Why is my mental health so awful in the holidays? Within a few days, I’ll be nibbling my fingers, trying to work out if I’ll be arrested for shredding a previous tenant’s mail.
I can’t clock my symptoms against a WebMD list, either. I see a bus advertisement and my brain snaps, “You spend too much money. You have a child. You’re going to run out of money”. My symptoms are embarrassing and aggressively specific. People recognize depression, the terrible pull that keeps you in your bed, or under it. But desperately asking the man at PC World if a virus can frame you for something criminal? Not so much.
I’m often asked what’s the hardest part of studying and parenthood. And the answer is, neither. It’s the third thing on top of the two, the little imp that gets inside my head and convinces me of catastrophe. The dark monstrosity that bleeds out inside my body when I bend to pick up my daughter, when I sit down and stare at my books. It’s the crushing pressure of reading, essays and revision inside of no weekends and evenings. You can just about manage it. But there’s something in the way. A low discomfort, a dread that becomes a sweat when you try to ignore it. I have to sort it out, or I can’t get on with my life. I have to be sure, or this doubt will burst my beautiful family. Your life before the worry cycle becomes a paradise, forsaken forever by this event which, if we’re going by the strength of fear, is definitely a thing.
This type of ‘all or nothing’ thinking is intrinsic to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Ironically, I know all about the pattern of OCD, how it manifests itself, how it feeds off your fear by driving you to do compulsions (these can be ruminating: mentally puzzling over an issue in the hopes of finding a solution, as well as physical actions) to prevent potential horrors. I feel it, I can spot it in others, I know its presence. Yet ‘what if’ derails my whole reality. I have OCD, but OCD won’t have me. OCD says, “Only ill people have me. Perfectly innocent and kind people who suffer intrusive thoughts, but would never act on them. But A,B,C proves you really are in trouble”.
This the nature of the disease. It has a strange, regenerative power, breeding cycles and cycles of itself from a single thought. Any gap between the awfulness of the perceived transgression and its objective reality is non-existent. I’m usually aware that, to others, my anxiety doesn’t add up. But the OCD brain, quick to shred the reassurance it receives, insists that I just haven’t expressed my ‘crime’ correctly. I want someone to look into my mind, see the exact shade and shape of the issue and then tell me whether or not it’s awful. OCD loves this concept of ‘completion’, an absolution so watertight that porousness itself is made mythical by experts so certain of its non-existence that they’ve staked their families, lives and vital organs on it. Of course, no such thing exists, but OCD insists that if it doesn’t exist, your fears are one hundred thousand percent true.
Basically, OCD is big on disproportion. It plays into our instinctive trust of emotion. I’m fine, the vacation’s started, my tutor’s said about now’s the time to catch up on those essays you missed in term and I’m ready but E-B’s scream cuts through me cause she’s unexpectedly ill and I don’t know how to explain that a vacation isn’t a vacation for me but filled in ways I’m too tired to say because I want you to see that I’m capable, professional in the way you understand but you don’t see the other job I’m working, the one that’s more full time than you could imagine, the one I work to drive back from your sight. They talk about “in between changing nappies”, but it’s not about nappies. It’s about holes drilled in your timetable which no one else can see. It’s not knowing if the space you carve out for yourself will collapse.
And then, from nowhere, a thought. A sting, a small doubt. A comment I made once, a look from E-B’s key worker. What if … I’ll check it out just in case it’s true.