Understanding your anxieties and facing your fears can help ease the burden of mental illness.
I was about 8 years old when I could no longer bear keeping it to myself: I had snakes living in my eyes.
I was blessed with having two, child focused, caring, compassionate, loving, intelligent parents. I kept my snakes a secret because I was afraid to go through whatever process one had to be go through to get them out of your eyes. I realized that once my parents knew about the snakes, I would be off to the doctor.
Who wants to go to the doctor for something as simple as an ear infection? Having one mess with my eyes, I wasn’t ready for that. However, the more I thought about the snakes eating my brain out the more I thought I should face my fear.
Despite my fear, on a night when my father was away at work, I decided to go and wake my Mother up and tell her. As I braced myself to listen to the details of how snakes were extracted from the eyes of little boys, I wasn’t sure that I was man enough to hear it.
My Mother reassured me that I was just dreaming, and I assured her I wasn’t. She complemented me on my great imagination and reassured me I was suffering from too much of a good thing. I assured her that I knew fiction from fact and I was telling her the facts. She reassured me that facts were that snakes don’t live in people’s eyes.
It was the first time in my life I remember feeling very alone and very afraid.
My Mother sensed this and suggested I could climb into bed with her. I didn’t know what else to do and still hoped that my Mother could figure something out. She pulled the warm covers over me. She lay on her stomach with an arm over my back, as she tried to go back to sleep.
Rather than feel comforted, I felt so weird. It was a feeling that I had never had before and never had again. I quickly got out of there and hastily told my Mother that I was going to be just fine.
Later, when I explained my experience to her, my Mother would look puzzled and let me know that there was no cause for concern and I would outgrow them. I became painfully aware that grown-ups didn’t know everything.
Me and my OCD
I went on to develop a classic obsessive compulsive germ phobic disorder. I was certain that potentially lethal microbes were everywhere. I washed my hands compulsively until they were cracked and bleeding. I developed the idea that my saliva was filled with potentially lethal germs and to swallow it was to invite the messengers of death inside my belly.
In my mind I died many times from a variety of diseases, while I was really in good physical health.
When my ODD led me to start to considering why Jesus was asking me to tap various objects, it made me pause. I was not very religious, but I could not recall any scripture where tapping was expected.
Over time, I found a way to enact less and less of my compulsions because I didn’t want to upset my Mother and humiliate my Father. By the time I was enrolled in college, my symptoms made me germ obsessed, but were otherwise in control.
From Death Anxiety to Cool in 30 seconds
Later, I realized that I was struggling with anxiety, specifically death anxiety. I was a classic Woody Allen neurotic. In College I discovered Existential Philosophy, and things began to change for me. To the existentialists being open to having death scare the crap out of you was heroically cool.
I graduated with honors and a BA in Psychology. I got engaged to be married. While moving on with adulthood, I still hadn’t been able to leave the snakes in my eyes behind. I finally decided it was time to face my fear and talk to my optometrist.
I brought up the subject casually, in passing. “Your right, he said. Its nothing. They’re called, ‘floaters.’ Nothing to be worried about, very common.”
In an instant, the snakes were gone. Now I had a name for them: “Floaters.”
How my mental illness has made me a better man, and a better therapist
I would not wish on someone else my path, but for me it gave many insights.
My mental illness brings me a rich contemplation about masculinity and death. It fuels my empathy for those who worry and those whose worrying takes strange forms. It helps me remember more to care about other people when I sense myself becoming too self absorbed.
What I have come to believe from my own mental illness and from treating that of others, is that the time has come to put an end to mental illness stigma. A big step in that direction was when the concept of Behavioral Health was popularized. Pushing for parity between behavioral health and physical health insurance coverage is another big step in the right direction. It is time now to end the divide. Body, Brain, Mind need to be one school of medicine. We need to keep the eyes connected to the psyche. I am all for keeping the snake wrapped staff of Hippocrates as the symbol for this united medicine, because, well you know my story.