Sometimes, when I walk from one side of a room to another, I count my steps. It's not purposeful, more like an automatic narrative, and I'm most likely thinking about something else at the same time. It can be annoying, but I've learned to live with it for the most part. I often don't even register that I'm doing it.
At 14, I had a much harder time living with the things my brain was doing. That year, when I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, my daily life was so permeated with symptoms that the diagnosis seemed like a starting point, not an end point. I may have had an answer, but there was a lot of work ahead. Maybe I could finally do something to avoid being crushed by the vise grips of OCD.
What I dealt with was not what you see on the television program Obsessed, which, like anything on reality TV nowadays, seems greatly dramatized. It wasn't even like As Good as It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson made obsessive-compulsive disorder seem almost charming.
Imagine if you found yourself bound by an ever-expanding set of rules that dictated everything you did. Every day, what worked before might no longer be enough. New set of rules, do it again. Because if you don't, something horrible might happen.
That, in a simplified way, was my life. I used to lie in bed and wonder if anyone else on the planet was like me. In my young head, I couldn't fathom it. I was convinced, like all teenagers dealing with personal drama, that I was alone.
Despite the difficulty I'd had living with this mental illness, I got my life back with the support of cognitive therapy and medication. I was able to focus on teenage things again, only occasionally looking over my shoulder to see if my past was catching up. It was like haunting your own house.
But what I wasn't able to do was reconcile the person I thought I now was with this other person who had been completely defied by her brain. So I buried her. I even forgot how old I was when it had happened. Truly acknowledging that time in my life felt like letting it define me.
It's only now, at 31, that I'm able to bring the two halves together.
Am I enlightened? Far from it. I've continued to live with the remnants of OCD and an anxiety problem that constantly tests my strength. The secret life of my brain is something I've had to learn to embrace to some extent, because there's no sense in running from the complexity of the human mind. It is what it is.
I know what it's like to finish your day in the bubble of normal life at school or the office, and then, when no one's looking, sneak behind the curtain to deal with another life backstage.
Sitting across from a therapist or psychologist is still like being in a dual reality for me, as it was when I was 14, and I'm not sure that will ever change. Part of me is intent on listening, exploring and learning while another part is looking on, wondering when I can go home, watch a movie in my ugly pants, eat popcorn and make plans for the weekend.
I suppose I've learned to accept that I am both people: the one who needs help figuring out how to exist in the world as I was made, and the one who already has it figured out and would like to go home and finish the laundry.
I'm learning how to live with the quirks of my mind, which are both a blessing and a curse.
I may get unreasonably nervous sometimes, but I can replay an entire song in my head (instruments and all) while I talk to you. I have a near-photographic memory and can recall what I was wearing the day my brother and I played on our flooded backyard lawn in Montreal. I was 3.
With the demons, my sensitivities have also granted me small graces.
When I shine a flashlight on the inside of my mind, I'm no longer afraid of what I might see. There is no Gollum scrambling to stay out of the glare. And even if there were, we'd co-exist anyway. I understand that we have only so much power over our minds and that, sometimes, all we can do is look on.
I have great empathy for people who have suffered more under the weight of mental illness than I have. It's nearly impossible for me to be judgmental, knowing how easy it is to watch your mind's stability slip like sand between the floorboards.
When I worked on Bay Street, I'd often pass a homeless man on my way to the Eaton Centre. He had staked out a spot on the street corner and decorated the sidewalk with chalk lines, and would shout scripture at no one in particular.
I am almost certain there was a part of him looking on, aware that it had lost control. We are all, every one of us, capable of losing our grip on the steering wheel, even if for just long enough to see how close we come to crashing.
When I look at the people in my life, I know I'll never truly see what's going on inside their skulls. Just as I spent a few years privately leading with the wrong foot, unable to walk properly, many more people than we realize have quietly lost their footing. We're fragile things. And as a society, we're good at hiding the things we don't even want to accept within ourselves.
Does my brain still defy me? Sometimes. But it certainly doesn't define me.
Andréa Dietsche lives in Brantford, Ont.
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