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Stories from across West Michigan

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My Houdini act...

By Austin M
Grand Rapids, MI

I’m not going to lie, I kind of disappeared the last four weeks.

Maybe you noticed. The lack of posts on Facebook, zero organizations added to the website, no new blogs or additional educational resources.

As some of you may know, West Michigan Mental Health is a one-man operation led by a person who has first-hand experience with mental illness in the form of OCD and anxiety.

The biggest catalyst for my OCD and anxiety has always been change. Graduating high school and heading off to college was rough, transferring from one college to another was the same.

It doesn’t seem to matter if it is good change or bad, it triggers something in my brain.

For the last ten months, I’ve worked as a freelance reporter, writing news articles and feature pieces relating to Holland, Zeeland and Saugatuck. The goal was to move to full time at some point and on June 20, that finally became reality.

Despite being the goal, taking the full time position meant change.

It meant morning meetings each day, working consistent eight hour days rather than my sporadic schedule I had been working and the end of my late nights on Youtube.

There were also positives. There was the increase in pay, the addition of health benefits and a 401k. There was the chance to be part of a team, to be part of a solid group of reporters and editors trying to make a difference. It brought on a sense of pride.

While I started on the 20th, I had accepted the position a week and a half prior and that gave me a week and a half to overthink. It gave me a week and a half to worry about things and to obsess about the changes that were about to come in my life.

It gave me a week and a half of increased anxiety, of depression and worry. Worrying about anything and everything. People would ask how I was doing and I would tell them I was good, that everything was fine but inside, I just wanted to escape.

It also meant a lack of motivation. I was still turning in articles for work but not at the clip I knew I was capable of. For West Michigan Mental Health, it led to decreased posts on social media, less interactions with other organizations on Facebook and putting zero effort in adding new organizations or researching additional educational resources.

Fast forward nearly a month and I’ve settled into my new role as the business reporter at the paper. I’ve attended every morning meeting, met or exceeded all expectations and am in a completely different headspace than I was just two weeks ago.

What I’m trying to tell you is that life with a mental illness can be a roller coaster. Good changes and bad changes can throw you out of whack. Some days, mental illness makes it a battle just to get out of bed. Other days it could mean a cancelled phone interview at the worst possible time.

It’s not always pretty and there are times where you feel like you are simply holding on for dear life. There are days where you just want to disappear, crawl into a hole and never come back out. In my case, it meant shutting the curtains, pulling the covers over my head and pretending that the outside world didn’t exist.

Mental illness means ignoring texts messages, sending phone calls to voicemail and taking afternoon naps instead of facing the day.

In a roundabout way, I’m trying to tell you is to just do your best to never give up, I’m trying to tell you to give yourself a break and not be so hard on yourself. Mental illness is tough and it doesn’t discriminate.

For me, what I realized is that I need consistent contact with a therapist. I need to have weekly conversations about what I’m feeling and thinking. I need someone who holds me accountable, who is encouraging when I need it but also willing to push me outside my comfort zone sometimes.

As I look ahead, I know there are still going to be off days. I know I might need to take a mental health day. THAT’S OKAY.

I need to make sure I talk about my mental illness and share the thoughts I’d rather trap in my head. I need to remember that ultimately, if I'm willing to reach out, I’m not alone.

The reality of Skin Picking Disorder

By Austin M
Grand Rapids, MI

I’ll be the first to admit skin picking isn’t appropriate dinner conversation.

It’s a difficult conversation to have at all, particularly if you're the one doing the picking. It's difficult to have the conversation as the non-picker, too, simply because it’s hard to understand why a person would put themselves through it.

First thing's first: There are different names associated with skin picking. The International OCD Federation (IOCDF) calls it Skin Picking Disorder or Excoriation. It's also sometimes referred to as Dermatillomania.

So what's the difference between casual picking and a disorder? The IOCDF lists three criteria. A person with Skin Picking Disorder:

• Picks their skin over and over again, AND

• The picking is often or bad enough to cause tissue damage AND

• It causes a lot of distress and/or problems with work, social, or other daily activities

Skin Picking Disorder is currently classified as an impulse control disorder and is also sometimes referred to as an “obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder” because of some of the similarities shared with OCD.

So, we know what it is. Let's have a conversation about it.

Again, it’s not easy. For the picker, there's shame and embarrassment. Whether it’s the constant need for Band-Aids at the worst possible time, blood on your clothes or the look of disgust from witnesses.

For those without SPD, there are so many questions. Why can’t they just not? Why are they picking now, of all times?

At West Michigan Mental Health, we believe these are the kinds of conversations we NEED to have if we want a world in which people don’t have to suffer alone.

I was labeled a “picker” at a young age — even before we knew about my OCD diagnosis. Like most kids, I fell off my bike, fell down rollerblading and slipped and fell playing basketball. It was part of an active lifestyle. And with those falls came scabs … lots of them.

That was the start.

Over the years, it’s continued. Now, at almost 35 years old, picking is still part of my life. And it’s so much more than simply picking. It’s an obsession. It feels as if the scab is radiating, almost tingling, and it’s not a matter of if I pick it… the thought is I NEED to. If I can’t pick with my fingernail, it’s not out of the ordinary to use a comb or a knife.

I'll pick any scab, but my scalp has become my go-to spot. Why? Because the damage is easily hidden by my hair.

I do something I call scanning — casually running my fingers through my hair. It looks natural but the reality is, I’m focused. I’m looking for bumps and marks, anything that feels like something I could rip open.

If I don’t have a scab to pick, I create one. I’ve got one right now. As I write this, my scalp burns, the wound ripped open less than three hours ago. It hurts. It’s a dull pain, but it’s not enough to stop me from ripping it open again tomorrow morning.

To most people, that sounds crazy, insane. But I have a feeling other skin pickers know exactly what I’m talking about.

The truth is, I’ll pick at other things too. My dog and girlfriend have been targets.

I wish I could say there was a quick fix. I wish there was a magic serum I could drink that would take away the impulse. I know that I’m risking an infection each time I rip a scab off, but it doesn’t stop me.

But we aren’t crazy, despite what you may think. As we try to stomp the stigma, let’s remember to do that with SPD. Skin pickers need love and support, too. Don’t be afraid to offer it.

Anxiety in the 21st Century

By Austin M
Grand Rapids, MI


It’s a term that seems to be on everybody’s tongue, but what is it?

The Mayo Clinic defines it as “intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and feeling tired may occur.”

The thing that strikes me the most about anxiety is how it impacts different people in different ways. Think about it: There is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and more.

In a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, it estimated that over 31 percent of U.S. adults have dealt with anxiety at some point in their life.

Think about that, 3 out of every 10 adults have dealt with anxiety.

What always amazes me is everyone experiences anxiety in a different way.

Some feel nervous, restless or tense. Others have an increased heart rate or experience sweating, trembling, or rapid breathing and for many it involves difficulty controlling worry. For some, it involves a mix of all those symptoms.

Personally, I’ve dealt with anxiety in a number of ways. Whether as a symptom of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in the form of separation anxiety as a child or by way of overthinking different scenarios in my life, I feel like anxiety is EVERYWHERE.

As I sat at home last weekend getting some work finished, I had something happen that I think does a great job of describing how anxiety can impact your life in the 21st century.

It all started with a text message. “Okay.”

Short, sweet and seemingly harmless.

Less than a minute later, I received a second text, this time from a different person. “Ok.”

Again, seems pretty innocent right?

Over the course of the next half hour I received two more texts. One said “K” and another said “K!”

Again, all short, sweet and harmless.

Now, to some, those texts all mean the same thing. To me, my anxiety and my excessive overthinking? THEY ARE ALL DIFFERENT.

Let me explain.

“Okay” literally means just that: okay. It’s “okay” in its purest form. “Ok” is slightly down the scale from okay. Depending on who sends it, that either means the same as “okay” or it means the person is slightly annoyed or mad.

“K” is the worst of the four different options and it means that the sender is responding to you in a negative way. They are either mad or upset or angry and if I get it, I immediately think I did something wrong or that something I did is bothering the sender.

And finally, “K!” is basically the same as “Okay” with the exclamation point negating any negativity and adding excitement and positive emotions.

Makes sense, right?

Another thing that throws the whole thing off kilter is where I’m at mentally when I receive the texts. On days when my anxiety is lower, “Okay,” “Ok,” and “K!” can all mean the same thing.

On days when I’m struggling, a simple “K” is all it takes to send me into a downward spiral with front row seats to Anxiety Central.

If you are confused, well, I can’t blame you. It’s confusing to me and I deal with it every day!

Now, I understand that this is largely a younger generation's struggle and I’m not asking anyone to change the way they text or message but I think it’s important that we do everything we can to better understand our fellow man.

When you’re sending a message, throw in an emoji or an exclamation mark. You never know the impact it may have!

Life with OCD

By Austin
Grand Rapids, MI

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!

A mother's experience with mental illness

By Maribeth
Grand Rapids, MI

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.

I cried.

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.

Turning the page

By David
Holland, MI

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.

More Mental Health Blogs to Read

Michigan Department of Education - Mental Health Resources

National Alliance on
Mental Illness (NAMI) Blogs

Mentalhealth.gov: What is mental health?

Time to Change

National Institute of Mental Health

My Brain's Not Broken