Story of my Mind.
My name is Veronica and I’m a university student studying genetics and I grew up in Tamworth. I am the sort of person who likes to do absolutely everything all at the same time. This need to be good, productive and perfect can be helpful up to a point, but when it started meaning that I was scared to leave my room, see my friends and eventually nothing got done, it finally started to click with me that things weren’t quite right.
Here is my way of explaining a little bit of what goes on in my head. So, I get these weird, distressing and often terrifying thoughts. The type of thoughts that wake you up with a surge of panic as you are starting to fall to sleep. But often they don’t stop and I can’t think of anything else. They induce terror and so much shame.
I now know that everyone has weird thoughts sometimes, but for most people it isn’t a big deal and they shrug it off. But I get stuck on those scary uncomfortable thoughts for most of the day… I can’t laugh them off and they don’t go away and I would want to do anything to make them stop. So I start counting and spelling and repeating words in my head, spelling bad words over and over until the total number of letters is divisible 5, or 10 if it’s a bad day. I worry I’ve made mistakes, and I have to start all over again. I want to stop this, I know that it isn’t actually doing anything to help, but it is better than thinking bad things. I try and try to stop thinking and to stop counting and spelling but the harder I will myself not to think, the more intense they become. These thoughts make me feel like the most horrible person alive. Like I deserve to be jailed or shunned from society. I felt like nobody could ever know what goes on in my head and for a very long time I was terrified by the idea of someone finding out. I knew that I didn’t want to think these thoughts and they weren’t really me but the very fact that I thought them in the first place was mortifying.
For quite a lot of my life I’ve been having these weird strange and uncomfortable thoughts. Throughout my life, they have faded in and out for years at a time. They take over what I care about and what I love most. I find them extremely distressing, persistent and often traumatising. It’s a bit like someone yelling awful things at you all day everyday – whether these are ruminative anxious thoughts or the terrifying ones which I now know to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s a bit like having a horror movie playing on repeat inside my head.
When I was in High School, I sort of understood what OCD meant but didn’t really think that it would apply to me. I thought of compulsive hand washing to prevent contamination but not much other than that. For some people, this is how OCD manifests but not for me, part of the reason it took so long for me to realise that what was going on in my head had a name. I assumed I was a monster, that I should be hidden away and put into jail. My fear of being bad took over me. It took me about 5 years to realise what this was and realise that it was ok to talk about them (even though it is unbelievably difficult).
At school from years 10 -12, I became increasingly anxious with these intrusive thoughts also building in the background. I would talk to an online counsellor at eheadspace in the middle of the night. They were really helpful and encouraged me to get professional support but I was still scared. I felt constantly on edge, tense and on the verge of tears. There were moments where the world around me doesn’t seem entirely real. My body was shaking, I felt nauseous, like I have a fever. Hot, cold, sweaty and faint. I felt like I can’t get enough air. My head was fuzzy. I knew that this was happening to me but I felt like an onlooker. These moments still occur far more often than I would like but I am glad it now has a name.
I finished the HSC, dux of my school and supposedly had my whole life together. I was the girl on the charity committees, doing the public speaking competitions, playing sport. I must be a good person and a perfect person. I have beautiful friends and family who would have done anything to help me if I had just said something. A gruelling study routine and the immense pressure I put on myself made me incredibly unhappy, fragile and anxious. I thought that when the HSC was over I would feel fine. My parents noticed that I wasn’t exactly coping with life and begged me to get help throughout school and I desperately wanted to but was scared to admit that I needed it. (And as much as I hate to admit it… sometimes parents know you better than you know yourself!) I felt it wasn’t bad enough and I shouldn’t waste someone’s time. I thought that because I did well at school that no one would take me seriously. I presumed that I was only continuing to feel this way because of the hsc. I now know that in retrospect that if I’m struggling it’s time to talk to someone, (and listen to my mother!) no matter how small I think it may be. I wish I could tell little Veronica that it’s ok, that you aren’t a bad or evil person, you aren’t being ridiculous and if you’re finding things a little rough, it’s definitely a good idea to talk to someone and things will start to come together .
However, I was stubborn and wouldn’t admit anything was wrong. I moved alone to London for the famous Gap Year and I was supposed to have the time of my life and things took a turn for the worst. Horrible thoughts occupied my every waking minute and often in my dreams. I still didn’t know what it was and promised myself I could never tell a soul. The pressure on myself to be a perfect and good person was making me miserable. The more I reacted to these thoughts, the stronger they got. I started to develop unhealthy eating habits and behaviours which I failed to recognise as a problem.
After years of beating myself up over everything I thought and did, understandably my mood slipped lower and lower. I felt so guilty as I should have been having the time of my life but the joy of living was gone and it made me forget that I ever felt alright.
I came back from overseas and started university, living on campus in college. The problems were still there but again I thought it would be better when I was back in Australia but that wasn’t the case. I was so fixated on doing well appearing perfect and ok. I felt that because I could do x, y & z that I wouldn’t qualify for professional help but I honestly couldn’t be further from the truth. I should have told my friends and family but I didn’t want to worry anyone. I spent a lot of time trapped in my room at college with the door feeling like a huge barrier between me and the outside world. I would walk to my door and not be able to open despite being desperate for some sort of connection. I knew my friends were out having fun and socialising and being so trapped deepened my feelings of loneliness. Despite living with 200 other young people, I have never felt so by myself in this world. I would wake up each morning and feel dread for the and would go to sleep hoping I’d never wake up again.
After years of ‘holding it together’ I was fed up so finally got the courage to go to my local headspace centre and talk to someone. I won’t lie, it was scary at first. I walked past the door probably about ten times until I eventually made it inside. I saw a few lovely clinicians which were wonderful, it was a great starting point to get the extra help that I needed. The first time, I barely said a thing - the words were on the tip of my tongue but they just wouldn’t come out. But I persisted and it is getting easier to talk to professionals and also those around me. I just wish that I started talking sooner.
Thanks to a referral from headspace, I now see a psychologist and a psychiatrist every week. The team that I now see are wonderful - they are incredibly kind, helpful and always try to understand exactly what is going on for me. The type of treatment that I’m doing involves doing a type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention and trying to find medications which work for me. I need that at this point in my life but I think it is quite ok if I need them forever but also okay if you don’t. This involves purposely triggering intrusive thoughts by describing them out loud and then not doing a mental ritual to reduce my anxiety and to make the thought go away. I have to remember that fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself. Saying things out loud helps to take away their power and the associated fear. Telling people the somewhat weird things I think about doesn’t make me a bad person nor does it make them more likely to happen. I have to sit with the discomfort and learn the accept it and eventually my distress will decrease over time. It is very hard but it will help so the intrusive thoughts and panic won’t have so much of a hold on me. I barely even realised the significant impact this had on my life because I normalised and internalised it all.
I eventually ended up being hospitalised and as daunting as that experience was at the time and seriously not how I envisioned my start to adulthood, everything is out in the open and it is so much easier and I don’t have to hide anymore. I should have just told my lovely friends and family, they would have been supportive and loving. I had a support network the whole time, I just didn’t realise that people were there for me due to that dark cloud occupying my head. When I started to tell people that I was having a tough time, it was honestly so surprising the number of people who were so supportive and caring and something I didn’t expect was that they felt comfortable telling me how they were going too. Although there have been a few instances of people being unhelpful and unkind, the overwhelming majority have been incredible and very understanding. Some people don’t understand what it is like to feel this way but many do in a little way and it helps us all feel not quite so alone.
This last year has been a long one. I have dropped down to part time at university whilst I try and get back on my feet, which is not something I had envisioned and struggle to accept as someone with a type A sort of personality but it is ultimately what needs to be done for my wellbeing and health and I think that needs to take priority at the moment. In the scheme of things, taking a little longer to complete my degree is ok by me.
I’m learning to be more open with both professionals and those around me which has been instrumental in getting better as well as realising that there is no shame in talking about mental health. I’m trying lots of things to help me feel better - most of which involve me being much more open and vulnerable including writing and I still access support online in between sessions when I’m struggling. It is great to just have another person to bounce things off and also to talk to during those late night anxious spirals!
I still just wish I could tell little Veronica that that even if you think it’s not that bad, or that others have it worse or that you don't deserve help until you reach crisis point, please understand that you do and don’t do what I did for such a long time and not listen to my friends and family when they were worried. I wish that I had taken that help, I did deserve it and I still do.I have loving, beautiful and supportive friends who would have helped me in a heartbeat if only I had been brave enough to say something. The sooner you are supported, the better and things will start to seem a little brighter. I still struggle and recovery can be a slow process but I know that with support things will continue to improve.