For me, it all started with a toilet seat. After that, light switches.
Soon it progressed to checking doors, checking under the bed and saying a pattern of phrases every night before I headed to bed.
I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t know why I was doing the things I was doing but I knew I NEEDED to do them.
It took little more than a call to my primary care pediatrician to figure out what was going on.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I was not even ten years old and my mental health journey was underway.
Despite a mental illness diagnosis relatively early in life, my childhood still included positive experiences and memories I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Growing up in West Michigan, my days were filled with family vacations to Silver Lake, games of hide and seek with the neighbor kids in our Grand Rapids neighborhood, baseball games down at Riverside Park and delivering the Grand Rapids Press.
Mind you, my anxiety disorder did impact my life as a child. Whether it was the visits to therapists and psychiatrists, the inability to spend the night at my friend’s house, or the checking and patterns that provided relief for my anxiety, the OCD was present.
As I reflect on my journey, I’ve realized that for me, change is the number one trigger for my OCD.
And while I could give you the rundown of my entire journey, I look back and see three specific time periods where the OCD was driving the bus. Three time periods where I had relinquished control of my life, where change served as the precursor to my OCD.
It was August of 2006 and I was preparing to begin my first semester at Grand Rapids Community College. Many of my friends had already headed off to college and everything around me was changing.
It was during this time that my checking and counting obsessions took control of my life. It meant turning lightswitches on and off, straightening my shoes when I took them off, counting steps and avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk.
By September, I was trapped in a full-blown OCD nightmare. I’d park my car in the same parking lot every day and check my car locks four times. If it didn’t feel quite right, I’d check them another four times. From there I’d check them sixteen times before starting the count over again. Next came the interior lights. Four times, eight times and then sixteen times. I’d count my steps to class, taking two steps per sidewalk square, always making sure to not step on any sidewalk cracks.
I’d follow the same patterns in the shower and stray hairs in the bathroom sparked intense anxiety. I’d reread sentences from my textbooks over and over until I’d read it just right.
There wasn’t a single moment of my day that wasn’t influenced by my OCD.
OCD ran my life.
The second time OCD took control of my life was during the transition from GRCC to Grand Valley State University.
The checking and counting ramped up and many of the same symptoms were back. I was checking car locks and interior lights, counting my steps and avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk.
The hair and bathroom issues had returned in full force and cleanliness issues were running my life.
This time around though, the most difficult and life-altering aspect of the OCD was the intrusive thoughts. For me, those thoughts were violent in nature. Thoughts of strangling my roommate’s dog. Thoughts of killing my neighbor. Thoughts and obsessions about serial killers and their mindsets.
I never wanted to act on any of the thoughts but the obsessions were constant. Movies and television sparked the thoughts. I’d walk past someone on the street and a violent thought would pop into my head followed closely with crippling anxiety wondering why the thoughts were flooding in.
This ended up being my first experience with Pine Rest and its many resources.
The third bout that stands out came in the days and months following my divorce. Couple all the changes in my life with a relapse in my recovery journey and you have a recipe for disaster.
This time around it was crippling anxiety surrounding hair and bathroom obsessions. Going to the bathroom in public was an issue and just building up the nerve to go inside a public bathroom was enough to raise my anxiety level near the 10/10 mark.
Public showers and pools were a hard pass and just the sight of stray hair produced anxiety levels that I hadn’t felt in years.
Along with those struggles, intrusive thoughts had returned. Homicidal thoughts, violent thoughts about my friends and family dying, thoughts about harming my dog and thoughts about pubic hair being in my mouth.
The reality was that life was no longer manageable. The obsessions and compulsions ran my life and there wasn’t a waking second where my thoughts and actions weren’t influenced by my OCD.
Today, my anxiety levels are in the manageable range again. And while I wish I could say the journey has been easy, it’s taken hard work to get back to this point.
What I’ve noticed when I look back at my journey with OCD is that in each of the above time periods, I was able to use the mental health resources that are available right here in our backyard.
I’ve seen therapists and psychiatrists from across West Michigan, accessed the support groups and other resources at the Anxiety Resource Center, received varying levels of care from Pine Rest and attended recovery meetings from Grand Rapids to the lakeshore.
And while I know that my OCD is a journey I’ll be on for the rest of my life, I’m grateful for the love and support I receive from my family and friends and for the many free resources that are available across West Michigan.
Lastly, the thing I want to stress the most is that there is no shame in asking for help. In West Michigan, resources are everywhere and there are experts that specialize in every mental illness.
Don’t be afraid to use them!
Anxiety has a strong genetic component in our family, so when I had my first panic attack as a mother of young children, it was easier to recognize what was happening and seek help for myself.
I wish I could say I was as wise recognizing signs when our oldest son, as a young boy, didn't want to ride on elevators and needed to sit near the door in his classroom. At that point it appeared like a fear or phobia that anyone could have. Not wanting to over-react or feed the fear, we made his teacher aware and tried to provide the calm he needed. As he got older it unfortunately grew worse and we pursued counseling.
It broke my heart so many times, especially when he stopped playing basketball after ninth grade due to an inability to ride the school bus to the away games. I wish we had tried medication sooner but I was so concerned about introducing chemicals into a growing child's body.
Our second son has a different personality than his brother. While his brother was on the quiet side, our second was exuberant, energetic and appeared confident. I recall when he and his brothers went to bed, he would go through a litany of phrases that he had to say. At the time I thought it was endearing.
Then one evening I heard him in the bathroom knocking. When he came out I asked what he was doing and he said, "I don't know, I just have to do it." My heart sank. I was familiar that OCD was an anxiety disorder and I never dreamed that this bright, engaging young boy would struggle as well.
I made an appointment with our pediatrician and after he tested him, he took me in the room alone and told me he definitely had OCD.
As a parent, especially a mother, your first thoughts tend to be guilt. Did I do anything, or not do something, during my pregnancy to cause this? Did I eat healthy enough, sleep in the correct position, avoid polluted air?
If none of those were the culprit, was I dismissive of his fears when he was young or not intercede early enough? How could I have helped him to not feel so alone in this world, trying to figure out why he had to deal with something that felt rare and elusive.
I know how easy it is to cover up feelings of depression and anxiety as an adult and how much more difficult that is as a child who is trying to fit in as well as figure out life in general.
To this day, I hurt when he or any of children hurt. I see it in their eyes and I can't fix it. Any mom can relate to this whatever the struggle may be.
This was back before we had the internet for information so I took out library books to understand OCD and found it can manifest itself in so many different ways. I, like so many people, equated it more with perfectionistic tendencies. Instead, I learned repetitious actions can relieve irrational fears and tensions. Intrusive thoughts can be another manifestation.
It is difficult to see your children struggle, no matter their age. I think the most difficult thing is hearing people make inaccurate and hurtful statements about mental health. You desire to educate them about the realities and at the same time protect your child's privacy.
I'm proud to see our sons' transparency as they've grown and in turn they find out so many others struggle with similar issues. I'm also thankful the stigmas from the past are far less.
The message, "Be kind" couldn't be more appreciated.
Mental health can mean a lot of things, for this article's purpose we will define mental health as soundness of mind, emotions and soul.
Four years old things take a turn, secrets start to form, hands down pants, fondling of private parts, turn the page. An angry father, sore hands and behind, I cough and do not cover at a family dinner while out to eat getting napkins shoved into my mouth. Turn the page!
At seven, the riff between my parents escalate, divorce, my fault I start believing. Now, I am the "man of the house." Sworn to take care of mom, sister, by both my dad and my mom's dad. That Christmas I get a special gift, a purported lovely trip to the land of Disney, grandfather pedophile's me. Pleasure, pain, guilt angst; turn the page.
I hope my dad comes home, getting up before the break of dawn, I looked out the picture window of the living room hoping him to come home. Another page, when sister and I did not learn he would get irate and intimidate, felt like crawling under a rock.
Shame, guilt grew, a new habit learned. It felt sooo good, could not tell if it was wrong or right. We had more trips, reaccurance transpired. The activity both pleasure, more hurt. Pain in the soul, what did I do wrong? A shower is meant for cleaning but I felt so darn dirty still. This stopped at age 12, page turned, I learned about lust, how to tell genders apart. Bumps in shirts, staring right at them. Meanwhile at home the dysfunction grew. Mom and sister would go at it, yelling screaming, verbal and emotional abuse the norm. I would refery or go to my room and jam, or make myself feel good I thought,which led to inner pain, hurt and heaping more shame. This needing to override the inner demons was not solved by the please I learned at age seven while in the hotel with grandpa, it only caused more and more mental strain. Felt like I would go insane, could not get clean.
Turn the page, my father not around, he got remarried and moved away. He said he loved me but he was over 1,000 miles away. At about 16, Gramps told me my mom, his daughter tried to end her life in the late 60's, dad confirmed it years later, and so did sis. The story goes, my dad, sis and I came home and found my mom down. I do not recall, but this explains the riff between my mom and sister. She felt rejected and unloved, quite the burden to bare. Not knowing if she was ever loved. Mom's folks had the dough, they took care of us, but never felt the love flow. Mom was hard to have deep conversations with, she just got by speaking of surface level things only.
She had things going on, people, who folks out to get her. She spoke of followers and mokers; felt her parents were out to get her! Have her committed if she told any family things that were under wraps. Had to mind her p's and q's for her and her kids to survive. Her folks way old school, domineering and controlling. They were quite overriding. I wanted to go to a Stones concert when I was 17, I knew it would be okay with my mom, did not think about my mom's folks and there approval. Mom's parental authority blew away in the torrent from her folks. Gramps had me call my mom, ask her with him right by. I asked her if I could go, she asked with whom, I told her and she knew them and it was fine. A couple days later, met Gramps and Grams in the back room of their retail store at their demand. Ultimatum given, turn the page.
My high school graduation is here, my dad came for my sister's, but two years later he did not come for mine, he promised. More hurt, anger piled on, more blame, all my fault. By this time, I had been drinking for 3 plus years, pain only soothed for a brief short time, even by the joy stick. Felt so dirty, a ton of shame and I felt I was to blame.
Hurdles hurdled, but three remain, pain, hurt and shame. My sister turns a page and takes out our mom. A loss of two people, what had my sister done. She said to just move on. Seemingly no shame or guilt, no explanation, just deeper root's of mental health soundness being heard.
The journey hard, arduous. What did I ever do? Not do? Found out lies, more mental health issues, tried to get my sis help, but she declined. Her guilt she bares, though not behind bars.
Been happily married for over 23 years. My wife has her own mental health challenges, but does the right things, takes medicine, been in counseling and talks through things. I struggle! Still bearing the weight of things on that, "long lonesome highway," as the song lyric goes.
Sharing my story, watch for signs, never keep secrets and never bear false images. Report, seek help, stop abuses that lead to mental health challenges, things must be shared, worked through so the pages can be healthily turned. Always beware of how you feel, mental health is invaluable.