“Tell yourself it’s the anxiety, not you.”
That’s the first thing they tell you in mental health treatment. You’re supposed to be able to remind yourself that the thoughts you’re feeling aren’t natural thoughts in the way that other thoughts are, that the compartment of your brain that produces your paranoia is somehow other from the entity with which the psychologist is interacting. That was the thesis statement of my first session, the question I was assigned to center my life around over the next week: If everyone else can convince themselves that their worries are irrational, why can’t you?
You don’t really notice how weird it is to be fighting yourself until you actually start the fight. While the therapists will frame it as you vs. the anxiety monster, the reality is much more convoluted and much scarier. When you’re fighting someone else, your self-preservation instincts are working in your favor; when you’re fighting yourself, they’re not sure where to turn. It’s a fight you’re never quite sure you’re supposed to be fighting—while part of you wants to improve your mental health, there’s always a small part of you that won’t shake the feeling, no matter how irrational, that the anxiety is right, and the people in the white lab coats are wrong. You go through your prescribed motions every day—the gray pills, the breathing exercises, active resistance to the obsessive compulsions—constantly trying to drown out internal whispers questioning why you’re really fighting, questioning whether you’re fighting on the right side.
Some people just aren’t that good at existing. Some people’s emotions suck at being proper emotions. Some people wash their hands to escape from the pain. Some people clean their counters, organize their desks, sort their food by color, exert some semblance of control over their lives by whatever menial means feasible. Me, I make checklists. There are neat checklists in my head of my morning and nighttime beauty routines—if I miss a product or procedure, I start gasping and break out in a sweat. I have a checklist of homework assignments for every afternoon (alphabetical, almost always) which I must follow religiously, even if it means failing a class. The most stringent checklist I have is the checklist of my friends: I keep inventory of their mannerisms and personalities like grocery goods, and when something is amiss— a “hey” where there should be a “hello,” a person at the SciLi who should be at the Hay, sudden silence from a person who has texted me every day for the past year—I need to inquire. When I can’t ask someone a question, I’ll rummage through their Twitter for clues instead. There have been a few times in my life where I’ve been desperate enough to put my ear to people’s doors, straining for any small glimpse of what was disrupting my pattern.
But the worst part is that you’re fully aware. Just like any rational human being, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that having forgotten to brush one’s teeth one morning is a stupid, stupid reason to start crying in the middle of your first year seminar. This is what therapists always seem to miss. Treatment often seems to operate on the assumption that if they can just get you to understand the lack of foundation beneath the panic and necessity that consume your life, you’ll be fully equipped for society. “You’re making progress,” they often say at the end of sessions. “We’ve made a lot of progress today.” That’s almost always news to me. They’ll show you graphs of your treatment, and numbers will tell you that the medications and exercises and strategies are bringing you closer and closer to “normal,” but feelings won’t listen to data, and they never have. My obsessive compulsions haven’t taken AP Stats; they can’t read charts. If chemical imbalances weren’t stronger than the strongest people and the strongest relationships, then psychologists would go out of business, instead of having two-month waitlists.
On the walk home from the treatment center, I’ll sometimes pass people smoking cigarettes, and feel myself judging them. How could someone ever do something so harmful? It’s really indicative of the extent to which I normalize my own issues—I can’t admit, even to myself, that giving in to my compulsions is an addiction.
The therapists talk about curbing the compulsions as if it’s a matter of stopping, a matter of “not doing” instead of “doing.” It’s easy to look at people who smoke, who wash their hands, who fold their clothes, as being trapped in arbitrary cycles. The truth is that addiction is the only freedom we have—it’s a choice of relaxation over tension. When I mentally check my final homework assignment off my list, I’m choosing to unwind the knot in my chest, if only for an hour or so. When I press my ear to my boyfriend’s door, I’m buying myself a respite from my world of anxiety that I’m not sure I’ll ever be convinced isn’t the real one.
One of the things they teach you in therapy is to associate your compulsions with bad feelings. I was once told to do 10 push-ups every time I got the urge to text my boyfriend asking where he was. That strategy didn’t work for me, and I’ve heard similar stories of failure from others. I think it’s similar to what would happen if the government raised the price of clean water—people would grumble, but in the end, they’d still buy it. They’d have to. They need water to survive.