I haven't blogged in a month. I moved to Scotland, started my master's program at University of Edinburgh, got a job teaching yoga, and fell in love with my flat mate's dog. It's been an amazing month, but needless to say blogging has not been my top priority. However, today is World Mental Health Day, and it seemed like an appropriate day to return to the blog and talk about something I've been wanting to talk about for awhile: traveling with OCD.
This summer I returned to therapy with a singular goal: get a diagnosis. I'd been to therapy before, but back then I'd been terrified of a diagnosis. I didn't want someone telling me something was "wrong" with me and my stigmas against mental illness were still alive and well.
Another couple years of battling panic attacks and crippling anxiety and depression pushed me over the edge. I wanted a name to give this part of my brain. If I could name it, maybe I could start to get some control over it.
Ironically, my obsession with being in control is exactly the problem. This summer I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder. Honestly, when my doctor told me I had OCD, I laughed. I knew I was a little compulsive and my family had been using "OCD" as a joke-description for me for years. But I couldn't believe that my hatred of odd numbers was the root of my panic attacks and depression. They seemed so unrelated. Sure, I am a bit compulsive, but I couldn't properly have "real" OCD... could I? Would someone with OCD be able to live the unstable, spontaneous, hectic life I do? Was traveling with OCD even possible?
My stigmas surrounding OCD were blinding me; in my mind OCD was a weak disease. I was too strong for that, I told myself. But I kept going to therapy (despite my skepticism) and I started to realize how much OCD influenced my life. I thought my panic was the root of my problem, but I started to see it as a symptom of the tension between the OCD part of my brain and the crazy life I've been living for five years.
I am stubborn. No, scratch that, I am INCREDIBLY stubborn, determined, and proud. So when a part of my brain (let's call it the OCD part) quivered in fear when I considered flying solo to South Africa at age 18, I told it to shut up and booked the ticket anyway. People have often called me fearless, and while I smiled and nodded, they couldn't be more wrong. I am terrified most of the time. Newness creates a sort of jittery feeling any coffee drinkers will be familiar with. But my fear only ever served to make me even more determined to do what I wanted.
So I started traveling. And yeah, it was scary. It was the scariest thing I'd ever done. I used to sob every time I flew to a new country, writing novels in my journals about the fear and panic that was consuming me. I thought it was just a natural level of fear of the unknown. I later realized it was my OCD brain freaking out over the break in habit.
For those of you that don't know, the OCD brain is a habit-obsessed, anxiety-ridden mess. Due to an over-active basal ganglia, it likes everything to follow a specific pattern and cries doom and death whenever the agent (that's me) veers off the familiar road.
Needless to say, OCD and the vagabond lifestyle are not natural companions. In fact, they are sworn enemies. The OCD brain longs for routine, predictability, and safety. The vagabond life is all about spontaneity, randomness, and risk-taking. Even the phrase "traveling with OCD" is a bit oxymoronic. My desire to see the world mixed with my determination to follow my dreams allowed me to plan trip after trip, but my OCD brain was never happy about it.
While the majority of my brain loved the endless adventure, my OCD brain grew steadily more bitter. Soon it started to rear it's fearful head with small bouts of panic and shortness of breath. But I didn't stop traveling. So it upped the ante with full blown panic attacks, bouts of depression, and whatever other doom-and-gloom it could come up with.
I blamed myself. Why wasn't I strong enough to resist these strange thoughts that were inserting themselves into my brain? Why was I greedy enough to be living a life so many people would kill to live and still get depressed? What was wrong with me that I would be in the middle of Paris and all I would want to do was gorge on wine and cheese and not leave my room for three days? I had no compassion for the fearful OCD side of my brain. Only anger and disgust.
It took a lot of work to move past that (okay, let's be honest, I'm still knee-deep in all that, but I'm working on it). There are still days when I think, "why am I too weak to conquer OCD", but being able to name it and understand what is happening inside my brain has helped me to find some compassion for myself.
I'm still throwing myself outside my comfort zone on a daily basis with the kind of reckless abandon that makes my OCD brain quiver. But when I hear that part of me cry out in fear, I've tried to swap anger for compassion. I picture my OCD brain like a scared child that needs comforted and assured that though something may be different, it can still be okay.
I've been in Edinburgh for about a month now and I haven't had a single panic attack. Seeing as before this summer I was having them pretty much every other day, that's a big deal. It's not like I've been panic-free. My OCD brain still has a lot to say. But I've learned that by listening to what it has to say (and explaining to myself why it is wrong), I'm able to calm it in a way I never managed by just closing my ears.
I know myself well enough to know there are plenty of plane tickets in my future. I also know myself well enough to know there will be bad days when my OCD takes over. But as I sit here on World Mental Health Day thinking about the years I spent traveling with OCD without knowing it, I cannot help but get excited about my future adventures. Maybe it's my reckless optimism, but I have a sneaking suspicion OCD and I are going to learn to be much better travel companions from now on.