I've had problems with anxiety ever since I was a kid. When it started getting serious, I was nine. I say serious because it got to the point where I was struggling to get myself out of bed in the morning. As those of us with anxiety issues know, it often leads to some pretty debilitating depression.
As a child, my anxiety was derived from oppressive feelings of guilt about anything and everything I had ever done wrong. I would obsess and obsess about something that I perceived as wrong – (from sticking my middle finger up at someone in gym class, stealing a piece of taffy from the grocery store, etc.,) and I would confess to my mom that I did something wrong. This confession would bring about a moment of reassurance from her, telling me I was okay, that I wasn't a bad person, that everything was fine. But then I would launch back into an obsessive cycle – reviewing everything I had ever done to find proof that I was a bad person. It was torture – I was constantly on edge, judging myself, second guessing everything I did, and sometimes convinced that I didn't even deserve to be alive.
I had a hard time functioning normally until I was put on what was then a pretty experimental treatment – especially for children – Zoloft.The medication really helped me to get past the debilitating part of the anxiety. It didn't get rid of the anxiety by any means, but I was able to function again. I've gone through several changes in medication over the years – some worked well, and some were disastrous. At this point, I've found a pretty stable medication regimen with generic Zoloft and Wellbutrin.
Despite the wonders of medication, my guilt, anxiety and depression continued off and on into adulthood, although I found various ways of dealing with it. Mostly, I ignored it. Pushed it into a corner, got very busy, wrote a lot of poetry and angry piano ballads, and called my mom, sobbing, begging for reassurance. The obsessions have shape shifted over the years; being convinced I'm pregnant despite careful use of birth control, being convinced I have AIDS or cancer or some other disease, to being afraid I'm in the "wrong" relationship and wanting proof that I'm in the "right" one.
So, yes, medication has helped me a lot. But for a long time, I couldn't understand what was going on in my head. I couldn't understand why after I talked to a therapist about my obsessions that they would just keep coming back, sometimes even stronger than before. And then, after college, I stumbled into the office of yet another therapist, who told me something shocking: "Tara, I think you have OCD." Whaaa?
Turns out there's more than one kind of OCD. Actually, there are a lot of kinds of OCD. It's just that the types where you wash your hands repetitively and switch the light on and off are a lot more fun to make movies and TV shows about. And so, I, like most other people, was convinced that it only came in those highly visual, obvious forms.
In some ways, my OCD is much more insidious than anything you can see with your eyes. There is a rapid cycle of obsessions and compulsions that sometimes happens all inside my head. Usually, no one else even knows it's happening besides me. I'm very good at acting like everything is fine, even though it very much isn't.I try to silence my own intrusive thoughts in a variety of ways. What I didn't realize, and what so many other people don't realize, is that the act of silencing is in face acompulsion– and therefore continuing it can be detrimental to overcoming anxiety.
So, great, at the age of 22, I was told I had OCD, and it made me feel suddenly understood. It lent legitimacy to what I'd been dealing with for the past 13 years. But I saw that therapist only a couple more times, and then I moved to Chicago for grad school and found myself struggling to find a new psychiatrist and therapist.
I went to several therapists who wanted me to tell them about my childhood, about my parents, about whether or not I had been raised religiously, about any deep, dark secrets that I might be harboring. They wanted to reach into my subconscious and pull out whatever demon was hiding in my childhood and blame it for my anxiety. They seemed to think that if I just talked about my anxiety enough, I would find freedom from it. However, it never got any better. I was what you might call a maintenance therapy patient – I got my weekly dose, it made me feel better for a while, but I never actually improved. I also went to a few different psychiatrists. The psychiatrists I went to weren't interested in what my therapist in Denver had told me. One told me that I absolutely did NOT have OCD, and that I should read up on Borderline Personality Disorder, because I might have that. Well, that started a whole new crisis for me. Because, as anyone who's prone to anxiety knows, for the love of GOD, youdo not tell them to read up on a disorder they "might" have!
All along, though, I knew that the closest I'd ever come to feeling understood, and ultimately feeling better, was when I was being treated, however briefly, for OCD. So, I persevered, and found myself at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, talking to Cheryl Carmin, an expert on anxiety disorders and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, my insurance ran out – and I ended up seeing one of Dr. Carmin's interns, Amanda. Although I was hesitant at first, putting myself in the hands of someone who was only about a year older than I was, I am so, so grateful now that I did.
Amanda was a proponent not only of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but also of the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Mindfulness was pretty much the opposite of everything I'd tried to get my anxiety under control up until that point. And that's probably why it worked so well. It also works well in tandem with ERP (Exposure and response prevention,) one of the most successful treatments for OCD. I won't go into everything I learned with Amanda, or exactly what ERP is and isn't, but I will highlight one of the moments, that to me, was the most meaningful.
Amanda had told me about Tara Brach's book "Radical Acceptance," upon more than one occasion, but one day, she described a specific part of the book that really transformed my entire perspective on my anxiety. A few months later, I ended therapy with Amanda when she scored a great job in Toronto. I felt fairly confident that I could handle things with the tools that she'd given me, but last summer, I found myself suffocating in a sudden onslaught of OCD symptoms that seemed to be slowly eating away at all the insight and confidence I'd build up. When I was in the darkest moment of panic, I remembered the story Amanda told me. After a little internet searching, I rediscovered Brach's book, and found the story I'd been looking for:
“On the morning of Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara, the fearsome demon who symbolizes the shadow-side of human nature, fled in defeat and disarray. In Sanskrit “Mara” means “delusion” – that craving and fear that obscure our enlightened nature.
But it seems that he was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had embarked on his teaching career and become a revered figure throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. Instead of driving him away, however, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge the demon’s presence saying, “I see you, Mara.”
He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest.
Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea and place them on a low table between them. Mara would stay for awhile and then go, but throughout, the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.
You see, when Mara visits us in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you Mara,” and clearly recognize the craving and fear that persists in each human heart. The objective is to see what is true and to hold what is seen with kindness…
Our habit of being a fair-weather friend to ourselves – of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can – is deeply entrenched… We truly befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea….”
It's impossible for me to describe the relief that this story has brought to me without sounding cheesy and new-agey. So, I won't try. I'll just say that rediscovering that story was powerful for me. I'm not sure why it helped me so much – it probably has something to do with the fact that I'm a writer, and my whole life I've understood the world the best through stories.
To me, Mara is my OCD. Mara is constantly showing up. He disappears for a while, but he's a pretty insistent demon – he never really goes away. For so long, I ran from him, or I tried to pretend he wasn't there. But I've realized that as soon as I'm able to pause and acknowledge him, he starts to shrink in size. As soon as he realizes that I see him, he starts to be less scary, and we know each other. We can talk, we can have tea, we can occupy the same space – even though it gets tight sometimes. Of course, sometimes I wish he would just evaporate – go away forever and leave me alone, but this is not an option. In a way, I need him to help me remember that I can be more powerful than my fear. Mara is part of me. Mara has always been part of me, and because of that, I need to respect him.