Every single day of my son’s life, I have thought about him dying. Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I wonder if I will find him in his room, the life already gone from his body. Other times, my mind will be free for a while, until I put face lotion in my hands and notice that the blob of moisturizer resembles a number. In an instant, a little voice inside my head tells me that number is representative of the age at which my son will die. Sometimes I rummage around in the kitchen cabinets, searching for a specific coffee mug, because that same little voice has told me if I don’t use it, my son will die. Other times we will be eating at a restaurant, and I will imagine him choking on whatever morsel he has ordered for himself to enjoy. I can see his face turning blue in my mind’s eye. I push food around my plate and try to will the thought away.
Some days are better than others. Some days I only experience one instance of this type of horrifying intrusive thinking. Other times my days are fraught with them. My mind is under siege by an onslaught of terrifying images, fit for a tear-jerking Lifetime movie, or sometimes a horror film.
I have Anxiety & Obsessive Compulsive disorders, and intrusive thinking is symptomatic of both. There are a couple of things to note about Intrusive Thinking, that may not be apparent for someone who has never experienced them.
The first is that they are completely out of my control. I don’t choose these thoughts any more than you chose your eye color. I didn’t ask for them, and I don’t indulge them. I have a variety of techniques that I’ve learned in therapy which help me to clear them, but they (so far) have never disappeared entirely.
The second thing is that they are every bit as horrific as they sound. I love my son deeply, and my anxiety disorder is centered squarely on the debilitating fear that I will lose him. These intrusive thoughts are representative of my mind obsessing over all the ways that it could happen, in a terribly misguided effort toprevent it. The Intrusive Thoughts are the “Obsessive” part of my OCD. The things they drive me to do (use certain coffee mugs, rewrite lotion numbers on my hand) are the “Compulsions”. The brain is sometimes the most inelegant of organs, and OCD isn’t all flicking light switches and counting things. It can look very different.
The third, and final thing, to point out about Intrusive Thoughts, is that they are invisible. If you saw me at a restaurant, I appear to be just a lady sitting at a table with her beautiful family, enjoying a meal. You might judge me for seeming uptight. You might overhear some of our conversation and think I sound like a real paranoid control freak. You might say something to your friends along the lines of “Oh, great, she’s one of those moms.” You might label me as intense, paranoid, controlling. You might identify me as strict, or overbearing, or bitchy. The label you most likely would not give me, however, is the one that would be the most accurate… ill.
My mental illness isn’t something you can see. Aside from the medication I take every day, the mental work I do to battle my illness is also invisible to you. You might not realize that I had to wage war on my own mind, just to be able to leave the house today, just to get this meal with my family.
So, be careful with the labels you attach to people, or the assumptions you might make about them. So many illnesses are invisible to the majority of us. You never know who might secretly be a Warrior, fighting battles on the inside, while living life on the outside.