24 May, 2014

In Spite of Fear

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself." - David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas 

There was a time in my life when I was not the person I am now. A time when I stayed in my little apartment for weeks on end, afraid to go out in case of Catastrophe. Once I finally sought treatment, my therapist asked me, "what are you scared will happen?" I had no clear answer. Something terrible. Something from which there would be no recovery. The word for this behavior is agoraphobia, and I had it. It had me. All part of the joys of living on the OCD spectrum.

It didn't hit me how bad it had gotten, as is often the case, until after it was getting better. One day, after months of therapy, I woke up and decided to drive to the public library. And so I did. I checked out some books, although I don't now remember which ones, on the logic that this way, I'd have to repeat this arduous journey. When I got home, I called my mother. To brag. About going to the library.

"...and I didn't get lost, or anything!" I was so proud. Even more sobering, my mom was proud too. Hearing her voice on the phone that afternoon -- "Good for you, honey! We love you so much!" -- I wondered how I'd gotten to this point, how a strong-willed and plucky girl had so quickly become a frightened young woman for whom a ten-minute drive, there and back again, was cause for celebration.

I still wonder. And that's the hell of mental illness; I have no answer. I don't know why some brains, mine among them, seem to misfire sometimes, to take in the input from the world around us and spit out an unhelpful response. I only know that it happens, and that it happened (and sometimes still happens) to me.

A few years ago, I drove to Colorado, alone, to visit friends. When I got back, my mother said she couldn't believe I'd done it, that she remembered the young woman who was too fearful to leave her apartment, who turned in on herself and shut out the uncertainty her brain wouldn't allow her to process. "You're so much better," she said, and I could hear the pride again in her voice. I'm better, I thought, tasting the thought in my brain, letting it roll around like a good whisky. It was the first time I could concretely say I'd beaten my illness in a meaningful way.

In the last three weeks, I've done things that I could never have contemplated fifteen years ago. For many people, I'm sure this trip looks like no big deal. So you traveled, I can hear them saying, people do that. And they're right, these hypothetical people in my head. People do do that. Sane people. Healthy people. Fearless people.

Certainly I'm not always sane and healthy. And fearless? Ha! I'm demonstrably not, in point of fact, fearless. Fear is in no short supply around here, thanks to a mental illness that's deviled me for nearly half my life. And maybe "fearless" isn't the point. Maybe we're all afraid, most of the time, and maybe what's important isn't that we feel no fear, but that we acknowledge the fear and refuse to let it decide for us.

When I was asked to go on this trip, I said yes without hesitation, knowing that saying no because of fear would represent a return to that long-ago apartment that I was once too afraid to leave. When I went to the airport three weeks ago, I went knowing that I was afraid. Sitting here today, trying to put it into perspective in the scant hour before I leave for the airport, I'm afraid. My crazy OCD brain is yammering away with what if and you can't and danger danger danger.

The thing about mental illness is, you don't Get Better so much as you become more adept at managing it, more aware of the times when it seeks to sabotage your life in a million different ways. The OCD is still there, and probably it always will be. I've just gotten better at telling it to sit down and shut up. (Note: I want to make it clear that I didn't do it alone. I had and still rely on support, treatment, and love; if you have a mental illness, and you don't have those things, please reach out. To anyone. To me, if you choose.)

So sure, I'm better, but I'm not fearless. Still I have done this, and I will do this, because I am not my diagnosis, and I am never going back to that apartment. Remembering that has allowed me to have one of the best travel experience of my life, to see a place I never imagined I'd see, to meet people who have taught me, and touched me with their openness and joy in life. A life lived free of fear sounds great, but maybe a life lived in spite of it is just as good.

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