OCD and Sleeping Princesses
Here’s one of the things people usually don’t realize about anxiety and depression.
It is so tiring.
Like, REALLY tiring. It takes a huge amount of energy to be worried all the time, to feel stressed out all the time, to feel like the world is crumbling around you all. the. time. To feel hopeless.
Of course, being so tired and going to sleep is one of the only ways to escape any of that too.
We’ve been thinking a lot about our physical bodies for our upcoming course, Rapunzel’s Circle: Unruly Bodies, but the mind is very much a part of the body too. Today, I want to talk about my unruly mind.
A bit of backstory: I first started displaying symptoms of OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – when I was in the fourth grade, right after my beloved grandmother died after a horrific and painful battle with ovarian cancer. She lived with us for many of her last days, and watching a person I loved more than anything suffer like she did was – and remains – one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt so helpless – and, of course, I really was, because I was only a little kid. After it was over and she was gone, my mind constantly tried to figure out a way to ensure that nothing like that would ever happen to anyone I loved ever again.
This is, of course, impossible, but the brain is a really tricky thing. You can convince yourself of a lot, even when you should “know better.” I started sensing what I called “bad vibes” that I would need to get rid of in all kinds of different situations in order to ensure those I loved would be safe. I would turn off a light switch, feel “bad vibes” in the air, turn it back on, and then try to turn it off again. I would have to do that until the vibes were no longer there when the light switch was off. Sometimes I would do it 50 times or more.
As I got older, my compulsions shifted to other things. Seeing my reflection in a mirror and stepping away safely (without feeling any bad vibes), stepping over cracks in the sidewalk without any vibes, typing or writing words without feeling any vibes, the list goes on and on. It expanded to things like always crossing out the words “dead,” “death,” or “dying” when I read them in books (there are whole books from this time in my life that are mutilated in this way), counting ceiling tiles again and again, and – in one particularly annoying time for everyone else around me, I’m sure – having to snap a specific number of times, over and over again. The worst, and strongest, fights with the bad vibes happened only in my head – no compulsion could get rid of them, only thinking the same words, again and again, until the feeling of there being something wrong dissipated.
Then, my freshman year in college, the stress of being away at school and away from my family and friends finally resulted in a breaking point. It had slowly gotten impossible to hide how bad things were, how debilitating all this was. I remember being on my bed, in my dorm room, all alone, absolutely shaking and sobbing from the weight of all the bad vibes around me, absolutely terrified to go outside or even move. It wasn’t until after that that I went to the school’s health center, was put in contact with a psychiatrist, was officially diagnosed, and started getting real help. I was also diagnosed then with generalized anxiety on top of the OCD.
It’s not like I hadn’t tried to get help, sort of halfheartedly, before. I saw a therapist in high school, and we would work on some of my worries, for example. You might be thinking “how could those around you not have known” but I have to stress this – I was VERY good at masking and hiding that there was anything seriously wrong. I did not want there to be anything wrong. When people asked about seeing me do something odd, I would make light of it. My family, my closest friends, they all thought I was just a big worrier. That’s truly what it looked like. After all, much of the combat with the bad vibes was happening in my head. When I would have to do something that other people would notice, like go over cracks repeatedly, I would pretend that I was going back to look at something, or that I had dropped something, or that I had heard a weird noise. I still got my work done, even if it took me three times as long because I was rewriting everything multiple times. My ability to hardcore hyperfocus at the last minute – something I’ve only recently learned is the result of then undiagnosed ADD – meant that I could do it, and no one was the wiser.
I had done the same thing before, when I was even younger, about my eyesight. I masked how bad my vision was for literal years because I didn’t want to get glasses. I would make excuses to get closer to the chalkboard, walk with my head down so I didn’t have to recognize anyone from far away, subtly get out of reading anything on the TV, etc. etc. It was only until we went to get a Halloween pumpkin and the Lion’s Club was giving out free vision and hearing tests that my parents caught on. I did everything I could think of to get out of getting my vision tested, but eventually I couldn’t avoid it. When they came out and told my parents they thought my vision was so bad that I was actually legally blind without glasses, they were stunned. So, basically, I had done this before – I knew exactly what to do to hide things. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a LOT of my brain energy was spent figuring it out when it really should have been focused on other things.
I learned really early on in my journey through severe OCD that one of the only things that could stop my obsessive thoughts – and the senseless, incredibly time-consuming, and frustrating compulsions that came with them – was to just shut out the world entirely and go to sleep. I was already exhausted from dealing with it all the time anyway, so I could get tired enough to fall asleep at all times of day. Sleep felt like an escape. When you’re asleep, you can’t obsess over anything. You can’t do compulsions that leave you sobbing while you’re repeatedly walking back and forth over some particular crack in the sidewalk, trying to get rid of the bad vibes there. You’re free.
You all know that I love sleeping maiden stories, I’ve talked about how much I love them hundreds of times before here, but the secret is that part of why I love and relate to sleeping maiden stories is because I wanted their blissful, unaware sleep. I wanted the potential that sleep offered. I wanted to shut out the real world and instead be in one that did not contain bad vibes at all. I love to imagine them having these beautiful inner worlds where they do awesome things and have amazing adventures – I’m imagining a world where I can do that too, without any of this.
Since my diagnosis, my OCD has gone through several phases. For a while, just after I graduated college, it was almost entirely gone. Then it came back with a FORCE when I started graduate school. Then it got a bit better. At the moment it’s kind of in-between – it’s not gone (for example, I have rewritten MANY words in this blog post multiple times… there’s a reason Sara does most of the writing for Carterhaugh stuff when her wrists aren’t hurting! And no, don’t even get me started on how hard it was to research and write a dissertation… my bibliography is about 50 pages long because I could not NOT look at absolutely everything out there even remotely connected to what I was talking about.)
When things are particularly bad for me, one of my default coping mechanisms is still just to go to sleep. I recognize that that’s what it is now, a coping mechanism, both for when the OCD thoughts are too overwhelming AND just a result of being so tired from dealing with them all day, every day.
Sometimes that’s okay. Sleep is good. Sleep is undervalued in our society. Sleep is necessary. Take the sleep you need – everyone will be different – and don’t view it as a weakness or a waste of time or something that stands in your way.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White give you permission to rest well.
But sometimes it’s also frustrating as all get out. No one wants to sleep the whole day away, not really. How could you ever bring your dreams to life if you only lived in their world? And I want to bring them to life. I want to be in this world, bad vibes and all, because this is the world where you can make things happen. Where you can connect and grow. Is it good to be able to escape sometimes? Sure, but even though it’s hard, I still open my eyes and choose this world, again and again.
And so do the sleeping princesses of fairy tales. No matter how much they might enjoy their inner worlds, free of responsibility, free of suffering, they wake up and do what they need to do. They put on their crowns and run kingdoms. They manage their unruly minds.
P.S. Our new course, Rapunzel’s Circle: Unruly Bodies, is currently open for enrollment! We’d love to have you join us. Click here to sign up anytime between now and Friday, April 15th at Midnight ET!