By Jocelyn Schwalm
All my life I have been terrified of death. As a child, I would come out of the shower and count the bruises on my legs to see if there were enough for my mother to consider the possibility that her healthy daughter had leukemia. I watched all the TV specials on deadly diseases, but especially cancer. I was preoccupied by my own health, but also with the health of the one person I loved most in my life, my mother. I was a child obsessed.
I’d check her body for unusual bumps and bruises to make sure she or her doctor had not missed anything that my 12-year-old self and the internet could diagnose for her. As I got older, it became clear that there was something off with my preoccupation. I was, on the surface, a normal child, but underneath, behind the scenes, there was turmoil, disturbance.
Before family vacations, I’d walk around in a circle, tracing the perimeter of our new location by touching certain points and tiles, to ensure that we’d be safe. It was the most memorable expression of my OCD. But to me, it seemed a normal matter of course. I wanted to make sure nothing bad would happen. As if our future was, literally, in the safety of my hands.
I still feel this way often, though I understand the irrationality behind it. As years passed and new preoccupations distracted me, it felt easier and easier to ignore it. But they were always residing beneath… lingering for attention.
It’s funny how small the stone that breaks through the tipping point can be. It was only recently, after a few dizzy spells and some ear ringing that my childhood obsessions came flooding back. All at once. Doctors and multiple exams confirmed that nothing was physically wrong, as far as they were able to discern.
It was at this point that my mental health started to fully decline. I dropped out from objective reality, and the feeling of dread created thoughts that consumed me, as though following them through to their conclusions would make them go away. There’s a deep, dark hole of skewed reality that only exists in my mind, and it’s just that: real. It induced panic attacks while sitting in class, thinking of all the things that could be wrong with my body. It made me sit at the computer for hours, researching symptoms. It heightened my awareness to superhuman levels: every flush of emotion or tingle in my leg was a symptom arising, one that needed to be explored.
Mental and physical health are so deeply interconnected, when one falters, the other follows. My suffering can be chalked up to a conviction that I have health problems, though the only real problem is that my mind needs to create issues I can then resolve before they get to me first.
I was sitting at home, letting fear consume me, following what I know is the easiest path to a meaningless life. Why did I even need to worry about my health? What was I afraid of losing? There was no living in my life. It was this realization that pushed me to start making changes and to seek help.
It’s not who I am to be completely carefree, so getting to that point is no longer a goal. But what I do know is that bringing fears to light and being able to recognize what and who I am, deep down, at my core, has healed me. This is what I know: all that exists is the present moment and it is up to each individual to make a choice of whether they plan to strive for more or turn that moment into the kind of moment they know will make them have a life worth living.
I wish I could say that this was all in my past, that one day I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and haven’t gone back to my struggles since, but this is not the case. It is a daily fight in my mind to make myself believe I am going to be alright no matter what.
There are some days when I still allow my thoughts to control my feelings. The reason I am writing this though is not because I have managed to overcome all my deepest fears and anxieties, or that I have completely broken away from my mental illness, but because I decided to make a change. I decided that I want to be able to enjoy the things in life that make my soul happy. Upon recognizing my own humanity I can honestly say that I know my anxiety will never totally go away but right now, while writing this, I am okay.