On Naming Monsters

One of my earliest memories involves my childhood bedroom in Warsaw, Indiana. At the age of maybe four, I didn’t know much about the world, but I understood with certainty that I had a monster problem. This particular creature had ragged fur and horns, and waited patiently for my parents to go to sleep so he could lurk in the hall outside my bedroom door. I’m still not sure what he was doing there. Perhaps he wanted to eat me, or maybe he just wanted to enforce the “stay in your room after bedtime” rule. That I’d never actually seen him mattered little to me, nor did his intentions. The important thing was that he was terrifying.

If my mother was exhausted or exasperated by my overactive imagination, I wasn’t aware of it. She was matter-of-fact in her approach to dealing with the beast. “What’s his name?” she asked.

I didn’t know, in all honesty, as I’d never mustered the courage to speak to the thing. “You need to name him,” Mama said. “When you give a monster a name, it loses its power.” Sometimes, she did everything right.

***

The monsters that live under beds and lurk in hallways are easy enough to subdue. One way or the other, we outgrow the goblins in the closet or the leviathan in the toilet. But I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life dealing with monsters of another sort. My mental health issues took longer to name and wreaked much more havoc than ol’ Hallway Leroy ever could, and these are the monsters I want to tell you about.

I want to tell you about my bedroom in Danville, Illinois, where as a 7-year-old I laid in my bed and whispered a mantra until I fell asleep: “I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself.”

I want you to know how I’ve always been incredibly weird about food. There were counting calorie phases and perfectly-balanced-meal phases and eating-only-fruit-snacks-and-pretzels-for-weeks phases. Even now, there are rules. I cannot share dairy products of any kind. Foods must be consumed in a certain order on my plate. A very specific bite must be the last bite, and if for some reason that bite is eaten out of order, I am uncomfortable and edgy until my next meal, when I can reconcile the situation by eating a proper final nibble. Do not share an appetizer with me. It won’t end well for either of us.

I want to say that for decades, when I looked in the mirror the reflection was broken. I saw a stupid girl or a flabby teenager or a total failure. That I was never actually any of those things didn’t matter. The important thing was that my reflection was terrifying.

I want to confess something about my academic and professional self: The successes I had were because I lucked into patient mentors who were willing to overlook my unpredictable behavior because I had talent. You need to know that I did not want to be unpredictable or unreliable. I lied a lot. I said I had the flu so I could stay home, or made wild excuses for turning in late work. You need to know that I tried to do the work, and then the anticipation of my certain failure would hit me like a freight train. On good days, I could push through. On bad days, the hyperventilation would lead to physical illness, and I’d spend hours on the floor in front of the toilet, wondering what I did wrong.

I want to tell you that though I’ve always had an abundance of wonderful friends, there are very few places or people with which I felt I belonged. Though I have always enjoyed my quirkiness, I carried the awareness that I’m overly sensitive and hyper-analytical in a way that most people don’t get. I’m a fragile thing in a world that has fists and fangs. I’ve never been able to make my skin thicker.

I want to tell you about the friends I lost because I didn’t know how to tell them why I did the things I did.

I want you to know that upon meeting me, your initial impression would likely be that I’m whip-smart, quick-witted, competent, and successful. Please understand that for years, I thought I was just fooling everyone.

I want to tell you that sometimes, I wanted to die. I was not suicidal or depressed, and I loved my life. But sometimes the terror was so immense that I could not imagine I’d survive it.

I need to say that it took twenty-seven years to name the monsters that I live with: Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is important that you understand that they started losing their teeth the moment I named them.

***

I want you to know that I live an incredible, vibrant, healthy life. I have a career that brings me joy. My friends are dynamic people who challenge and fascinate me. And my family. They’re miraculous and beautiful humans with whom I spend all of my most cherished moments, and with whom I navigate some of the most challenging ones. Love is bigger than the monsters every minute of every day, even when I’m afraid that it’s not.

I want you to know that the older I get, the more practiced I become at dealing with all kinds of challenges, from navigating my schedule to having tough conversations to monster-wrangling. My tool kit is always expanding, and I’m continually learning what works best for me. This makes me feel optimistic about my future.

I’m embarrassed to tell you, but a few months ago, I was brushing my teeth and I had the strangest realization as I looked in the mirror. I’d been looking at my reflection for at least thirty seconds, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I looked old or out of shape or stupid or ugly. I was literally just using a mirror to make sure there wasn’t shmutz in my teeth. That’s when I knew my new meds were working better than anything I’d tried before. That same week, I got the mail and opened it without feeling panic. Sometimes the littlest victories are the hardest fought. I’m proudest of these.

I need to be honest with you. Living with the monsters is not easy, and it takes vigilance to keep them at bay. It took years of work after my diagnosis to find the right combination of medication and therapy for me. The solutions that work now might not work forever. That’s okay. These monsters have taught me to be steadfast.

I want to sheepishly admit that I take selfies like a fiend now, not because I’m obsessed with my own beauty or because I think you want to see them, but because I’m obsessed with what it feels like to look at a photograph of myself and feel something other than terror. To look at my image with neutrality is to celebrate.

I want to tell you that for me, the worst part of Anxiety and OCD is that they can make me feel incredibly isolated, even when I’m surrounded by love. The best part of Anxiety and OCD is that they’ve shown me that I’m a scrappy little BAMF who can thrive no matter what. I might live with chronic mental health conditions, but I know it’s possible to manage them and to live a life as happy and healthy as anyone else.  I might live with these monsters forever, but they’ll never be able to consume me again.

***

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, and I meant to write for that. I got busy doing fun stuff, though, and didn’t get to it in time.

No matter. The truth is, for those of us who have glitches in our hard wiring, every day is Mental Health Day. So right now, today, or tomorrow, or whenever you might need it,  I wanted to tell you all of these things, not because I need to confess, really, but because once upon a time, my mother taught me to name my monsters, and it saved my life. If you need help naming yours, it’s out there.

If you don’t know where to start, the National Alliance for Mental Illness is a great resource. Start there. And don’t ever, ever, ever give up.

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