Saturday, September 4, 2010

PullPullPullPull (1/2)

For the past couple of weeks, I've been considering writing about one of the most personal aspects of being me on the blog. For some reason I just felt compelled to share. The post in my head took on many different iterations, and eventually I decided to shelve it for later. I didn't want to be too serious (or worse, too angsty) two weeks in a row. But then B. Graham wrote her post on Tuesday and it was like a sign from above: write now and connect it to her post, or it's going to look like you totally stole her idea.

I have two best friends in this world. The first is my roommate of six years. The other is B. Graham. B and I bonded in college of a lot of things. Foremost, though, were our love for the theatre, our innate goofiness, and our struggles with moderately debilitating mental disorders.

It was a beautiful moment.

Because ohhh yeah, right, I have obsessive compulsive disorder.

Like B, I am fortunate to have a mild case of OCD that I can generally hide from the rest of society. It started a few years before I entered puberty with invasive compulsive thoughts. I began narrating my own life nonstop. Every little detail of my existence was recorded in an enormous novel in my head - if my mother and I were having a conversation over breakfast, my brain would follow her speech with, "she said, as she picked up her cup of coffee." It was, quite frankly, annoying. But I couldn't stop, and at the time it didn't strike me as anything too out of the ordinary.

Then the counting started.

Most pop culture portrays a person with OCD as having a single compulsion that follows them every second forever. (Counting, germs, locks, etc) That isn't entirely accurate. OCD, like anything related to brain function, can transform and evolve over time. One compulsion might gradually fade, only to be replaced by another. I replaced The Story of My Life with the need to count my movements.

5-10-15-20-start again. 5-10-15-20-start again.

Suddenly everything I did could be quantified, and had to happen in sets of five. Walking. Applauding. Chewing. Shaking my SlimFast cup in the morning had to follow my parameters. If a flight of stairs only had seven steps, I would double up on three. If my actions couldn't end on a 5, 10, 15, or 20, I'd start to panic until I could put it right again, even if that meant I was still clapping quietly to myself after the rest of the audience had stopped.

Poster child.

But I kept myself under wraps for a few years. Everything was manageable. Until I entered sixth grade. Then I got a little weird. Then I started ripping out my eyelashes.

I couldn't really tell you why except that they felt strange and they really really had to go. Once they were gone, my eyebrows were next. Sometimes as I ran my fingers through my hair, I'd yank a little harder than necessary. Imagine a cross between an itch and a tug. That is what I feel underneath my hair follicles. I swear sometimes I can feel them grow. And the only way I can relieve the pressure is by pulling out the hair.

By eighth grade my face was pretty much demolished, and I was decently able to draw my eyebrows on. Girls weren't allowed to wear any makeup at my conservative Catholic middle school, but my teachers never called me on my transgression. In fact, no one ever said anything to me. They studiously ignored the 13 year old girl who was tearing her hair out of her face.

"Yeah, isn't it great how well-adjusted middle schoolers are?"

Then one magical day, in Girls' Life magazine of all places, I thought I found my answer: Trichotillomania. A hair pulling compulsion dictated by an imbalance of serotonin in the brain. It turns out nail biting and skin picking are related symptoms. The girl in the article sounded exactly like me. And it had a name. I called my mom to my bedroom and excitedly showed her. She said we could talk to my doctor at my next check-up. So, sitting on my pediatrician's exam table, I told him of my discovery. His response? He smirked, asked, "Oh, you think you have that, huh?" and then moved on with his work.

I was mortified. I clammed up. It would be seven more years before I was willing to talk to another doctor about my condition. It wasn't until my junior year of college that I was officially diagnosed and given clinical help. But I knew.

I'm coming up on 15 years with OCD and 12 with trichotillomania. I've done my research and I now know a lot more about my conditions, which helps me cope. It hasn't been proven that trich falls under the umbrella of OCD, but most doctors assume it's true. When I'm doing really well regulating my diet and my stress levels, it naturally balances out my hormones to a certain extent. (I tried anti-depressants in college, but the side effects far outweighed any benefits that I saw.) These days I mostly just do a lot of unnecessary arithmetic in my head. I still pull, but since my exodus from puberty, episodes aren't as constant. And after all these years, my roommate and I joke that I'm so good at drawing my hair on with makeup that I should start a program for teaching cancer patients.

I also know that I am lucky. Like my OCD, my trich is mild. I have an acquaintance who also has trich, and she has to wear wigs because she has so many bald patches on her scalp. It could be much worse.

But unlike B, I don't love my disorders. Not even a little bit. I used to pray consistently that God would make it go away. I still cry sometimes when I think about how much more beautiful my eyes could be if they had lashes framing them. I feel like a freak, and I live with the dread that someone out there might be judging me. Laughing at my looks. Mocking my face. Some days I say let them laugh. I'm comfortable with who I am and I look good with or without eyelashes. Other days I'm not so secure.

But that's life, and I'ma live it.


Beverly said...

I'm so proud of you, Ali-girl!! And I'm so, so sorry we didn't follow up with someone else after that unsuccessful visit all those years ago with Dr. P! :-(

I love you very much!! "Love you forever, love you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be!!" mwah! xoxo Mommy-ommy

Ali Shinnick said...

Wow, Ali. I had no idea about your OCD! I also didn't know that trich can be part of that. I'm inspired by your willingness to share this struggle with the world. Good post. :)

Katie Jeffries said...

Odd coincidence - my sister has Tourette's and I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 12. Both of us have mild enough cases that most people are unaware, but it's become pretty apparent to the past couple people I've lived with. We should chat about it sometime.

B.Graham said...

I admire your strength to get help. I got my diagnosis early, and you'll notice I've done nothing to help myself since cresting into adulthood. So, I'm serious. You go girl.