A Letter to my Younger Self

In Honor of my 40th Birthday Eve and OCD Awareness Week…

Dear Nina,

Well…here you are – the night before your 40th Birthday.

I see you now, and I can’t help but remember the child you were. You constantly questioned your worthiness because your brain made you think that you were bad, wrong, dirty, sick…broken. You referred to your intrusive thoughts as “voices” when you were three-years-old because you couldn’t possibly believe that you were the one choosing to think such horrifying things. The anxiety, fear, and shame were intense, causing you to confess all of your brain’s workings to your family; later realizing that your confessions were actually a type of compulsion.

I know how afraid you were. I can feel the pit in my stomach now just thinking about it. I remember you seeing the world as though you were living in some parallel reality – far away from everyone else. I was always impressed with your ability to make everyone believe you were so comfortable being you.

You successfully hid so much. You had the classic OCD intrusive thoughts that revolved around violence, sex, contamination, and death – often coming up with random compulsions to “rid” your brain of the anxiety. You were exhausted, Nina. God, were you exhausted. Nobody understood OCD in the 80’s and 90’s, and you went from one medication to the next, always terrified that you’d never be “normal”.

“If anyone ever found out what went on in my head…”

I’d hear you say that to yourself time and time again. It broke my heart. I know how hard you wished it would all go away; that one day you’d get up and no longer fear being awake. You would have better phases, only to be triggered, and it would all come crashing down again – sometimes worse than before. I know you truly believed that you’d be caged up in your own brain for the rest of your life.

But – I have extraordinary news for you, Nina…There’s a MAJOR plot twist, so PLEASE hang tight. You DESERVE to see this battle through.

Remember when you said you were afraid to get married? To you, that meant you might see him die at some point (intrusive death thoughts). Yeah, you somehow worked through that and married someone. Oh – and your 100% certainty that you NEVER wanted children, because you were convinced that they would die before you (yup…death again)? Fu*k that – you went ahead and had TWO! You still worry every second of every day, but like…welcome to being a parent 🙄

Remember the bizarre and disturbing intrusive thoughts that came on out of nowhere that had you questioning if you were worthy of even being here? Yup – those EXACT thoughts are what end up driving you to start a career talking about, writing about, and coaching people on ALL of the taboo topics. Come to find out, many people in this world are just waiting for someone to go first – someone to talk about the things that nobody talks about. Many people feel caged in their own brains and are looking for a way out – someone to say, “YOU’RE OK!” Who knew?!

I know you probably think I’m lying, because you are so caught up in the throws of OCD that you can’t see beyond it – and that’s ok. Just borrow my belief until you have your own. Until that day comes (hint: it happens in your mid to late 30’s), trust that every ounce of pain you’re going through, every fuc*ed up thought you’re having, and every “why me?!” moment you go through, will ALL make sense soon. And when it does, I’ll greet you with open arms, a vibrator, and a stiff drink. We’ll sit and talk about it all – but not for too long…people are waiting for us. And we both know how much the waiting sucks.

See you soon, Neen.

Uncaged

definition of uncaged

If you’ve ever hated your body for what it looks like or how it feels, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you’ve ever suffered from intrusive thoughts and anxiety, you’ve experienced being caged.

If your brain works in ways that make it difficult to go through one day without wanting to escape your own mind, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship that you know you deserve to leave, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you’ve struggled with your sexuality in any way, shape, or form, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you suffer from the aftermath of trauma, you have experienced being caged.

If you have felt shame for merely existing in your truest form, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you’ve ever been trapped in a career that eats away at you, you’ve experienced being caged.

If you’ve ever suffered from addiction, you’ve experienced being caged.

The list goes on – and eventually, I would list something that you would most likely resonate with. Not because you’re “broken”, but because you’re human. Shockingly…we all are.

Being an “outlier” myself on many levels, I perfected the construction of my cage. The bars were strong, and only wide enough for people to see the parts of me that were “acceptable”. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a sense of safety in our cages – and I get that. But as life goes on, our bars get thicker, and the spaces more narrow. We’re given more reasons to hide as we’re surrounded by illusions that our culture is so damn good at creating. Eventually, there are no spaces between the bars. To the outside world, you’re showing slits of light at best. There’s this false feeling of belonging, as if the absence of judgement equals acceptance – but it doesn’t. Nobody can accept you when they can’t. even. see. YOU.

I’ve spent over THREE DECADES figuring out how to somehow deconstruct this Fort Knox worthy cage that I so meticulously erected (yes, I said ‘erected’ – it was getting a bit too serious, and we all know I can’t have that happening for too long.). Ironically, I figured out that I’m not supposed to deconstruct it. It served its purpose and, truthfully, Bob Vila would applaud the craftsmanship. I found out that all of that time in my proverbial ‘cage’ was allowing me to experience everything I had to in order to know how to find the KEY to unlock it.

It’s not about hating ourselves for what we’ve done (or haven’t done). It’s not about demolishing ANY experiences from our past. It’s about coming to the epiphanic moment of realization that the one who creates the cage, also creates the key. Yes…that means you.

My personality, my ‘brand’, my ridiculous posts, my candidness, my career choices, my often times risky sense of humor, my writing, my sex coaching, my openness about living with OCD, my vulnerability…all of it. It took me all that time in my cage to come up with the material to create the key that lead me to where I am today…Unfiltered. Imperfect. Unashamed…and UNCAGED.

Hope For Those On The “Other” Frontline

Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash

Finding purpose in pain has become a lifelong process for me. I’m not a healthcare professional. I’m not face to face with COVID-positive patients. I am not a first responder…but I am one of many in this world who are on the “other” frontline.

I would sit down to get work done and instantly felt like I was on this “other” frontline. I’d stare at a screen that was riddled with darkness, anger, trauma, disturbing images, virtual funerals, children mourning, hate, friendships ending, lies, harsh truths, and pain. So. Much. Pain. My limbic system was misfiring, over-firing, and sometimes I wished it would just…stop…firing.

I felt like I was in the house of mirrors, searching for the exit. I could see people outside, telling me I’m so close to finding the exit. Alas…I’d whack my head on the mirror that I thought was the last turn I’d have to take. Some people said it felt like groundhog day – the same thing over and over again. To me, it felt more like purgatory – and I’m not even religious.

My therapy sessions were virtual like most. Thank God she knows me and my required therapy style. She’s warm and kind when I need it, but mostly uses tough love – which is how I respond best.

“I haven’t heard you this bad in years, Nina. I’m going to use the word suffering to describe it. You’re in a dark place. We should increase your medication. How do you feel about that?”

I was having intrusive disturbing OCD thoughts that I hadn’t had in decades. It scared the shit out of me, to be honest. The thoughts that would paralyze me in my childhood were coming back. I’ve been on the “other side” of OCD for quite some time now, so this space was unfamiliar and painful. My sleeping was off. I was losing interest and focus. I felt disconnected from my family. I felt disconnected from…myself. Nothing seemed safe, not even my own mind.

I am not one to fight medication. I’ve been successfully treated with a very low dose since my late teens/early 20’s. I’ve tried to go off of medication before, and I quickly realized that this wasn’t about my ego – but my quality of life. With that said, I started thinking of all the ways I could AVOID increasing my medication. I somehow found a teensie bit of confidence in my resiliency, and passed through that month and a half without increasing the dose. I also knew (and still do) that if I hadn’t found the confidence, I would have increased my dosage. I ‘aint too proud – trust me (ok…maybe a little. But I digress.)

Ya know what’s strange, though? I’ve spent my entire life being able to lean on the fact that I knew most of my thoughts were irrational. Even though they felt real, there was always a part of me that knew they weren’t, or at least I knew they were extremely over exaggerated. I could always count on hearing, “Nina, it’s just your OCD.”

But now, it wasn’t “just my OCD” – this was real. My fear of germs was real. My fear of death was real. Everyone was washing their hands incessantly and over using antibacterial gel, and I no longer “stood out” as the germaphobe. Nobody was sharing anything anymore, and people were wiping down every surface around them. For once in my entire life, the world around me was just as scary as the world inside of me – and I wasn’t prepared.

I showed symptoms of OCD as early as three years old – so, I’ve had quite a few decades of learning how to navigate life with this brain wiring (eye roll). However, I definitely wasn’t planning on “relapsing” randomly at 39 years old…yet there I was.

I know you’re waiting for the moral of the story, because I try to always have one, so here it is…

In a weird, almost masochistic way, I’m glad I went through it (and still am, but on a much smaller scale). My ability to hold space for other people in their darkest moments – their most vulnerable or shameful moments – is 100% due to me knowing what that feels like. I know how it feels to doubt your worth, to question your place on Earth, to fear rejection so much that you go through most of your life only showing a fraction of who you are, to believe that if people knew what you were thinking, they’d take a few steps back…

What makes me who I am today is, quite literally, what almost ended me. I often speak about finding purpose in pain, not because I’m a walking obnoxious Pinterest quote, but because I’ve done it…and it has saved my life.

The Other Side of Anxiety: What ALSO is…

When the outside world seems so uncertain, anxiety rears its ugly head. For those who already have underlying struggles with anxiety, it seems almost unmanageable. I wish I could say you’re the only one. I wish I could say I don’t know how you feel. Both would be a lie.

Living my entire life with OCD (which is usually accompanied by anxiety), I’ve learned coping strategies when times like these hit. No, it’s not easy. No, it isn’t a one size fits all. However, there’s a common denominator amongst us anxiety warriors. We focus on the WHAT IF, and only ONE SIDE of the WHAT IS. But what about the “other side”? The what ALSO IS. Allow me to explain…

Given the current emotional chaos that COVID-19 has caused, let’s use it as my first example. This may trigger anxiety, but try to trust me with where I’m going with it. For many of us, we’re afraid that we might get the virus, and furthermore…die from it. We’re afraid for our loved ones getting sick as well. Understandable? Of course. Because of our anxiety, we are focusing on the WHAT IF, and ONE SIDE of the WHAT IS that exists – people are getting sick and, yes, some are dying.

You want to know what ALSO is?

I have an extended family member (that I am not living with) that tested positive for COVID-19. Guess what? She’s alive, and on her way to recovery – as are many others. As I write this article, there are a total of 103,321 cases in the US, and 1,668 deaths (CDC.gov). So, clearly there are many infected who are also surviving the virus. Anxiety doesn’t want to focus on that, because it doesn’t affirm our fears – and that’s how anxiety thrives. So, it’s critical to not leave out the “What ALSO is”.

Now, let’s talk cancer – another fear of many. Self disclosure – it’s one of my triggers. My anxiety focuses on death, chemo, side effects, financial stress of being out of work, etc. Is any of that valid? Yup! But you know what ALSO IS? The fact that I have several friends and family members who have cancer, and are functioning. I know people who have gone through chemo, and somehow managed to ALSO get through their days – some even stayed at work. Most of those who I know who have had cancer, survived it and are still cancer-free. Anxiety won’t focus on that, though. It’s not scary enough. I mean, how can our brains protect us from what COULD happen, if we are only focusing on what actually IS happening? (rhetorical and massively sarcastic).

How about body image? So many of us have a fear of being viewed as unattractive if we don’t have that Instagram body. We look at cellulite, loose skin, stretch marks, and a lack of abs as if we’re automatically off the market for being attractive. Are there people who are not attracted to those things? Sure! You know what ALSO IS? There’s a gazillion different body types, and miraculously most of us are found to be desirable by someone else – even if we never know about it. But again, anxiety isn’t interested in focusing on what brings us peace – only what creates an utter mind fuck. Am I right?

We get it, anxiety – bad things can happen. Thanks for the heads up (eye roll). It’s human nature to fear the worst. However, I’ve learned that most of the time it’s more of a protective measure, than a productive one. So, even when all of this blows over…and it will…try to remember that there will always be a “What ALSO is”, and it deserves just as much, if not more, attention than anything else.

Dear Human Beings…

I see you. I hear you. I know you. I AM you. 

Dear human beings who suffer from anxiety-related mental health struggles:

Often times when events happen that make the news, or are splattered all over social media, we start to spiral – be it school shootings, medical emergencies, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, etc. Sometimes, what’s happening around us may not even be a specific trigger for us, yet we find ourselves struggling more than usual with anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or depression. 

You see, anxiety folks tend to have triggers – specific things that just “hit different” than others. Some have a hard time going to crowded places. Others may have restaurant-specific anxiety. Some might fear heights, clowns, spiders, dogs, flying, death, certain illnesses, etc. The list goes on. 

What can be confusing to those with anxiety (and certainly those without), is why a random natural disaster, for example, in another country would cause anxiety to someone here in small town USA? Let me try to help provide a visual that I explained to someone today. 

People who live with anxiety typically spend OONGOTZ (might be a fake Italian term?) amount of time subconsciously trying to keep their anxiety at bay. Picture your “regular anxiety triggers” protected in the middle of a circular brick enclosure. These are the things that you are used to causing you anxiety. No surprises here. 

When bad “stuff” happens in the world outside of the enclosure, it’s as if rocks are being thrown at the bricks. After a while of that enclosure being battered, it starts to crumble. This leaves your regular triggers vulnerable and exposed. 

You may not be responding directly to the event that happened in the world (i.e. the Corona virus), but the event caused your regular triggers to become exposed and irritated. 

So, if you find yourself experiencing your anxiety triggers more than usual, if your obsessive thoughts (even if completely unrelated to the world’s events) have sky rocketed, if your depression seems to be more painful lately than normal, understand you’re not alone. 

In times like these, I encourage self care more than normal. Step away from social media, binge watch Netflix, read a good book, color, write, self-pleasure (yes, I mean it), bake, or engage in any other activity that helps you REBUILD. 

It’s ok to get knocked down. It’s ok to not be ok. But then we rest, we wipe our tears, we dust ourselves off, and we ride again…

Xoxoxo 

Nina