Tag Archives: OCD

A Missed Dose

In the last 28 years I have not skipped or missed a dose of medication.

Wednesday night as I huddled in the ER (for the second time in two weeks) the team of doctors and nurses surrounding me looked started as I told them this fact. I guess it never occurred to me that this might be unusual in any way, but in an emergency room where they’re relatively used to patients with mental illness suddenly stopping their medication and sailing into big episodes that might be landing them there… well, I quickly felt that the staff probably did not believe me.

It is true, though. And while most people would try to praise this as an act of good self control or healthy living I fear that the truth is actually somewhere in the realm of the opposite.

You see… when I was 17 I was taking an antidepressant that (little did I know) was slowly dissolving any semblance of sanity I had left at the time. Despite the fact that it was making me worse and worse, I took it religiously. At the time I was being treated for obsessive compulsive disorder, and frankly there were many things in my life that I needed to do religiously or I firmly believed I would die very suddenly.

I have always been the sort of person that once a routine has been established I have a very very hard time deviating from that routine, even when it is harming me. For the last several months, for example, I have eaten one large fried egg over medium and a slice of buttermilk toast for breakfast every day (at least, every day that I could eat). There are times when I struggle with the notion that I probably shouldn’t eat so many eggs (hello cholesterol), but the best I can do when I feel really ballsy is switch out the buttermilk toast for an english muffin. Not eating this breakfast is… well… wrong.

Anyway, at 17, taking said antidepressant religiously and spiraling into a very dark, weird place I was quickly in an psychiatric inpatient hospitalization situation. Within 24 hours I became outrageously ill, and I’m talking the most ill I had ever felt in my life up to (and even after) that point. Eight hours of uncontrollable vomiting and dry-heaving, and dizziness to the point of being unable to even dress myself.

This also happened to be the time when one of the nurses decided to display an abuse of power, laughing at my sudden illness, yelling at me, accusing me of having an eating disorder, and refusing to help me for several hours. By the time I was able to deduce that I was having withdrawals from my usual medication regimen, the damage was already done, and the fear this experience had instilled in me took root very firmly.

I could not and would not ever stop taking any medication suddenly for any reason again if it was in my power, and the paranoia and fear that manifested from this situation has often swung me into the danger zone in the opposite direction. What I mean is that while I don’t feel compelled to stop taking my medication suddenly (or act cavalier about keeping up with taking it), I have become even more obsessive and paranoid about taking these pills. To top it off, I’ve had many instances of not being able to remember if I took them or not, and then accidentally taking them several times over just in case I had forgotten.

Realistically this doesn’t provide a much more safe environment, and suffice it to say that withdrawal of many drugs is probably extremely preferable to overdose.

I had been feeling really rough on wednesday, a lot of the dizziness and nausea from the week previous had returned. By the time I took my dosage of lithium for the night, I vomited it back up in a matter of minutes.

Though I had already been advised earlier in the day to go to the ER by my doctor to receive intervenes nausea medication and fluids, it wasn’t until the panic of suddenly being lithium free for the first night in four years set in that I was heading straight for the hospital. I was certain that if I didn’t feel horribly sick already (and I did) I was headed for a night of fire and brimstone.

By the time I got to the ER I was hitting patches of uncontrollable crying. I was terrified, and even though the seasoned internet sage reported I would likely only experience mental and mood symptoms from the missed dose, the way my body reacts to medications (or lack thereof) has been significantly different than the norm in almost every situation. I had no way to know what might happen next.

So the doctors dealt with the nausea and the fluids, and when I brought the idea of “missing” (or losing, rather) my lithium dose that night the doctor instinctively told me to take it again when I got home.

Now, given my history, this is something I had already considered myself. However, I had been pretty dehydrated for a week or so and I was concerned because dehydration can lead to lithium toxicity. When I said this to the doctor, I also mentioned that I have already experienced lithium toxicity before and wouldn’t like to do it again. His conclusion was that they would check my lithium levels in the blood they had already taken earlier when I checked in.

Thirty minutes later he walked into my room and commented that my lithium levels were a bit higher than he expected. He advised I wait until the next night to continue with my lithium.

Among the papers I was given when I headed home for the night was the lab report that included my lithium level. It was nearly twice my regular level.

When I read that I was immediately glad I had gone to the ER and not just taken the lithium again. If I had, I would have undoubtedly experienced lithium toxicity, as I was nearly there already. For the first time I felt grateful for having vomited… and I can’t help but feel slightly mystified at the possibility that my body was rejecting the excess lithium all on its own.

I am now back on track with my medications and working with a GI specialist to try to pinpoint the source of my stomach issues. It is a little funny how not eating can make eating something as basic as plain white rice taste amazing!

Fixation Without Representation

As I went through my belongings in preparation of moving the last two weeks I found a letter that confirmed my suspicion. It was something of an intervention letter from my best friend in high school expressing her concern (and rightly so) for my apparent fixation and total inability to focus on the present -one of the symptoms that contributed greatly to my subsequent (first) psychiatric hospitalization.

The irony was that as I read the letter, I was experiencing a mixed/depressive episode (something my psychiatrist has nicknamed the “three quarters” episode comprised of three quarters depression and one quarter mania) with very similar symptoms as that first big episode.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the human brain or the human heart, or even to know much about which of my symptoms “lend themselves” to which diagnoses… what I can say is that in the realm of what I experience, fixation has been a big problem for me and has greatly contributed to some of the most torturous episodes I’ve ever experienced.

So bipolar, OCD, anxiety… it all feels irrelevant. When my mind and my emotions are one train on one track it seems futile to try to categorize the details. All I know is that the train is headed one way; toward self annihilation.

The fixation issue seems to come about most often when I find myself under a particular amount of scrutiny or rejection. While there are times someone might say,

“You’re being irrational and fixating on things,”

I can usually gladly follow the logic around how the person arrived at that conclusion. Being able to understand where that person is coming from, I can say, “why yes, I am doing those things. Thank you.”

The trouble starts when I am being insulted (and perhaps finding out about it later) or people seem to be going out of their way to attack me (or manipulate me) and I can’t find the logic in it.

An example I can throw out is from the first time this really took place, when my ex-boyfriend was stringing me along while dating another girl. His actions and words did not match whatsoever, and all I wanted, all I longed for, was to understand why.

My mind begins to obsess over every little detail. Every contradictory or accusational thing that has been said echoes over, and over, and over again in my mind, and the only course of action I can seem to take is to argue and plea my case against them.

This month I received some extremely bizarre (and untrue) accusations about myself that left me in the same position. Why would my ex-therapist (among others) act so nice to my face, and then write such bizarre accusations about me in her files? Why would the people I am trusting (the situation involved several others I’m not at liberty to disclose at this point) go out of their way to screw with me? How does attacking someone having a decidedly hard time help anyone?

The voices of all of these people banded together in my mind and took turns bashing me. Every second of every day it was all I could think about, and it was all I could do to argue with each voice, to try to contradict it, to try to stand up for myself… knowing my efforts were truly fruitless and that the voices wouldn’t listen, and even if they did, the relinquishment of their manipulation would only take place in my head (and not in real life).

This is a big part of the reason I couldn’t blog about anything. Every time I tried to write a blog post, I could only get one or two sentences in before the pleading would spill out of my head through my fingers into the computer. I was desperate to focus on something, anything else, but this was one situation where writing only fed the beast. I tried at one point just to write a personal piece about what I was thinking, the arguments, and what was happening. I stepped away from the computer seven hours later and still felt I had barely touched the tip of the iceberg.

Through all of this obsessing, I was angry. I was depressed. I couldn’t sleep because it was all I could think about. In a matter of days I was whittled down to a sharp point, extremely reactive to everyone and everything around me.

If the topic of suicidality in our culture is taboo, the topic of homicidality is taboo to the 10th degree. I realize this, but honestly the issue of homicidality is also one that will send me straight to the hospital much more quickly than most lingering thoughts of suicide will. It is something I have to deal with, and in these sorts of situations (mixed episode, feeling like my back is up against the wall, feeling like I am being attacked from all angles -including from within my own head) I become extremely concerned for the safety of the people around me. When I have spent all of my energy talking back to these angry, accusational voices… I don’t have much energy left to funnel toward self-control.

In a sense, I got lucky. Having that “three quarters” episode meant that I only really spent 1/4 of my time in raging attack mode, and these outrageously angry moments came at me in waves book-ended by the other 3/4 of my time in severe, suicidal depression. If those rage waves would have been any closer together (or longer in duration) I would have opted for hospitalization without question. As it was, I was on the fence… and only because I was supposed to move in a matter of days.

Personally, I think the sort of rapid cycling I experience makes hospitalization a difficult prospect because my mood can change several times just in the time it takes for the intake procedures. At the same time, when it cycles and I am in an impatient unit I quickly get the boot, which doesn’t help because it can quickly cycle back into a dangerous place (within minutes, hours) of being discharged. I’ve experienced a lot of frustration around this phenomenon and because of this it isn’t unusual for me to feel more upset upon leaving than I did when I checked in.

Through all of this, my psychiatrist has really been one person I feel that I can trust. He suggested I go home and wait it out, and I spent the vast majority of my time confined to the apartment until the rage waves subsided and switched exclusively to depression (minus the insomnia).

The end result felt a little counter-intuitive, because what ultimately seemed to help me move past the fixation (and I say that but it still comes and goes) was not talking about it. Not writing about it.

I mean, I tried those things at first (talking about it and writing about it) because those are two things that have always helped me feel a sense of relief in the past about things that were making me anxious. What I experienced this time around though was that talking about the situation with my therapist (for example) only led to his voice contributing to the ones in my head. Every time I was talking about it, I was thinking about the situation more and more, which left me stuck in that “thought loop”.

Writing was equally as fruitless. I tried as hard as I could to outline an argument for myself, to make sense of the pieces I had, and it only left me with new questions to fixate upon. Every word was like a dagger, and seeing them all clumped together gave them more momentum.

Apart from my medical support team, I only told three people what actually happened. I avoided everyone else (for fear they would ask about my current state) until I felt comfortable allowing one or two people to try to draw me into their world of the present. Funny anecdotes about their jobs, or their cats, or whatever. Tiny tidbits to focus on besides me.

Those tidbits made up a gateway, and the moment I fell through the other side was the first shower I took in the new apartment. I was messing with the shower-head spray mechanism and accidentally turned the spray into a high-powered water gun that hit me in the chest and almost knocked me over. The sheer impact and surprise of the situation made me laugh out loud uncontrollably (imagining myself and Kramer with his industrial power shower head)… and for the first time in weeks I breathed a sigh of relief.

Ultimately I’m still not ready to talk about the incident that triggered this whole fiasco (I don’t want to re-start the fixating thought-loop), and though I’ve had a day or two where I’ve been able to come up for air, I’ve noticed some of the mixed symptoms returning in the last 24 hours. Luckily I have an appointment with my psychiatrist this afternoon and an entire blank canvas of an apartment full of possibilities.

Support Needed for Mental Illness in the Workplace

Happy Monday! Today I want to share a recent article from USA Today that seems to address some issues I’ve been seeing (and living, let’s face it) about a lack of support around people with mental illness in the workplace.

I’ve been hitting a lot of big roadblocks when it comes to applying for SSDI, and I’ve honestly had some big questions about how our disability system works (or doesn’t work) here in the US. I’ve come across countless people who are against the whole idea of SSDI because it doesn’t support people who are disabled and want to work part time, and the current system seems to only support an “all” or “nothing” style of support. There have been so many situations I’ve found myself in where I know I could mentally benefit from working a few hours a week (giving my life a better sense of structure and a bigger sense of accomplishment and purpose) but the way the system is set up, trying to help myself this way is extremely frowned upon.

The article I’m sharing today addresses the idea of a “supported employment program” that potentially allows employers to do a better job of bridging the gap between the needs of their companies and realistic employment abilities of those with mental illness (which, let’s be honest, can widely vary for any given person over time). Personally, I consider this to be a stellar idea… I am just not sure how well this could realistically be executed. If companies aren’t currently willing to make the necessary accommodations for exceptionally well qualified applicants with mental illness as it is (something I have experienced several times), what would encourage them to use a program like this one?

At any rate, you can check out the article here. Give it a read and let me know what you think!

The Heart of July 4th

Propaganda of the American Colonies

Propaganda of the American Colonies

I would never refer to myself as an ardent patriot, but I do (on occasion) have the opportunity to spend time researching history and then living in a manner that our forefathers (and mothers) were accustomed to. The time of the American Revolutionary War is one that is of particular interest to me.

What is it about the period leading up to the war and the transition into a unified country I find so fascinating? Well, while others are roasting their hot dogs today and lighting off fireworks, I’m thinking about why July 4th is a holiday in the first place.

It is a story of a group of people being taken advantage of; an example of a true tale of the underdogs fighting for the rights they believe they deserve until they have achieved them.

This is an important story, and though it is one that comes up again and again in US history focusing on many different groups of people, this is a story that is still in its early stages when it comes to our story.

The American Revolution itself faced difficulty in reaching unity within the colonies. It provided a period of thought and contemplation about what basic rights should be afforded to all people, and (what people usually remember) also included a brutal struggle through the physical act of fighting.

You might be surprised to hear it, but I see a lot of similarities between the fight for American independence and the fight for fair, competent mental health services in our country and the need to bring people together on this issue. I don’t expect our journey to involve a navy or muskets, but I’m sure that is for the better!

The snake, for example, in the propaganda banner above is broken down into pieces representing each of the colonies that needed to come together to create a unified force. I think we face similar issues when attempting to unify people behind the cause of mental health because many of us have different viewpoints, different backgrounds, different disorders, different symptoms! Still, if we can find a way to work together we will find we are a force to be reckoned with; a snake you’d better not step on again!

Guerilla Warfare

Guerilla Warfare

During the American Revolution the British soldiers greatly outnumbered the colonist militia, so the militia changed the rules of war; hiding in wooded areas in an attempt to shield themselves while making an attack.

Most of us with mental illness have felt like we have needed to hide in order to keep ourselves safe, and being smart about when we share our experiences or staying calm and choosing our battles is a strategy that has already began to show some improvement in our nation’s social dialogue.

I know that while I feel comfortable coming forward and being open with everyone in my life about my experiences, I understand there are others in situations (like in a questionable workplace, family, or school environment) who have to be very careful about the battles they choose to fight and when they can fight them. I know these situations can be distressing, but I don’t consider this to be a drawback because when a hidden warrior chooses to finally make themselves seen there is a big impact.

Community

Community

One of the things I’ve found is that the act of hiding makes discovering a sense of community ten times more rewarding. This is part of what makes us strong; we truly appreciate much of what each other has to offer. Though I know there is still a little work that needs to go into unification for our cause, our community is constantly growing.

I expect that this 4th that there will be picnics and a sense of community and giddy children lighting off fireworks in the streets, but I hope that today you will also think about the reason behind it all.

No, it isn’t our right to bear arms, nor our hatred of paying taxes. It isn’t about guys in powdered wigs or military prowess. July 4th is about being someone who has struggled, someone who has been walked on, and demanding a better life.

If nothing else, that thought inspires me because I see myself in itIf that is what it truly means to be an American, maybe I’ve been a patriot all along?

Grass

Language and Mental Illness; A Different Point of View

I’ve been reading a lot of pleas and rants about how important it is for people to conform to one standard of language when it comes to discussing mental illness… this is not one of them.

Personally, I believe expecting everyone to adhere to strict conformity when it comes to discussing mental health is a step in the wrong direction, and while that is a notion that may boggle some minds, I’m hoping to make a clear case today for my (potentially less-popular) point of view. I am not here to call anyone out, just to express my concern and why I feel that way.

I’d like to start by stating the obvious:

People have different beliefs.

In fact, they’re allowed to. That is a big part of the idea that America was founded on, and globally it is even more apparent that our cultures and environments have produced many different ways of looking at the world. These many viewpoints include those that effect how people look at mental health.

If you haven’t already, you may want to take a second to check out The Icarus Project. This is a national community of people (largely artists) who don’t believe in taking traditional psychiatric medications (for the  most part) and instead try to embrace themselves in their current state, largely funneling their emotions into art.

Do you agree with this? Maybe not, but whether you or I agree with their beliefs doesn’t change their right to believe them.

A big part of our ability to live our lives comes from tolerance and the ability to get along with people with different viewpoints. It seems like such a large part when it comes to “battling stigma” has become pushing others to believe the things (and act the way) we want them to instead of focusing on being open and being treated with respect.

Language is Imperfect. 

I have gotten a lot of flack from my therapists for jumping back and forth between psychiatric verbiage when describing my mental state and regular descriptive language. What they don’t seem to understand is that most words don’t seem to describe what I’m aiming to describe very well at all, and I wind up with the oddest mish-mash (I’m sure you’ve read some here if you’re familiar at all with my blog) of language.

Language is imperfect, not all of the words we might want or need have been invented yet. Describing something that isn’t tangible (like something in our minds) can often be frustrating enough, and on top of that different groups of people have different feelings associated with different words. One word in English very rarely means one thing straight across the board (I guess maybe “buttress” is an exclusion?), and a word spoken in the city might have an entirely different connotation in the country (let alone from region to region).

Language is not something we can expect to lasso and subdue until it is uniform. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way language has ever worked (from the time it was invented) so it seems ludicrous to me to expect that it will now.

Language is a form of self-expression.

If we consider other forms of self-expression (music, painting, etc.) it seems ridiculous to walk up to someone painting and tell them they can’t use the color blue. Or they can’t use the “c” note. Or they can use the “c” note but only when followed with an “e flat”.

A lot of the things I’ve seen lately about mental health verbiage has sounded like that sort of bizarre notion me. While I understand that people feel concerned about how others are expressing themselves (something I will get into momentarily), the act of telling someone what they can and can’t say or write quickly falls into the realm of censorship. While I understand that is not anyone’s intention, that doesn’t change the fact that that’s where this attitude is heading.

In addition, self expression is as individual as… well… the individual! There is no such thing as a “right way” or a “wrong way” to express oneself. Surely, there are ways that may be more pleasing to the senses (which, again varies widely from person to person), or ways that our society deems more acceptable than others (also varies depending on many factors like age, location, race), but that normally doesn’t bar forms of self-expression that falls outside of these categories.

Do the actions or words of one person discredit the rest of the group?

This is the big question that I think has been fueling so many of these negative comments and posts. Certainly when one blogger appears sloppy or ignorant about mental health, we all suffer, right?

I read an article once about how a large group of lesbians (around the time the gay rights movement was really heating up) were shunning any woman who had identified herself as a lesbian but had slept with a man because they believed it made them all look bad. Instead of helping their own cause, it created tension and animosity among a group that should have been fighting along side one another for the same rights.

I feel like this is a very similar situation, and people who should be scooped up and cared for to bolster a strong mental health community are instead being ostracized and attacked (for often doing little more than using a word incorrectly).

This particular idea is one that has been weighing heavily on my heart for quite some time, not because of the language situation (that is really a secondary symptom for this issue) but because of how quick much of the mental health community is to jump on board with ostracizing or shunning anyone who has a mental illness and also committed an act of violence.

Does a seemingly “poorly written” blog post make us all look bad? (Really?)

To take it one step further I have to ask; does an act of violence from one person with mental illness make us all look bad?

If it does, it is not for the reasons you are probably thinking of. From my perspective it all comes down to the reaction of the mental health community, and whether our reaction is one of solidarity:

“This is an example of a very extreme instance of mental illness and is an important indicator about the help that is sill needed in the mental health community.”

or, more often, one of dismissal:

“People with mental illness are almost never violent. I am never violent, this has nothing to do with me.”

The issue of including (or being supportive) of someone in the mental health community who might need extra help is an issue ten times larger to me than being nit-picky about the language in a blog or on twitter. How can we expect people to be supportive and accepting of us when we can’t support or accept the people within our own mental health communities? Can we take a look at the bigger picture please?

This conversation has only just begun.

The conversation about mental health has only just began to heat up. I believe whole heartedly that putting our focus on the statements that don’t match up with our own beliefs and attacking them is incredibly foolish. At this point, I think it is less important what is being said as the fact that people are saying it.

Think about it, more people than ever before are beginning to talk about mental health, and that is truly remarkable! No matter what people are bringing to the table in this conversation, it is important to remember that people have different beliefs and the way we learn and understand is to have a conversation with many different points of view. We can’t expect people who are just starting to explore this topic to have the vocabulary or understanding that someone who has lived with these issues for many years to have, and attacking anyone for being ignorant or for having a different perspective will likely create an enemy instead of a friend.

Understanding wont happen overnight, and we can’t force people into seeing from our point of view. All we can do is share what we have, and be patient and tolerant with everyone else.

What can we do to help?

1. Express yourself! Express yourself with words, photography, paint, clothing, music, whatever it is that you do best. Use the language that suits you best to tell your story, the story of how you (an individual) live your life!

2. Practice patience. I know this can be a tough one (especially with a mood disorder), but if you see a comment or post that upsets/frustrates you, skip it. If you want to respond, maybe wait until the emotional reaction has gone and see how you feel then.

3. Practice positivity. The internet is one place in particular that I try to practice the phrase, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Try pledging yourself to leaving positive comments only and skipping writing negative ones. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help your own mood and feelings of positivity while blogging.

4. Focus on you. Try focusing on your own self expression and making it the best it can be instead of focusing on the perceived faults of others. When in conversation (online or in real life) and you feel you need to respond to a point of view you don’t agree with, start the dialogue by focusing on yourself. “I find this particular use of words offensive because ____. ” or “disagree because ____.” This leads to a more open conversation that feels more honest and less accusational.

5. Be open. In the mental health community, a lot of importance is placed on the portion of being open that involves sharing our stories, but it is equally as important to be open to what others have to say or questions they might have. Remember, this is a time for mental health conversation, and conversations are a two way street. It can be amazing how being open to a new idea or point of view can lead us to profound places; all it takes is a willingness to listen!

Anyone with works of self-expression coming from a mental health perspective who might be interested in seeing one pop up on this blog, shoot me an email at host@thebipolarcuriousblog.com

I Follow the Rules; Now You Follow the Rules

Apartment hunting may be the optimal task for hypomania. I have been making flurries of phone calls, refreshing my local craigslist page every twenty minutes, and attempting to jump into these listings with the knowledge that apartment hunting often operates on a first come first serve basis.

Last weekend that meant showing up for a local open house an hour early to ensure we arrived first in line (yes, I am taking this very seriously, but you’ll see why in a minute). Frankly, it is a wonder I ever imagined the situation would be handled in a civilized way… as it turned out, before the landlord even opened the unit there were 12 other people there to look (besides us) and two of them walked immediately to the landlord (before seeing the property) and handed him a completely filled out application and deposit check.

I felt slightly better after seeing the place (it was tiny and terrible) and concluding it wouldn’t have worked for us anyway. It has been three years since we’ve moved into a new apartment, and I don’t know if people have just quit caring about the rules (shit, I guess I am almost 30 now) or if it was always this way and I was just young enough the last time around that I didn’t expect anyone to actually follow them.

Fast forward to a week later and I’m beginning to think these “rules” I’ve imagined are simply that: imaginary. Every place I have called I’ve had to keep calling and calling until I got someone on the line, every landlord who said they would call me back or give me some kind of advantage has failed to follow through. Turns out in this situation there are no rules; I’m smack-dab in the middle of the apartment-hunting wild west.

The idea of set, commonly-known “rules” has always been a problem for me, I believe that is a big part of where my OCD symptoms like to swirl around and cause mayhem. I’ve subjected myself to an incredible amount of rules since childhood, starting with anything as simple as:

Don’t wear pink and red together.

Follow-up or returning phone calls should always happen within 24 hours.

Always wait for a break in conversation before leaving.

Of course, there are more complicated and/or irrational rules too… things like:

If I wrap a blanket around my feet a certain way, nobody will kill me in the night.

If I am worried the bus will come before I reach the stop, I can perform a repetitive little chant that will keep me from losing my shit (and hopefully from missing the bus).

If I am camping and I see a stranger I want to talk to I have to wait 24 hours before speaking to them.

These ideas may seem simple enough, but my mind has often been clouded with millions of rules all piled up around each other. A rule for every situation, rules for getting dressed, rules for the order in which I can brush my teeth and wash my face. Rules about what I eat or can cook or where I can eat out. Rules about when I can or cannot call or text someone else, and what kind of contact is appropriate on which holidays. That, unfortunately, is just the beginning.

Having rules like these have always helped me know what kind of decisions to make and how to behave in certain situations, but they have also been like a curse. I have always required myself to do certain things at certain times, and not to do certain things at other times. Through childhood and adolescence this was a pretty intense burden to deal with, and what is probably worse is that I have had  a very difficult time not projecting these rules onto other people and expecting them to adhere to them without any explanation from my end.

Many times my mother told me (generally referring to herself), “you have unrealistic expectations of people!” Having this pointed out over and over again didn’t help me change that fact, particularly because I felt caught in the same vortex. I had unrealistic expectations of myself (it is practically impossible for me to get all the rules right 100% of the time, and if I don’t I have had panic attacks from feelings of impending doom or death, physical pain and anxiety, general feelings of horribleness, and the constant voice telling me how much of a failure I am) and I didn’t know how to break through them. These rules were ruling my life, and while I was running around trying to follow them it seemed outrageous to me that nobody else seemed to care about the rules. Wasn’t everyone born with the same sort of rules programed into their brains? Didn’t they feel the pain of failure that I felt? Didn’t they have a cruel voice in their heads too? How could these people operate without caring if they did things “right”?

Yesterday morning was like stepping back through time. My new therapist hadn’t called me yet, and a nearby apartment’s landlord who said he’d call me back hadn’t. Instead he reposted the page for the apartment on craigslist without giving me the first spot in line I thought I had deserved because I had contacted him before anyone else had.

I thought my head was going to explode, and I fell back into the frustration formed by those rules and those unrealistic expectations I have (practically unknowingly) for others. I clenched my fist and was pissed, knowing that if I was that therapist or that landlord I would have called because it was the right thing to do. It was one of the rules!

It has been a long time since I have considered myself a “perfectionist”. That is a word I try to avoid, because it dangles something unattainable in front of me that I know (no matter what I do) never feels quite perfect enough. Even those moments where I feel a sense of achievement and even perfection there never seems to be anyone around who understands all the odd hoops and rules and the terrifying earnestness that goes into achieving something that way. All I am left with is a shiny gold star and emptiness.

I liked to believe that the OCD symptoms I had as a child and teenager have long since vanished. Realistically, they’ve been overshadowed by the seemingly more pronounced and intense symptoms of bipolar disorder, and in moments of anxiety and stress they jump out. Over the years I have found small ways of coping with the overwhelming feeling of being controlled (and thereby controlling others) by practicing breaking certain rules. Doing so reminds me that breaking them doesn’t end in the stark conclusion of life vs. death; but often (when I can pull it off) makes me feel much more free. This is something that waxes and wanes in intensity for me, but I want to do a better job remembering that there is a sense of irrationality behind these rules that have (for whatever reason) taken hold of me.

Tattoos and Closure

In many parts of America I think tattoos are written off as the hallmark of degenerates. I think what our culture is slowly realizing (on the tails of American youth) that tattoos are no longer symbols limited to criminals, gang members, and salty dogs, but are swiftly being acknowledged as a disciplined art form that has been spreading (especially through the Pacific Northwest) like wildfire.

Today many different people have and are getting tattoos, and the reasons people get them are practically as widespread as the artwork itself. Some people consider their tattoos to be living works of art with no connection to any specific motive beyond a sense of their own enjoyment of a color, a shape, or an artist. Others collect tattoos to represent things that are important in their lives, like their children. It isn’t uncommon for people to get tattoos as a milestone representing a celebration like graduating, moving to a new place, or starting a business.

While I don’t want to detract from these (and other) reasons people have for getting tattoo work done, I want to specifically address another big reason people seek out the experience of getting a tattoo; closure.

While many people get tattoos as a symbol for a milestone event in their lives, it is very common for these events to have something to do with loss. A memorial piece for the loss of a loved one (like a parent or pet), a cover-up piece to detract from scars associated with physical loss (like a difficult surgery or self-harm), or a piece to symbolize the end of something difficult (like a relationship) are all ways people seek closure through the art of the tattooing.

I find that many, especially those seeking a tattoo to move toward closure, are infatuated with the ritualistic method of tattooing as well. I really believe that most people in the process of seeking closure experience some degree of anxiety about it, which is somewhat amplified when that person is about to be tattooed. As the artists works, there is physical pain that might (as some might suggest with self harm) be like a physical manifestation of the pain the grief of loss has been causing internally. When the piece is finished the pain subsides and is replaced with something beautiful, something permanent that can act as a visual reminder of our loss, replacing that constant need to obsess over it mentally.

***

After somewhat inadvertently escaping an abusive relationship in 2006 I didn’t realize how much I’d been effected by it until a couple years later. Though I’d moved on and lived in a different place and was in a new relationship, I was in a constant state of terror that my ex would reappear and set fire to everything I’d built.

This fear was not entirely far fetched. It had been common for him to track people down and show up without warning, and though I thought I had made it clear to him never to come near me again, I had the slow churning of the anxious bipolar mind working against me as well.

When I would have periods of psychosis, I was the most afraid. Afraid in general, but mostly afraid of him. My paranoia would take over my life and I would be afraid to open the curtains or unlock the door. After changing my phone number and moving again (for the 4th time since I’d seen him last) I still didn’t feel safe. I still didn’t feel free.

By last year (six years after the relationship ended) I still felt as anxious and terrified as ever. I was afraid I would bump into him in the street (despite a rumor that he lived in another state). I was afraid that I would come home one day and he would be in my apartment. I was afraid that he would do something irrational… and that’s when I took a look in the mirror.

If anyone was being irrational, it was me. I was in a constant state of being engulfed by fear, fear of something that wasn’t very likely going to happen at that point, if it had at all. I had obsessed and worried so much that I felt swamped, completely unable to tell what signs to consider threats and what was harmless.

In a manic epiphany (I tend to have one every few years) I concluded that I should get a tattoo. The tattoo would be a moth, because my ex was terribly afraid of moths. This permanent symbol would act as a talisman, and perhaps not directly repelling him, if I associated myself with something he considered repellant, I hoped I would feel empowered. A reminder that I am safe now.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the idea would work. Surely, getting a tattoo would work (I already had two at the time) but I didn’t know if I could ease my mind this way, particularly a very anxious, obsessing, bipolar mind.

When the mania wore off I still felt inspired, and within a few weeks I met up with a local artist (a great one, I might add) who tattooed me.

(I also wanted to note that you wont find any images of my tattoos on this post because I don’t post images of my tattoos on the internet. I prefer they remain singular works of art, not copied by anyone else.)

I don’t think the change was immediate, but I am sitting here almost a year later and haven’t had any problems with anxiety or paranoia about my ex-boyfriend in months. Of course, that isn’t to say that I haven’t had any anxiety or paranoia about other things, but the fear I had before (particularly about him breaking into my apartment) seems to be quelled.

Going through with getting something as simple as a tattoo has greatly improved the amount of closure I have felt about a traumatic time in my life and lessened my fear about my past, and scaling back that fear has meant specifically (for me);

  • Less frequent apartment lock checking (especially when I was getting up in the middle of the night several times to check locks)
  • Being able to keep the window open when I am at home
  • Being able to be home alone without leaving every light on
  • Feeling comfortable leaving the apartment more frequently
  • Less concern that he will jump out at me on the street, I am able to walk much more relaxed
  • I no longer feel the need to keep moving around or changing my phone number

I realize the idea of using tattooing as a way to help combat anxiety or fear is something that people may be skeptical about, and that is why I wanted to share my experience about it. There are many people out there who, like me, see tattooing as a form of therapy.

After all, there have been moments in my regular therapy sessions where my therapist has asked me to close my eyes and imagine wearing an outfit that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed. She said that any time I can close my eyes and imagine I’m wearing it.

All I’ve done is taken this idea one step further. I thought of something I can wear that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed… and I’ve permanently adhered it to my body.

Now I never have to close my eyes and imagine, I can just look down and remember who I am.