Teacher in the Gray — Part 4

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Virtutem Lunae

Soft white light bathes the landscape. A canyon, lifeless only moments before, breathes with new life. Streams whisper through the narrows, gleaming in the moonbeams snaking between trees. A lone fern contrasts sharply with the muted reds of a sandstone wall. Stars paint the canvased sky, winking from their high perches. A gentle breath chills the hollow as the distant sound of waking bats gently pierce the silence. Peaceful reticence muffles the canyon as they leave.

Returning to Utah felt bittersweet. My loving family provides me with substantial emotional support. Being free of fear about if I could afford another meal and when will my landlord eject me satisfied some of Maslow’s physiological and security requirements. Having someone ensure I woke with the sun made me feel loved. Yet, I felt guilty and ashamed. Now living in my parent’s basement at 24 years old, I felt incompetent and unworthy of love:

You’re a failure.
Why couldn’t you take care of yourself?
What is your problem?
Get a grip.
You’re a burden.
You hurt them.
Your family only helps because they have to.
They hate you.
What 24 year old live in their mother’s basement?
You failed.

Every person deserves love, and everyone needs someone to catch their falls. My parents arranged an appointment with a psychiatrist and an intake interview at a nearby Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). Both of these appointments occurred in the first week after arriving in Utah. The psychiatrist above cares for others in my family, so we developed an effective medication plan almost immediately. The IOP intake diagnosed me with OCD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder; three weeks later, I entered the program. After a lifetime of OCD, years of Major Depressive Disorder, drug-induced deliriums, and months of near-complete isolation, fate decided to floor the car in reverse.

I Say We

“The psychiatrist also cared for others in my family, so we developed an effective medication plan almost immediately.” My psychiatrist didn’t just assign me medication, but rather presented various medication plans, gave me pros and cons of each option, and asked what plan I wanted to try first. Walking through how each medication functions, and how it will affect my day-to-day life empowered me to make goal-oriented medical decisions. For example, Adderall often helps ADHD, but can worsen OCD symptoms. Since my job isn’t heavily impacted by ADHD―in fact, ADHD actually helps me at this job―there’s no reason to be on Adderall. My psychiatrist explained this principle, assessed my work situation, and gave me the above recommendation: which I accepted. They’re truly an amazing person, and this method commands serious respect.

Exposure and Response Prevention: intentionally exposing a sufferer to an obsession, and preventing a compulsive response.

A car being shifted into reverse while driving isn’t very pretty; changing a compulsive lifestyle follows suit. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) helps treat OCD by intentionally exposing a sufferer to an obsession, and preventing a compulsive response. Predictably, purposefully engaging a threat generates significant stress, and effective treatment ultimately requires repeated exposures to all major obsessions: the term “it’s always darkest just before the dawn” illustrates ERP all too well. The first few weeks of treatment were quite stressful. That’s a bit of a lie: the entire program was difficult, but I saw progress, thereby gaining hope, after the first couple of weeks. For three hours of every day, five days a week, therapists and clinical assistants taught me life skills, met with me one-on-one, and pitted me against most all my obsessions. The program had no minimum or maximum length, the patient and their therapist determined how long a patient needed to be in the IOP. I ended up in treatment for five months.

After 306 hours of OCD treatment, I graduated from the IOP. They taught me how to handle intrusive thoughts, challenge thinking errors, recognize and prevent compulsive behaviors, create my own ERP plans for future obsessions, and much more. During my stay, I got a job at a local museum, began volunteering at the aquarium where I now work, roughly stabilized my spending, and started interacting with friends and family again. But, of course, life didn’t magically improve without setbacks.

Had to see a therapist, then I found out

Somethin’ funny’s goin’ on up in my house

“The Search” by NF

OCD prevented me from holding a job during most of last year. The IOP in Utah costed less than anything in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t cheap―I needed a job. Applying to PetCo proved futile. While the law requires companies to provide reasonable accommodation for OCD, my inability to handle crickets―the primary food source for many animals―does not count as reasonable accommodation. I then sought and got a job at Smith’s unloading freight and stocking shelves. Working freight bored me to no end, but the alien new workplace kept the effort manageable. Eventually, the novelty of Smith’s wore off, giving intrusive thoughts an open field. Thousands of images and thoughts besieged me. Every shift left me on the verge of a panic attack. One Sunday, the thoughts won―wave after wave of distressing images drove me into a full-fledged panic attack. I left. Speed walking out of Smith’s, I jumped in my car, drove home, and slept for over eight hours. Work called many times over the next three weeks to no avail. They never saw me again.

During a therapeutic exercise, a newfound trauma response surfaced. A therapist asked the group to write a letter to their disorder, addressing its entirety. When pen hit paper, I completely dissociated for twenty minutes before returning with a panic attack. Seven weeks later, the group wrote letters again. This time, I only partially dissociated and began to scribble on the letterhead. Red inks spiraled, greens split, and blacks curled into themselves: red orbs, OCD/ADHD interactions, and a lost mind. To this day, I cannot write about my experiences on paper; I can type them and post them online, but physical writing remains an impossibility.

The IOP gifted me validation. When I dissociated during the exercise above, everyone understood what was happening and offered assistance. They didn’t just “get it,” but truly understood the event at a personal level; many people with OCD have dissociation episodes. I could tell another patient about how an alone 14-year-old girl asked me a question at work, and they instantly knew what thoughts were circulating through my mind. A patient could tell me how they had to purchase meat at a grocery store, and I’d feel empathy for the fears consuming them. I wasn’t crazy or alone anymore. Dozens of people at the clinic shared similar obsessions and compulsive activities with each other. They too pathologically feared disappointing others, members of their attracted sex, driving, etc. I finally understood my brain, and so did many, many others.

The moon assumes a special meaning in my life. A white orb hanging in the sky, bright and hopeful. A body that isn’t red. A body that doesn’t grind. A body that doesn’t burn. For everything the moon is, the red orb is not. For all that the red orb represents, the moon opposes. I’ve never been a sentimental man, but my experiences had changed me. The last year witnessed more tears than the preceding six combined. A celestial body 385,000.6 km brings me peace and joy. While I don’t see them much since I work two jobs, my family and friends mean more to me now than ever before. Most of all, I now accept my disorders and emotions, and have learned much about who I truly am.

Waves lap against a sandy beach. Wind whistles through palm trees. I cough, and cough, and cough. That foul, salty water leaves my lungs, and fresh air enters them. This small island stands defiantly in the eye of the storm: a brief respite from the battering wind and turbulent oceans. Most strikingly, the moon hovers over this very spit of land. Powerful, yet gentle, rays grace my cheeks and adorn my head. Though the storm still howls, I now understand that I am not alone. In lunam, ut vivere.

Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!

A Fantastic Friend of Mine

One thought on “Teacher in the Gray — Part 4

  1. Oh Alex. You dont know how much love and compassion I have for you. My heart is so full. I am learning so much from you.

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