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Personal Essays

Photograph by Tomoaki Maeda

Drink Your Meds

The impulse to weigh decisions with coffee spoons can seem charmingly eccentric on TV. But real-life obsessive compulsive disorder is no fun, what with the imminent death and all.

If you asked me what I did when I was 16, I would have told you about playing the alto saxophone and taking tap lessons. I probably wouldn’t have described my penchant for tapping the doorframe whenever I walked into a room, or how, every minute, I counted all the numbers on any nearby digital clocks and then assigned their sum a character value from beneficent to malignant. (I’d never tell secrets or reveal anything I was sensitive about during a malignant number’s minute.)

Another diary-only topic was assigning meaning to the selection of identical, common objects. Like standing in front of the silverware drawer holding two dinner forks, thinking, “If I pick this fork, I will go to Boston University and have a happy family life, but not make much out of my career. If I pick this fork, I will go to Carnegie Mellon and have a stellar acting career, but be lonely.”

And I kept quiet about the constant, daily fear—bordering on belief—that I was going to die at any moment. There were also the inexplicable impulses to do things—like go the extremely long if not altogether wrong way while driving—that might lead me to a super exciting event that would usher in the next phase of my life. I would have kept those to myself, too.

 

* * *


It snuck up on me, this neurotic behavior. Tapping was the first sign. At first, I only tapped once each time I walked through a door. When that impulse first crept up, it felt playful, like kids making sure not to step on cracks in the sidewalk. But a year later, I was borderline handicapped.

I fought back in small ways. I removed the digital clock from my bedroom. In other parts of the house, I’d sit facing away from them, so I could talk to a girlfriend about some boy I liked without watching the numbers to decide how much I should disclose. I also got good at reaching into the silverware drawer and pulling out utensils with my eyes closed.

“Are you going nuts?” my brother asked. I don’t think he realized it was a legitimate question.A doctor friend of mine recently said about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), “It’s the only mental illness I know where the patients are fully aware that what they’re doing is ridiculous. They just can’t stop.”

And it’s true: even at the time, I fully understood some minutes were not inherently evil or good (that statement barely even makes sense now, thankfully), but it was a belief I held, though one that never really seemed like my own. The impulses seemed to generate spontaneously in my mind, and then take up shop. Maybe that’s what distinguishes OCD from superstition. Superstition feels like your own thought, even if it’s illogical or silly. OCD felt like someone had faked my voice, recorded it, and then played it back in my mind—and I didn’t know who was doing the recording.

 

* * *


There are, I imagine, many reasons why people go insane. Genetic predisposition, random misfortune, an overwhelming love for drugs—you name it. In my case, I was desperate for control. To avoid violating anyone’s trust or alienating my family, I’ll just say some people close to me had very difficult stuff going on, relating to death. Threatened with loss, I was seeking order, some patterns to make sense of an unfair and uncontrollable world, some way to negotiate my circumstances. But getting OCD wasn’t a choice. All the groundless striving toward a fair world just broke my brain.

At first no one noticed. I functioned just fine. I had friends. My grades didn’t drop. I practiced my saxophone and auditioned for community musicals. But when the tapping went from one tap to three, and my family started finding me sitting on the stairs looking disconcertedly between two identical forks or spoons (my blindfolded selection didn’t always work), they started testing the waters.

“Are you going nuts?” my brother asked. I don’t think he realized it was a legitimate question.

OCD began to dominate my life. My mother wasn’t blind, and I started getting looks after I taped cardboard over the kitchen clocks, or when I paused every time I entered a room to tap seven times.

One day at breakfast, we sat at the kitchen table while I pondered the ramifications of spooning yogurt from the left or the right. She asked, “Honey, can I do anything?”

I’d known plenty of creativity without a manic thread running through it.I put the spoon down. “I, uh—I think I might need some help.”

“I’ll find someone,” she said.

A few days later, we sat quietly in a child psychiatrist’s waiting room. Part of a renovated garage, it was decorated in deep orange and dark red—’70s hues repurposed for the ’90s. Judging by the smell, the carpets dated to the same period. That wasn’t entirely discomfiting.

The psychiatrist was a giant, wobbling woman in red and beige. She was shaped like a teardrop.

“Welcome,” she said with carefully rehearsed kindness.

“So you live in town,” the psychiatrist said when we were sitting.

“Yes, close to the swimming hole.”

She nodded, took a few notes. “And you go to the high school down the street.”

“I’m a junior.”

More nods, more notes. “What brings you here today?”

I outlined my impulses and told her I thought I might have OCD. It was the tapping that had tipped me off to that possibility; I’d seen a character on some TV show who tapped labeled as obsessive compulsive.

“Those symptoms are consistent with OCD. Are they getting in the way of your life?”

“Yes,” I responded without hesitation.

“Well, that’s what I consider the deciding factor. A lot of people have these symptoms, but if they don’t really get in the way, it’s OK as is. But if they’re getting in the way, treatment is a good option.”

“Treatment?”

“I recommend a low dose of Prozac,” she said while scribbling in her prescription pad.

“Do you think I’m depressed?”

“No,” she said. “Prozac is approved to treat obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ll give you a very small dose. Ten milligrams a day. It’s so small you’ll need to take it in liquid form. They don’t make the pills in that dosage.”

“Can you make it even smaller?”

“The dose?”

“Yeah. I’m a little scared of Prozac. And also—” I paused to think, “I’m pretty sure I don’t want the symptoms to go away.”

It was all coming out of my mouth fast and lucidly. Whatever Mom was paying for the session was worth it. “I just want them to be less strong so I can develop coping skills to, like, deal with them and make them go away myself.”

“Sure, we can try that,” the psychiatrist said with slight hesitation, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll up the dose.”

“The half-life of Prozac is very long. It’s still in your system, which is why you still feel fine. This is a mistake.”Soon after I began drinking my Prozac, my symptoms started diminishing quickly. Like I’d hoped, they didn’t go away altogether, but they started getting weaker, almost wimpy. My manipulative bully shrank.

There were side effects, though. I had brief, mildly manic periods. Sometimes I would think in double-time, words flying through my head at speeds nearly beyond comprehension. Other times I took fantasy too far, like when I’d contentedly sit in a windowsill watching birds while feeling like the pure embodiment of a cat.

When I mentioned this to the psychiatrist, she said it wasn’t manic, just creative. But I’d known plenty of creativity without a manic thread running through it.

Being on meds for the long term was not for me. But neither was getting into my car and needing to take a good long look at my house because it was the last time I’d ever see it, what with my imminent death and all. I was also completely sick of tapping on doorframes. People looked at me funny.

But the drug did what the doctor said it would. Before long, I still felt the compulsions I’d grown used to, but no new ones, and the ones I felt were more like ideas than required actions; I took notice of them, but defied them instead. I spoke openly about my life around digital clocks. I picked the fork that determined the worst outcome. I refused to turn my car in a direction I wasn’t going.

And nothing bad happened, at least nothing worse than I was used to. And nothing worse kept happening.

 

* * *


One day, while brushing my hair in front of my Bob’s Discount Furniture mirror the summer after my senior year, a very clear thought entered my head. Unlike the OCD impulses, it felt like my own idea. The idea was that it was time to go off the meds. Undeniably right-feeling, I stopped taking Prozac immediately.

I didn’t feel the need to tell anyone at first. But a few days later, it was nearing the time of my next psychiatric appointment. I called my doctor to tell her I wasn’t coming, that I’d decided to stop taking medication.

“The half-life of Prozac is very long. It’s still in your system, which is why you still feel fine. This is a mistake. You’re about to enter college. That’ll be very stressful.”

“No, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Thank you for helping me through this.”

And I was fine. I went from half-life to full life with one moment of clear thought, when the voice—my own voice—saying I could stop medicating myself was mightier than any neurotic dictate. My impulses were always no match against the drug, and they’d become no match against me.