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Fearing the shadow of your own mind

The mental health of our society is a growing concern. Catholic News contributor Andrew J Fitt shares his personal battle.

I can’t remember an exact date when it started, but from a very young age—before I knew what mental illness was—I would feel something inside me was out of sequence; a knowingness of some sort that part of myself was different from the rest of my being, and it didn’t have anything to do with my physical disability.

It was like a shadow that would unexpectedly start to loom large for a period of time only to dissolve into nothingness as quickly as it appeared in my head.

In those early days, I would be briefly transfixed by whatever this force was, being uneasy within myself but like I said, it didn’t really last for any specific time. My life would go back to being happy, full of wonder and excitement with the world and the people who helped make it that way by surrounding me, supporting and loving me constantly.

Possessed by a dark force?

I’ve always had a very active mind, analysing an array of topics and subjects that I’d discover on my own or through some other means. Thinking has always been a way for me to go beyond the limits that Cerebral Palsy has imposed on me.

Having access to books and television from young only encouraged me to become more curious. By the time the internet came into being, my brain was completely inundated with knowledge of every kind. I couldn’t just shut off my brain; there was so much stuff I thought I needed to explore.

Only later in my life did I really understand that sometimes ignorance is truly bliss, and some things are best left alone. Especially things related to the supernatural. I used to love investigating strange subjects like ghosts, strange people who did bizarre things, folklore etc., either by hearing about them through others, or exploring them on my own. I was just curious about different aspects of the world around me, what was real and what wasn’t.

For a good while, the shadow or whatever it was that lurked inside my head seemed to be giving me a reprieve of sorts. It was a different story altogether when uneasiness did come, paralysing me out of the blue. I would become transfixed by bitter ideas and ‘facts’ I had gathered in the past that would pop up in my head and weave into my reality. I began to do strange rituals to try to escape my thoughts.

Mostly it consisted of mental and physical actions I felt compelled to do in a regimental way. These worked until they didn’t. At some point I began to believe those things that caught my curiosity through the years were having some kind of spiritual effect on me. Maybe I was possessed by a dark force.

It wasn’t until my late 20s or early 30s that my mental state really got to the point where this was becoming more than an occasional issue. Only then did I know something truly weird was occurring inside my head.

The shadow wasn’t retreating like it used to. It was growing and becoming bolder, darkening my life at an unrelenting pace. Everything up until then was going well within my world: I had friends to share experiences with; books to get lost in; music to listen to; and most important at the time, art to create. All this came to an indefinite stand still.

The best part of me, which I always thought of my brain, was in a dizzying spiral of anxiety and fear I thought was never going to end.

Never-ending cycle

At first, I didn’t tell anybody about what was taking place because I didn’t have any idea of what this actually was. I couldn’t name my problem much less describe it. And I didn’t want to be labelled as crazy.

My decision, therefore, was to try to placate this unknown otherness by doing certain things like counting stuff, touching things in a certain way, washing my hands incessantly, thinking magical thoughts, and many other strange and illogical rituals. I truly believed that once I did those rituals and completed them ‘just right’, everything would be fine.

I completed them but they would inevitably only add to the chaotic thoughts and fears, ultimately contributing to my problems all the more. It was a never-ending cycle of trying to ‘fix’ one problem after another.

Everything felt hopelessly tangled, and the more I tried to sort out the mess, the more the mess grew, until it took me over. The only rest my mind got was through sleep, which I ended up doing for hours on end. I was someone else.

Eventually the burden of carrying the shadow was too much for me, so I told my parents. I think they were as confused as I was by what I was trying to describe to them.

Dealing with a person with a physical issue is vastly different than dealing with a person with mental issue. It’s easier to see a broken arm than it is to see a broken mind. People can relate to having a broken arm, it’s a common thing. You put on a cast for a few weeks, the bones mend, the cast is discarded. You can resume using your arm. An injury to the mind is extremely different.

I would also learn that mental pain is indeed a real thing, affecting not only the one experiencing it, but the people around them. Mental problems have always been difficult for society to understand and accept. The general public reaction is to ridicule, mock, and isolate anyone who suffers from a mental disability or disorder.

People always fear what they don’t truly understand. In the end, it appears that the best option for everyone is to pretend that these individuals and their problems don’t truly matter, or don’t even exist in the first place.

I was extremely hesitant to let anyone else but close friends and family members know about what I was dealing with on a daily basis. We eventually stumbled upon the name of my shadow: OCD.

Regaining control of my mind

As soon as I heard it and then researched the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, I knew without question that it was what I had. My self-imposed rituals were attempts at relieving anxieties and fears which had built up inside me over years, which further contributed to depression.

Essentially what I discovered was that dark force had absolutely nothing to do with my being possessed by anything whatsoever. It really had a lot to do with trying to figure out who I was, and how I was going to achieve my goals.

It was about trying to fit into the mould of social acceptance, to be like everyone else around me. I was doing these things obsessively to try to be perfect because I had mistakenly thought everyone else was.

Also, as I began to learn more about OCD, I found that certain chemicals in the human brain play a very important role in influencing a person’s way of thinking, feeling, and acting. My brain chemistry was out of balance.

At last I understood the problem I was experiencing, but that was not the end of my battle. I began going the long journey of figuring out how I could regain control over my mind, to break out of the darkness. I missed my old life, and my old self even more. I wanted to do whatever I had to do to get those things back.

I went to talk to priests, counsellors, psychiatrists. I was given advice and techniques to help cope with my mental problems, and I took a lot of medication. I was hoping that I would be instantly cured, that I could reclaim my brain and mind so I could return to enjoying life again.

And although it took a whole lot longer than I would’ve liked, I slowly found the right people and resources to help me recover what I’d lost. I found the right drugs to ease my anxieties and fears. And most importantly, I learned to let go of whatever was weighing me down and bothering me, and just be.

Today I feel more relaxed and comfortable with who I am. My OCD is a part of me. I still have times when it bothers me and occupies my mind and time, but it’s not the terrifying shadow that confused and overwhelmed me as it once did. I know now that it has a lot to do with the chemicals in the brain along with the other factors I’ve mentioned.

I honestly believe that in order to defeat the taboo and social stigma connected to mental illness, one of the best ways is to openly address the issue and find a plan that works for the individual who suffers from said issue. You just have to take the first step and get help.

There is a way to defeat the shadows and get back to the light and live your life again