By elizabeth (“lizzie”) mcmanus
Content warning: discussion of OCD, suicidal ideation, mental illness, familial and child death
Author’s Note: This is my story in learning to live with and love my OCD – but this is in NO WAY a universal experience or sentiment. Writing this has been cathartic – and painful – for me, and it’s my hope it will be a connection, a validation, a balm for others. But no one lives with mental health/illness/neuro-atypical-ness the same way. None of what i say here should be essentialized as something all people living with OCD feel. No one should act on my story without consulting a doctor, therapist, or professional.
If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
I was diagnosed with OCD three years ago, in the worst season of my life.
My aunt, uncle, and two cousins died in a plane that failed to make it off the runway; on the other side of the family, my grandmother’s last of a dozen or so strokes took her away two hours before my international flight landed—a flight taken to make my good-byes to her; my parent’s divorce was finalized; my dog of ten years had to be put down; and I had been suicidal for months.
The months before my grandmother dying, the plane, crash, the divorce, the dog dying.
There was a stretch of some three odd weeks where my brothers, my then-fiancé, and I were driving down to Greenville, SC, every couple of days for another funeral. My family was from Greenville, and had been vacationing with another family from Greenville. Two prominent doctor families, one town. So many wanted to honor them, to grieve them; there were so many services—I have glimpses from the Episcopal K-12 school where all the kids had met, the internment at Newberry College, and—the most painful—the Boy Scouts ceremony where they talked about 14-year-old Connor being just one project shy of his Eagle’s badge.
And, hours after one service and days before another, it’s all a humid blur—I stood out under the deck in their backyard, clawing at my nicked-up arms and screaming at my fiancé about an argument we’d had in April.
It was July.
My compulsion to replay things that hurt me—to embellish the story, to ritualize my response, to find release only in self-harm—this compulsion meant I screamed at him for a months-dormant argument under the cover of rain lambasting the deck above us.
I also did this because I was grieving, and grief is a weird thing. It’s painful, it’s heavy, it gnaws—and it’s just unexpectedly strange. It felt better to fight about something I could not stop thinking about, rather than deal with the fact that Meghan would never sit here, under her own deck in her own yard, ever again.
In therapy the next week, we worked more on coping strategies for my compulsions than processing my trauma. Because, frankly, I had to finish one heartbreak before letting myself have another.
I went off birth control for a while; this helped slice off an edge of my anxiety. So did therapy. So did the aforementioned fiancé, who is now my husband. So did my extraordinary pediatrician, who put me on an SSRI and let me continue seeing her well after I was married, because she knew a trigger for an OCD flare-up was going to the doctor and she wanted to ensure I had a safe doctor until i felt my OCD was regulated.
I need you to know this because my OCD and trauma go hand-in-hand. And what I learned about living with OCD I first learned by living with ghosts.
My favorite book is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, perhaps the least-liked in the whole series because of Harry’s exceptional teenager angstiness. But I never read Harry as angsty; I always thought he was traumatized. And I knew this because of the thestrals.
Thestrals, in the books, are monstrous-looking horses with wings that can only be seen by those who have “seen death.” What I always thought of as an odd choice on Rowling’s part was that Harry couldn’t see the thestrals until his fifth year—until he had watched his classmate Cedric be casually, off-the-cuff murdered right next to him. But Harry had already seen death; he was an orphan, his parents killed when he was one.
Why didn’t he see the thestrals until Book 5?
Given that Rowling has an explanation for every detail in the series, I am certain she has her own particular reason. But I think it’s because this death—Cedric’s death—was of a peer. It was not a death that follows the logical order of parents before children.
In Phoenix, Harry is haunted by Cedric. He has nightmares about his murder. Cedric’s loved ones want to grieve with Harry and form a relationship with him out of their hollowness, out of their sense of intimacy with Harry because he knew Cedric, too.
Harry is haunted by a ghost. Even his friend Luna, who is many-years removed from her trauma, can still see the thestrals. The ghosts do not disappear with time, because healing doesn’t have an end date.
Every year, I think of what Meghan would be doing. Likely, she’d be entering her junior year at UNC now.
When the Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared, I was sick for days.
Overhearing conversations about plane travel can drain the blood from my face—even though i’ve been on some twenty flights since the crash.
Grief is weird. And the haunting comes when I least anticipate it.
My mantra became: this will not get easier, but I will get stronger.
This is one of the first things I learned about trauma, both by living it and studying it in seminary: flashbacks, triggers, PTSD—all of these experiences can put a person right back to the moment of their trauma, even years after it happened.
I hate July Fourth. I hate the fireworks for the gunshot sounds they remind me of from yet another trauma. I hate that in 2013, on July 4th my dad and I were sitting at a Durham Bulls game, and we had a scuffle about my uncle’s less-than-enthusiasm for my gender studies pursuits, and that three days later my uncle was dead.
But I don’t get to stop July 4th from happening every year.
I can attempt to ignore it. I can do healthy things that give me distance from fireworks, that remind me of life. I can stand and face it down, and collapse in a heap after the ball game and say: well, I did it, but that’s the last baseball game for me for a long time.
This is what i mean by the grief not getting better but I get stronger: the triggers are there, everywhere, and there are days I just can’t move another step forward.
And then there are weeks where the pain that sliced me open transforms me into a more compassionate, more centered person—a person who loves God fiercely for Her mischievous grace and who prays to her patron saint, Cousin Meghan, for guidance. The relapse of grief can come anytime, but on my good days, I choose to see that as part of my vulnerability, as part of what makes me capable of love.
Grief is not a sickness, not in the flu-like sense. I will never heal from it the way I do when I get the flu, and it’s terrible for a week or two, and then there’s a stilted recovery, but then my energy returns. That’s a myth I’ve heard oft-narrated about grief—that it is linear, and gets better.
Rather, my grief is like living a chronic condition. Manageable, often; sometimes, I need medication and regular visits with an expert to help me get healthy. And sometimes, I have a flare-up that makes me want to burrow away from anyone, everyone, and weep until my ribs crack from the effort.
This, too, is how I think of my OCD.
I’ve written lately about this last year being one of arduous, slow growth. And somewhere in this year of therapies—oh, yes, multiple therapists because my OCD started showing up hardcore in my body this year and I had to see a physical therapist in addition to my soul one—somewhere in this Year of Therapy, I realized it was high time I learned to love myself.
Loving is so hard. I mean, I knew love was hard from marriage, but, damn. Loving my fat body is hard. Loving my self-congratulatory and self-loathing heart is hard. Loving myself to be accountable, to be aware, to be awake is hard.
I’m learning to love myself as who I am, not as who I want to be, or think I ought to be.
And for me, this means loving my OCD.
Because my OCD, like grief, is never going to “heal.” I have to learn to live with the ghosts; so too, I am learning to live with my chronic illness, OCD. I will always want hand sanitizer in my bag; I will always have ritualized negative thought patterns that I will need to notice and, if possible, lovingly redirect; I will never wear certain fabrics; it will likely be a long time before i’m okay with certain bodily fluids being near my person.
I want to be a healthy person, but even a healthy me lives with OCD.
When I gained weight, I decided to write a list of all the things I love about my body. It didn’t make the self-loathing disappear, but it was a touchstone for me to redirect those fat-shaming thoughts; don’t lambast your side boob, lizzie, because all that muscle and skin and bone is what makes you able to bend so deep and feel so expansive.
So I decided to make another list: what things do I love about my OCD?
And here is some of what i have come up with:
I love that my OCD means I am most often on time.
I love that my OCD means when there is not soap in the bathroom, I (usually) can offer my friends a hygienic alternative with the sanitizer that is (almost) always in my purse.
I love that my OCD means I have only ever worn underwear I find comfortable, instead of ever trying to wear underwear that itches but looks more conventionally sexy in order to appease some phantom beauty standard.
I love that my OCD means I comfortably wear a lot of workout wear without shame (or working out) in public (because those fabrics are most comfortable for me).
I love that my OCD means I am a highly driven student—and even when my OCD makes me anxious and over-preoccupied with grades or the exact margin in my notes, OCD is still a part of my brain that gets to soak up so many books.
I love that my OCD has taught me to be compassionate with my husband, who has ADHD.
I love that my OCD struggles have opened up new ways of praying for me.
And this is no shade to people who like itchy underwear (and let’s be real, what’s “itchy” for me may not be for you) or people who are late or who struggle in school. I wish the great yoga pants debate wasn’t something wrapped up in body-shaming, and I’m not suggesting any of these things exist for me only because of my OCD.
But my OCD has greatly contributed to my combatting body shame, because I just will wear what feels comfortable and that makes me happier than looking a certain way. And today, I am thankful for that.
I see so many meaningful conversations these days around mental health. Mary Lambert’s song “Secrets” and this Instagram post are two poignant examples that come to mind for me of people who are both de-stigmatizing mental health and being vulnerable about its affects. Her actions – and so many more people’s courage – have opened up so many needed conversations.
And while I’ve just listed what I love about my OCD, let me be clear: it is no damn walk in the park. There is so much more I wish our government and health care system did. Living with depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and more can mean so much struggle.
The way I have seen friends have to fight for prescription refills because of bureaucratic screw-ups, how much money it costs to see professionals and how much anxiety that can produce in an already anxious body, the paradox of how underpaid so many mental health professionals are, how pharmaceutical companies both make meds that can help people but also charge stupid amounts of money for these medications, how common it is for people to still believe these are things we can “snap out of” or are “making up”—the list goes on, and on.
Add intersectional identities to this—race, class, ability, body size, gender identity, sexuality, socio-religious stigma—and the struggle widens.
I’m thankful that my church regularly prays for “those struggling with anxiety and depression.” I’m thankful for my mom’s healthcare, and that I can still be on it for two more years. I’m thankful for my spouse who does not shame me for my OCD.
And I am painfully aware that healthcare and love from family and church should not be some “luxury” afforded only to some.
I want to say all this for two reasons: one, because inevitably, someone might walk away from this thinking I’ve “prayed away” my mental illness, or think OCD jokes are okay, or otherwise write off this struggle as trite or over-blown. (I can’t control this response, but I want to say I don’t like it.)
And two, because all these enormous concerns mostly have to do with changing the system, not changing my attitude. An attitude change is revolutionary, but it will not overthrow a corrupt pharmaceutical industry.
But I didn’t write this to overthrow that industry. (Well, maybe a little.) I wrote this for you, and for me.
For you, the one struggling to cope, the one so deep in the fight the idea of loving this part of yourself feels sickening—I love you. You are worthy. More spectacular than you know.
I’m not talking to you from some metaphorical over-the-mountain. I took prescribed Clonipin last night so I could sleep, because I was so anxious about nothing.
But in this thick of it, I believe in us, and I believe in you. This may not get better, but you can get stronger. And stronger isn’t linear, stronger isn’t always obvious; strength can look like weakness, like tenderness. But torn up muscle heals, and heals with deeper power.
And your heart, however sore or empty or unfeeling or broken, your heart is a muscle.
Keep pumping. Keep breathing.
elizabeth (“lizzie”) mcmanus enjoys toying with cisheteropatriarchal language norms, re-reading Harry Potter, and complaining about theology. She is an intersectional queer feminist and Bible-thumping lover of Jesus, with big hopes to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Meanwhile, she lives in Durham, NC, with two cats and an extremely affable husband, writes at elizabethmcmanus.com and makes art at etsy.com/shop/doodlesbylizzie.