Finding Emotional Recovery from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

When I look at the timeline of recovery from my battle with Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, I can see two significant breakthroughs.

The first was medical recovery. It was imperative to get my symptoms under control and learn tools to manage OCD after my suicide attempt and hospitalization. I was able and willing to engage in Exposure Response Prevention therapy even though it was difficult. I was also willing to take a chance on medication, recognizing that I am not always capable of managing the symptoms on my own. Committing to the medical recovery of my illness was something I knew had to be done, no matter how much fear would tempt me to not engage or try to manage it by my own will. It took me almost a year and a half to find the right combination of knowledge and confidence to balance my medical recovery from when I was diagnosed. In hindsight, that hurdle was much easier to clear than the emotional torture which ensued for over a decade after successful treatment.

I had no idea that even after learning to manage the symptoms of OCD, my journey to full recovery was far from over. I lived with the debilitating symptoms of Pure OCD without a diagnosis for 12 years. I was completely alone and terrified in my struggle before my medical recovery, and it was pure hell. But sometimes I wonder if those 12 years were as hard as the latter years I lived in shame, guilt, and embarrassment from the personal stigma of living with a mental illness. The emotional turmoil and difficulty I had in grieving and processing my experience and who I was with or without this illness was just as tormenting as my symptoms of OCD. I existed in this emotional misery for 13 years after successful medical treatment.

The second breakthrough in my recovery I like to refer to as my emotional recovery. After medical recovery, I fell headfirst into emotional overload and deregulation. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or how I wanted to be treated now that I lived with a mental illness. I wanted people who knew what I had been through to love and accept me with empathy and compassion. But, I also wanted them to stay far away from reminding me of the illness and my traumatic experience with it. I wanted to remind everyone that I needed nothing from them and I was still a functional human with this illness, but I was also desperate for love and sympathy for what I had been through. I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed without sounding weak and pitiful. It was a push-pull that I was incapable of understanding in the midst of it.

I also felt deeply embedded emotions to my core. Anger, sadness, and shame were the rulers of me. The emotions were so intense that I did anything I could to drown them out. I fled to Colorado to engulf myself in mountains, scenery, and outdoor athletics. I became involved in endurance running, biking, and winter sports. Tiring my body out helped calm my emotional turmoil. But when athletics couldn’t silence the pain, I turned to alcohol, partying, and unhealthy relationships. I was desperate for relief I didn’t care how I received it.

I wanted nothing more than to find meaning in who I was or what I was doing, but wasn’t able or willing to endure looking at who I had become because of my experience with mental illness. I barely recognized the empty shell of a person I saw staring back at me in the mirror. I wanted so desperately to love life, to feel positive and grateful, but I wasn’t able to love myself. I felt unworthy. I felt undeserving. I felt empty of purpose and full of negative emotion. I felt afraid and disconnected to everyone and everything. Isolation and the silencing of my experience kept me trapped in shame, and fear of rejection and judgment held me tight in that snare. I dared not speak a word to anyone about who I really was underneath this façade I put on for the world. I was so lonely.

When I was 34 years old, I had my first debilitating relapse of symptoms since treatment. I was so far removed from my first break down of symptoms that I had almost forgotten how torturing it felt. I could hardly believe my mind was capable of such incredible deceit and trickery. I was six weeks into the relapse before I realized I was almost paralyzed by intrusive thoughts.

I was an entrepreneur and could not take off work, so I had to drag myself to my store everyday. It was terrifying and miserable. I smiled at customers, making small chat and putting on the charm, but as soon as the door slammed behind them, I would curl up in the back of the store feeling unable to breathe or move.

No one knew how horrible my illness could be except my family because I refused to tell anyone out of shame and embarrassment. I rode that wave of a relapse barely surviving the treacherous current. I had no support nearby, no one to talk to, and I felt utterly alone.

As I waited during the weeks it took for relief from my medication to set in, something inside of me simmered. I started feeling antsy and curious. Where are all the other people in the world who have my type of OCD? Where are all the other people who live with mental illness? How do they deal with this? Where are they?

I wanted to find them. I found the International OCD Foundation and saw there were speakers on lived experience. I believed I could do that too. I decided to learn how to speak. I began speaking around Denver about general OCD and stigma. I started a podcast. And that was when I met my mental health peers from all over the world.

The moment I became vulnerable about my experience, I attracted others with that same type of desire to me. I sought them out, they found me, others connected me, or opportunities just arose. Every story I heard had the common thread of shame, guilt, and embarrassment woven through it. And every time I heard another’s story, the icy mask around me melted a little more. My peers understood my anger. My peers understood how it felt to feel unworthy, undeserving, and unlovable because of mental illness and stigma. My peers didn’t judge me. My peers wanted to know all about my experience. My peers made me feel normal. My peers were my people! I had finally found them! And it was through them that my emotional recovery began to set in.

I could choose to look back on all those years and see they were a waste of time. I could choose to look at them and think what I ‘should have’ or ‘could have’ done. But I didn’t and I don’t. I look at the 12 years before my medical recovery as the time and story development I needed to survive my mental illness. Without it, I may have lost my life by suicide. The 13 years after my medical recovery in the emotional turmoil was exactly the amount of time I needed to grieve. I needed to grieve the experience of mental illness, the pain and suffering, and the person I believed I had lost to it.

It took every moment on the journey to emotional recovery to find the woman who emerged from those ashes. It took every excruciating moment to be able to finally look at myself in the mirror and not feel disgust, fear, shame, or guilt. It took every painful turn and every minute of doubt and fear to understand that there is no place where Chrissie ends and mental illness begins. And to understand there is no place where mental illness ends and Chrissie begins. There is just Chrissie. She exists with OCD and all the emotions that accompany it. And she is worthy of love. She deserves a good life. She is not a throw away person, damaged goods, or someone to be ashamed of. She is a human being, and one that now knows resiliency, strength, and perseverance.

My experience with OCD, the shame, guilt, and embarrassment of the disorder and intrusive thoughts do not define who I am, but I am defined by how I have chosen to embrace the experience. The journey here was long, painful, and arduous, but I never gave up. My resilience and perseverance created a foundation to stand on and actually made me capable of feeling love and pride about who I am today. In those earlier 25 years, I could never believe it was possible. But, here I am.

The journey to recovery is personal and unique for each individual. It is important to experience each stage, honor each emotion, and walk alongside those who can meet you where you are at and offer empathy. It is important to find your peers. Please never give up. You are worth it. You deserve a good life. You are not a throw away person, damaged goods, or someone to be ashamed of. You are a human being, and one that knows resiliency, strength, and perseverance. You will be able to love yourself one day. You already do, you just may not see it yet.

Recovery is possible for anyone. There is hope.

If you are in need of peer support or referrals/resources for OCD therapists and support, please visit my website at www.treatmentforocd.com or contact me at ocd.chrissie@gmail.com

To find out more about my journey, visit www.chrissiehodges.com.

Thank you,

Chrissie Hodges

Mental Health Advocate/Speaker; Peer Support Specialist & Consultant/Treatment for OCD Consulting; ERP Therapy Coach/Effective OCD Treatment; Author “Pure O: The Invisible Side of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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