. It’s scary, but it’s worth it.

4. Say no. Just for once, don’t think about letting other people down. If you don’t want to do it, say no. No matter how uncomfortable it makes you. Two letters. One syllable. No.

5. Ask questions. No one is “bad” at small talk; there’s no such thing. Everyone wants the same thing out of a conversation: to hear and feel heard. Ask a stranger about their day. Ask someone sitting next to you why they decided to take that class. People will continually amaze you with their stories if you ask the right questions.

6. Admit your mistakes and move on. It’s so much easier to blame a circumstance or an event or another person when something goes wrong than to claim responsibility for it. Own it, accept it, release it. Your mistakes don’t define you, and the quicker you can let them go, the freer you will be.

7. Seek support. It doesn’t make you a burden, it makes you human. We are not designed to go through everything alone, even if it sometimes feels like we should. Acknowledging that you need help with something is one of the bravest things you can ever do.